Nvidia CEO Sounds Off on Netbooks, Ion Platform, Tegra, and MIDs

nvidia_sh2 Just over a month ago, we sat down with Nvidia’s product manager, Dave Ragones, to discuss the company’s freshly announced Ion platform, which pairs Intel’s netbook-friendly 1.6-GHz Atom processor with Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M GPU. In that conversation, we discussed Ion’s cost, availability, and the viability of placing a  powerful GPU (the same one that powers the revamped Apple MacBook) into netbooks. Yesterday, we continued the Nvidia Ion conversation, but this time with the company’s outspoken cofounder, president, and CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang. Although he was unable to reveal when the Ion platform will hit the market, Huang shared his views on a number of topics:

  • Today’s netbooks are low-cost PCs that don’t work very well, and that Atom could potentially hurt the software industry.
  • The target price for Ion-enabled machines is around $399.

  • Huang said he doesn’t understand why Intel would potentially discourage OEMs from adopting ION, saying, “Great PCs help Intel. Great PCs help humanity.”
  • AMD’s Neo platform will “destroy” Intel’s Atom processor/ integrated graphics solution.
  • VIA’s Nano platform has the performance of a processor that’s a generation beyond Atom but the company’s lack of software expertise is a major obstacle.
  • Nvidia’s Tegra platform could easily scale up to help create $199 10-inch notebooks powered by Windows Mobile, complete with full keyboards and 2 to 3 days of battery life.

