The biggest change the industry has seen over the past twelve to eighteen months has been the advent of cheap, cheerful and ultra-portable devices. The netbook has been something of a phenomenon ever since it first came about with the introduction of the iconic Asus Eee PC 701 at Computex 2007, but it didn’t gather pace until Intel introduced the Atom family of microprocessors.
Up until Atom’s introduction, it was only Asus that played in the market, where a crippled Intel Celeron processor running at 800MHz had been paired with Intel’s then two-year-old 945G IGP and ICH7 southbridge combination. What Atom did was lower the power consumption somewhat, but the chipset remained largely the same.
Atom is a special processor in many ways, but it was never designed to set the world alight with new benchmark records – instead, Intel designed Atom as a low power microprocessor initially targeted at Mobile Internet Devices or Ultra Mobile PCs and, in the longer run, at the smartphone market. Atom was also designed with its Classmate PC project in mind – the target being to ‘provide Internet access to the next billion people.’
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That didn’t work out though and even before Atom was available it had already become apparent that there was a new market segment about to come out of nowhere. Acer, Dell, HP, Samsung and Sony are just some of the many manufacturers who joined the party and while other segments of the industry are contracting amid the economic downturn, netbook sales keep going from strength to strength. It’s clear that the era of ‘good enough’ computing is upon us and, what’s great is that it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get in on the action.
There is a catch though and the term ‘good enough’ is pretty loose – good enough for what? Compute-heavy tasks like image editing and video encoding are off limits, as is gaming and video playback – you’re realistically limited to just web browsing, word processing and tasks that aren’t particularly intensive.
Having sat on the sidelines for most of 2008, talking about the potential its Tegra system on a chip as an alternative to all of the Atom-based netbooks out there, Nvidia felt it needed to get intimate with Atom. The company announced the Ion platform in December, where it married Intel’s Atom processor with the GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset to deliver a ‘premium computing experience’ according to Nvidia.
Let’s be frank, the Intel 945GC chipset is pretty basic and offers a very limited feature set even when you put it in the best possible light – it’s now essentially four years old, after all. Nvidia hopes to capitalise on this aspect of Intel’s Diamondville platform (Atom, 945GC and ICH7) by delivering much better features and a capable GPU.
Whether Atom needs a capable GPU is a debate that I’m sure is going to continue on for a while yet – Nvidia not surprisingly believes it does, while Intel says that Atom was never designed for the kind of usage models Nvidia is proposing. Funny that. Surely it should be down to customers to decide how the product should be used?
After all, Intel (and Asus for that matter) has already underestimated exactly who the customer would be for this new class of device and Intel in particular imposed artificial limitations on the Diamondville based mini-ITX motherboards we’ve seen so far. No PCI-Express graphics, very limited expansion and no digital video output, even though chipset support is there. Moreover, when you factor in the consumer reaction we’ve already seen for the Ion platform, it looks like there’s a usage model untapped if Ion works as well as Nvidia says.