Ghosts of Cyrix, PowerPC, Transmeta haunt x86-bound Nvidia

For Nvidia to crack the Intel-AMD duopoly, it must avoid four past mistakes, say experts

Analysts offer these four suggestions:

Don't build a CPU from scratch

Nvidia may claim to have the smartest graphics engineers on the planet, and it may claim that GPUs are morphing into CPUs. But it would have to "commit hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D and lots of time" to build its own CPU from scratch, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64. "[And] while you're busy doing that, the market would have moved on," Brookwood said.

Nvidia wouldn't just be starting far behind Intel and AMD -- it would be running straight into a "minefield of potential engineering problems," said Brookwood. For most of its 30-year existence, the x86 processor "evolved without a rigorous architectural definition. As a result, engineers creating a newer version had to ensure that it was compatible with all of the weirdnesses and bugs of the older one."

Both Intel and AMD have a strong handle on x86's quirks due to the "historical memory" of the thousands of engineers they employ, as well as the many systems they have for testing and development, said Brookwood.

These were key factors that hurt Cyrix when it unsuccessfully tried to challenge Intel in the mid-1990s, he said.

A reasonably successful maker of low-cost knockoffs to Intel's 386 and 486 chips, Cyrix's problems started when it touted its M1 processor as faster than Intel's Pentium.

Brookwood said that advantage, whether real or not, quickly vanished as early M1s proved buggy. Meanwhile, Intel churned out newer Pentiums that quickly topped Cyrix's chip.

Nvidia has hinted that if it built CPUs, it would focus on lower-end mobile processors such as those used in netbooks. Brookwood said such a move would let it sidestep some of Cyrix's problems -- but not enough of them.

License or acquire a CPU from an existing maker

Brookwood suggests that Nvidia buy Centaur, the semi-autonomous US division of Via that designs its C7 mobile processor. The C7 was used in Hewlett-Packard's first-generation 2133 netbook. Enderle said that Via's C7 successor, the Nano, "is competitive with Intel's Atom though not as low-powered."

Tags x86 server marketCyrixPowerPCAMDtransmetanvidiaintel

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Eric Lai

Computerworld

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