Did you hear that tablets are killing off netbooks? Nvidia’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, doesn’t buy it. In fact, he sees the two categories eventually merging into one he calls leisure computers. Until then, Nvidia, one of the sponsors of this week’s Netbook Summit, will be promoting its Ion 2 graphics to accelerate netbooks without sacrificing battery life. And on the tablet front Huang is working to get Android tablets to market running Nvidia’s efficient Tegra 2 processor, which promises a better multimedia experience than the iPad (including 1080p playback and HDMI output).
That same Tegra 2 chip will also power Android phones this year, and Huang says it runs circles around Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, especially when it comes to battery life. Oh, and he doesn’t think Intel’s latest Moorestown processor is in the same league as Tegra, likening the giant’s extreme Atom makeover to putting an elephant on a diet. His most interesting comments came when our conversation turned to HP-Palm’s webOS. Check out the full interview below.
How do you see the netbook evolving? Are tablets just going to take over?
I think that the first generation of netbooks tapped into a growing market for what I call leisure computing. The netbook was first, but the tablet is the new generation of leisure computers. In the beginning people just used these devices to surf the web, and if the performance wasn’t great when they accessed video, or high-definition Flash, they were generally understanding. And the reason for that was because the netbook was inexpensive, it had really good battery life, and it was really liked.
Now the iPad is out, and pretty soon Tegra 2 tablets will be out, and you’ll see high-definition video an Flash, as well as people reading magazines and newspapers on a tablet. And consumers will no longer understand why the netbook can’t do it. Unless netbooks start becoming very good at these things, you’re going to have some trouble. We can fully expect notebooks to become super-accelerated, awesome devices that are still low-power and still very affordable.
But netbook shoppers have largely ignored discrete graphics. Do you think your Optimus technology for Ion 2 might change that?
There’s always been this tension between battery life and good experience. You want to play games, watch high-def movies, and play Flash. Those are nice things to have, but battery life is a must have. Until you have good battery life I don’t have a really good laptop. And that’s why we invented Optimus.
What’s your take on dual-core netbooks? Aren’t they overkill?
Here comes AMD with their 11.6-inch platform, which is kind of netbookish. So Intel is under an enormous amount of pressure to force Atom to go to dual-core. They kept that at single core for netbooks for the longest time, and now this AMD Nile is sweeping design wins everywhere. It’s put Intel on the defense. Now Intel has pre-announced that they will build a dual-core for Atom, and now the OEMs are putting Ion graphics on dual-core Atom so that they could present a better alternative to AMD.
But will dual-core Atom netbooks with Ion 2 will be affordable?
They will have to be competitive. They will have to be competitive because Intel has no choice but to be competitive. All of a sudden consumers’ expectations are starting to rise, and then all of a sudden competition comes in. Just look at what a netbook’s gong to look like come next year. OEMs are going to have to start being creative or else the category willu go out of business.
Although Tegra-powered Android tablets created a lot of buzz in January at CES, they haven’t yet reached the market. Aren’t you getting anxious?
I’m getting very anxious, but the answer is actually very simple: Whenever the operating system ships. So the question is, there are three pieces of technology that have to come together: the processor has to come together, the operating system has to come together, and then the OEMs have to come together. And so those things are all happening right now.
So what’s the holdup? Is Google just putting the finishing touches on making their OS more tablet friendly?
I think that’s a good characterization of it. And the reason why Android makes sense is because in the tablet you need a marketplace. There’s no Chrome marketplace. Having the marketplace is invaluable, and you need book readers, you need magazine readers, you need newspaper readers. None of that stuff exists on Chrome.
But by the time Tegra tablets hit the market won’t Apple’s head start be too great to overcome?
No way. We’re one million units into a multi-billion unit opportunity here. Here’s what I believe. In this era of leisure computing the person doesn’t write software, isn’t trying to design a car, isn’t trying to create a movie, isn’t trying to create a PowerPoint slide – just consuming content. And this device can come with either a keyboard, clamshell, i.e. a netbook, or it could come with touch, or it could be a combination of the two. It could be a detachable, wireless keyboard with touch. There are all kinds of interesting formats coming. So the separation between a tablet and a netbook is going to become quite vague.
How would you say your chip compares with Apple’s A4 processor?
