Talking Heads: Motherboard Manager Edition, Q4'10, Part 1

CPU/GPU Hybrids And The Death Of The Graphics Business?

Question: Will there come a time when integrated graphics with programmable logic (like Sandy Bridge and Llano) make discrete graphics unnecessary?

  • High-end gamers would still require a more powerful 3D experience, which is difficult for the [CPU/GPU] hybrid architecture.
  • … so far, the performance of integrated graphics is not strong enough to replace discrete. As for enthusiasts, they still need discrete graphics for fluid gaming performance. 
  • Integrated graphics is still not powerful enough for gamers.
  • You need discrete graphics for multi-display setups.
  • Discrete solutions provide more flexibility to upgrade graphics for DIY users.
  • The gaming PCs still need discrete graphic solutions.
  • Yes, for most users. But power users will always want discrete solutions.
  • There will be always be discrete graphic cards, but they'll be limited to the extreme gaming market.

Unlike the Graphics Card Survey, we are getting a decent mix of people foreseeing the declining impact of discrete graphics. Right off the bat, one third of our experts responded “yes, integrated graphics will de-emphasize discrete.” Two-thirds of those gave the caveat that the high-end market will exist in perpetuity. Meanwhile, 60% of those who responded "no" gave that same addendum. If you put that all together, it should be 77% responding yes, integrated graphics can replace discrete graphics except in the high-end space. If we normalize to that caveat, you can compare this to 16% of the Graphics Card Survey participants. This is a pretty big difference.

A lot of people are going to write this off because, in their minds, the motherboard business has more to gain from a potentially powerful hybrid. This isn’t really true. A video card user will always have a motherboard, but a motherboard user doesn’t necessarily need a video card, provided there is sufficient IGP performance. Remember that Sandy Bridge and Llano should come armed with integrated graphics across the entire processor lineup. If anything, this means that there is nothing to be gained in the number of motherboards sold. In this scenario, the company that makes both video cards and motherboards actually loses out on video card sales.

So what is the real reason behind the difference in opinions? There are a couple of factors at play we should consider:

  • In order to design motherboards and get them manufactured on time, motherboard makers have access to technology at a much earlier stage for qualification purposes. For example, it looks like they had Sandy Bridge samples almost a full year before we were able to see a demo.
  • We are asking about the future, not just Sandy Bridge and Llano. Motherboard makers are also in on the long-term roadmaps plans for Intel and AMD.

If we are talking about the long term (say five years), it is possible that hybrids could corner the graphics market on everything but the $150+ range. The people that are most likely to be in the know (outside the walls of Intel and AMD) certainly think that this is the eventual end game. Intel already has a strong hold on over half of the graphics market, which basically translates into a domination of the integrated graphics space. AMD’s design looks more likely to deliver something similar to what a discrete solution might offer (which makes sense, given the core's pedigree). So, the fight for the mainstream market is going to be very competitive.

We aren’t discounting Nvidia, but it is hard to have a discussion on Nvidia in the context of hybrids because there is so much uncertainty. What is the company's future? We felt that deserved a question of its own, so read on.

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  • dannyboy3210
    I seem to have this nagging feeling that discrete graphics options will probably be around for another 10-15 years, at the least.
    If you factor the fact that getting a fusion of cpu/gpu will cost a bit more than a simple cpu, if you plan on doing any gaming at all, why not invest an extra 30$ or so (over the cost of cpu/gpu fusion, not just cpu) and get something that will game like twice as well and likely have support for more monitors to boot?

    Edit: Although after the slow release of Fermi, I bet everyone's wondering what exactly is in store for Nvidia in the near future; like this article says, there seems to be a lot of ambivalence on the subject.
  • sudeshc
    I would rather like improvements in chipsets then in CPU GPU they already are doing a wow job, but we need chipsets with less and less limitation and bottlenecks.
  • ta152h
    I'm kind of confused why you guys are jumping on 64-bit code not being common. There's no point for most applications, unless you like taking more memory and running slower. 32-bit code is denser, and therefore improves cache hit rates, and helps other apps have higher cache hit rates.

