Talking Heads: VGA Manager Edition, September 2010

The Graphics Card Survey: August 2010

This should be the first in what is a long series of surveys compiled from leading technical people in the graphics business. So, who is participating? Let us put it this way, if a company currently makes video cards, they are more than likely answering our questions. We are drawing from many VGA companies here, some of which are AMD- or Nvidia-exclusive.

Thus far, most of this quarter’s chatter has centered on GeForce GTX 460. Nvidia is back on the attack, but it is still missing a compelling DirectX 11 contender in the lower- to mid-level performance space. Perhaps even more present on everyone’s minds are Intel’s Sandy Bridge design and AMD’s Llano APU. Both companies  promise their CPU/GPU hybrids will be “revolutionary,” “game changers,” and a way to “shake up market share.” We’ve all heard these clichés in quarterly earning calls and regular press briefings.

AMD and Intel have been on the marketing circuit, making sure everyone gets a sense that they can deliver integrated graphics at the performance levels demanded by mainstream buyers already sour on today’s mediocre solutions. In our opinion, AMD is more on a marketing warpath compared to Intel, making sure the buzz for Fusion dominates any discussion about the company. It has more to gain here, after all.

From these two topics we drew up four questions:

  • AMD is currently benefiting from a visible gap in Nvidia’s discrete product portfolio. At the moment, it lacks Fermi-based DX11 products below the $200 GeForce GTX 460. In the next three months, do you expect to see Nvidia address the low-end to mid-range desktop graphic space with derivative DX11 products?
  • CPU/GPU hybrid designs like Sandy Bridge and Llano potentially eliminate the need for a separate graphics card. Historically, integrated graphics have been inadequate for everything above productivity-oriented desktops. Do you think the integrated graphics processors in the first generation of CPU/GPU hybrids are powerful enough to replace low-end to mid-range discrete graphic solutions?
  • Will there ever come a time when integrated graphics processors with programmable logic make discrete graphics cards unnecessary?
  • As Intel and AMD integrate more functionality into their host processors, what opportunities remain for VGA vendors to add value or differentiate their products?

Ground Rules

We are inevitably dealing with sensitive topics here, including industry trade secrets, proprietary company strategies, and nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) pertaining to unannounced products. We want to make it clear that we fully support and believe in the purpose of NDAs and the preservation of industry secrets, as well as company strategies. These make our industry stronger, not weaker. For example, if Intel was able to change early in its Tick-Tock cycle to develop a product specifically to address the leaked specifications of an upcoming AMD processor, all of the investment capital from that leaked project becomes a sunk cost.

For this reason, information regarding industry trade secrets and proprietary company strategies is edited out, unless it's already considered common knowledge. It’s interesting information, of course, but it really doesn’t serve any purpose other than journalistic sensationalism. Information relating to specific products is generally withheld, minus a few exceptions. Information regarding specific product releases is edited to the quarter, rather than pointing at specific dates. First amendment and fourth estate aside, we are not bound by any NDAs pertaining to what our sources are telling us (NDAs usually come into play when the press gets samples close to the date of announcement).

Additionally, Chris and I have made the executive decision to withhold all participant names and the names of their respective companies for the following reasons.

  • The identity of our participants serves no real purpose for the sake of the article. It is what they say that matters.
  • Our participants now have the freedom to say whatever is on their minds, free from their company’s legal and media relation teams, without risking getting into trouble.
  • We need this to be an ongoing survey. Anything that can get these people into hot water means an ongoing industry dialogue will be cut very short.
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  • Who knows, By 2020, AMD would have purchased Nvidea and and renamed Geforcce to GeRadeon... And talk about considering integrating RAM, Processor, Graphics and Hard drive in Single Chip and name it "MegaFusion"... But there will still be Apple selling Apple TV without 1080p support, and yeah, free bumpers for your Ipods( which wont play songs if touched by hands !!!)
  • Kelavarus
    That's kind of interesting. The guy talked about Nvidia taking chunks out of AMD's entrenched position this holiday with new Fermi offerings, but seemed to miss on the fact that most likely, by the holiday, AMD is going to already be starting to roll out their new line. Won't that have any effect on Nvidia?
  • TheStealthyOne
    I've been waiting for this article! Yes :D
  • The problem I see is while AMD, Intel, and Nvidia are all releasing impressive hardware, no company is making impressive software to take advantage of it. In the simplest example, we all have gigs of video RAM sitting around now, so why has no one written a program which allows it to be used when not doing 3d work, such as a RAM drive or pooling it in with system RAM? Similarly with GPUs, we were promised years ago that Physx would lead to amazing advances in AI and game realism, yet it simply hasn't appeared.