LAPTOP: What’s your take on netbooks right now? Jen-Hsun Huang: We’re all trying to figure out what a netbook is. From my perspective, anything that has an X86 processor and has Windows running on it is really a PC. If  I were to ask a million people, What do you call something with a Microsoft operating system called Windows and X86 processor from Intel, I would think that 99.9999 percent of them, except for the Intel marketing person, would call it a PC. I think that so far, what a netbook is, is a low-cost PC that doesn’t work that well. We all know that there’s a price point around $299 to $399 where people would love to buy a new PC. So what’s wrong with today’s netbooks? The Atom platform is creating an installed base that doesn’t run modern applications. It doesn’t run anything well from Electronic Arts, it doesn’t run anything well from Adobe, it doesn’t run anything well from Microsoft. I just mentioned the top software companies in the world. So in a way, the Atom platform is creating an installed base of PCs that’s going to eventually hurt the PC software industry. I think we all have to be very thoughtful about the proliferation of PCs that are inferior to what people think a PC should be, yet still is a PC. So how can you make netbooks better? This is the classic innovators dilemma as new price points emerge. Technology quickly changes, and like Moore’s Law, it becomes twice as good every year. Atom was announced about a year ago. In a few more months, people will realize that it will be possible to build the Ion platform around Atom that makes it a really fabulous, premium PC experience. I think that this is the beginning of a new trend, and customers can get the full PC experience without spending much more than $399. How much would Ion add to the cost of a netbook then? It’s hard to guesstimate, but our GPUs have a price range from $30 to $40. It replaces two other chips, the Northbridge and Southbridge, and will certainly be less than that. Can you give us a sense of timing for when we’ll see the first Ion-powered netbooks and desktops? We haven’t announced anything on behalf of our customers. Just as you’ve observed that the buzz around Ion is really high, almost every single OEM in the world is exploring it. The experience is so dramatic compared to an Atom platform without it. And the incremental investment is so low that every OEM is doing a design around it. It’s a disruptive platform in lots of different ways. We’re excited about it,  the market is super excited, and the buzz is really high. Do you think Intel is super excited? You can make the argument that the CULV [Consumer Ultra Low Voltage] platform is a response to Atom. Do you feel like Intel is threatened? I don’t really know if they are or not. They haven’t told me. Our focus is to build the most amazing products that the world has seen, and hopefully surprise the industry with what we can achieve. We’ve always believed that the GPU is becoming more important. With Ion, we’ve brought Cuda, Open CL, and DirectX 11 all the way down to the most cost-effective platforms in the world. This is a really good platform for consumers. Customers and consumers are well served by having this platform. It’s been reported that Intel is discouraging the uptake of Ion by forcing customers to buy the Atom processor and Intel’s chipset as a bundle and by not validating your chipset. Have you heard anything similar? I’ve heard all kinds of stories about what Intel is doing. I’ve brushed it off so far as rumors, as I couldn’t understand why Intel would limit great PCs from reaching the market. Great PCs help Intel. Great PCs help humanity. Great PCs are great for the entire industry and entire market. What the industry needs are products that really excite consumers, so that even in these difficult times they’ll come back to buy PCs. I would hope that Intel isn’t doing anything to prevent consumers from getting the most innovative products, in this case, built around Atom, their own processor. I think consumers would be really disappointed if they learned that Intel is sabotaging their ability to get access to breakthrough technologies. How would you respond if you found out these claims were true? It’s kind of weird to tell your customers that you can’t buy my stuff this way. It’s the OEM’s responsibility and prerogative to design systems around technology components. We’re a technology component company, and Intel’s a technology component company. It’s weird for me to tell somebody the type of computers they can design. I thought they were supposed to take all of these tech components and build amazing products from them by mixing and matching and differentiating. I would be disappointed to learn that Intel is doing something to keep innovation from progressing, and keep end users from getting the best products out there. Do you feel Ion would help netbook vendors scale Atom up to designs with 12-inch or larger displays? Absolutely. The resolution of  a computer depends on the capability of the GPU. It’s completely independent of the ability of the CPU. The amount of  data that comes from the Web, whether you have an iPhone or 16:9 high-res display, the GPUs will render and display the image so quickly that the resolution of the display won’t matter. Ion will allow you to support resolutions as high as you want to go, from tiny displays to large ones. How do you think Atom stacks up to AMD’s new Neo processor and companion graphics chips? Atom by itself with Intel integrated graphics would get crushed by the Neo platform. That’s because AMD is one of the world’s most advanced graphics companies. They bought ATI, who has wonderful technology. When you couple that with an AMD processor, it would destroy the Atom platform. How about when you pair Atom with Ion? That’s totally different. Atom plus Ion will give Neo a good run for its money, and from my perspective, it’s a superior platform. The Atom processor is really terrific—it’s small and low powered. Atom plus Ion is just a fabulous machine: It’s small, low powered, and full featured in every way. What about VIA’s Nano platform? Do you think it has any legs? Nano is a fabulous processor. You could argue that it’s architecturally one generation beyond Atom. The challenge in the complexity of the PC is the software outside of the processor. The amount of software and hardware outside of the CPU is so much, unless you have tier-one capabilities, you can’t build a tier-one–capable machine. That’s really VIA’s weakness. They don’t have the resources to build the GPU in the system to be competitive. We’re huge fans of the Nano, and the way that we support it is with discrete graphics. In the near future we’ll support it with our Ion platform as well. Not this particular Ion platform, but our next-generation Ion platform. At that point we’ll support Atoms, Celerons, Core 2 duos, Nanos. We want to support as many processors as we can. Can you give us an update on the Tegra platform? What kinds of devices should we expect? We have designs that we’re working on with smart phone companies around the world, and it typically takes a year or year and a half to get to market. We’re really busy getting those projects done. We see that notebook computers are becoming cheaper, just like they’re supposed to; electronics are supposed to get cheaper. We expect devices like smart phones, mobile game systems, the iPod touch, and small keyboard devices with Internet access, to have 3D capability and HD capability. It’s just built around a different type of platform. Devices will come in so many different flavors: phone, handheld console, keyboard flavors, no keyboard flavors. One of the most exciting MIDs was the Palm Pre. John Rubenstein knocked one out of the park. It’s got a keyboard on it, a rich display. It’s awesome. Could you create Tegra-powered notebooks? You can create a full keyboard device with about a 10-inch display. With a 10-inch display and a full keyboard you also have the opportunity to include a full notebook battery. You could have a two- or three-day computing experience without another charge. Now you’re talking about a device that exceeds the users’ expectations, and delight them in a way that would cause them to buy the product and keep it. I expect to see $199 full notebook–form factor MIDs, based on Windows Mobile and Windows CE; based on processors like Tegra with full HD capability, but consume less than a watt. It’s like a little motorcycle with a tanker behind it. How far can you go? Well, around the earth. Telcos could be giving them away for Internet access as part of  your cable service. I fully expect to see a whole new class of MIDs with full keyboards. Do you think Tegra devices could threaten traditional netbooks at that price? The netbook is not as good as a PC; it’s not as good as the MID. If I want a mobile Internet device, most netbooks today consume too much power and the battery life is too short. I already have an iPhone, so it’s got to do more than the iPhone. I already have a BlackBerry, so it’s got to do more than a Blackberry. It’s got to be at least as good with Internet ability and battery life. If you gave me something affordable at $199, with a full keyboard, has the ability to surf the Web for two days, it’s thin, it’s sexy, I enjoy carrying it around—my gosh, I can imagine using it.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. Darkdescent Says:

