Nvidia Puts Chipsets For Intel CPUs On Hold

Intel's Core i7 and Core i5 desktop processors and the latest additions to its Xeon server/workstation lineup feature a new microarchitecture, code-named Nehalem -- Intel insists that Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia cannot build products for that class of processor under their 2004 patent-licensing agreement. Nvidia disputes the claim and alleged in a statement Thursday that Intel's "improper claims to customers" and "unfair business tactics" had made it effectively impossible" for the company to market chipsets for future Nehalem CPUs.

The legal dispute between Nvidia and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel centers around Nvidia's right to make products for Intel's new Direct Media Interface (DMI) technology that was introduced in late 2008 with the Nehalem architecture. Intel filed suit against Nvidia in Delaware this past February and Nvidia fired back with a countersuit the following month.

Nvidia, in Thursday's statement, indicated it believes the matter will be settled in 2010.

The graphics chip maker said it will continue to "support and sell our existing chipsets" for processors based on Intel's older Frontside Bus (FSB) architecture, including the Ion graphics platform for Intel Atom-based netbooks and nettops.

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"It's not true that we're discontinuing Ion," an Nvidia spokesman told Channelweb.com, in response to some media reports that Nvidia was shutting down its entire chipset business.

But Nvidia has had unrelated tussles with Intel over the Ion platform in recent months. Nvidia CEO Jen Hsun-Huang has publicly complained about Intel's marketing of its own graphics chipsets for Atom-based netbook and nettop hardware platforms, calling pricing for an Intel-only solution "pretty unfair." Nvidia packages its own GeForce 9400M integrated graphics on its Ion platform for Atom, competing with Intel's own graphics products.

Intel's Atom products continue to be based on the older FSB architecture, meaning the cross-license dispute would not seem applicable to Nvidia's continued development of its Ion products. But as Intel pushes its Atom line towards future System-on-Chip (SoC) designs that would integrate graphics functionality onto the central processor die itself, Nvidia's products might not have a role to play on Atom-based systems anyway, said one source at a prominent motherboard manufacturer.

"There's been a lot of talk about all this among [Nvidia's] manufacturing partners over the last couple of days and a lot of rumors about where Nvidia's chipset business is going," said the source, who asked not to be named. Nvidia also seems to be focusing a lot of its attention on its own Tegra family of SoC products for consumer electronics devices and smartphones, the source said, a product line that doesn't involve Intel at all.

If Intel's Atom SoC plans pan out and the cross-license dispute also goes the chip giant's way, Nvidia's chipset business may be less secure than the company is insisting, said the source. The graphics chip maker may be taking a good look at alternate CPU vendors for its Ion platform, he said, which would essentially lead Nvidia to VIA Technologies -- the only notable manufacturer of low-power x86 microprocessors that compete with Atom.

Indeed, Nvidia's next generation of Ion platforms will feature sockets for CPUs from Taipei, Taiwan-based VIA, Nvidia spokesman Ken Brown told Channelweb.com Thursday. Brown claimed that even with today's available products, pairing a VIA Nano processor with the current Ion chipset "would be vastly superior to Intel's Pinetrail solution," a reference to the code-name for an Atom-based netbook platform featuring Intel's own graphics chipset.

Meanwhile, Nvidia could also face challenges in other parts of its chipset business in the months ahead. Nvidia, along with Broadcom, is one of only two manufacturers of chipsets for Opteron-based server motherboards from Advanced Micro Devices. But Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD plans on making its own chipsets for its next generation of Opteron products, code-named Sao Paolo and Magny-Cours scheduled for release in early 2010.