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How good (or bad) is Intel's graphics tech?

Nvidia says that the integrated graphics capability supplied by the chip giant is the pits. Is graphics specialist Nvidia right?

We already know that Nvidia doesn't think highly of Intel's graphics technology. But is it really that bad, or is it good enough for most PC users?

Let's focus on the graphics technology that Intel has been supplying in volume to notebook PC makers over the last year or so. Namely, the Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) X3100, which is integrated into the GM965 chipset. Like many graphics platforms (Nvidia and ATI not excluded) it has a checkered past: late drivers (very late in some cases), broken DirectX promises, and erratic performance.

That said, tens of millions of people blithely use computers with Intel X3100 integrated graphics. And there's no great hue and cry for better graphics (gamers excluded).

That doesn't mean Intel's graphics technology is great. It simply means that "free" (as Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang put it) Intel integrated graphics is used without objection by lots of people. "Corporate is 60 percent of (graphics chip) unit volume. So, 60 percent of the market falls into the 'don't care' category," said Dean McCarron, founder and principal of Mercury Research.

Where Intel gets into trouble is its claims about game performance. Here's what Intel says on a Web page entitled Intel Graphics: Making the Most of Your Visual Experience. "With the dramatic improvements in Intel Graphics and Intel processors, it's no longer necessary for most users to buy expensive add-on graphics cards."

Intel integrated graphics capabilities
Intel integrated graphics capabilities Intel

Complete Intel chart here (PDF).

Though the cost-saving claims are accurate for low-end games, the overall gaming claims can be problematic for analysts. (Note IGP is Integrated Graphics Processor.) "If you want to do anything that has good to great video quality associated with won't be very happy with an IGP," said Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research.

"You can find examples of (video and game) applications that will run just fine with an IGP, but that's like saying I can drive my Pinto over the mountains and cross-country just as well as you can in your fancy Lexus. True--but which experience would you prefer?"

Intel has compiled a list of popular games that are playable on the Mobile Intel GM965 Express chipset family which uses X3100 graphics silicon.

McCarron says that part of Intel's performance problem is tied to a transistor budget dilemma. Only a limited number of chipset transistors can be allocated for graphics. "They do what they can in hardware within their transistor budget and what won't fit in, they do in software (on the CPU)," he said.

Upcoming X4500 graphics that will be part of the mobile Centrino 2 "Cantiga" chipset will be an improvement in areas such as Direct-X and Shader Model technology (typically used for scene lighting) but still pale next to the standalone "discrete" graphics offered by Nvidia and AMD-ATI. "The (X4500) will be a credible DX-10 device. Yes, they're doubling performance but you'll find that integrated graphics is still 5X to 10X behind the discrete stuff," McCarron said.

Which brings us back to the original point. Yes, Intel graphics is not good enough for about 30 percent of the market (McCarron). And that's a very significant number of people--around 100 million users (Peddie). But that leaves hundreds of millions of users for whom Intel graphics is good enough. Or at least they're not complaining.

Intel spokesman Dan Snyder said recently (in an e-mail response to a query) that good graphics needs a fast CPU too. He cited artificial intelligence, physics, video encoding, and 3D rendering--all consume significant CPU cycles. "We feel that the CPU is absolutely vital and you need a fast CPU AND a fast GPU for the best experience." (Original caps included.)

(For a full review of Intel GMA X3100 graphics see this write-up from NotebookReview.)