MacBook Air Designs + NVIDIA Processors = Future of Computing?

Graphics giant NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA  ) is on a roll these days, as its chief executive, Jen-Hsun Huang, can be seen and heard promoting the Tegra platform left and right.

A tipping point was January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the just-finished Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. At both shows, virtually every major vendor presented gadgets with Tegra 2 chips inside.

On the heels of those mobile strides, Huang is suggesting that notebooks could be up next for disruption. Echoing a similar sentiment by Steve Jobs, Huang told CNET that future laptops will eventually replicate Apple's design with the MacBook Air:

You'll have trouble finding one that doesn't look like the MacBook Air. I think the Macbook Air is a good mental image of what a clamshell laptop will look like. They'll be thin because you won't need any heat pipes, the fan, and extra batteries to lug around.

Reading between the lines, Huang suggested that his company's silicon would drive such ultra-thin notebook designs. You could be forgiven for rejecting his words as wishful thinking. After all, silicon giant Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) , with its x86 processor architecture, has been the dominant force in the personal-computer market for a long time.

Then again, in the mobile space, processor designs from U.K.-based ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) are the norm. A fabless silicon maker, ARM licenses its blueprints to semiconductor makers providing chips that power the vast majority of today's smartphones and tablets, including Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Samsung, and NVIDIA.

Those chips typically integrate graphics, memory, processing, and logic capabilities on a single die to keep the costs and, more importantly, power consumption at a minimum. Nearly all of them have one thing in common: an ARM-licensed processing core, which puts Intel at a big disadvantage. Worse, deciding that it doesn't want to be held hostage by Intel and be left out of the mobile race any longer, software giant Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) said the upcoming Windows 8 would support both x86 and ARM architecture, a historic decision enabling Windows to run on a non-Intel consumer processor for the first time ever.

Based on a monolithic kernel, Windows 8 will run on server, desktop, and mobile gear, simplifying development and maintenance costs. The announcement plays into NVIDIA's favor because the Tegra chips, too, are engineered around ARM's processor designs, augmented by NVIDIA's custom graphics architecture that leapfrogs competitors in terms of efficiency, performance, and power consumption. The company's aggressive road map includes the recently unveiled quad-core Tegra 3 code-named Kal El, as in the birth name for Superman.

Promising a fivefold performance increase over Tegra 2, the new Tegra 3, with its 12-core graphics unit, is capable of stereoscopic 3-D with resolutions of up to 2560-by-1600, enough to drive external 30-inch displays. The first consumer tablets powered by Tegra 3 are expected in August and smartphones by the end of this year.

The Coremark performance benchmark suggests that Tegra 3 is more powerful than the half-a-decade-old desktop Core 2 Duo processors from Intel. The extra performance does not tax battery life, according to NVIDIA.

A 2014 Tegra chip codenamed the Stark promises a performance 75 times greater than that of Tegra 2. It should coincide with ARM-enabled Windows 8 and a next generation of mobile gadgets. The most important consequence to note here is that notable performance increases will soon put Tegra on par with entry-level notebook processors from Intel, enabling Tegra chips to run ultra-thin Windows 8-powered notebooks akin to the MacBook Air.

This will give NVIDIA a much-needed footing in the personal-computing space, which has been traditionally occupied by Intel. So far, Intel hasn't produced a comparable power-savvy chip for smartphones or tablets, and it seems incapable of matching NVIDIA's graphics expertise anytime soon. NVIDIA is expected to capitalize on the added amount of attention it has garnered in the past few months and focus its attention on the Tegra architecture at the upcoming 2011 GPU Technology Conference, scheduled to run at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, Calif., Oct. 11-14.

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  • Report this Comment On February 20, 2011, at 12:55 PM, kpbpsw wrote:

    Microsoft has announced support for non intel processor in the past (NT supported MIPS and PPC for a bit), but not really.

    MSFT announcement s about long term direction changes are typically FUD not real. Windows 8 will never be a light weight operating system, capable of spanning mobile to server - that is why MSFT needed to do WP7.

    NVIDIA has been a great company but their future will be tied to Apple rather than MSFT and if they do not figure out how to offer hardware for mass use in Apple products they will lose most of the momentum they have created and be relegated to a commodity suppler.

    Jen-Hsun Huang is a bright guy and I would not count him out but their current strategy can not be tied to MSFT, and Google is very risky as it is a commodity business.

  • Report this Comment On February 25, 2011, at 3:46 AM, einzling44 wrote:

    Nvidia will trade in the single digits next year and go out of business 3 years from now.

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