Nvidia gets graphics win with Apple's new MacBooks

Chip maker puts pressure on Intel, AMD as Apple puts GPU in laptop line

Striking a blow at chip rivals Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp., Nvidia Corp. unveiled its latest graphics chip this week, saying it has five times the performance of other graphics processing units (GPU) on the market.

And to back up its tough talk, Nvidia also announced that Apple was picking up the GeForce 9400M GPU for its new MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops.

"The NVIDIA GeForce 9400M architecture delivers an ideal combination of visual computing horsepower and energy efficiency in a single, highly-integrated package that we're using to bring a whole new level of graphics performance to our MacBook users," David Moody, Apple's vice president of worldwide Mac product marketing, said in a statement.

And that's one heck of a door-opener for Nvidia, according to Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc.

"I think they have an advantage right now," said Olds. "I don't see Apple using them if Nvidia didn't have compelling technical and economic merit. Apple knows what it's doing in notebook design, and they have to satisfy a demanding audience. They wouldn't use the Nvidia part if it didn't provide significant value."

The NVIDIA GeForce 9400M is a single chip that has been designed for notebooks and smaller computing devices. The company reported that it has 16 parallel-processing cores that deliver 54 gigaflops of processing power. Nvidia also claimed that the GPU delivers up to five times faster graphics performance than Intel's Centrino 2 chip.

Olds said this kind of leapfrog move in the graphics chip arena puts pressure on both Intel and AMD. "Assuming that Nvidia has truly raised the bar in notebook graphics, then Intel and AMD will need to take their game up a notch," he added. "This isn't news to them; they're both working on new chips that will address what Nvidia is providing, such as higher graphics performance and low power requirements. It's just that Nvidia seems to have gotten there sooner."

In August, AMD threw down its own gauntlet in front of Nvidia, unveiling a graphics card that runs two graphics chips. The ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 uses two units of a smaller chip rather than one big chip.

AMD spokesman Matt Skinner said at the time that AMD's new GPU provides 30% to 50% more performance and uses less energy than Nvidia's GTX280 graphics card.

The graphics chip market has been getting increasingly contentious.

Just weeks before AMD unveiled its dual-chip graphics card, rival Intel released a few details of its upcoming Larrabee graphics chip, which will power its first stand-alone graphics card. Larrabee marks a major strategic shift for Intel, which has traditionally relied on graphics technology from companies such as Nvidia and ATI.

The good news for AMD and Nvidia, though, is that Intel isn't planning to release Larrabee for another year to 18 months. That gives Intel's rivals time to beef up their own offerings and get out ahead in this looming graphics race.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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