Watch Out Ion: Quartics' Qvu Video Processor Brings Smooth HD Video, Real-Time 3D Conversion to Netbooks

You've heard of CPUs and GPUs. Now, Quartics wants to make VPU, short for video processing unit, the next must-have notebook component. The company's Qvu technology, a 130nm platform I saw in action here at CES, makes several promises to owners of netbooks and other underpowered laptops. One, like Nvidia's Ion platform, it promises to make HD movies play more smoothly. But, uniquely, it can also convert two-dimensional movies into three-dimensional ones in real-time. And whether 3D or not, Quartics promises the video will look sharper, with better dynamic range, more accurate colors, and deeper contrasts, particularly whiter whites.

Like Ion, it's a technology that Quartics will provide to consumer electronics makers, and not directly to consumers. For now, Quartics is focusing on netbooks, notebooks, televisions, and set-top boxes. Some of its publicly announced partners include Acer and Samsung's television division. Products that have Qvu technology inside will have a label on it, similar to an Intel or AMD sticker, so it's up to consumer electronics companies to market this feature, and consumers to do their homework and look at the specs. Right now, it works with Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, as well as the not-yet-available-to-the-public Chrome.

You might be wondering, as I was, how this technology compares to Ion, at least when it comes to making HD video play fluidly.

First, says Quartics, Qvu is compatible with Pine Trail, the latest generation of Intel's Atom platform for netbooks, whereas Ion isn't. That's not completely fair. Nvidia has confirmed that the next generation of Ion, said to arrive early this year, will be Pine Trail-compatible.

The other difference, Quartics contends, is that Qvu is designed to relieve the CPU of video-processing, allowing it to go idle and conserve battery life. Because Ion requires the cooperation of the CPU, it has the potential to drain battery life. That's not quite fair, either: although we've seen some Ion netbooks with short battery life, we've seen some with long endurance too. Certainly, I would love to know how Qvu and Ion systems benchmark against each other, in terms of overall performance, graphics, and battery life. As for the premium you'll pay for Qvu, particularly compared with the premium for Ion, Quartics declined to give a number, or range of numbers.

Until then, the biggest reason why Qvu is compelling isn't that it's definitely better than Ion, but that it offers a different set of features. Here's what's unique about Qvu, and how it works.

Smooth Video Made Prettier Along the Way

In addition to making HD video play more smoothly, Qvu promises to improve the image quality of videos as it's playing them back. The trick is to not just decode, or play back, these high-def file formats, but to encode them at the same time, to apply algorithms that improve the dynamic range (balancing highlights and shadow detail), sharpening the picture, and deepening the contrast, making whites whiter and blacks blacker. Quartics says it applies not just to locally stored video, but to videos in the cloud, too, such as YouTube clips.

This blog-sized photo doesn't completely do it justice, but see if you can spot the differences between the left and right side of the picture (the left side is Ion; the right, Qvu). The feathers (are those quills? Fur?) on the right side have a more saturated color, and are more detailed.

As for speed, all I can say is that in the demo I saw today, the video, as processed by the Qvu video processing unit, was fluid, both when we watched a movie playing locally on a PC, and when we saw a high-def video conference using a Microsoft HD webcam. Because Ion has already proven itself in this regard, though, I'm more interested in seeing some frame rate comparisons.

3D On Demand

There are actually two things Qvu promises to do in real-time. One, of course, is improving the image quality during playback, as I just described. The other is converting two-dimensional video into three-dimensional video, a process that costs Hollywood bigwigs like Avatar director James Cameron a pretty penny. The software is called TriDef and is made by DDD. This, too, will work on locally stored and cloud-based video alike, and it processes video as you play it back. During our demo, we didn't notice any blips. And, accompanied by 3D glasses, the experience was immersive, although it probably would have been more so had we been watching on a larger screen. If the 3D experience starts giving you a migraine, you can also switch back to 2D video on the fly.

The big winner here are companies like Acer, one of Quartics' early partners, which have already invested money in developing notebooks with 3D displays, such as the Acer Aspire 5738DG. Now, Acer doesn't have to wait for an ecosystem of 3D content to sprout up in order for notebooks like to be appealing. Acer can now tell its customers that any movie, even one filmed in 2D, can become a 3D movie with the help of this software program.

Early Thoughts

Today's hands-on with Qvu left me both impressed and curious. The technology does what it promises to do fluidly. Now, I'll be interested to see which vendors pick up the technology-- and how much of a premium they charge consumers.