Tegra is the world’s first dual-core processor with symmetric multi-processing, and what Nvidia’s most famous for, which is built in GPUs. So the dual-core allows it just to be much snappier. Just look at how dual-core Atom’s going to be much faster than a single-core Atom. And the second thing is because so much of the tablet experience is related to tablets, visual, the whole computer is just one big piece of display. So it’s a visual computer in its ultimate form. A fast GPU will just help you have a much snappier experience, just everything you do from magazines to videos to games.
What about Tegra-powered tablets overall? How will they stack up against the iPad?
I hope what people say about Tegra 2 tablets is: “It’s a lot lighter!” I hope what they say is: “Man, those graphics are really snappy.” I hope what they say is: “I can go to every single website in the world.” Because it’ll run Flash, it’ll run Sliverlight, it’ll run HTML5.
But don’t you think Flash will get replaced by HTML5?
I think Flash is such an important part of the Internet experience. I also believe that the next computers can bridge the past and the future. You want to bring your customers to the future, but you don’t want to make them leap across a chasm. So if the future is a hybrid of a whole lot of different things, that’s fine. But the present is Flash. And so I don’t know how to get Club Penguin off of Flash, I don’t know how to get Facebook off of Flash, I don’t know how to get Zynga off of Flash, and neither do they. You can create an alternative Facebook, but it’s not the same Facebook.
So you don’t believe any of the criticisms of Flash?
No, it just takes a lot of engineering. It is true that, us and Adobe – and Adobe has been very open about this – that in working with our engineers and in working with us over the last year or two, we’ve been able as partners to create a Flash experience that was optimized for GPUs. And because Flash is a visual media – Flash has rendered graphics, it has video–running it on a GPU makes perfect sense. And if you just run Flash on a CPU, then it’s a real hog. There’s no question about it. Flash shouldn’t be run a CPU.
What’s your take on Intel’s Z6 Moorestown chip? Will they be competitive?
No. It’s not possible. You could give an elephant a diet but it’s still an elephant. And when they think about power they think reducing from 20 watts down to 5 watts down to 4 watts down to 2 watts is really good. But you and I both know that in a mobile phone you need to be in a hundred milliwatts, two hundred milliwatts. So they’re still ten times away. So that’s a big challenge for them. And meanwhile Tegra 2 is already much superior to Atom from a performance perspective. And so now we’re already dual-core, and then next year I assume Tegra 3 comes out, and then, you know, here we are increasing performance at a lightning rate and power is incredibly low, so I think it’s going to be tough for them.
So what progress have you made in the smart phone space?
The volumes for Tegra 2 will come from smart phones. You will absolutely see smart phones based on Tegra 2. Maybe the mistake that we made was with Tegra we focused completely on Windows Mobile. I felt that at the time, because it was pre-Android, that that was all we could do. But with Tegra 2 we decided to add Android to our offering, and that’s where all of our energy is right now. So I expect you to see some nice, nice Android phones this year with Tegra 2.
Will you be able to offer longer battery life than Android phones powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon?
Absolutely. The reason for that is architectural. The Snapdragon uses a very fast processor, a very high-frequency processor, to do most of its work. Whereas Tegra is eight processors on one chip. So we use the right processors to do the right job, and so we offload as much as possible to the GPU, instead of having the CPU do a lot of the work. And meanwhile all of the other processors are completely shut off. And so that benefit of having a processor do the work of one or two is a much better architecture for mobile environments. In fact, if you go back and look at even the Tegra 1 reviews, battery life was something that people really admired about the Kin phone.
Given that you’re focused on Android, does that mean you’re not going to support other operating systems?
The first generation we were only doing for Windows Mobile. Since then we’ve added Android. I think the world will want webOS. I think it’s a fabulous operating system. And we’ll continue to do Windows Mobile. And we’re just larger in terms of resources than what we used to be. When we first started with Tegra 1 we only had two hundred people. Now we’ve got a thousand people on the Tegra team.
Can we expect a Tegra chip to be running the first Web OS tablet?
I can’t comment on that. But it sure would be an honor to work on webOS. It’s a great operating system. If you look at the first generation of webOS phones, the Palm Pre, the UI is just brilliant. It’s just too slow. So it needs a faster processor. Otherwise, it’s a great operating system.