New MacBooks Shine Light On Nvidia, Intel, SSDs

to great fanfare

Nvidia's Big Win

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based graphics chip maker will provide GeForce 9400M motherboard graphics for all of the new MacBooks, as well as discrete graphics for two 15-inch MacBook Pros. The older, 17-inch MacBook Pro is now the only one in the current lineup with Intel's integrated graphics chipset, according to Apple.

In tapping Nvidia for integrated graphics in the new MacBooks, Apple may be sending signals that its next operating system release will include some general-purpose GPU (GPGPU) computing capabilities, note some astute commenters over at Daily Tech. Nvidia's graphics processors, of course, support CUDA, the GPU programming language the company has built for software developers. While central processor performance is still king in PCs, Nvidia and its developer partners have already demonstrated that certain parallel computing tasks can be carried out with much greater efficiency on graphics processors than on CPUs. One Daily Tech commenter notes:

Indeed, Nvidia is touting the single-chip design and CUDA support on its new graphics chipsets as the new standard for integrated graphics. Things aren't entirely rosy for the company, however. Nvidia is still suffering fallout from poor packaging that led to higher-than-normal failure rates in some of its GPUs. Apple may be confident in the stability of Nvidia's new hardware, but just call its graphics rival Advanced Micro Devices if you want an earful on what's still allegedly wrong with the company's GPU packaging.

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It's not clear if or when Nvidia's mobile graphics chipset will find a home in other systems besides Apple's. But for Nvidia, the MacBook win is a great kick-off to Wednesday's launch of its 9-Series graphics chipset line for desktops. And the graphics chip maker is taking aim directly at Intel with its new GeForce 9300 and 9400 motherboard GPUs. These chipsets were built for Intel-based motherboards and support the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant's latest Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors. Nvidia is promising five times the graphics performance with its new chipsets over Intel's own integrated graphics, and says the 9-Series outperforms Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD's 7-Series ATI chipsets as well.

Meanwhile, Intel may have lost some ground on graphics, but the chip giant's processors held onto their spot in the new MacBook lineup, which will be exclusively powered by the latest Core 2 Duo mobile processors.

No Netbooks ... Yet

Besides graphics, one other area where Apple and Intel don't see eye to eye is on the ultra-small "netbook" form factor. Intel has been a steady evangelist for these basic, Internet-ready laptops, launching its ultra-low voltage Atom processor family earlier in the year and seeing the payoff in new netbook designs from the likes of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Asus.

Ahead of the MacBook launch, some observers thought a low-cost, netbook-type MacBook would be part of the new lineup, but that was a no-show on Tuesday in Cupertino. Nor did Apple CEO Steve Jobs seem too enthused about the form factor, as CNET News' Erica Ogg reports:

While he certainly left some room to change his mind, he didn't sound excited about the category at all.

That's in direct contrast to the company line at Intel, where CEO Paul Otellini was enthusiastic about both Atom and the netbook and "nettop" categories during the chip maker's third-quarter earnings call on Tuesday.

Otellini said Atom processor and platform revenues had accounted for $200 million in the just-concluded quarter, adding, as the Test Center's Ed Moltzen notes, that netbook revenue growth was not coming at the expense of sales of higher-margin, full-blown notebook PCs.

Otellini also said that demand for Atom was greater than Intel could supply in recent months. We e-mailed Todd Garrigues of the company's North American channel sales team to elaborate, and to find out how Atom is selling in the local neighborhood. His e-mailed reply:

Interestingly, Garrigues noted most Atom-based system designs he's seeing in his channel are purpose-built systems, though the general-purpose PCs built around the processor could start taking off soon:

Thumbs Up For Solid State

Apple's new MacBooks also shine the light on solid state drives (SSDs). The two new MacBooks, three MacBook Pros and one of two new MacBook Airs in the latest lineup have 128GB SSD upgrade options from basic hard disk drive configurations. The more expensive of the pair of MacBook Airs, the $2,499, 1.86GHz version, comes with the 128GB SSD in its basic configuration.

That news makes Jonny Brownleader happy. The VP of sales at RocketDisk, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based distributor of solid state storage devices, said Apple is smart to take SSDs seriously and that, "Mr. Jobs is on the right track."

RocketDisk, a distributor of MemoRight and MTron SSDs, won't have a place in Apple's in-house solid-state configurations for the new MacBooks. That should place should belong to Samsung, Brownleader guessed, based on previous MacBook SSDs.

Apple and Samsung were contacted Wednesday but neither company would confirm or deny whether Samsung would provide SSDs for the MacBooks.

But Brownleader said his company does a brisk trade in swapping out hard disk drives in MacBooks for its own products from MemoRight, a company based in China, and MTron, part of Toshiba.