Nvidia Takes on Intel's Atom

Nvidia takes on Intel with a new, "computer-on-a-chip" platform called Tegra for mobile Internet devices.

Nvidia, which is known for its line of graphics processors, is branching into the nascent world of mobile Internet devices.

Nvidia unveiled a new family of processors dubbed "Tegra" June 2 at the 2008 Computex conference in Taiwan. The graphics chip maker is calling the Tegra a "computer-on-a-chip" platform for these MIDs (mobile Internet devices).

The new Tegra 650 series processor is extremely small - 144 millimeters square - and will consume less than one watt of power, which should help increase battery life. The system-on-a-chip design includes an 800MHz ARM 11 CPU, a low-watt Nvidia GeForce GPU (graphics processing unit), an image processor and a high-definition video processor. It can also support hard disk drives, a mouse and other peripherals.

In a call with analysts, Michael Rayfield, the general manager of Nvidia's mobile business, said that he expected the Tegra platform will allow vendors to create a new line of MIDs that will cost between $200 and $250, with the first devices entering the market by the end of 2008.

Nvidia is entering a market that Intel has been trying to define with its own line of processors for MIDs called Atom. Intel has already released these chips and the first devices built around the platform should appear in the second half of 2008.

On the same day Nvidia announced Tegra, Intel CEO Paul Otellini told the Financial Times that the market for all of its Atom processors, including the soon-to-be-released Diamondville chip for low-cost PCs, will be worth $40 billion in two to three years.

Intel-Nvidia MID Faceoff

Right now, the main difference between Atom and Tegra is that Intel will use its own x86 processors with its platform, while Nvidia has tapped ARM to provide a RISC processor that is mainly embedded in cell phones.

John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said while Intel and Nvidia are going after the MID market, Intel is also looking to capture the high-end cell phone market and laptops and needs the x86 processor. Nvidia is looking at not just the high end and can get by with a RISC processor that offers less performance.

"Nvidia did a pretty good job at calculating this market and they went ahead and made a safe play," said Spooner.

While Intel and Nvidia are eager to talk about MIDs, the two companies are also looking to shape what these devices will look like and what part of the market they could sell in. In his presentation, Rayfield described the types of MID Nvidia is looking to create as a hybrid between low-cost notebooks and smartphones and the type of entertainment device Apple has with its iPhone.

The types of devices Nvidia and its OEM partners are looking to develop will have displays of between four- and 12-inches, utilize either a small keypad or a touch screen and have access to the Web whether it's through Wi-Fi, WiMax, 3G or some other high-speed Internet connection.

"All of these devices have extreme battery life and they tend to do the same sets of applications - people want to surf the Web; they want to do instant messaging; they want to watch a lot of video; [and] listen to good music," said Rayfield. "They are also looking for a light-weight productivity device, so they want to do e-mail, spreadsheets, PowerPoint and [have access to] PDFs."