Thanks to Nvidia, netbooks just got a whole lot more powerful and threatening to the budget notebook market. Today, the company announced its Ion platform, which will bring Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M (which was introduced earlier this year in Apple’s Macbook) to Intel Atom based-netbooks and nettops. And, if it lives up to its claims, it may be the netbook equivalent of adding a nitrous boost to a Pinto (as you will see below they tout 5x the graphics performance of a Centrino notebook!) But how much will it cost? Can it go into larger form factor notebooks? To get some answers, we talked with Nvidia Product Manager Dave Ragones. Among the most interesting tidbits:
It is one of the most compelling interviews we have done in a long time and really sheds light on how netbooks certainly have the potential to replace your PC in the near future. Why is Nvidia entering the low cost, small form factor market right now? We think we will fill an important need. We are unlocking a device that we think is somewhat restricted right now – the netbook – with our GeForce 9400M platform. We believe that, as the leading GPU manufacturer, that the most compelling experiences are driven by the GPU and we really want to indicate with this platform that the GPU benefits much more than just gaming. We have really unlocked the power of the GPU and we want to bring that experience beyond high end notebooks. The feedback has been clear: people are excited about the Intel Atom CPU and its lower power consumption, but in many ways, they are disappointed with the multimedia aspects of the platform. The current chipsets, like the 945 that is bundled with Atom now, don’t have the core capability that they are used to having in an notebook. We can change that with this new platform. How will the Ion solution improve upon the current integrated solution that Intel provides? First off, we are promising 10 times the graphics performance and video transcoding performance and it will also support our CUDA technology so as more applications come to market that take advantage of the GPU and CPU it will really take advantage of that. Above and beyond performance, we support 1080p content and output it to a larger display via HDMI, which is something you cannot currently do with the offerings on the market. The physical size of our platform is much smaller and we provide the ability to run premium operating systems like Windows Vista and Windows 7. You didn’t mention battery life. Will your platform impact battery life? It will have a very similar battery performance to Intel’s current platform which uses the Atom processor and Intel 945 integrated graphics solution. The 9400M chip has very good power usage dynamics. How does Intel feel about this as far as you know? Especially, considering they have placed restrictions on the Atom platform to maintain and not cannibalize their market segments. We have been launching Intel compatible platforms for awhile. At the end of the day, Intel wants to just sell CPUs. If this is a solution people in the market are happy about, it could help spur their sales. In addition, the market doesn’t look highly on companies that try and shape their demand. We want to deliver the best platform to the end customer. GPUs, for all form factors, are what we believe the customer wants. What will adding the Ion platform (GeForce 9400M) to a Atom netbook cost? We will fit in the same price segments that they are at now. A $400 netbook would be perfectly well served with a GeForce Atom CPU. We won’t comment on specific component pricing today, but we are targeting the same price point. Even with GeForce graphics, it won’t bump you into a higher price point. Our price expectation or delta would be under $50. What about gaming? What type of games do you expect end users to be able to run? We expect games to run very smoothly and we will release videos showing side by side comparisons between the Intel solution and ours. Call of Duty 4 runs at 30 frames per second on an Atom netbook with GeForce 9400. And do you expect people to really want to do that on a smaller form factor notebook? Our position is that we want to deliver to an Atom price point the experience that people get with a notebook or desktop experience today. We think there is a powerful statement in the market growth of this category and we don’t want people to be disappointed. People are expecting more from the form factor size. What people want is the freedom to use them [netbooks] the way they would like. If they have the capabilities in the device, let the user decide what they want to do with it; that may be high definition video or it might be gaming. If people have the capability in a device, let them take advantage of it. Do you think this solution could find its way into larger screen notebooks to make them more affordable? Absolutely. We think this is a very compelling solution even against a Centrino-based notebook. We offer with Atom and the GeForce 9400M, 5 times the graphics performance compared to that of Centrino. Its not 10 times, but it’s a more affordable solution than the Centrino platform. We also have 80 percent lower CPU cost, because we are using an Atom chip versus a Penryn CPU. In some ways, the notebook form factor is even more disruptive with this. We expect OEMs to put this platform in ultraportable size form factors and there to be a lot of new sorts of form factors they can bring to their ecosystem. We are very excited to see where our customers take it next. Do you see some OEMs hesitating to put this platform into their netbook offerings in the fear that a powerful netbook could replace a regular laptop? There is always going to be someone up front pushing what this Atom with GeForce 9400M platform can do so the market will decide what they want. We just want to put the best platform out there now and deliver the experience that people want in this category. When do you think we can expect netbooks with the platform to hit the market? We expect solutions in the market in the first half of 2009. Any chance of working with other netbook processor platforms, like VIA’s Nano? We are working with VIA too and the great thing about their solution today is that it works with full discrete graphics. We certainly want to build this solution for VIA too and we are working closely with them on that as well. Where does Tegra fit in? We see this platform being the netbook and nettop platform. Tegra is much more of a mobile internet device and handheld play for us. It is not built for running Windows Vista.