Intel sounds off on USB 3.0 conflict, graphics plans

Company attempts to end dispute by clarifying difference between basic spec and "host controller specification." It also confirms a shift away from traditional graphics chip tech.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
4 min read

Intel issued a statement about USB 3.0, a subject threatening to cause a full-blown controversy among several chipmakers. The company also said it would present a paper on its upcoming "Larrabee" graphics technology in August.

The Intel statement on USB 3.0 is meant to clarify the difference between the basic USB specification and the "host controller specification"--the latter a point of dispute with rivals Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia. The statement also tries to dispel rumors that Intel is "holding back the specification" from others in the industry.

AMD and Nvidia are claiming that Intel is trying to hijack the specification. Intel denies this.

USB 3.0 is a next-generation high-speed connection standard due in 2009. It is significant not only because all future PCs and devices will use connectors based on the standard, but also because it will offer 10 times the speed of USB 2.0--used in virtually all PCs introduced in the last few years--or roughly 5 gigabits per second.

"There has been a lot of unanswered speculation recently regarding USB 3.0 and Intel's involvement; I thought it was about time to set the record straight," Intel's Nick Knupffer said in a post Wednesday.

"Much of the incorrect speculation...so far has centered on what the USB 3.0 spec is, and who is creating it. There are two separate standards being developed, USB 3.0 and Intel's Host Controller spec in support of the USB 3.0 standard."

First, Knupffer wants to make it crystal-clear that the USB 3.0 is not an Intel specification. "It is being developed by the USB 3.0 Promoter Group (including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, NXP Semiconductors, and Texas Instruments)...This spec is expected to be made publicly available by the USB 3.0 Promoter Group, along with an adopter agreement, early in the second half of 2008. (Very soon)."

Second, he describes the host controller specification, which has become a bone of contention with AMD and Nvidia. "Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man-hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology," he said.

"Think of the host controller spec as a Dummies guide to building a USB 3.0-compatible piece of silicon; it is NOT the USB 3.0 specification itself."

And here's the crux of the matter from Intel's standpoint: "The industry is keen to get this guide as it will allow them to build USB 3.0 compatible circuits without repeating the massive investment undertaken by Intel."

"Intel plans to make this spec available early in second half of 2008 with a no-royalty licensing obligation (Basically: free, gratis, unpaid, zero dollars, free of charge, at no cost, on the house)," he said.

Knupffer asserts that Intel is not holding back the specification, and he alludes to AMD and Nvidia. "No, Intel isn't holding back the specification...The impatience of our fellow chipset makers to leverage Intel's investment and begin to design great USB 3.0-supporting devices of their own is, however, very encouraging and should aid a fast USB 3.0 adoption ramp."

Finally, he refutes speculation that USB 3.0 is simply lifted from the PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) specification, as AMD has claimed. "No, not true. The USB 3.0 specification has not borrowed heavily from the PCI (special-interest group)." PCI is a connection standard used in all PCs today.

Intel to detail future graphics technology in August

On another front, CTO Justin Rattner said Intel would detail its future Larrabee graphics chip in August, and he dropped more hints that the company is shifting its research focus away from traditional graphics to a technology known as ray tracing. Rattner was speaking at Intel R&D Day in Mountain View, Calif. on Wednesday.

Intel has demonstrated games running solely on multi-core CPUs (central processing units) using ray tracing. A rare feat because games are typically very GPU (graphics processing unit)-centric.

UPDATE: At the R&D Day, Intel demonstrated ray tracing on ET: Quake Wars running in basic HD (720p) resolution. The game was running at 14-29 frames per second in 1280x720 mode. The demonstration was done on a 16-core Tigerton system running at 2.93 GHz.
(See Tom's Hardware)

"If you ever dived into a swimming pool or sea and looked up" you see a distorted world. "Now, ET: Quake Wars has the very same effect," according to Tom's Hardware.

The topics of ray tracing and Larrabee have triggered some debate with Nvidia, which currently favors more traditional raster-based graphics.

Intel said it would present a paper on its upcoming multi-core, x86-architecture-based Larrabee graphics chip at Siggraph in August. To date, information about Larrabee has been sketchy, tending toward broad statements about Intel's vision of where graphics technology is headed. Larrabee is expected sometime in the second half of 2009.

Rattner reiterated that Intel's vision means that today's graphics technology--based on rasterization--will become obsolete. Intel, however, emphasized that this vision is long-term.

"Ray tracing isn't about to extinguish rasterization any time soon, and our Larrabee product is designed with rasterization in mind...But the research possibilities are compelling," according to an Intel statement.