    “It doesn’t run anything well from Electronic Arts, it doesn’t run anything well from Adobe, it doesn’t run anything well from Microsoft.”

    When you say “doesn’t run well” I believe you mean, doesn’t run the software to its full potential. Now who in their right mind will:

    1) Do hardcore gaming with a notebook that has only 10 inches of real estate? That’s why you have your gaming rig
    2) Do extensive 3D graphics design with a netbook? That’s why you have your workstation/souped-up system

    In short, they have seem to missed the real point of a netbook – it is NOT meant to replace your desktop. It is there as a secondary notebook you can tote around and carry around without breaking your back in the process. It is not meant for extreme applications. I have an Adobe Photoshop / Dreamweaver CS3 for BASIC tasks. For extreme use? I have my desktop for that.

  2. Alex Whiteside Says:

    Sounds like he’s, uh, “shat-stirring”, to rephrase a local idiom, with his comments about Intel “potentially” being against the product. Intel has stated it has no trouble at all with other chipsets being shipped with Atom, because an Atom sale is an Atom sale. There’s no reason to think that Intel would be against it, except perhaps as an effort to stoke up some sort of suggestion of scarcity, or edginess, and desirability for their own offering.

    Personally, I don’t need Macbook-quality graphics processing on my Netbook. I use a GMA 950 on my main laptop to previs stuff for work, and it’s perfectly adequate for that job, with production quality rendering being done on a workstation back at the office. What I’d really need from a netbook is HD video decode for entertainment, and both offerings are possibly indistinguishable in that respect. With this in mind, I imagine it’ll come down to price and availability at the end of the day, rather than any difference in performance. In that respect Intel has a slight advantage with Acer’s N280+GN40 offering set for a March release in Europe.

    Certainly, price and availability have counted for a lot more than performance on Netbooks as a whole, as the Aspire One and Eee have shown.

  3. Scott Says:

    Doesn’t run ANYTHING well from MS, Adobe, EA???

    Let’s see I run MS Windows XP, MS Office, Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash, Adobe Photoshop, as well as several games (sorry none made by EA)…

    What doesn’t a netbook run? Oh yeah 3D Games… Oh wait, neither does any full sized, higher priced NOTEBOOK without a discrete graphics card…

    Shocking that such a slam would come from the CEO Video Card maker…

    Jen-Hsun Huang see that? It’s your credibility going out the window…

  4. Sean Says:

    These netbook are pretty versatile little machines already, but with a Graphics chipset capable of decoding full HD media theyre gona be awesome! Remember all those idiots who bought a PS3 because they thought it was a cheap BluRay player? Well netbooks dont suck and can do the same thing.

    Minus the bluray drive of course lol, but unless ur a complete walley ull know how to rip a disc tbh.

  5. Alex Whiteside Says:

    Bear in mind that it’s going to add about $125 for the external Blu-Ray drive, and that support for anything beyond Profile 1.x is probably going to be limited.

  6. Martin Says:

    “It doesn’t run anything well from Electronic Arts, it doesn’t run anything well from Adobe, it doesn’t run anything well from Microsoft.”

    That’s little to much self marketing. Lots of people run netbooks like Asus 1000H, Samsung NC10 with MS WIN XP, some Office-Staff (most MS Office) and also some Adobe Stuff (Flash, Acrobat) and everything runs smooth and they are quite satisfied also according to the costs of those portable systems.

    But of course: Some more competitions between chipsets and operating systems/software will help the market, the possible success story of the netbooks and MIDs and of course will help us altogether.

