Nvidia Looks to Combine Graphics, Intel's Atom Processor for Mini-Notebooks

Nvidia is looking to combine its graphics technology and Intel Atom processor into a new type of platform for mini-notebooks and so-called "netbooks." Nvidia plans to roll out its new "Ion" chip set platform in 2009, which will combine an Nvidia GeForce 9400 GPU along with the Intel Atom processors for mini-notebooks and other types of netbooks. The Nvidia chip set news comes as AMD is also looking to enter the mini-notebook and ultraportable laptop market with its "Yukon" platform in early 2009.

Nvidia is looking to bring its graphics technology into the mini-notebook and "netbook" market with a new chip set platform that combines its own graphics processor with Intel's Atom chip.

On Dec. 17, Nvidia announced its "Ion" platform for mini-notebooks and netbooks. This chip set platform combines Nvidia's GeForce 9400 GPU (graphics processing unit) along with Intel's Atom processor The Nvidia GeForce 9400 series GPU is the same graphics processor family that Apple selected for its new line of MacBooks and MacBook Pros that premiered in October.

While Nvidia is looking to partner with Intel to create new features and capabilities in netbooks and mini-notebooks, the company is looking to wedge itself into a market that Intel has dominated since the debut of the Atom earlier this year. If PC vendors use the Ion platform with new mini-notebooks, the Nvidia chip set would displace the integrated graphics that Intel ships with its own 945GSE Express chip set for netbooks and other mini-notebooks.

Nvidia has already signaled that it challenge Intel when it comes to mobile Internet devices or MIDs. In June, Nvidia launched a system-on-a-chip design called "Tegra" that uses the company's graphics and an ARM 11 processor for MIDs.

While the GeForce 9400 GPU offers 16 parallel processing cores, the entire Ion platform will use 18 watts of power. The platform also supports features such as HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) and dual-link DVI (digital video interface).

For users, the presence of Nvidia graphics technology with mini-notebooks and netbooks could mean that they will not have to sacrifice performance for the low-price and portability that is quickly becoming a hallmark of these types of laptops. In a statement, Nvidia said its Ion platform would support 1080p high-definition video and support the user interface for both Microsoft Windows Vista and the upcoming Windows 7 operating system.

Right now, most netbooks and min-notebooks run either Windows XP or some form of Linux and can not handle high-definition video.

"It's something that I think PC makers will embrace in that it could help them to deliver lower-priced notebooks that are still very much livable for customers in that they delivers reasonable performance in areas such as showing a videos or even rendering Flash on a Web pages," John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research, wrote in an email.

"So the bottom line is that, by selecting this chipset, customers won't be required to sacrifice performance when they choose a less-expensive laptop," Spooner added. "In this economy that is a very important thing."

While still considered a small part of the overall PC market, more and more IT companies are looking to offer their version of netbooks, mini-notebooks and ultraportable laptops. In early 2009, Advanced Micro Devices is expected to launch a new platform called "Yukon," which will use AMD CPUs and ATI graphics for a new line of affordable ultraportable notebooks that have screen sizes of 10 inches or larger.

Other chip vendors, such as Qualcomm, Via and Texas Instruments are also jumping into the netbooks and mini-notebook markets with their own platforms.

In a Dec. 18 research note, Hans Mosesmann, an analyst with Raymond James, wrote that the netbooks market alone will see unit shipments between 30 million and 40 million in 2009, which could make it a $1 billion market by the end of the year. Mosesmann also estimated that the average selling price of the Nvidia Ion platform will be between $30 and $50.

The average netbook or mini-notebook sells for about $350 for now, although companies such as Dell are offering more sophisticated configurations for a high price. For example, the Dell Mini Inspiron 12, which uses the Intel Atom, sells for about $600. The Nvidia Ion platform is expected to add about $50 to the price of the average netbook or mini-notebook.

Nvidia did not officially announced when the Ion platform would be available, although Mosemann's research note indicated a launch by the first half of 2009. While the primary market for Nvidia's Ion chip set is the laptop, the company also believes the platform will work in nettops and all-in-one PCs.