Nvidia goes mobile

The maker of graphics chips enters the mobile fray. Can it trump Intel, Qualcomm and others betting big on wireless devices?

By Michael V. Copeland, senior writer

Nvidia's Tegra chip, which compacts eight different processors into one tiny package

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- You say, "potato," I say, "netbook." That's a bit how I feel when Michael Rayfield, who heads up the mobile computing effort at graphics chip specialist Nvidia, drops a tiny computer on my desk. Branded Mobinnova, it had an almost 9" diagonal screen and a solid keyboard that folded around a tube stuffed with batteries and various connectors.

It is light enough to toss across the room like a Frisbee (not recommended, by the way). If I carried a purse, it would fit inside no problem. "It's a netbook, right?" I ask Rayfield. "No, it's a smartbook," Rayfield replies.

Right...a smartbook. I haven't heard that one yet.

There are notebooks, netbooks, mobile internet devices (MIDs), and web pads. There are smartphones and not-so smartphones. There are media players like the iPod Touch and the Zune. Last week I was shown a Hewlett Packard ultralight. Today, it was a smartbook from Mobinnova, which is the consumer brand of Foxconn, the Taiwan-based computer manufacturing giant that makes gear for pretty much everyone.

Why isn't it called a netbook? Not sure. What the champagne and black-colored machine on my desk is -- what all these gadgets are -- is a mobile computer. And for chip manufacturers like Nvidia (NVDA), it's the future.

The Mobinnova is set up to run Windows CE, a lightweight operating system, so it's not for someone looking to do heavy-duty computing. The ideal user performs mostly web-based tasks: e-mail, messaging, and game playing. It is based on ARM architecture, not Intel's competing x86 design, so it won't run Office or Windows 7 when it arrives.

It does play video like a champ, and claims 10 hours of HD quality video due to its battery-sipping design. When it hits the market around the holidays, the Mobinnova "élan" ought to sell in the range of $100 to $200, Rayfield estimates. So one notable difference in the "smartbook" category is price; Rayfield's quote is a marked discount to the $300 to $700 most netbooks cost today.

The other difference is that Nvidia is doing all the processing inside this machine with what it calls Tegra.

Tegra is an all-in-one-computer on a chipset -- a system-on-a-chip -- that rolls eight different processors into one tiny package. Nvidia's core business is graphics processors; its chips power the graphics inside Apple's entire lineup as well as other computers either as standard equipment or aftermarket upgrades.

With Tegra, Nvidia doesn't need Intel or AMD (AMD, Fortune 500) processors alongside its chips. Tegra is the whole package, and with more than $500 million invested in its development it is by far the largest commitment Nvidia has made to a technology outside of its core graphics business.

The reason for spending that huge chunk of change is that Nvidia is betting that mobile is going to be the growth engine of its business. At a financial analysts meeting earlier this month, NVIDIA CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang said that Tegra will comprise about half of the company's revenue within several years. For the twelve months that ended January 25 Nvidia posted $3.4 billion in sales.

Like Intel (INTC, Fortune 500), and every other chipmaker out there, Nvidia sees the traditional computer industry changing, shrinking before its eyes -- both in terms of size and the price that machines and their chips inside can fetch. "A year ago you could get a mediocre laptop for $1,000 Rayfield says. "Now you can get a kick-ass laptop for $400 -- the market is never going back."

That is true, but at the moment the great variety of form-factors and capabilities in these machines is more bewildering than anything else. Do I want a smartbook? A netbook? An ultralight? Do I just stick with my Blackberry and a laptop? What the hell is a web-pad?

Today, there are compromises inherent in all those devices. You need to weigh price against portability and performance. But what Tegra promises, as well as Intel's future generations of Atom, and Qualcomm's Snapdragon, is a mobile future without much compromise.

The way gizmos are being cranked out like Mobinnova's "élan," it seems like the time will come very soon (my guess, two years tops) where all the marketing monikers disappear. You will be able to pick the size mobile computer you want -- pocket-size or purse-size -- and the features you need at a price that rivals what most people pay for spiffy smartphones today. Will these be a primary computer? For many people, yes. For those with heavy computing tasks, say video editing, you'll need a beefier machine.

It's a future PC makers and PC chip companies like Nvidia are scrambling to adapt to, to plant their flag in the mobile marketplace. The stakes are simple: they either win huge, or watch their business slowly but surely shrivel. And while it is a bit confusing at the moment for consumers, hang in there. It's about to be a great time to go shopping for a computer that fits your wallet and your needs perfectly. To top of page

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