  7. next_ghost Says:

    I think the message should be translated as “Atom is baaaaaaad because bloatware is slow on it.” And that’s good because bloatware companies needed a thwack with clue-by-four for a long time to stop adding more bloat and focus on pure functionality. Linux does it this way since the beginning, no wonder it’s the best fit for netbooks.

  8. Henri Leclerque Says:

    Just a tad self-serving, this.

    Other commentators have already dismissed the claims about how the netbook platform can’t run software – for oh-so-many users, netbooks represent the ultimate in portable computing. I run xp, office, terminal server, matstat and matlab and netscape on mine, and it all runs swiftly and happily. About the only programs that netbooks aren’t running well today are heavy image manipulation suites, CAD/CAM and games. I’m sure that between those, the market for a “better” platform is about 1% of current netbook users.

    If anything, I think netbook manufacturers should take a set back and look very carefully at where they are heading. In my opinion, with the 10″ unit format the netbook has found the perfect trade-off between utility and portability, and netbook companies should now spend time making the machines a) cooler b) more silent c) run longer d) more cost-effective . You’ll notice faster doesn’t even enter into it.

    Personally, I wouldn’t pay so much as $1 for better 3D graphics, because I don’t need it. At all.

  9. Mr. Apophis Says:

    @ Darkdescent: I think what he’s saying is that your average ma and pa consumer are confused about netbooks. Whilst geeks certainly do get what a netbook is, they’re far from the average consumer. I do think he has a point there, in that consumers who buy these applianced expecting they’re just miniature notebooks will be disapppointed to find out they don’t run things all that well. To many consumers, the fact that it runs windows and is small would seem to indicate it’s a sub-notebook designed for extra portability (especially when many notebooks just keep getting bigger and more expensive) rather than a netbook as we know it.

  10. Isend Says:

    Really… Jen-Hsun Huang seems to have been saying that people are trying to run such crazy things on them. I agree with Mr. Apophis for the most part. I think that many people would assume that the netbooks are like small laptops, when we all know they’re not. But the sales people (I know…) should tell them that they’re not meant for that. The sales people normally try to steer people to the most expensive thing they can.

    As for what I run on my netbook, I run Adobe CS3 a lot, Photoshop & Illustrator run Lovely. I run games on it too, all the Age of Empires games (even 3). AOE3 is a full 3D game… it pushes my netbook to the limit but it’s playable.

    I strongly disagree with The netbook is not as good as a PC; it’s not as good as the MID”… I can see a netbook not being as powerful as a $1,200 laptop or desktop, but whose expecting it to be? Most cost about $300-$450. And as for them not being as good as an MID… I used to use my iTouch for internet, but then I got my netbook, now what do I use? My NETbook of course.

  11. Descheeny Says:

    Well spores works well on my NC10 with my trial of windows7 OS…. Thats from EA! And FFXI runs well, not superb, but well!

  12. Beefer Says:

    I wonder why all Netbooks come with small form factor?
    Trying to satisfy people’s need for mobility?
    Why mobility and performance cannot exist in the same box?
    I can understand SLI or Crossfire desktops at home are for gamers.
    But why do we need a powerful NB at home, and carry a less capable “sub-note” around?
    If one NB can be carried around and fulfill most of the needs, wouldn’t that be great?
    In my opinion, Netbook is over-spec for Mom-Pa. They can use cell phone or MID to hook up TV for Internet.

  13. gary Says:

    Jen Hsun: ” I would hope that Intel isn’t doing anything to prevent consumers from getting the most innovative products, in this case, built around Atom, their own processor.”

    Somewhat hypocritical of him. nvidia has blocked SLI from running on Intel and AMD desktop chipsets for years. not technical reasons, purely to push the sales of nvidia desktop chipsets. Jen Hsun, let’s keep it real here.

  14. vicx Says:

    This is about price and performance guys. The cheap netbook with awesome graphics performance IS coming but Jen Hsu says you can have it right NOW with Atom+Ion. AMD and Intel will have their own solutions eventually but Intel could easily be pressuring OEMS to skip Atom+Ion and wait. There is nothing to argue with here. Jen Hsu is pissed.

