Nvidia eyes x86 CPU market, may produce its own chip

Chicago (IL) – Nvidia has had some strong words to speak about Intel and their Atom platform in recent weeks. And now, based on the difficulties Nvidia has found by Intel’s position to not open up the Atom platform, and instead to continue to sell only their own chipset and motherboard solutions — those which are notably under-performing compared to Nvidia’s, it appears Nvidia may be looking to create or license their own x86-based CPU to compete with Atom.

In January, Nvidia’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, said “the Atom platform is creating an installed base of PCs that’s going to eventually hurt the PC software industry.” He went on to say “I would hope that Intel isn’t doing anything to prevent consumers from getting the most innovative products, in this case, built around Atom, their own processor.” Still, Nvidia had sought to contact Atom system builders directly, hoping to allow their Ion platform to be employed as well.

Today, PC World is reporting that “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.”

The Nvidia x86-based CPU would compete with Atom for use in netbooks and MIDs, said Michael Hara, Nvidia VP of customer relations.

First Nvidia CPU: Tegra

Nvidia released its first CPU in February, 2008. Called Tegra, it was an ARM-based core (not x86-based) and worked with a GeForce graphics chip as part of a full SoC (System-on-Chip) design. Tegra has been used in very small devices, such as smart phones. MIDs based on the product will be shipping in the second half of this year.

Still, ARM is not x86 and the powerful software libraries and hardware toolsets created for x86 products — those which run the Windows world — are very appealing for new products that Nvidia would target as their GPUs greatly enhance a powerful computing experience. Nvidia’s CUDA libraries enable multi-core x86-based software to speed up processing by using the GPU for compute abilities in Windows, Linux and other operating systems.

New CPU under consideration

Specific details over when the new CPU would be created have not yet been solidified as Nvidia is reportedly looking at all of its options. They may create their own original x86-based CPU from the ground up, something their experience with high-speed, massively parallel multiple core GPU designs could help them with, or they may license an existing CPU, such as VIA’s Nano 64-bit CPU for their own extensions and purposes.

The new CPU would likely be fully x86, supporting both 32-bit and 64-bit modes, including backward-compatible 16-bit legacy support for BIOS and DOS applications, and would be used in place of Atom to power netbooks, MIDs and additional applications.

According to In-Stat senior analyst, Ian Lao, “As long as Nvidia doesn’t have an x86 processor, it remains at a disadvantage to Intel and VIA.”

An x86-based CPU from Nvidia would round out Nvidia’s offerings, allowing them to create complete systems using only their products. From CPUs to chipsets to GPUs, a person could buy a Nvidia system.