Intel's chipset road map lacks a driver

An attempt by Intel to improve the performance of basic graphics technology has been stalled by software development delays.

Executives in charge of Intel's integrated graphics program once hoped to take a giant step forward with the company's latest chipset. Instead, it's running in place.

The newest addition to Intel's chipset lineup, the 965 series, contains several transistors for processing the "transform and lighting" functions that render lifelike graphics in PC games, but the chip giant has been unable to complete the software driver needed to make it work.

Even though the chipset was released last summer, that driver won't arrive until at least August, Intel said this week. The company blames a push to deliver stable drivers for Windows Vista as well as customer demands for improved video-processing performance.

But some analysts think, given the complexity typically required to make cheap integrated graphics behave like their more powerful discrete graphics cousins, Intel should have known it was in for trouble. Discrete graphics are separate cards that plug into a PC's motherboard, and come with memory and their own processor, called a GPU.

"It's an incredible miscalculation on their part," said Jon Peddie, owner of the research firm Jon Peddie Associates.

In fairness, Intel has been firing on most cylinders lately, with revamped processor designs and manufacturing breakthroughs. And rival Advanced Micro Devices is foundering as it awaits the arrival of new chips that will help shore up its average selling prices.

However, the rollout of the 965 chipset has not gone very smoothly. Intel may be the world's biggest supplier of graphics technology, but that's only because PC buyers like to search for bargains and because of the success of Intel's Centrino marketing strategy.

A price-and-performance issue
More than 75 percent of the notebook market, and a little more than 60 percent of desktops, use integrated graphics rather than expensive discrete graphics from Nvidia or AMD's ATI division. That's not because those integrated graphics chipsets deliver cutting-edge performance, it's because they are far cheaper.

But Intel wanted to change that with the 965 chipset. The company wanted it to be the "next-generation scalable architecture" for its chipsets, carrying it forward as Vista PCs replaced Windows XP and games were released for the so-called DirectX 10 technology inside Vista, said Josh Newman, chipset product marketing manager for Intel.

But while the hardware is there to support DirectX 10 games, the drivers are not. As a result, the 965 isn't all that different from Intel's previous-generation chipsets when it comes to 3D game performance, Newman said.

For the first time with the 965 chipset release, Intel added processing units assigned to transform and lighting functions. That's also known as vertex processing, which has been a crucial part of graphics technology since the end of the last decade, said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research.

"It's an incredible miscalculation on their part."
--Jon Peddie,
owner of research firm Jon Peddie Associates

Simply stated, the "transform" part represents the calculations that must be done to render a moving object in a game. "Lighting" refers to the computations needed to represent different sources of light and how that light reflects off objects inside a 3D game. Vertex processors--anywhere from four to 50 of them--are built directly into discrete graphics chips from Nvidia and AMD's ATI division and have been for years, Peddie said.

Until the 965 was released, Intel used a combination of software and its CPUs (central processing units, or the Core 2 Duo) to make those calculations. That was good enough for many users, but more powerful games need their own dedicated hardware in addition to the CPU for optimal play. And there are some PC buyers who want it all: a cheap system that can also play all the cool games.

So Intel tried to make a breakthrough with the 965, adding vertex processing for improved performance at a low price. But it has not gone as well as planned.

First, the company was late with the integrated graphics version of the chipset, something it had hoped to deliver in July 2006 alongside the Core 2 Duo launch, but couldn't get out the door until September.

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