Two years ago, NVIDIA announced its MXM socketed initiative for the GPU mobile market. This new technology would allow for a modular GPU slot in all laptops, thus making servicing and upgrades much easier. Two years later, still nothing. Why?
In 2004, NVIDIA announced its MXM mobile graphics card interface, much to the delight of enthusiasts and integrators alike. Finally, not only would installing 3D graphics accelerators in laptops be easier, but for the first time, upgrade paths would be possible. This means great things for mobile gamers, as buying a laptop is no longer a dead-end purchase as far as graphics performance. It’s great for integrators because they’re able to more easily customize and service systems. Previously, the GPU was built onto the motherboard, which made it essentially impossible to service just the graphics chip. The MXM initiative was to help improve productivity for integrators by cutting the costs of repairs.
In that initiative, NVIDIA has succeeded. In the consumer market, it has utterly failed. Laptop owners are essentially no closer to being able to upgrade their own notebooks than they were over two years ago when the technology was first announced. In researching this article, we came across MXM Upgrade.com where there are some how-to’s and guides on how to upgrade your notebook. As is clearly explained on this page, all you need to upgrade your card are a screwdriver, pliers, thermal compound, Dremel rotary tool, two resistors, variable resistor, wire strippers, soldering iron, double-sided tape, BIOS upgrade, and the courage of Indiana Jones. Simply remove the back panel, remove the heatsink, replace the video card, design an amplifier to make the notebook fan run full-speed, assemble the amplifier, cut the fan wires, splice in the amplifier, try to reinstall the heatsink, cut off part of the heatsink to fit it around the new video card, reinstall the heatsink, secure the amplifier, rewire the fan's power source, reattach the back panel, and flash the BIOS. Sounds like a cakewalk.
This is just a tad different than swapping out a PCI-Express card on a desktop, wouldn’t you say?
There’s also the unfortunate detail in the warranty terms of most integrators that if you fiddle with the internal components of your system, you void your warranty. So even if you’re successful in upgrading your GPU, you’ve lost your support for all of the other hardware on your system. So if you can’t do it yourself, then perhaps your integrator would be willing to do it for you. In some cases this may be possible, but as you’ll read ahead, the current trend is that different GPUs are designed for different enclosures by the ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers). This leads to an insane Catch-22 where the same GPU gets designed differently to fit in different enclosures by different ODM builders, to say nothing of trying to take a different GPU and installing it into an enclosure it wasn’t designed for.
As you’ll read ahead, there are a number of liberties that the ODMs take in constructing these systems to sell to the OEM distributors and “custom” system integrators. The power, heat, and space considerations are carefully planned and compensated for without a second thought to upgrade paths. For the ODMs, it’s about optimization and doing precisely what is required for one, and only one, particular integration. This is obviously a limiting factor to the end-game goals that NVIDIA expressed years ago – or, as it turns out, what we thought they expressed.
At [H] Consumer, we’re all about what companies do for the customer, which includes ODMs and chipset designers. It’s been said that ODMs are chronically hard to contact, tight-lipped when it comes to the press, and want nothing to do with the consumer – they deal with companies. Unfortunately, this reputation is relatively well-founded as they refused to comment to our queries on this topic. Fortunately, though, NVIDIA and ATI were happy to talk about MXM and mobile graphics in general.
They spoke anonymously, and we should give the disclaimer that the comments to follow are not necessarily to be considered the official views or opinions of NVIDIA and ATI, but rather the testimony of industry experts who have the inside track on what’s going on. As far as we know, this is the first type of article that has been done like this, and there is about two years of dirty laundry being aired out. We think you’ll be amazed at what they have to say.