Nvidia to draw on graphics strength for Windows 8 on ARM

Nvidia hopes to bring strong graphics to Windows 8 tablets and PCs

Nvidia is on the verge of delivering its own homegrown chips for Windows 8 devices, and the company hopes to use its extensive background in graphics to differentiate itself from competitors, according to a company executive.

The company hopes to push its ARM-based Tegra chips to Windows 8 tablets and laptops that offer powerful graphics and long battery life, said Rene Haas, vice president and general manager at Nvidia. Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS will work on both ARM processors and x86 microprocessors.

Most tablets today run on ARM processors, with many Android tablets from Motorola, Lenovo, Asus and Acer running on Nvidia's Tegra processors. The latest Tegra 3 processor has up to four ARM CPUs and 12 graphics cores.

Windows grew up on x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, but Windows 8 offers Nvidia an opportunity to break the status quo, Haas said. Nvidia has already demonstrated tablets running Windows 8. Other form factors could include touch-based clamshell laptops without fans, Haas said. A device maker could potentially reduce the size and weight of a laptop with a smaller battery, and still offer hours of run time.

"The kind of things Microsoft is pushing for with Windows 8 on ARM is not days of standby, but weeks," Haas said.

Nvidia already has a long history of building graphics drivers for the Windows OS based on x86 processors, and that puts Nvidia in a unique position in the ARM camp, Haas said. Graphics is also growing in importance, Haas said, citing examples of Apple's graphics intensive new iPad, and Intel's focus on improving graphics in its upcoming Core processors code-named Ivy Bridge.

"We think the opportunity is really significant. It plays to the strength of our company," Haas said. "We're working with virtually every OEM on the planet excited about Windows on ARM."

Microsoft has built Windows 8 on ARM specifically for the touch interface, and will also include new versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote -- collectively called Office 15 -- in Windows 8 on ARM. The applications have been rearchitected for the touch interface and minimized power and resource consumption. Windows 8 also frees up the CPU by unloading many applications, such as video in browser and Metro user interface tasks, to graphics cores.

Microsoft is only working with specific ARM-based chip makers including Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments for Windows 8. Just like Nvidia, Qualcomm has already said it is developing the quad-core S4 chip to compete with Intel's x86-based ultrabooks. Both Nvidia and Qualcomm plan to deliver prototype ARM devices running Windows 8 to developers.

Laptop and tablet usage differ, with some needing the best performance, and some needing long battery life, analysts said. Windows 8 was developed with mobile devices in mind, and Nvidia's challenge is to engineer a chip that delivers good performance, but not extreme performance that could hurt battery life.

Graphics will be a significant differentiator, and Nvidia may find it easier to jump into Windows 8 on ARM than competitors TI or Qualcomm, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

"The challenge for Nvidia was to come up with a good processing core to migrate their PC technology into the mobile space," McCarron said. "We're looking at something that is very focused on the mobile and high portability space."

TI and Qualcomm on the other hand are coming to Windows 8 on ARM from the smartphone market, and may offer advantages in areas such as always-on and connectivity capabilities, analysts said. Qualcomm has said Windows 8 devices will take advantage of the integrated 3G/4G radio in S4 chips.

Nvidia's graphics experience in x86 will be essential in differentiating the company from its ARM competitors, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. The company may have a leg up on supporting DirectX 11 capabilities that are being built for better graphics in Windows.

But there are questions related to driver and application compatibility that may hamper overall adoption of Windows 8 on ARM, Brookwood said. The popularity of Windows 8 on ARM devices could be determined after some of these issues are resolved.

For example, some old printers or scanners for x86 machines may not work on ARM PCs or tablets unless separate drivers are written. Also, resource-intensive applications such as Adobe Photoshop may likely only run on x86 laptops.

"There are a lot of things you won't be able to do. But you will have exceptional battery life," Brookwood said.

Another issue acknowledged by analysts is ARM support for 64-bit applications. However, ARM has announced the 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture, of which Nvidia is one of the initial licensees. The first 64-bit ARM processors are due later this year.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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