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Are GPUs About to Shake Up the Netbook Market?

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nvidia_ion_logoAsk a netbook owner why he or she bought one of the small laptops and you’re sure to get a number of reasonable answers. However, the response likely won’t be, “For the killer graphics performance!” Intel’s (s intc) GMA 950 core has been the bread-and-butter hardware solution for graphics since the netbook market was born in late 2007. The chip is fine for a basic, all-around graphics experience, but quickly starts to falter when stressed with high-definition video or other graphic-intensive tasks. Enter Nvidia with its ION solution, which found its way into the new HP Mini 311, an 11.6-inch netbook starting at $399. At this price point — and with the high-definition video functionality and DirectX 10 support that Intel netbooks can’t currently match — consumers are sure to be swayed towards a PC-quality graphics experience on a mobile computer, meaning the netbook market could see some serious changes.

Successful markets don’t stagnate — they morph in anticipation of consumer needs. While the original netbooks were never considered as a solution for high-definition content consumption, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a desire for such a feature. Digital content consumption is growing, so doesn’t it make sense that hardware is needed to support that demand? Although a netbook’s small screen might not provide an optimal 1080p experience, the right graphics chip paired with a digital output and a large, high-definition television makes for an attractive combination — especially at these prices.

I read LAPTOP Magazine’s early look at the HP Mini 311 with Nvidia’s ION, and the initial benchmarks are telling:

  • PCMark05 scores, which measure overall performance, are 35 percent higher than the current average netbook powered fully by Intel.
  • The 3DMark06 test, which focuses solely on graphics, yielded a score of 1,386. The average netbook score for this test? Under 100.
  • A 114MB video encoding test from AVI to MPEG-4 using supported software took 6 minutes and 14 seconds using the ION platform. The same file on a standard netbook with Intel churned for a half hour.

Clearly, the Nvidia solution will appeal to those who appreciate strong visuals on the 1,366×768 display or want DirectX 10 support for gaming. The integrated HDMI output extends the experience to larger screens as well — LAPTOP played a 1080p trailer on a 32-inch HDTV with positive results. But do consumers want better graphics on small notebooks?

Two years ago, I would have argued “no.” I’ve personally bought three netbooks in the past two years — the Toshiba NB205 is my current device — but for the price, I’ve never expected much in the way of graphics performance. But wait a second. The HP Mini 311 with Nvidia ION is priced exactly the same as my current device at $399. And those thin-and-light devices with Intel’s CULV solutions generally start around $699 or so. Sure, they may offer a little more horsepower in the CPU department, but they actually fare worse with graphic benchmarks than Nvidia’s little engine that could. LAPTOP’s testing shows the graphics scores are roughly double that of the thin-and-lights that use Intel’s GMA4500 graphics — at half the price.

These results on a $399 netbook could heavily impact sales not just of netbooks, but even the thin-and-light notebooks. Devices in this price range aren’t meant for heavy-duty computational tasks, so consumers are currently getting by with the Intel Atom CPU — and they’re making do with the meager Intel graphics as well. But if there’s a more powerful option for visuals, buyers will gravitate towards it — the thought is: “I’m getting more performance for the same price, so why not take the plunge?”  If Nvidia continues to stay ahead of Intel’s graphics for mobile computers, I expect to see many more Nvidia ION stickers on netbooks this holiday season.

10 Responses to “Are GPUs About to Shake Up the Netbook Market?”

  1. jetrb88

    Nvidia rules in graphics. The biggest problem is NOT supporting open source DRIVERS. That’s why I mooved to intel. They can’t see open source software martching in. They can’t hear the croud. But the revolution begun…

  2. The HP Mini 311 is a select case that won’t exist very longer. Once Windows 7 comes out this current model will likely die and the price will go up. They admitted as much when it was first released.

    People buy netbooks primarily for 3 reasons. They’re cheap, they’re light, and the battery lasts long. You notice how playing the latest video games wasn’t on the list? Because people don’t do that and if they do they aren’t going to do so on a netbook. I’m not saying no one does, but the average person buying a netbook doesn’t care. Manufacturers care, about increase margins and “innovating” which is why slowly but surely netbooks as a category are dying.

    No one is rushing to go downmarket, they’re all reaching up market. Remember when $299 was the going price for a netbook, then it crept up to $349, now most netbook coming out are at the $399 price point and I doubt they’ll ever come back down.

    In the end, netbooks are going to be a niche instead of an industry phenemon. Once prices get to a certain level it will just be easy to buy the Acer, or Toshiba cheapo laptop being advertised in a circular because you get a bigger screen, more hard drive space, and media drive.

    Just look at Sony’s netbook and you’ll see what happens when companies get too ambitious. The video card is a nice touch, but I think ION is better suited for media center PCs, not netbooks. Then you’ll care about HDMI, 1080p streaming, and low power consumption.

  3. I think that you’re missing ARM’s announced graphics add on to Cortex. This is frankly more exciting to me since most devices utilize these processors as opposed to Intel or Nvidia chipsets.

  4. I’m in the market to buy a netbook because it’s so handy to take rather than my laptop which would be about 5x bigger. Maybe I should hold off a bit. Once the “higher-end” netbooks come out it should help drive the price down on the existing ones :) TV out is always a nice feature to have!

  5. The HP Mini 311 has the NVIDIA ION LE, that doesn’t support DirectX 10.

    In netbooks the CPU still matters (as in the past for PC) because the Atom is so slow that you cannot take advantage of the power of a good GPU or any other advanced component.
    When GPGPU techniques will be used more this could change, probably it will happen during the next year, but for now the advantages of a discrete GPU are little.

    Let me quote the review that you have linked:
    «Still, when it comes to CPU-intensive tasks, the 311 is pretty much like any other netbook. In Geekbench, the Mini 311 scored 888, which, while 62 points higher than average, was beat by the Gateway LT3103u (902) and Toshiba mini NB205-N210 (920). When watching an episode of Community and The Simpsons streamed through Hulu (a Flash-based player that does not yet take advantage of the GPU), video was choppy, and not in sync with audio. This should be rectified somewhat with the advent of Flash 10.1, which will take advantage of the graphics chip».

    • “The HP Mini 311 has the NVIDIA ION LE, that doesn’t support DirectX 10.”

      Good point and I asked Nvidia about the “LE” designation. Their response: “ION LE for notebooks is the same as ION, but LE only supports DX9 gaming. DX9 GPUs are compatible with DX 10 games, but will not support DX 10 features. ION LE is designed specifically for the Windows XP version installed on netbooks and nettops. It delivers the same performance as ION on notebooks.”

      Part of the issue / confusion here is likely due to DirectX10 not officially supported on XP, which is the OS for the Mini 311. See:

  6. Netbook Fan

    The performance from Nvidia’s Ion Chip makes netbooks even more intriguing. As long as adding the Ion doesn’t bring the battery life down much, I think it will indeed make a big impact on the market.

    It does make me wonder what’s going on at Intel. You’d think they would have a response to Ion by now. Strange…. !