nVidia Gets an Apple Bounce

Rocked by reports of CPU failures in notebooks from HP, Apple and Dell, nVidia is looking for a comeback with a new mobile part with integrated graphics designed to compete with Intel’s Centrino 2, a.k.a. Montevina.

Thanks to its first OEM, Apple, it may bounce back, now that Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) new MacBook line has launched with the new chips inside.

“This pretty much exonerates and validates this new generation part as being without manufacturing difficulties,” Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Associates, told InternetNews.com.

“Apple is no lightweight when it comes to quality assurance and quality control, and they hold their vendors’ feet to the fire. They wouldn’t make this decision if they weren’t 1,000 percent certain it wouldn’t fail in the field.”

Apple’s endorsement will also likely act as a magnet to other laptop vendors to put this new chip, the 9400M, in their systems because like it or not they would like to be compared to Apple, Peddie added.

The 9400M is designed to compete with the graphics processor found in Intel’s new Montevina mobile processor, but the performance difference is remarkable. In a demo for InternetNews.com, nVidia ran a shiny new MacBook with the 9400M against a Sony VAIO BZ with Centrino 2.

Both systems used the first-person shooter game “Call of Duty 4,” which is very dependant on fast frame rates. The MacBook scored 25.7 frames per second. The Sony VAIO scored 4.1 frames per second. A MacBook Pro, which comes with the nVidia 9600M discrete graphics product and a faster CPU than the MacBook, scored 31.7 frames per second.

Granted, there were some differences: one machine ran Mac OS while one ran Windows Vista, and the VAIO had a larger, higher resolution screen. Whether that’s enough to account for a six-fold performance gap is questionable.

The 9400M was designed to bring GPU capabilities to notebooks, within a similar thermal envelope as the Montevina platform. It replaces three chips: the graphics processor, the northbridge and southbridge chips, all on one 65nm part, according to Drew Henry, general manager of the MCP business unit at nVidia (NASDAQ: NVDA).

“This chip takes up half the space of the two-chip product as Intel, if you measured it on aggregate performance it’s five times faster than what Intel is offering, and what’s most important is we can do all that graphics performance, take up less space and do it in the same power profile,” Henry said.

Aiming for notebooks

nVidia is targeting the notebook line because, as has been obvious in sales trends for several quarters, mobility is taking off like a shot. Gartner estimates 140 million notebooks will be sold in 2008, with that number reaching 300 million in 2012, while the number of desktops remains static around the 200 million mark.

The trend lately has been to double-up on video, putting a discrete graphics chip in a laptop along with the integrated graphics. This is especially true on the high-end, over $1,200 range, and it’s what Apple did with the MacBook Pro.

Henry said that of the 140 million laptops sold, 45 million had discrete graphics, and nVidia owned two-thirds of that business, with AMD/ATI getting the rest. But nVidia wants more than the discrete business, it wants the 95 million with just discrete graphics, meaning it’s looking to rumble with both Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) and AMD (NYSE: AMD).

That means overcoming the laptop failure problem. The problem was not in the processors, it was in the manufacturing process and how the chips were glued to their substrates. It was made to sound worse by one particular tech journalist with a personal bone to pick with nVidia, who has made it his mission in recent years to see how much FUD he can throw at the company before it finally slaps him with a libel suit.

“Our customers completely understood the problem,” said Henry. “I think the general marketplace, fueled by one particularly inflammatory journalist… we took a lot of heat.”

Henry said nVidia contacted its customers, set aside $200 million to deal with warrantee problems, and brought in material scientists it could to help understand what went wrong, why the failure happens and how to reduce it.

nVidia’s claims it has a workaround for people who own laptops with the faulty design, so the laptop should be able to last its typical lifespan, which is usually around four years for notebooks.

The fix has been to change the controls of the processor to avoid the thermal spikes and heat that cause the problem. Translation: it runs slower and keeps the fan on constantly. “I know the fix is to run the GPU slower and turn the fan on more,” said Peddie. He’s had no experience with the fix but figure’s it’s ok “or we would have heard something by now.”

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