    The anger that people showed towards Vista and it's horrible bloat should be directed to all major software companies. None of them have achieved anything worthwhile in a very long time.
  • corser
    I do not think that including a IGP on the processor die and conecting them doesn't means that discrete graphics vendors are dead. Some people will have graphics requirements that will overhelm the IGP and connect an 'EGP' (External Graphics Processor). Uhmmmm... maybe I created a whole new acronym.

    Since the start of that idea, believed that IGP on the processor die could serve to offload math operations and complex transformations from CPU to IGP, freeing CPU cycles for doing what is intended to do.

    Many years ago Apple made somewhat similar to this with their Quadra models that sported a dedicated DSP to offload some tasks from the processor to the DSP.

    My personal view on all this hype is that we're going to a different computing model, from a point that all the work was directed to the CPU and making some small steps making that specialized processors around the CPU do part of the work of the CPU (think on the first fixed instruction graphics accelerators, sound cards that off-load CPU, Physx and others).

    From a standalone CPU -> SMP ->A-SMP (Asymetric SMP).
  • silky salamandr
    I agree with Scort. We have all this fire sitting on our desks and it means nothing if theres no software to utilize it. While I love the advancement in technology, I really would like devs to catch up with the hardware side of things. I think everybody is going crazy adding more cores and having an arms race as a marketing tick mark but theres no devs stepping up to write for it. We all have invested so much money into what we love but very few of us(not me at all)can actually code. With that being said, most of our machines are "held hostage" in what they can and cannot do.

    But great read.
  • corser
    Hardware should be way time before software starts to take advantage of it. Has been like this since the start of the computing times.
  • Darkerson
    Very informative article. I'm hoping to see more stuff like this down the line. Keep up the good work!
  • jestersage
    Awesome start for a very ambitions series. I hope we get more insights and soon.

    I agree with Snort and silky salamandr, we are held back by developments on the software side. Maybe because developers need to take backwards compatibility into consideration. Just take games for example: developers would like to keep the minimum and even recommended specs down so that they can get more customers to buy. So we see games made tough for the top-end hardware but, thru tweaks and reduced detail, can be played on a 6-year old Pentium 4 with a 128mb AGP card.

    From a business consumer standpoint, and the fact that I work for a company that still uses tens of thousands of Pentium 4s for productivity related purposes, I figure that adoption of the GPU/CPU in the business space will not happen for another 5-7 years AFTER they launch. There is simply no need for an i3 if a Core2 derivative Pentium Dual Core or Athlon X2 could still do spreadsheet, word processing, email, research, etc. Pricing will definitely play into the timelines as the technology ages (or matures) but both companies will have to get money to pay for all that R&D from somewhere, right?
  • smile9999
    great article btw, out of all this what I got seems that the hyprid model of cpu/gpu seems more of a gimmick that an actual game changer, the low end market has alot of players, IGPs are a major player in that field and they are great at it and if that wasnt enough there still is nvidia and ati offerings, so I dont think it will really shake the water much as they predict.
  • smile9999
    smile9999great article btw, out of all this what I got seems that the hyprid model of cpu/gpu seems more of a gimmick that an actual game changer, the low end market has alot of players, IGPs are a major player in that field and they are great at it and if that wasnt enough there still is nvidia and ati offerings, so I dont think it will really shake the water much as they predict.

