Nvidia mulls x86 chip for low-cost computers

Speculation surrounding Nvidia's own x86 CPU gained steam after an official said the company may build an x86-based chip for netbooks.

Nvidia may develop an integrated x86-based chip for use in low-cost computers, an Nvidia executive said this week, a move that would step up its rivalry with Intel.

Nvidia is considering developing an integrated chip based on the x86 architecture for use in devices such as netbooks and mobile Internet devices (MIDs), said Michael Hara, vice president of investor relations at Nvidia, during a speech that was webcast from the Morgan Stanley Technology Conference on Tuesday.

Nvidia has already developed an integrated chip called Tegra, which combines an Arm processor, a GeForce graphics core and other components on a single chip. The chips are aimed at small devices such as smartphones and MIDs and will start shipping in the second half of this year.

"Tegra, by any definition, is a complete computer-on-chip, and the requirements of that market are such that you have to be very low-power and very small, but highly efficient," Hara said. "Someday it's going to make sense to take the same approach in the x86 market as well."

He didn't discuss specific plans but said such a move might make sense in two to three years. He also did not say if Nvidia would develop the x86 chip itself or license it from another company. Derek Perez, an Nvidia spokesman, said Nvidia is considering all its options and has reached no firm decision yet.

Part of Nvidia's interest in developing a new integrated chip, also known as a system-on-a-chip, or SOC, is to gain a larger share of the emerging netbook market, said Ian Lao, a senior analyst at In-Stat. The main players in that market today are Intel, whose x86-based Atom processor is most widely used for netbooks, and Via Technologies.

Nvidia currently offers a GPU for netbooks with its Ion platform, but it does not have the accompanying CPU. The Ion pairs Nvidia's GeForce GPU with Intel's Atom processor in a chip package about the size of a deck of cards.

As long as Nvidia doesn't have an x86 processor, it remains at a disadvantage to Intel and Via, Lao said. Netbooks rely more on CPUs than GPUs for the basic Web browsing and word processing they are designed for, he said.

Nvidia could license an x86 design from a third party and put its own silicon around it, or it could buy a company with the rights to develop an x86 core and build its own, Lao said.

Beyond netbooks and smartphones, an x86 chip could extend Nvidia's reach into embedded computers such as GPS devices, he said.

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