Netbook Wars IV: A New Hope (For Graphics)

nvidia-ion

This year isn’t quite over, but in terms of netbooks, it’s evident what we’ll see next year — much more of the same, but with a different Intel chipset inside that offers longer battery life and a slight boost in performance. While a longer run-time benefits any mobile device, some mobile consumers might take issue with Intel’s thoughts that higher performing graphics solutions are “overkill.” Enter two different solutions that might help overcome the overkill.

NVIDIA’s ION solution debuted this year and pairs nicely with the current N270 / N280 Atom. It replaces the separate Intel graphics and offers a solid visual boost in today’s netbooks — 30 frames per second in Call of Duty 4 on a netbook offers a taste of ION’s power. But getting ION into a netbook has posed a challenge this year. Netbook makers allegedly pay more for the Atom alone than they do for the Atom and Intel graphics, which has surfaced as a potential legal issue. And with Intel placing their GMA 3150 graphics on the same chip as the new Atom N450, some have wondered if NVIDIA could still offer a solution. My gut said yes, and it turns out I was right — NVIDIA confirmed that their upcoming ION 2 will support the Intel Atom N450 in the netbooks of tomorrow. Since the ION solution is far more powerful, offering support for 1080p and full HD Flash, it could eat up the battery a bit faster than Intel’s integrated solution. That’s why I’m thinking the perfect solution might be “switchable” — users run on the integrated power-efficient graphics for most common tasks, but flip the switch to ION for a visual boost as needed for videos or games.

Broadcom is another player that entered the netbook graphics space in 2009, but took a different approach. Instead of providing a full graphics processing solution, Broadcom instead created their Crystal HD hardware graphics accelerator that works with the existing Intel integrated graphics. The solution works well for 1080p video playback with specific software as demonstrated in this video: aside from the Broadcom Crystal HD hardware, these two netbooks are basically identical.

Like NVIDIA, Broadcom is poised to gain a foothold in the netbooks of 2010. The company’s next generation Crystal HD solution is ready for OEMs to pair with the new Intel Atom and Broadcom wisely expanded how they offer the product. Tucked in the very bottom of the latest press release, Broadcom mentions that Crystal HD hardware can be installed right on the netbook motherboard, but will also be available in a PCI Express mini-card format, just like the prior hardware was. That means consumers could theoretically add a Broadcom Crystal HD module themselves in an open PCI Express slot as some have done in the past. Broadcom’s Crystal HD hardware accelerator provides software support for Adobe Flash 10.1, Microsoft Windows Media Player 12, and industry standard codecs like H.264/AVC, MPEG-2, VC-1, WMV9, MPEG-4, DivX, Xvid and AVS.

If Yoda were a mobile geek, he’d say: “Begun the netbook graphics wars have!”

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