Nvidia to turn Sideshow into a major attraction

Santa Clara (CA) - Sideshow is one of those Windows Vista features that are still somewhat cloudy and without a clear future. So far, Sideshow has gained most interest in the form of a small LCD that is integrated into the notebook lid as a secondary screen - to enable data access without requiring the user to power up the notebook. But there is more - and Nvidia is cooking up some interesting solutions.

We haven't paid much attention to Sideshow devices and you probably haven't either. A second screen in the notebook does not appear to be that special: Access to certain (entertainment) features in notebooks without the need to boot Windows has been there before and the addition of a display to that functionality is rather evolutionary than revolutionary. However, I had the chance to have a closer look at a variety of Sideshow devices during a visit at Nvidia's offices in Santa Clara and - while not many Sideshow devices are out yet - it is obvious that the technology has more potential than we may see today.

Nvidia entered the Sideshow business through the acquisition of PortalPlayer last year, which developed a Sideshow platform that - as of now - does not integrate any Nvidia products. This platform, referred to as "Preface," consists of a display, a board that carries a 10 mm x 10 mm PP5024 system-on-chip devices as well as 256 MB of NAND flash. All combined, it is a fairly thin package, but current notebooks integrating the technology come with a small bump in their lid to accommodate the Sideshow feature.

So, what can you do with Sideshow? Nvidia currently offers just under 30 software gadgets that range from system information utilities (user name, battery facts etc.) to photo and video playback, to music player features as well small productivity tools such as an email and contact viewer. In current sideshow notebooks, data can be synchronized into the Preface NAND storage via an USB interface and then accessed on the road. For example, users can playback music, according to Nvidia, for up to 500 hours before draining the notebook battery. All functionality, however, is limited to listening and viewing; editing of content is not possible at this time.

But it is not necessarily the notebook integration that makes Preface especially interesting: the company also has standalone devices that connect to a Vista notebook either through a wired USB connect or via Bluetooth. Perhaps most interesting was a credit card-sized device with a 2.5" screen that effectively eliminates the bump in the notebook lid. Functionality of these devices extends far beyond email viewing and music listening. Arman Toorians, director of the personal media display division at Nvidia said that the device can serve as a remote control, for example to click through a PowerPoint presentation (while displaying the slides on its 2.5" screen). Preface also could display a chat window during a video game and has Skype capacity, which could bring us a new variation of the Skype phone. Battery running is comparable to an iPod nano, Toorians said.

Nvidia declined to tell us if and when the device will come to market, but the company confirmed that the product was beyond the stage of a prototype and was not intended to collect dust as a reference platform. In the presentation, the device left the impression of a production ready device and we would not be surprised if it hits the market during the first half of this year. Pricing is unclear at the time, but depending on their feature set and implementation, Nvidia's Sideshow devices could cost anywhere between $75 and $200, the company said.

Other examples of Preface devices included a supercharged remote control for Media Center PCs as well as Portable Media Player-like device that could serve as an entertainment device and help users bridge longer wait times than today. While many notebooks today scramble to finish that two-hour DVD movie on one battery charge, Nvidia says that closing the notebook lid will save about 40% of a system's battery consumption. A natural device for using the Preface platform also could be a smartphone and while we heard that such a solution "could be part of the roadmap," Nvidia representatives declined to discuss this topic.

According to Nvidia, the first Sideshow notebooks have been shipped to end users in the last week. More Sideshow devices based on the Preface platform are expected to ship during Q2.