In Challenge to Intel, Nvidia Busts Out in Chromebook

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Nvidia's (NVDA) presence in PCs is as a high-end supplier of GPUs (graphics processing units), which are typically used by gamers and scientific/industrial high-end users.

This GPU normally resides next to an Intel (INTC) CPU (central processing unit), making for the highest-performance computing combination.

On lower-end PCs and tablets, there is typically no separate GPU from Nvidia involved. Intel supplies its own lower-end integrated graphics -- and Nvidia gets nothing.

Now we are seeing the first sign of Nvidia striking back with its own product for low-end PCs, and it arrives first in a 13-inch Chromebook made by Acer. But, first, a little background.

The first Chromebooks that arrived in 2010-2011 were based on Intel Atom CPUs. Frankly, they did not provide acceptable performance, as the basic web experience was not good for scrolling down long web pages, as well as for other tasks such as using Google's (GOOG) video calling.

In 2012, the Chromebook world saw the arrival of two new hardware platforms:

  1. Intel Pentium/Celeron: These finally brought Chromebook performance to a level that was more than acceptable. It became feasible to use a Chromebook as your only PC, for many people. The first one of these was made by Samsung (SSNLF) , but was later followed by Acer and then many others, including Toshiba (TOSBF) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) .
  2. Samsung ARM: In October 2012, Samsung pioneered the ARM (ARM) -based Chromebook with its version that led the Amazon (AMZN) sales charts for many months that followed. The problem with this CPU platform was that it was almost as poorly performing as the original Intel Atom platforms from 2010-2011. However, it was fanless and it was cheap.

So far, in 2013 and 2014, two new platforms have hit the Chrome operating-system world:

  1. Intel moving up the high-performance stack with PCs based on the Core i5 and i3. The performance here is absolutely beautiful, although they cost well over $100 more than some of their lesser Chromebook counterparts using slower CPUs.
  2. Intel introducing its far-improved next-gen Atom-based CPU platform, available on the 13-inch Asus Chromebook that I tested recently.


My conclusion of this new higher-performing Atom-based Chromebook was that it now has adequate performance, somewhere along the lines of the first Samsung Pentium-based Chromebook from June 2012.

But with all of that, now this: Acer has just delivered the first Nvidia-based Chromebook, and it's a beauty. It comes in a few different versions, with 2 gig of RAM or 4 gig of RAM -- and with 768x1366 or 1080x1920 displays.

The one I tested had the 1080x1920 display. As far as I can remember, it's only the second Chromebook to have it. The other is a Samsung, but that's based on the slower Samsung CPU; I haven't had a chance to test that one yet.

The 1080x1920 resolution presents a bit of a problem for people with less than flawless eyesight, because the text becomes too small. You have to blow up the text by something like 50% for it to be acceptable next to other Chromebooks.

The display itself is also a bit dim, just as most of these less expensive Chromebooks are, including the Asus I tested a few weeks ago. I put them largely on par with each other, other than the resolution.

Here are the other two major advantages of the Nvidia-based Acer Chromebooks:

  1. Battery life is 11 hours (1080x1920 display) and 13 hours (768x1366 display). I don't think that any of the other 13-inch Chromebooks exceed those numbers.
  2. It is fanless, and so it's quiet, literally cool and presumably also durable over time. Most smartphones and tablets are fanless.

From a performance standpoint, the Acer 13 inch Chromebook felt similar to the Asus 13-inch Chromebook. The noticeable difference was the screen resolution, in Acer's favor of course.

The Nvidia-based Acer 13-inch Chromebook comes in three versions:

  1. 768x1366 resolution, 2 gig RAM, 16 gig SSD: $280.
  2. 1080x1920 resolution, 2 gig RAM, 16 gig SSD: $300.
  3. 1080x1920 resolution, 4 gig RAM, 32 gig SSD: $380.

This means that on a seeming apples-to-apples basis, the Acer costs $50 more than the Asus 13-inch Chromebook ($280 versus $230) for the base model with the lower standard resolution. Seeing as I found them to be about equal, one probably has to recommend the Asus, although it's a close call, especially given the small absolute amount.

What the Acer offers that the Asus doesn't is the higher optional screen resolution. If you can get that one to work for you with the desired result, that is a reason to pick the Acer over the Asus, even if you pay more.

The higher screen resolution will be unambiguously better if you watch movies on your Chromebook. As for everything else, you have to decide whether the scaling works for you, assuming you need it. For me, the native text size was just too small to work on.

The bottom line here is that this is more of a Nvidia story than a Acer story. This laptop is unique in the history of computing, in that it's Nvidia's new break from Intel.

Maybe people and investors don't care about this one Chromebook. However, if this spreads to more devices, including perhaps Windows devices in the future, then this becomes a threat to Intel.

And that's why this Nvidia-based Chromebook is such an important milestone in the PC industry. I recommend this 13-inch Acer Chromebook based on my testing.

At the time of submitting this article, the author was long Nvidia and Google.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.


TheStreet Ratings team rates NVIDIA CORP as a Buy with a ratings score of A-. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate NVIDIA CORP (NVDA) a BUY. This is based on the convergence of positive investment measures, which should help this stock outperform the majority of stocks that we rate. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its revenue growth, solid stock price performance, reasonable valuation levels, increase in net income and growth in earnings per share. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had somewhat disappointing return on equity."

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