    I meant nvidia and ati dedicated low end GPUs
  • Onus
    I also agree with scort. Part of the cause, however, I believe is nVidia's unwillingness to coexist. Whether it's their x86/chipset issues, or disallowing PhysX (minus 3rd party hacks) if there's an AMD card in the system, I suspect developers are averse to putting a lot of work into something that may not ever be standardized. I think GPGPU could give us the AI needed for vastly more immersive experiences, but it won't happen until the hardware vendors agree on (and/or accept) some standards.
  • NotYetRated
    Death of the graphics card business? No. Way. Not for a long long time. The sound card only began to die because modern processors are in no way phased by the hit sounds takes on the system. Sound cards have become almost obsolete for most except for the audio enthusiast. (Though, I am not enthusiast and still have an X-fi...) We are nowhere near ready for CPU's to be able to handle graphics without taking very much a hit. In fact, graphics cards themselves cannot keep up with the pace that software is pushing it to. I think it will be a long, long time before we begin to see the phase out of dedicated graphics cards. At least for the gamers/engineers/creative professionals out there.... If we ever even do see the phase out.
  • hundredislandsboy
    If I can still get the same gaming experience, same visual quality with same smooth fast framerates from a CPU/GPU, then go ahead and pour huge investments to R&D to make this happen. Why? Because it's a win-win fro everyone, users play less, cases gets less heat, electric bills get lowered, etc, etc...
  • Aerobernardo
    I have two ideas for this kind of topics:

    1 - Tom's start a pool on wich questions do we want to ask?
    2 - I kinda hoped to hear something about what's next. We know about NDA's, but it would be nice to hear if AMD have intention to adopt new features like a proprietary 3D solution or what both AMD and Nvidia think about how a next generation VGA should do (or wich architecture should it have) to be successfull on todays perspective.
    If Nvidia can bring out the best $150 card by Black Friday, I think they will be fine.

    Basically, they need something that blows the 5770 out of the water and costs the same or less... because AMD will lower the 5770 prices when that happens, so it can't perform on par.
  • rocky1234
    I do not think they will be getting rid of the stand alone graphics cards any time soon. Reason is that if they did it would send us back in performance at least 10 to 12 years in performance if we lost stand alone graphics cards all together. Maybe by 2017 they will have tech that can do it but right now it is not going to happen. Well it could I guess if all of the save the planet people have their way look at what the auto makers are starting to do rolling out 4 bangers in mid sized cars GM just said that is what they plan to do so I guess if enough pressure is applied anything can happen. Which is to bad because all it does is effect the consumers we get less & pay more for that less.
  • Moores Law
    Nvidia better come up with something to counter the new AMD cards soon or this is going to get even uglier.
  • porksmuggler
    Very good premise for an article, and an excellent write-up for the companies involved. I haven't read any articles from Andrew Ku before, is Tom's keeping the one guy who can spell hidden away? Beware, he may get criticism from the TL;DR crowd though. Those were great questions, but lets be honest *cough NDAs* the answers were generic PR we already know. Without Ku's analysis, this series would sink, thanks for putting the leg work into this.

    oh, and the 100% pie chart for question 1 is too funny.
  • kilthas_th
    High phone bill? If only there were some way to have our conversations or even conferences routed effectively and cheaply over the internet ;)
  • bin1127
    they talked about power restrictions on a single chip preventing the gap with discrete from closing. Isn't that just an engineering or design problem due to lack of intention to integrate everything on a single chip?

    the whole motherboard can be redesigned to give 800W to the cpu socket if necessary.
  • Onus
    bin1127they talked about power restrictions on a single chip preventing the gap with discrete from closing. Isn't that just an engineering or design problem due to lack of intention to integrate everything on a single chip?the whole motherboard can be redesigned to give 800W to the cpu socket if necessary.

    The problem is that a given piece of silicon can only dissipate so much heat, regardless of what functions are creating it. This remains true no matter how much you shrink the process. If you increase the area over which that heat is generated / dissipated, you either increase the size of the die to the point where the likelihood of manufacturing defects increases dramatically (e.g. look at Fermi's yields), or you use separate dies and/or chips; i.e. break some functions out, in this case into a discrete graphics solution. Unless or until heat dissipation becomes a non-issue, this is why the hybrid solution will always remain at least one generation behind.
  • elt
    Fusion is present, not very much the future :)
  • Tijok
    Great article, and I love the idea for this as a continuing series. I totally agree with many of the above posters; dedicated graphics aren't going anywhere.

    If I was to use this information to cast further into the future, I think that Corser had it about right: our computers are becoming more and more discretized, and this will be put to use by software much more readily, allowing for a single processor that works well for photoshop utilizing only IGP, but then when paired with an appropriate discrete card, splits processing between the units and allows a smooth gaming experience.

    I'm all for this, more parts means easier and more modular upgrades instead of the one-size-fits-all approach; it also allows for cheaper and easier repairs!