    Unless you need more memory, or are adding numbers more than over 2 billion, there's absolutely no point in it. 8-bit to 16-bit was huge, since adding over 128 is pretty common. 16-bit to 32-bit was huge, because segments were a pain in the neck, and 32-bit mode essentially removed that. Plus, adding over 32K isn't that uncommon. 64-bit mode adds some registers, and things like that, but even with that, often times is slower than 32-bit coding.

    SSE and SSE2 would be better comparisons. Four years after they were introduced, they had pretty good support.

    It's hard to imagine discrete graphic cards lasting indefinitely. They will more likely go the way of the math co-processor, but not in the near future. Low latency should make a big difference, but I would guess it might not happen unless Intel introduces a uniform instruction set, or basically adds it to the processor/GPU complex, for graphics cards, which would allow for greater compiler efficiency, and stronger integration. I'm a little surprised they haven't attempted to, but that would leave NVIDIA out in the cold, and maybe there are non-technical reasons they haven't done that yet.
  • sohaib_96
    cant we get an integrated gpu as powerful as a discrete one??
  • Draven35
    CUDA was a fairly robust interface from the get-go. If you wanted to do any sort of scientific computational work, Nvidia's CUDA was the library to use. It set the standard. Unfortunately, as with many technologies in the PC industry kept proprietary, this has also limited CUDA's appeal beyond specialized scientific applications, where the software is so niche that it can demand a certain piece of hardware.

    A lot of scientific software vendors I have communicated with about this sort of thing actually have been hesitant to code for CUDA because until the release of the Fermi cards, the floating-point support in CUDA was only single-precision floating point. They were *very* excited about the hardware releases at SIGGRAPH...
  • enzo matrix
    Odd how everyone ignored workstation graphics, even when asked about them in the last question.
  • K2N hater
    That will only replace discrete video cards once motherboards ship with dedicated RAM for video and the CPU allows a dedicated bus for that.

    Until then the performance of the processors with integrated GPU will be pretty much the same as platforms with integrated graphics as the bottleneck will still be RAM latency and bandwidth.
  • elbert
    The death of discrete will never occur because the hybrids are limited like consoles. Even if the CPU makers could place large amounts of resources on the hybrid GPU they will be stripped away by refreshes. The margin of error being estimating how many thought motherboard integrated graphics would kill discrete kind of kills the percentages.

    From what I have read AMD's Llano hybrid gpu is about the equal to a 5570. Llano by next year has no chance of killing sales of $50+ discrete solutions. I think they hybrids will have little effect on discrete solutions and your $150+ is off. The only thing hybrid means is potentially more CPU performance when a discrete is used. Another difference will be unlike motherboard integrated GPU's going to waste the hybrids will use the integrated GPU for other tasks.
  • Onus
    sohaib_96cant we get an integrated gpu as powerful as a discrete one??

    No. There are [at least] two reasons that come to my mind. The first is heat. It is hard to dissipate that much heat in such a small area. Look at how huge both graphics card and CPU coolers already are, even the stock ones.
    The second is defect rate in manufacturing. As the die gets bigger, the chances of a defect grow, and it's either a geometric or exponential growth. The yields would be so low as to make the "good" dies prohibitively expensive.
    If you scale either of those down enough to overcome these problems, you end up with something too weak to be useful.
  • Onus
    elbert...From what I have read AMD's Llano hybrid gpu is about the equal to a 5570. Llano by next year has no chance of killing sales of $50+ discrete solutions...

