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Nvidia bids to dislodge Intel as rivalry gets ugly

Posted: 22 Dec 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Netbook? graphics? silicon?

By Brooke Crothers
Nanotech: The Circuits Blog

Intel and Nvidia are entering into a new, nasty phase of competition. What's at stake? Only the future of the personal computer.

Though the Santa Clara, Calif. neighbors (only a couple of miles from each other) have never really been on speaking terms, the rivalry is intensifying with the emergence of the Netbook small, lightweight laptops priced below $500.

The competitive backdrop is still the sameIntel's longstanding (and very successful) vision of a CPU-centric universe versus Nvidia's creed that graphics processing matters more and more in a multimedia-intensive world.

The challenge for Nvidia is that as laptops downsize into Netbooks, a graphics vacuum has been created. And Nvidia abhors a graphics vacuum.

Inside almost every Acer, Asus, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell Netbook beats an Intel silicon core. Both CPU and GPUthe latter in the form of the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950.

(CPU stands for Central Processing Unit. GPU for Graphics Processing Unit.)

Nvidia wants in. Nvidia maintains that Intel-only Netbooks choke on high-quality multimedia content and, as a result, consumers will demand better graphics hardware as the Netbook increases in size to 10-inch diagonal screen sizes and beyond. (The Netbook began as a tiny 8- or 9-inch form factor, but has been moving to 10-inch and even a 12-inch screen in the case of Dell's Inspiron Mini 12 Netbook.)

This is where it gets complicated. Intel has fairly strict parameters for the Netbook. It would rather not see Atom-based systems with 12-inch screens or extra silicon (read: horsepower) that kicks thermals (read: power consumption) into laptop territory. Need I explain why? (Cannibalization.) Netbooks should not aspire to be notebooks because the Atom processor is not nearly as capable as a Core 2 Duo, according to Intel.

Nvidia, on the other hand, sees the silicon and screen size as an artificial restriction. It believes that Atom is a fairly capable processor that simply lacks a capable graphics engine.

And here's where it gets nasty: chipsets. Apple serves as a perfect example of why it may get rough and tumble and what's at stake. In the newest MacBooks, Nvidia not only seized graphics turf from Intel but took the chipset socket too. Intel was relegated to supplying only the processor. That's analogous to Nvidia snagging a piece of prime Manhattan real estate right from under Intel's nose. While Intel holds onto Times Square, Nvidia walks off with Rockefeller Center.

To put it charitably, Intel doesn't like to lose socket space. But that is exactly what Nvidia is aiming for with Netbooks.

Will Nvidia be able to convince Netbook makers like Acer and Asus to make the switch in the face of Intel's very persuasive bundling offers? (The word "persuasive" and may not be strong enough.) These vendors may not be as open-minded as Apple, which has always prided itself on a feisty independence (i.e., no one takes center stage but Apple and no Intel stickers).

Nvidia's GeForce 9400M may appear initially (June Computex timeframe?) in Netbooks from smaller vendors. Larger suppliers may wait to see if turbocharged graphics are the Netbook wave of the futureor not.

- Brooke Crothers is a former editor at large at CNET, and has been an editor for the Asian weekly version of the Wall Street Journal. He writes for the CNET Blog Network, and is not a current employee of CNET. Contact him at

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