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Plausible: Nvidia Working on x86 CPU

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 50 comments

For the second time in less than a week, graphics chipset maker Nvidia is at the center of a rumor that could turn the tech sectors upside down.

Last week, the California-based GPU maker was rumored to be pushed out of the console graphics market by none other than Intel. This week, it seems as if the tables have turned, with Nvidia reportedly working on an x86 CPU.

According to The Inquirer, the GPU powerhouse is trying to produce an x86 chip. While the legal implications may stop anything concrete dead in its tracks, that probably wouldn't stop Nvidia from producing the hardware and worrying about a financial settlement later. When Nvidia started collaborating with Stexar back in 2006, many were predicting that some sort of CPU would be the result. It's been over two years, so the market may finally be privy to the fruit of Nvidia's labors.

"Word reached us a bit ago that Nvidia is definitely working on an x86 chip and the firm is heavily recruiting x86 engineers all over Silicon Valley," says The Inquirer.

While producing an x86 CPU would certainly put a wrench in the works for Intel and AMD, the move seems to be off message for Nvidia. For the past year or so, Nvidia has been pushing its GPGPU, or General Purpose Graphics Processing Unit, concept. This rumored Nvidia CPU would completely go against that grain.

While Nvidia may not be able to snag a license from Intel, there may be another option. If Nvidia collaborated with a company that already possesses an x86 license, VIA for example, you may see an Nvidia-branded CPU yet.

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  • 1 Hide
    one-shot , February 9, 2009 5:44 PM
    I remember reading this on the Inquirer a few days ago. It may be interesting to see Intel come down on them.
  • 5 Hide
    TheFace , February 9, 2009 5:46 PM
    Competition is a great thing for the market. I hope it's true.
  • -8 Hide
    gwellin , February 9, 2009 5:46 PM
    I could be wrong but isn't x86 32-bit? I would think if you're going to invest a crapload of money into developing a new chip, shouldn't you probably do a 64-bit one? Unless you think 32-bit is going to be around forever.
  • 7 Hide
    dragabain , February 9, 2009 5:53 PM
    My two cents (I'm no expert and I don't work in IT) is that Nvidia is working on a hardware decoder to turn x86 commands into something its Graphics cards can handle. That way they can throw 2, 3 or 4 cards in a computer and not need a processor. Also this makes it so they don't have to ask the community to recompile their programs for their arch.
  • 7 Hide
    deuce271 , February 9, 2009 6:06 PM
    saljrWhat about merging with AMD/ATI?



    Do you want a monopoly in the graphics card sector? Because if they merge, that is what you'll have. Remember in 2006 when AMD/ATI didn't have a GPU that could compete with the nVidia 8 series? $400 8800GTS 640MB graphics cards for almost a year was the result. nVidia didn't come out with a single GPU that was noticeably better than the 8800GTX for 2 years because they didn't have to.

    nVidia merging with AMD/ATI would be just as bad as AMD going under and Intel being the only CPU maker.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , February 9, 2009 6:06 PM
    Well, x86 now generally refers to the instruction set supported by CPUs used in PCs (and now Mac too). On the other hand, if NVIDIA is building a x86 CPU, this should be top secret, and you have to wonder how likely it is that an NVIDIA hater like Charlie at the Inquirer would have access to that. NVIDIA may be hiring engineers with CPU experience, but given AMD's layoff and mandatory pay cut for everyone, isn't that normal for any company looking to hire at this time? If you're looking for an hardware engineer with good experience, you're going to have many candidates who are current or former AMD engineers.
  • 0 Hide
    gwolfman , February 9, 2009 6:07 PM
    dragabainMy two cents (I'm no expert and I don't work in IT) is that Nvidia is working on a hardware decoder to turn x86 commands into something its Graphics cards can handle. That way they can throw 2, 3 or 4 cards in a computer and not need a processor. Also this makes it so they don't have to ask the community to recompile their programs for their arch.

    I'd guess something similar. If they can use the x86 CPU as the co-processor of some sort, then translate it into GPGPU commands, then the GPU can run any program available. Who knows...
  • -1 Hide
    StupidRabbit , February 9, 2009 6:08 PM
    dragabainMy two cents (I'm no expert and I don't work in IT) is that Nvidia is working on a hardware decoder to turn x86 commands into something its Graphics cards can handle. That way they can throw 2, 3 or 4 cards in a computer and not need a processor. Also this makes it so they don't have to ask the community to recompile their programs for their arch.


    now THAT would be interesting to see. even if it would require a new motherboard design.
  • 1 Hide
    deltatux , February 9, 2009 6:36 PM
    I smell an Apple-motivated move for NVIDIA, seeing that Apple uses NVIDIA exclusive chipset for everything they do.

    deltatux
  • 0 Hide
    Blessedman , February 9, 2009 6:42 PM
    Isn't this what Transmeta tried to do?
  • 0 Hide
    hellwig , February 9, 2009 6:46 PM
    What legal means does Intel use to restrict x86 licenses? Any patent would have expired in the 90's. It's certainly not a trade secret, it has to be the most documented architecture out there. I doubt copyright applies to a computer architecture. Therefore, couldn't NVIDIA create an x86-compatible chip, and simply avoid any trademarked names and be fine, if they are indeed creating a x86 compatible chip to begin with.
  • 2 Hide
    pug_s , February 9, 2009 7:10 PM
    I would imagine that Nvidia would do something with Via since they don't have an x86 license. The recent news of the ION platform only require a slow Atom processor, they would easily substitute with a Via C7 processor instead. Another thing to note is that the patent for a 486 processor (remember those?) are set to expire this year. Nvidia could probably make a 486 like processor clocked at 1.6ghz easily.
  • 1 Hide
    ph3412b07 , February 9, 2009 7:36 PM
    hellwigWhat legal means does Intel use to restrict x86 licenses? Any patent would have expired in the 90's. It's certainly not a trade secret, it has to be the most documented architecture out there. I doubt copyright applies to a computer architecture. Therefore, couldn't NVIDIA create an x86-compatible chip, and simply avoid any trademarked names and be fine, if they are indeed creating a x86 compatible chip to begin with.