    Although the reasoning around this is mostly sound, I'd say your price point is off. Make that $100+ discrete solutions. A typical home user will be quite satisfied with HD5570-level performance, even able to play many games using lowered settings and/or resolution. As economic realities cause people to choose to do more with less, they will realize that this level of performance will do quite nicely for them. A $50 discrete card doesn't add a whole lot, but $100 very definitely does, and might be the jump that becomes worth taking.
  • kelemvor4
    I'm surprised about the one comment that the integrated graphics won't even be powerful enough for HD video playback. In my mind, HD video these days is a "basic" functionality.

    Moreover, my concern about integrated graphics is this: given that ALL cpu's will have it, and it won't match the performance of high end GPU's - it's going to drive up costs for everyone buying the new generation of cpu's. And afaik, there's not going to be any alternative.
  • arges86
    The only way integrated graphics works for gamers, is if the Motherboard is able to switch between integrated graphics and discrete seamlessly.
    I've seen the feature touted before, but it doesn't appear to have caught on.
  • theoutbound
    Call me crazy, naive or just plain stupid, but I don't think discrete GPUs will ever die. While processors are becoming more powerful on the graphics side all the time, everyone seems to dismiss that graphics cards will follow the same trend. The biggest problem is that CPUs primary focus will always be on processing power and will have limited thermal headroom for graphics processing. Meanwhile, die shrinks on cards will continue to allow more processing power and memory for an increase in performance that I don't think IGPs will ever be able to match. Even if IGPs get to the point where they can play games at acceptable framerates for lower resolutions, there will always be companies that will push the envelope to develop better looking games that need more processing power than IGPs are capable of. Do we really expect Crysis 5 to run as well on Sandy Bridge and Llano 4th gen as well as a GTX 980 or Radeon 12000 series card? Graphics programmers will continue to push effects well past what IGPs will ever be able to do. I don't see integrated graphics ever surpassing their current market. They will be great for notebooks and cheap solutions for anyone who doesn't play games. Anyone who does will always want a discrete solution to push the latest and greatest graphical effects just as they do now.
  • redbluur
    I think that it would make more sense to have the cpu change to be more like the gpu then vice-versa. Imagine a cpu that you could put on any motherboard with the correct slot type. All motherboards would have the same standards and a motherboard wouldn't be exclusive to Intel or AMD or Nvidia (if they got in the cpu market). You would not be limited to 1 cpu much like SLI and Crossfire with GPUs. Platforms need to be more flexible in the future. A platform like this would force each company to concentrate on their specialty instead of having them generalize and try to do everything.
  • snowonweb
    The way I see it is. We have had onboard graphics and dedicated or discrete cards since the beginning of computing. The balance between them is driven by customer demand and the rest are just variables. Seems certain technologies can make a better case for themselves than other technologies. We already had a trend for CPU power, now its for graphic power. Hard Drive capacity trend is over, Solid Drives trend is just the beginning. If only one solid drive company advertised on TV it would create demand right on the spot but they dont, because Hard Drive TECHNOLOGY is not proprietary discrete like cuda/nvidia or intell is.
    I am sure there is a consortium and standard on Solid Drives but its non for profit unlike nvidia architecture or intel design.
  • youssef 2010
    article--nor will it ever be able to

    I think this resembles "no one will need more than 6xxKB of memory"
  • insightdriver
    The future, beyond a decade is notoriously difficult to predict. One only has to look at prior predictions of what the present might be like that were given ten years ago. Looking at the current state of the art in game graphics, it doesn't take a sharp eye to compare that against the current CGI in movies to realize that is where the overall goal is aimed. Eventually there will be CGI on a personal computer in real time. How long it takes, and what architecture is involved is a roll of the dice for anyone at present. Imagine a day when it will look like a real 3-d image in front of us, being generated by a game of some kind. I could see, standing up to walk to the side, to look behind that tree to see if a sniper is hidden there.
  • reprotected
  • Anonymous
    (talking about the upcoming corei and atom igp's.
    They may prove a significant increase on app responsiveness!
  • dEAne
    Thanks you so much tom for this article.