Last year was arguably “The Year of the Netbook.” Unfortunately for AMD (s AMD) and NVIDIA (s NVDA), they were left on the sidelines as the netbook market picked up steam in 2008. The vast majority of these devices run on Intel’s Atom chip (s INTC) using the company’s integrated GMA 950 for the graphics component. With the imminent release of Microsoft’s Windows 7 later this year, there are already reports of Microsoft and Intel jointly agreeing on exactly what constitutes a netbook for Windows 7: Screen sizes of 10.2 inches is the killer for both chip competitors.
Earlier this year, both AMD and NVIDIA announced their strategies to get in the netbook game. AMD purchased graphics company ATI back in 2006 and created Neo, a platform comparable to Intel’s Atom. In some respects, AMD’s Neo trumps Intel’s Atom. By pairing an ATI GPU with an AMD Athlon CPU, Neo can easily handle decoding an 1080p Blu-ray disc. By comparison, an Intel Atom netbook drops frames on a 480p Hulu stream, making the experience choppier than whitewater rafting on a windy day. It’s not all smooth sailing for Neo, though. My testing of an HP dv2 powered by the first consumer Neo platform shows that battery life suffers greatly. I could barely get half of the runtime on the Neo device as I can with a comparable Atom netbook. I suspect that, coupled with the larger 12-inch display, is why AMD is positioning this $700 device as an ultra-portable notebook and not a netbook.
Like AMD, NVIDIA is attempting to boost the graphic prowess of netbooks with its Ion platform. As with AMD’s Neo, NDVIDIA’s Ion can tame 1080p video. That’s no surprise, since Ion is composed of a GeForce 9400 GPU. The 9400 is the same graphics chip that Apple (s AAPL) adopted with its latest generation of notebooks. It’s too early to tell how hard Ion will hit the battery life of a netbook, but it’s likely going to cost consumers more than Intel’s integrated approach. Lenovo just announced its new 12-inch S12 netbook at $449, but adding Ion is a $50 option.
While both companies offer a compelling graphics boost, neither is likely to make a huge dent in the traditional netbook market. For most consumers, it’s an either/or market right now: Either they get a small, low-priced netbook, or they spend a little more for a standard notebook. Both of the Atom alternatives are in the current no-man’s land of an ultra-portable between the either and the or. I have little doubt that AMD and NVIDIA exceed Intel in the graphics department, but at the end of the day, how many consumers crave mobile high-definition video on a small screen?