  15. chadi Says:

    What I think is they shouldn’t say this can’t run on the netbooks and instead start making software and budget games (even rerelease the old games) for the netbooks because it is more of standardised set of hardware than lets say a normal pc

  16. jackmoney Says:

    Hmm…I think that these companies have a general idea about what a netbook is, but also seem to forget to mention the portability. I want something that’s SMALL – but with a friggin’ keyboard so I can type out an email, and the ability to watch some Hulu HD. Alright, so I’ve the MSI Wind, which is nice …a little low on the battery (3.5hrs)…..but it doesn’t do great with teh videos. I just hope they can make the 9400 a separate little card that I can add into my netbook. I don’t wanna go around buying a new netbook.

  17. SunWukong Says:

    Those netbooks were designed with a Linux OS in mind. On those platforms, the user experience is just great and the netbooks reach their target.

    When Asus eeePC was a confirmed hit, others made their own versions : Acer, HP, Dell, MSI and so on.

    When Asus eeePC was a confirmed hit, Microsoft started to fear that a big part of the consumers discovered the truth : Linux is a nice system that any grandma can use, especially on those platforms. So they scaled down some XP version, cutting and slashing the monster to make it small enough to fit in a netbook. But of course, it was not design for it and the user experience isn’t that great. Keep in mind that usually, it’s the other way around : Microsoft design a system and customers upgrade their hardware to suit the need of the need of power. Just spend more bucks to get a so-called decent computer.
    This time, upgrading the netbook seems a ridiculous idea.

  18. Nicolas Grignon Says:

    What is the big deal to not like more powerful netbook for the same price and size??? I don’t understand some comments here, I think that a netbook with basic gaming capacities is an act of genius: the missing link of a perfect “on the go” PC. I’m very excited that nvidia is willing to get some horses in netbooks… at last!

  19. John Says:

    People seem to forget that the Ion will be great for HTPCs.
    Anyone out there running 1080p on a EEE box? No?
    What about on the Mac Mini? No?
    Humm… let’s try the latest Item Atom 330 board with 2 Atom cores (that’s 4 CPUs), the D945GCLF2? No?
    So, none of this is really fit for your living room in a small, silent, unobtrusive box.
    But wait…
    What if on CES 2009 you have the Atom + ION?


    So, NOW you can do it.
    I really don’t understand some comments here.
    Netbooks and small HTPCs are just starting and the ION is the next big thing.
    Just wait and see.

  20. Mayur Says:

    I think a lot of limits have been reached in computer hardware and software.There was a time when Microsoft would come out with a new os every now and then.But its been a long time since worked on anything but Windows xp.Infact Ive been on it since Windows 98.Microsoft goofed up with Vista but did I really miss it?No.Xp is just fine for my tasks.I run adobe suite perfectly on it.Will I move to Windows 7?Time will tell.But Im comfortable with XP for now.Its got all i need.Thats the important word.Need.Only If the world would do a better job distinguishing what they need from what they want.Ofcourse you can have 4 cores,12 cores,100 cores in a processor…But my p4 intel is perfect for my tasks.Most people upgrade their hardware thinking that its going to skyrocket their performance,but when reality sets in,they realise that the ‘gains’ in speed are just not worth it.They couldve managed perfectly with their earlier machine(more true in the last 2 years).Photoshop has almost reached the pinnacle.I dont know how they can improve it going further.Adding useless embellishments is not gonna work.As for me…Im still on CS3 and dont even feel the need to upgrade.Its all I NEED.And thats what technology companies are realising.And hence these cheap devices that do the basic everyday tasks well.

  21. Roger Says:

    I just bought my Netbook, Acer, Aspire One, 10 inch with a 7hr batt (actually about a 6 hr batt. but who give a …). I love it totally. I wanted something small that I could use for the Internet and maybe just some word processing. That’s it. I found that MS Office, Final Draft 7, and several other programs work on it fine. I’m more than happy with it. I was just going to try and load a version of Maya on it and decided to check the video card type and then found that it doesn’t have a video card per say. No biggie. I have a work station. I did want to do some simple CAD things on it while I’ out and about though. But, the funny thing about these type of things…electronics, is that when they become so popular, they become very consumer driven. So, software companies will see the big advantage of hurrying up to modify their programs to support the system. It happened to cells phones, IPods, and it will happen with Netbooks also. I love new technology. I love my Acer netbook. But of course, I’m 56, single, and I live alone. So, anything new in my life I love.

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