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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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  • 4 Hide
    dannyboy3210 , October 20, 2010 7:31 AM
    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.
  • 5 Hide
    sudeshc , October 20, 2010 8:38 AM
    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.
  • -3 Hide
    ta152h , October 20, 2010 9:49 AM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    sohaib_96 , October 20, 2010 10:43 AM
    cant we get an integrated gpu as powerful as a discrete one??
  • 0 Hide
    Draven35 , October 20, 2010 10:45 AM
    Quote:
    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...
  • 1 Hide
    enzo matrix , October 20, 2010 12:23 PM
    Odd how everyone ignored workstation graphics, even when asked about them in the last question.
  • 0 Hide
    K2N hater , October 20, 2010 1:10 PM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    elbert , October 20, 2010 1:10 PM
    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.
  • 3 Hide
    Onus , October 20, 2010 1:52 PM
    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.
  • 4 Hide
    Onus , October 20, 2010 2:22 PM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    kelemvor4 , October 20, 2010 3:10 PM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    arges86 , October 20, 2010 3:26 PM
    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.
  • 1 Hide
    theoutbound , October 20, 2010 3:30 PM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    redbluur , October 20, 2010 4:55 PM
    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.
  • -1 Hide
    snowonweb , October 20, 2010 6:19 PM
    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.
  • -2 Hide
    youssef 2010 , October 20, 2010 7:34 PM
    article--nor will it ever be able to


    I think this resembles "no one will need more than 6xxKB of memory"
  • 1 Hide
    insightdriver , October 20, 2010 8:50 PM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    reprotected , October 20, 2010 11:51 PM
    Tesla.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 21, 2010 12:18 AM
    YOU GUYS AT TOMS BETTER DO SOME 2D PERFORMANCE TESTS ON THOSE IGP'S!!!
    (talking about the upcoming corei and atom igp's.
    They may prove a significant increase on app responsiveness!
  • 0 Hide
    dEAne , October 21, 2010 2:29 AM
    Thanks you so much tom for this article.
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