Are GPUs About to Shake Up the Netbook Market?

nvidia_ion_logoAsk a netbook owner why he or she bought one of the small laptops and you’re sure to get a number of reasonable answers. However, the response likely won’t be, “For the killer graphics performance!” Intel’s (s intc) GMA 950 core has been the bread-and-butter hardware solution for graphics since the netbook market was born in late 2007. The chip is fine for a basic, all-around graphics experience, but quickly starts to falter when stressed with high-definition video or other graphic-intensive tasks. Enter Nvidia with its ION solution, which found its way into the new HP Mini 311, an 11.6-inch netbook starting at $399. At this price point — and with the high-definition video functionality and DirectX 10 support that Intel netbooks can’t currently match — consumers are sure to be swayed towards a PC-quality graphics experience on a mobile computer, meaning the netbook market could see some serious changes.

Successful markets don’t stagnate — they morph in anticipation of consumer needs. While the original netbooks were never considered as a solution for high-definition content consumption, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a desire for such a feature. Digital content consumption is growing, so doesn’t it make sense that hardware is needed to support that demand? Although a netbook’s small screen might not provide an optimal 1080p experience, the right graphics chip paired with a digital output and a large, high-definition television makes for an attractive combination — especially at these prices.

I read LAPTOP Magazine’s early look at the HP Mini 311 with Nvidia’s ION, and the initial benchmarks are telling:

  • PCMark05 scores, which measure overall performance, are 35 percent higher than the current average netbook powered fully by Intel.
  • The 3DMark06 test, which focuses solely on graphics, yielded a score of 1,386. The average netbook score for this test? Under 100.
  • A 114MB video encoding test from AVI to MPEG-4 using supported software took 6 minutes and 14 seconds using the ION platform. The same file on a standard netbook with Intel churned for a half hour.

Clearly, the Nvidia solution will appeal to those who appreciate strong visuals on the 1,366×768 display or want DirectX 10 support for gaming. The integrated HDMI output extends the experience to larger screens as well — LAPTOP played a 1080p trailer on a 32-inch HDTV with positive results. But do consumers want better graphics on small notebooks?

Two years ago, I would have argued “no.” I’ve personally bought three netbooks in the past two years — the Toshiba NB205 is my current device — but for the price, I’ve never expected much in the way of graphics performance. But wait a second. The HP Mini 311 with Nvidia ION is priced exactly the same as my current device at $399. And those thin-and-light devices with Intel’s CULV solutions generally start around $699 or so. Sure, they may offer a little more horsepower in the CPU department, but they actually fare worse with graphic benchmarks than Nvidia’s little engine that could. LAPTOP’s testing shows the graphics scores are roughly double that of the thin-and-lights that use Intel’s GMA4500 graphics — at half the price.

These results on a $399 netbook could heavily impact sales not just of netbooks, but even the thin-and-light notebooks. Devices in this price range aren’t meant for heavy-duty computational tasks, so consumers are currently getting by with the Intel Atom CPU — and they’re making do with the meager Intel graphics as well. But if there’s a more powerful option for visuals, buyers will gravitate towards it — the thought is: “I’m getting more performance for the same price, so why not take the plunge?” ┬áIf Nvidia continues to stay ahead of Intel’s graphics for mobile computers, I expect to see many more Nvidia ION stickers on netbooks this holiday season.