Can Intel and AMD Render Low-end Graphics Cards Obsolete?

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by Jacqueline Emigh

How will new PC architectures like Intel’s Sandy Bridge and AMD’s Bobcat-based Fusion APU impact users’ needs for standalone graphics cards? Nobody will know for sure until systems based on integrated CPU/GPU architectures start shipping, but Intel and AMD have been dropping hints about how these systems might compete.

Neither vendor is under any illusion that its integrated architecture is going to replace high-end graphics cards. However, the lower-end discrete graphics popular among many gamers and other users today could be a different matter.

Intel has been touting Sandy Bridge’s built-in GPU for mainstream gaming as well as video editing and encoding. The integrated architecture brings a “fantastic experience on media, playback and encoding and on being able to play mainstream games on [a] laptop,” said Tom Piazza, an Intel fellow, who spoke at the Intel Development Forum (IDF) last week.

AMD, a company which also makes graphics cards, has recently demo’d how its emerging Fusion APU integrated architecture for desktop and mobile PCs can accelerate not just games and HD video but common apps such as office productivity suites and Web browsers as well.

Can Sandy Bridge compete against Radeon HD 5450?
In demoing Sandy Bridge at Computex earlier this year, Intel presented a head-to-head visual comparison between its new GPU/CPU architecture running a computer game and an Intel Core i7 processor accompanied by an unidentified “midrange” graphics card.

Performance is just about identical across parameters such s resolution, dynamic lighting, and shadows, while Sandy Bridge consumes much less power, said David Perlmutter, Intel’s executive VP, during the demo.

The Intel architecture incorporates a multi-format codec aimed at working with the GPU’s execution units, or shaders, to speed up computationally intensive video processing. Like the current generation of HD graphics cards, Sandy Bridge will have up to 12 shaders, but Intel maintains that its integrated architecture will provide better caching and more clockspeed.

At the Intel Development Forum (IDF) last week, Piazza reportedly pointed to several technologies Intel has used to “move the performance of the graphics up while maintaining the same socket power.”

These include a new “transcendental math” capability for gaining four to 20 times more throughput; a second-generation parallel branch and a larger register file for improved parallelization; and new instructions to reach 1-to-1 with API ISA (CISC) and higher throughput at the same clock rate.

As some see it, Sandy Bridge will compete with low-end discrete graphics cards such as AMD’s Radeon HD 5450.

Yet according to others, it isn’t certain whether Sandy Bridge will perform as well in real world gaming as under the controlled conditions of a trade show demo.

Furthermore, since Sandy Bridge will use DirectX 10.1 instead of DirectX 11 graphics, it might not even be ideal for the majority of gaming titles.

Fusion APU to support DirectX 11
In contrast, the Fusion APU architecture will combine dual low-power CPU cores codenamed “Bobcat” with an on-die Unified Video Decoder (UVD) and “DirectX 11-capable GPU cores derived from the award-winning AMD Radeon discrete GPU,” said John Taylor, AMD’s PR director, in a blog post during the IFA show earlier this month.

Taylor didn’t specify which Radeon GPUs he meant. However, he noted that the APU will come in “two flavors based on performance and (low) power draws.”

Desktop PCs, notebooks, and netbooks based on Fusion APU are codenamed “Brazos.” An 18-watt TDP APU codenamed “Zacate” will show up in desktop PCs and “ultrathin, mainstream, and value notebooks,” Taylor said.

On the other hand, a 9-watt APU codenamed “Ontario” will be used for netbooks and small form factor desktops and devices.

Ontario and Zacate will each feature two Bobcat x86 cores with full support for DirectX 11. In addition, the built-in UVD will provide HD video acceleration at up to 1080p resolution, according to Taylor.

The integrated architecture will render text, graphics, and video faster in “mainstream computing workloads,” said Rick Gayle, a division manager in AMD’s Mobile Marketing Group Microsoft’s Office 2010 will take advantage of the integrated graphics, as will Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) 9 and forthcoming upgrades to Google’s Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox, and other browsers, he said.

AMD’s Fusion APU and Intel’s Sandy Bridge will both include support for DirectCompute, Microsoft’s programming interface, and OpenCL, a cross-platform programming interface stand for multi-core x86 and accelerated GPU computing.

Performance and pricing will count
Still, it’s unclear how much impact will be withstood by standalone graphics cards from either AMD or Nvidia, its main rival in that space.

Much is likely to depend on the actual real world performance of the integrated graphics systems from Intel and AMD, along with the pricing of PCs built on these systems.

Some users who have already outfitted their PCs with low-end graphics cards might opt to hold on to their existing computer set-ups for a while, until performance improves and pricing on PCs with integrated graphics starts to slide.




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