    Not entirely true, you can't just steal x86 architecture and market it in your own products, which is why AMD has an agreement with Intel for x86 licensing. Nvidia is not about to resort to piracy. However acquiring a x86 license must be an issue of importance to Nvidia. Without it, they just may be at a dead end, or as mentioned in the article have to deal with loopholes/legal settlements.
  • -2 Hide
    Anonymous , February 9, 2009 7:58 PM
    I suspect it's no more than a negotiating move, to get Intel to renew their bus license agreement which, IIRC, expired recently. That said, Nvidia is getting squeezed between ATI/AMD (which ended Nvidia's plump marins with the 48xx introductions ... more to come), and Intel with the soon-to-arrive Larabee (graphics on a processor chip) introduction. Tough. Couldn't happen to a better bunch of people. First they pematurely life-shorten 8xxx series chips with "bump" circuit flaws (I'm two 8600GT's down on that count alone, days after warranty expired), and then they have the nerve to rename those lemons twice (to 9xxx and now GTX2xx). I hope they (corporately) disappear forever.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , February 9, 2009 7:58 PM
    nVidia will be VIA's high-end CPU collaboration.

    The 64 bit extension to x86, sometimes IA-64 or AMD64 or EM64T or "x86-64" is still part of x86. I'd assume if nVidia is working on an x86 chip then it will have 64bit extensions and SSE/2/3 and possible 4 compatibility. Or maybe they will offload the SSE (SIMD) functions to their GPUs.
  • 0 Hide
    hellwig , February 9, 2009 7:59 PM
    ph3412b07Not entirely true, you can't just steal x86 architecture and market it in your own products, which is why AMD has an agreement with Intel for x86 licensing. Nvidia is not about to resort to piracy. However acquiring a x86 license must be an issue of importance to Nvidia. Without it, they just may be at a dead end, or as mentioned in the article have to deal with loopholes/legal settlements.

    But you didn't answer my question, what exactly would NVIDIA be stealing? "x86 architecture" isn't something that can be stolen, its just a phrase. Did Intel Patent their architecture (in which case it already expired). Did they copyright the architecture, and in that case, what exactly did they copyright? Remember, you patent ideas, and copyright works.

    I'm not saying NVIDIA should circumvent the law, I just don't understand what "law" is at work here.
  • 1 Hide
    tayb , February 9, 2009 8:10 PM
    hellwigBut you didn't answer my question, what exactly would NVIDIA be stealing? "x86 architecture" isn't something that can be stolen, its just a phrase. Did Intel Patent their architecture (in which case it already expired). Did they copyright the architecture, and in that case, what exactly did they copyright? Remember, you patent ideas, and copyright works.I'm not saying NVIDIA should circumvent the law, I just don't understand what "law" is at work here.


    Intel owns x86. It is theirs. The instruction set was designed and patented by Intel. They can license it away as they choose and they are choosing not to license it away to Nvidia.
  • 0 Hide
    pug_s , February 9, 2009 8:55 PM
    cpu@cpucomnVidia will be VIA's high-end CPU collaboration.The 64 bit extension to x86, sometimes IA-64 or AMD64 or EM64T or "x86-64" is still part of x86. I'd assume if nVidia is working on an x86 chip then it will have 64bit extensions and SSE/2/3 and possible 4 compatibility. Or maybe they will offload the SSE (SIMD) functions to their GPUs.


    The problem is that SSE2,3,4/3Dnow instructions are mixed up between Intel and AMD so it would be impossible for nvidia get license to produce processors with those high end instructions. I doubt that Nvidia is going to make a standalone high end processor that would compete of the likes of Intel/AMD. I would imagine that they would cross license an low end x86 processor or create their own low end processor to skirt any patents. They will combine it with their Ion platform in a single die and make it like AMD's fusion processors for netbooks and set up boxes for a cheap pricce.
  • 0 Hide
    exit2dos , February 9, 2009 9:08 PM
    hellwigBut you didn't answer my question, what exactly would NVIDIA be stealing? "x86 architecture" isn't something that can be stolen, its just a phrase. Did Intel Patent their architecture (in which case it already expired). Did they copyright the architecture, and in that case, what exactly did they copyright? Remember, you patent ideas, and copyright works.I'm not saying NVIDIA should circumvent the law, I just don't understand what "law" is at work here.


    While you're right that Inellectual Property (In this case, it falls under Industrial Property) patents expire after 20 years, many new patents are filed with each uarch. nVidia may be able to use instructions from the orignal 8086/8088 line - but each jump in technology has granted new patented CPU instructions and technology. Here is a list of a few of the patents such as DSP, Multiscalar, Multiprocessor arrangements, Bus commands, etc:

    http://www.wipo.int/tools/en/gsearch.html?cx=000395567151317721298%3Aaqrs59qtjb0&cof=FORID%3A11&q=x86#1290
  • 1 Hide
    pug_s , February 9, 2009 9:21 PM
    taybIntel owns x86. It is theirs. The instruction set was designed and patented by Intel. They can license it away as they choose and they are choosing not to license it away to Nvidia.


    Not true. Patents only have a 20 year shelf life. The patent to the 486 processor will expire this year. So Nvidia can develop a processor based on the 486 processor as their own, as long as it doesn't violate any patents from AMD and Intel.
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