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Netbook Wars IV: A New Hope (For Graphics)

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 (s nvda) 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 (s brcm) 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 (s adbe) Flash 10.1, Microsoft Windows Media Player 12 (s msft), 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!”

5 Responses to “Netbook Wars IV: A New Hope (For Graphics)”

  1. Great article thanks! I would suggest the majority of the public do want the most from their netbook. Netbook and gaming/video should not be an impossible combo. Obviously Intel is doing what they can to make it not a possibility, and that’s where somebody needs to step in and monitor what is really going on. One chip maker is scary. But back to my main point, most people want the ability to play games on their mobile devices. If you think not, then you are only speaking for yourself and a tiny tiny portion of the netbook market. The problem for Intel and the laptop makers is that when the netbook has all the abilities of the traditional laptop, their bottom line changes an awful lot. I just don’t buy what a few people here and from the Intel interests tell us. They want to convince me and everyone else that playing games or HD video on their 10-12 inch netbook isn’t what we want. I think they will be learning quite quickly how wrong they really are.

  2. I really like the Broadcom route. I don’t want to shell out an extra $100 just so my netbook can play some games. I have my regular laptop for that. I need something decent so I can watch hulu and youtube videos decently.

  3. I’d say both those approaches are very promising. While I don’t do gaming on my netbooks, I do like to watch HD video, but that’s mostly WMV-HD.

    It’s no doubt Flash has become a requirement for no-compromise browsing. The big problem with Flash though is that Adobe has bloated it so much that it now requires more that CPU power to run. I would think that if Flash wasn’t such a poorly coded resource hog it would actually work on more platforms. Newer Flash versions aren’t even backward compatible with older hardware, forcing users to shell out money just to get a decent browsing experience.

    That also has me concerned about hardware longevity. What works today with Flash 10.1 may not be working down the road with Flash 11. At the rate Adobe keeps kicking out updates, that’s not that far away. It would be a shame to throw away a Pineview netbook just because Adobe was too lazy to code their software for compatibility.

    I’d say of all the browser add-on, Flash is the most problematic out there. Adobe really needs to wake up and do a better job at coding their software and incorporate better compatibility for older/simpler platforms. I don’t believe throwing extra hardware at it should be the solution to the problem, but that’s just my opinion.