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Nvidia to take on Intel with PC-centric ARM chip

AMD all over again?

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CES 2011 Move over, Intel, here comes Nvidia. Not with an x86 CPU - though rumours to that effect have been rippling through the chip biz for years - but an ARM-based offering aimed at PCs, workstations and even servers.

Yes, the as-yet-unnamed processor - it's codenamed 'Project Denver' - will not be pitched at mobile devices, the intended home of Nvidia's Tegra 2 line, but at the kind of boxes Intel has owned for the last 30-odd years.

A bonkers move? At first glance it seems so, the x86 platform having so vast an installed base and the de facto standard for such systems.

Earlier during his CES 2011 presentation, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang stated his keenness on such de facto standards, for example Adobe Flash, which he was pleased to trumpet works on Tegra 2-based Android gadgets but not on the devices' main rivals: Apple's iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad.

So many developers already create so many web sites using Flash, you'd be daft not to support the Adobe tech, he said. You could make the same argument for x86, as Intel executives had done not two hours earlier at their CES press conference, claiming some 1m x86 PCs are shipping every day at the moment.

Well, when it comes to CPUs, it's a different matter, Huang insisted, stating that ARM is the fastest-growing CPU architecture in history and has an installed base well beyond that of Intel's chips, even if you ignore AMD's contribution.

Huang contrasted the almost ten years it took the Mac OS and Windows to reach 100m units with the three years or so it's taken Android and iOS to rack up the same total.

Not a fair comparison. World+Dog is gadget crazy these days in a way they just weren't back in the early days of the Mac and PC.

Still, in anticipation that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will today announced an ARM-oriented incarnation of Windows, Nvidia reckons there's room for the low-power architecture in systems big and small, and it believes it's in the best position to satisfy that demand with its brand of ARM CPU and GeForce GPU system-on-a-chip tech.

ARM is certainly a platform that will grow and grow as more folk buy smartphones and tablets, but even with a Windows 7 available on ARM, it's going to take some time for software developers to come up with compatible desktop apps - assuming, of course, they anticipate a sufficiently large customer base to justify the cost of that development. Microsoft may yet surprise us with an emulator built into the OS to allow old x86 apps to continue to be run.

High-end number crunching boxes are different - they makers and owners are used to rolling their own code for the specific tasks they have in mind. But this is a niche market, and Nvidia's inclusion of personal computers in the list of Denver-centric devices shows that it wants its chip to be more than a niche player. ®

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