Intel's netbook roadmap downplays HD chipset
Insufficient demand for GN40?
So farewell then, GN40, Intel's next major netbook chipset but now apparently destined for the chop before it was even launched.
That, at least, is what can be read from Intel mobile platform plans announced in Asia this week.
Sources within Taiwan's notebook manufacturer community cited by DigiTimes indicate that Intel's netbook product line will centre on the combination of the N270 processor and the 945GSE chipset, both the two key components of netbooks to date.
Absent from the roadmap, such as it is, is the N280 processor and the GN40. The latter was expected to debut alongside the N280, together bringing a tiny, 60MHz increase in processor speed but a big jump in graphics performance to new netbooks.
So far, a number of N280-based netbooks have hit the shelves, but of the GN40 chipset the part was supposed to be paired with, there's no sign. It was originally scheduled to appear in Q1 this year.
Citing low demand, the moles say Intel may phase out the GN40 and the N280.
That leaves the N270 and 945GSE as the main netbook parts - at least until September when the chipset's successor, 'Tiger Point', will debut, along with 'Pineview', the follow-up to the N270.
Pineview and Tiger Point are being aimed at 10in netbooks, leaving 8.9in models to continue to used N270/945GSE through until the end of the year, at least.
Part of the problem may be thermals. While N280 and 945GSE together consume 8W of power, the combination of N280 and GN40 consume 16.5W - not attractive to netbook vendors who're already having to bang chunky six-cell batteries onto the back of existing netbooks to give them a half-decent battery life.
To be fair, Intel previously described GN40 as an "off-roadmap product offering" for vendors seeking to offer HD-capable netbooks. However the part was categorised, it doesn't appear to have had many - only Asus, so far as we can see - takers. ®
I blame Microsoft for this news, not Intel...
In the early netbook days, manufacturers shipped their systems with Linux. This made them free of Microsoft's rules and restrictions, but less sophisticated users were irritated that the netbooks wouldn't run their Windows software, so netbook makers caved and negotiated Windows XP licensing with Microsoft. Linux netbooks are now more of a rarity than the norm.
To avoid cannibalizing its Vista sales, Microsoft laid out very specific restrictions for what a "netbook" was and whether it could be preloaded with XP rather than Vista. Those restrictions included limits on processor speed, built-in RAM, SSD/HD size, and graphics chipsets. Pretty much every currently-shipping netbook is sitting at (or very nearly at) the max specs established by Microsoft for XP licensing. I don't believe that's a coincidence. Netbook makers don't want to have to use Vista, which probably won't run well on netbooks anyway, so they're stuck with Microsoft's arbitrary XP limits. That's probably the most significant reason Intel isn't seeing "demand" for higher-end graphics. (If you think I'm making this up, do a web search for "Microsoft netbook restrictions" and you should turn up a few articles to back me up.)
Windows 7 should significantly loosen (or even eliminate) those restrictions. Once it's released, netbook makers will be able to seriously consider including dual-core processors, more RAM, and better graphics. Intel will probably start seeing significant demand for its graphics chipsets then.
I'd personally like to see netbook makers bypass Microsoft and start shipping machines running Ubuntu, not because of any preference for Linux but because it would send a message to Microsoft and allow netbook makers to spend the money they're currently dedicating to XP licensing on improved hardware inside the box. Even if the netbook came with XP, I'd probably just load Windows 7 RC and Ubuntu on it anyway. (That's what I did with my current netbook.) I suspect others might as well.
I also don't think it's a surprise that netbook sales leveled off this quarter. Each new netbook model released still conforms to the same netbook spec limits that last year's models adhered to, so the only improvements we're seeing are in form factor, battery life, design, and other non-performance improvements. Where some owners might have purchased a newer, faster netbook this year, there isn't one to be had. What's the point of spending $250-400 on a new netbook that has the same CPU, RAM, HD, and graphics chipset as your old model - even if it's a nicer color or a bit thinner/lighter?
I think the netbook market will heat up a lot after Windows 7 is released, but I don't expect to see it happen before that unless Apple releases something that scares Microsoft enough to loosen the XP restrictions or netbook makers return to Linux (with a distro like Ubuntu Netbook Remix).
RE: Not good for intel
"....Since playing HD video is probably the most CPU intensive thing a netbook will have to do it is very important for intel to get a low power chipset that supports HD decoding ASAP, or they will lose out to the ARM competition." Really? I thought it was Crysis (yeah, I had to get the obligatory joke in there). Not so sure myelf that an immediate lack of HD graphics will stop Intel in the netbook arena.
After all, anyone who wants HD is probably not going to want it on a 10in screen, they'll just pay a little bit more and get one of the many Intel-based laptops, which not only have much better screens and features, but also have grown-up processors and graphics capable of doing a lot of the stuff - like games - that netbooks can't. To me, the power issue is much more important given that the average netbook seems to be really useful off-mains for about an hour. Whether Atom's ability to run the Windows apps familiar to most users is enough of an advantage to offset that isn't clear yet, but if nebooks follow the PC market then popular adoption will probably mean a demand for Windows.
As an example, a colleague has recently bought two gadgets, one for him and one for his wife, mainly for use whilst on holidays. Their kids really liked the ARM-based Archos 7 his wife wanted, until they got bored of the software issues and limited capabilities. Then I lent them one of those compilation CDs of old Windows PC games they used to give away on magazines. Most of the games were released when a Pentium3 was the norm, and an Atom actually seems to out-perform that quite comfortably, especially as most Pentium3s came with a lot less RAM. Now the kids hog their Dad's Acer netbook that cost almost £100 LESS, but came with Win XP on an Atom and runs all those games just fine.
Taking that example, software vendors can use the Windows netbook as a market to rehash older software from a few years back, update the drivers, and release them to a new market, which will help Intel keep Snapdragon at bay. After reading the news that Duke Nukem Forever was finally dead last week, my friend an I loaded Duke Nukem 3D on his Acer and enjoyed a little nostalgia (his wife promptly forbade us from giving that to his kids, though!).
Not good for intel
This is bad news for Intel. The chip giant is at the start of a war for netbook supremacy with chips based on the ARM architecture set such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon: http://www.tech-no-media.com/2009/05/netbook-processor-wars-atom-x86-versus.html
The problem for Intel is that the snapdragon not only consumes less power than the Atom, but also includes an HD video decoding engine which the Atom lacks.
Since playing HD video is probably the most CPU intensive thing a netbook will have to do it is very important for intel to get a low power chipset that supports HD decoding ASAP, or they will lose out to the ARM competition.