Nvidia puts high-def graphics into netbooks

The company says fusing its GeForce 9400 GPU with Intel's Atom CPU gives netbooks the ability to run Vista, Photoshop, high-definition video and the latest games

Nvidia plans to introduce chip technology that should let low-cost netbooks run high-definition games and media, and provide full support for Windows Vista graphics.

The Ion platform, announced on Thursday, effectively combines Nvidia's GeForce 9400 graphics processing unit (GPU) with Intel's Atom chipset. According to Nvidia, this combination will provide "up to 10 times the graphics performance" of other graphics chipsets currently used with Atom in small, low-cost PCs.

The GeForce 9400, which has 16 processing cores and is well suited for graphics-intensive applications such as Adobe's Photoshop CS4, is also used in Apple's latest MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.

"Until now, a high-definition, affordable PC was an oxymoron," said Drew Henry, general manager of Nvidia's media communications processor business unit, in Thursday's statement. "The Ion platform pairs the GeForce 9400 with a truly great Intel Atom CPU and lets consumers surf the internet, play top games, edit photos and watch videos — all in high definition."

The Atom processor is ubiquitous in the netbook market. Netbooks are, as the name suggests, generally tailored towards internet browsing and light office work but, as yet, are not seen as capable of running resource-hungry games or high-definition video.

The Vista operating system has barely been deployed on netbooks because of the graphics demands it makes on a system. That situation that has led to the prolonging of Windows XP's life, while Microsoft looks for a way to successfully address the netbook market.

However, Nvidia said that the new Ion platform will be designed to support the full Windows Vista user interface and the upcoming Windows 7.

In addition, it will be capable of running "full-spec 1,080 [pixel]" high-definition video and games as graphically intensive as 'Call of Duty 4'. According to Nvidia, "the GeForce 9400 GPU does all of this in about half of the space of today's Atom CPU-based solutions, with minimal effect on battery life".

The Ion platform will also let netbook users experience full Blu-ray playback on the smallest PCs and laptops, according to Alice Chang, chief executive of optical-drive maker CyberLink, who was quoted in Nvidia's statement.

A spokesperson for Nvidia told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the company expects manufacturers to offer netbooks using Ion sometime towards the end of the first half of 2009.

Nvidia claims Ion, which pairs a GeForce 9400 GPU with Intel's Atom CPU, will change the nature of the netbook (Credit: Nvidia)