Intel Atom powered netbooks typically have more than enough processing power to handle day to day tasks such as surfing the web, editing documents, or watching standard definition YouTube videos. But the integrated graphics solutions that come with these netbooks typically aren’t powerful enough to handle 1080p HD video, high definition Flash video, or hard core video gaming.
Of course, the simplest way to make sure you have a laptop powerful enough to do those things is to either shell out the big bucks for a high end ultraportable or buy a larger laptop that has a netbook-like price, but higher performance graphics and CPU options.
But there’s another approach that some netbook makers have been taking. NVIDIA and Broadcom both offer products that can enable higher performance graphics in one way or another on netbooks with Intel Atom processors. The NVIDIA ION solution replaces the integrated graphics with an NVIDIA graphics processor which adds support for HD video playback as well as the ability to play some video games and perform other tasks that take advantage of the more powerful GPU.
The Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator is a cheaper option which adds 1080p HD video playback capabilities, but which isn’t a full fledged GPU in its own right. Computers with this card still use Intel’s integrated graphics, but have the ability to tap the coprocessor when it’s time to display HD video.
So how do the two stack up against one another? The best way to test would be to take two machines that are identical in all ways except that one has the Broadcom card while the other has NVIDIA ION. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any PC maker that offers those two options on the same machine. But the folks at Laptop Magazine did the next best thing and benchmarked a Dell Inspiron Mini 10 with a Broadcom HD card against an HP Mini 311 with NVIDIA ION graphics. For good measure, they threw in a version of the Inspiron Mini 10 without the Broadcom card.
The results, as you can see in the graph above are pretty stunning. While the NVIDIA ION card outperformed the other two options in every test, the Broadcom card enabled 1080p HD video performance on the Dell laptop that would have been impossible without the card. And the difference between 59 frames per second and 48 frames per second is actually pretty insignificant, since your eye won’t notice the difference.
Of course, the Broadcom card doesn’t support video gaming. And the latest version of Adobe Flash Player doesn’t work with the Broadcom HD Video Accelerator yet, which means that HD Flash video isn’t support. But it should be soon.