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CPU/GPU Hybrids And Performance Integrated Graphics

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

Question: CPU/GPU hybrid designs like Sandy Bridge and Llano potentially mitigate the need for a separate graphics card. Historically, integrated graphics have been inadequate for everything above entry-level desktops. Do you think the integrated graphics from the first generation of CPU/GPU hybrids are powerful enough to drive workstations and high-end desktops?

  • High-end gamers will still require a more powerful 3D experience, which is difficult for the CPU/GPU hybrid architecture.
  • The performance of a first-generation integrated graphics platform is not powerful enough. It might be sufficient for Web browsing, Flash-based games, and the actions in a simple user environment. However, the graphics performance is not suitable for gaming, 3D graphing, and HD video playback. Some people still don't even know about this new technology, and so AMD and Intel need us to educate their customers about intended use characteristics.
  • This question is really hard to answer. It depends on the game provider. If I’m Nvidia, I will work with game providers to create a superior game that must use a discrete graphic card. Besides, Intel and AMD will continue improving their onboard graphics, so this is a seesaw battle.
  • Historically, fully-integrated solutions have been powerful enough for general desktop use, but not for workstations and high-performance systems. I think those high-end users will still prefer discrete products that give better performance and are easier to upgrade.
  • Discrete graphic cards will be cornered in extreme segment only in the future.

This question was designed to mirror a similar question that we were asked in our graphics card survey. However, at the last minute, we changed it a bit. Instead of asking if the hybrid processors were “powerful enough to replace low-end to mid-range discrete graphic solutions,” we asked if they were “powerful enough to drive workstations and high-end desktops.” Admittedly, the workloads applied to workstations and high-end desktops can be quite large, so we probably should have asked two separate questions. Yet, our respondents seemed to understand that we were trying to gauge the performance that first-generation hybrids could deliver.

We intentionally made the question less loaded for the VGA oriented survey. The motherboard team has very little to fear from a struggling VGA division, so there was no need to pull any punches. It was a bit surprising we got back similar responses though, especially when you consider that the graphics card and motherboard divisions largely work independently of one another. The only people with a more holistic picture are further up the corporate ladder. However, more than half of the respondents in our VGA survey work for graphics card-exclusive companies, so they don’t even have a motherboard team to converse with.

When it comes to workstations, it is possible to task hybrids with certain tasks like transcoding. However, this is going to depend on both Intel and AMD locking down driver support. We're not so worried about this in AMD's case, but Intel has priors.

As it pertains to discrete solutions in the $150+ range, there is no way the first generation of hybrids can provide the performance necessary to compete. Looking at the roadmaps beyond 2011, we’re still skeptical because the performance demands in the mid-range and high-end market segments increase each time the fastest hardware is refreshed.

In essence, the high-end leads the way when it comes to new features and capabilities. We got DirectX 11 from flagship parts, then everything trickled down. Enthusiasts want that early access to the latest and greatest, and they're willing to pay for it. Processor-based graphics can't offer the same fix--nor will it ever be able to. A CPU with onboard graphics is going to evolve much more slowly because there are other subsystems in play.

Don't believe us? Look what memory controller integration did to chipsets. Before AMD's Athlon 64, Intel, AMD, Nvidia, VIA, and SiS could all differentiate their core logic by improving memory performance. Controllers would change every single product generation, and you'd see performance improvements in rapid succession, each new chipset adding support for the next-fastest memory standard. Once that memory controller migrated north, the reason to even consider an nForce chipset nearly dried up (save SLI support). But you notice AMD couldn't make changes to that controller as often. The pickup of DDR2 and DDR3 were much slower as a result. Specifically, Intel was quicker to the DDR2 punch than AMD. Fortunately, AMD's onboard controller gave it enough performance that the technology migration wasn't necessary.

That won't be the case with onboard graphics, though. Now we'll have integrated GPUs set in stone for extended periods delivering middling performance--so that delay between generations will be more painfully-felt. And that's why the vendors selling discrete graphics will continue to excel at the high-end. Hell, Intel isn't even supporting DirectX 11 with Sandy Bridge. How long will it be before we see Intel make the jump? Oh, we know. You're saying, "who cares in the entry-level space." Indeed, there will be a contingent of business-oriented folks who do just fine with DX10 capabilities and fixed-function video decoding capabilities. There will even be gamers who might have previously bought $75 graphics cards who forgo the add-in board. But even with such an encroachment on the entry-level space, we simply don't see hybrid processor architectures evolving quickly enough to keep up with graphics development, and our respondents would seem to concur (albeit, in their own ways).

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