Sunday, October 25, 2009

HD Video for Netbooks: with Atom, Nvidia Ion or ARM CPU?

Today I tested my Dell Mini 10v (Inspiron 1011) with a couple of HD videos available in YouTube (full screen and HD selected), none of the two could be played smoothly.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4N2YWRJ-ppo (1080p, full HD)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzscXeJ6FEQ (720p)

Not really a surprise, current generation of netbooks isn't able to play HD/full HD video. The Intel Atom N270/N280 processor doesn't provide enough performance and the graphics chipset doesn't help with video decoding.

Performance boost with Intel Pineview (Atom N450/N470) ??

Don't expect a significant performance boost with the adoption of the upcoming Intel Atom Pineview processors: the main news is integration of memory controller and graphics in the CPU, reducing overall chipset cost and power consumption. On the other hand neither CPU core nor the graphics engine will be more powerful, Intel "just" merged processor and north bridge in a single chip --> it's only an integration step.
Well, I must be a bit more precise: the Atom N450 will be clocked at 1.66GHz (as the N270) while the Atom N470 will get a 200MHz increase (1.86GHz) HOWEVER this is definetly not sufficient for full HD decoding.
This seems also to be confimed by Digitimes : Intel Atom N450/N470 will offer the option of an external chip (Broadcom BCM70015) for video decoding. I guess that this chip will eventually be adopted by "premium" netbooks, given the cost adder.

Performance boost with CUDA / Nvidia Ion Chipset ??

Another interesting possibility to finally have a full HD experience on netbooks is the adoption of Nvidia or ATI/AMD GPUs.
All new graphic chips from Nvidia and ATI/AMD in the past couple of years provide HD video acceleration, requiring little CPU intervention for video decoding (e.g. H.264). A significant number of desktop/barebone motherboards are already equipped with integrated graphics and HD video acceleration. Also very important: more and more video and graphics software make use of GPU acceleration provided by Nvidia and ATI/AMD chipsets. The software support got a boost in the past year, since the release of a more or less standardized API for GPU programming: the CUDA.
An importnat step forward is the CUDA/GPU acceleration provided by the upcoming Flash 10.1.
Even netbooks with the old Intel Atom N270/N280 if paired with a GPU (e.g. Nvidia Ion) would be able to play HD content, BUT: you first have to find one... netbooks with Nvidia Ion graphics are rare, insider say because of Intel's aggressive price policy (I've heard that Intel offers Atom+945 chipset at a lower costs than the Atom CPU alone!!!). This is of course a killing point for the netbook market, with a huge price pressure.
As of today, I know only of one netbook with Nvidia Ion, the HP Mini 311, with 11.6-inch display, Atom N270 and a 400 USD price tag.

What about Intel Atom alternatives, ARM CPU ??

As mentioned above, it isn't easy to build cheap netbooks with Intel and CUDA / Nvidia graphics. As far as I know Via Nano processors can't compete with Intel Atom because of the premium price tag and higher power consumption.
A realistic alternative for video decoding is coming from the adoption of the new ARM processors targeting MID and netbooks: Qualcomm Snapdragon, Nvidia Tegra and Freescale i.MX515. These are cheap enough to be competitive enough for price and power consumption. I think that the Nvidia Tegra got the best chance given the 1080p decoding capability and especially the support of CUDA, the standardized GPU interface mentioned before. I doubth that Qualcomm and Freescale are going to provide CUDA graphics drivers, this may be a problem.
BUT there are at least two factors playing against the ARM based processors
  1. CPU performance: Intel Atom got an edge since the ARM processors don't support hardware multithreading (Intel Atom does, got two virtual processors) and got lower clock in actual products (max 1.2GHz ARM vs 1.6GHz in Atom)
  2. Software support: Intel Atom got Windows support while ARM are so far supported by Linux (and derivates such as Android). This is going to be a major penalty for ARM, the only chance for ARM is to hope/work on a Linux distribution that can finally compete with Microsoft Windows. It's interesting to note that a very promising Netbook distribution is coming from Intel (Moblin), will Intel help ARM processors? :-)
See also

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