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Mind share shift from CPU to GPU, Intel to Nvidia?

Nvidia says the "soul of the PC" is shifting from the central processing unit to the graphics processing unit. Really? Are significantly more resources being put into the GPU?

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
3 min read

As Intel took its case against Nvidia to court, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang could not resist making the oft-repeated assertion that the GPU is in, and CPU is out--a thinly veiled reference to the graphics chip maker's credo that PC processor mind share is shifting from Intel to Nvidia.

Here is the statement that Huang inserted into the Thursday Nvidia release about the Intel court filing. "At the heart of this issue is that the CPU has run its course, and the soul of the PC is shifting quickly to the GPU. This is clearly an attempt to stifle innovation to protect a decaying CPU business." (CPU stands for central processing unit; GPU stands for graphics processing unit.)

This is not the first time Huang has said this. He said--now rather famously--last year that Nvidia was going to "open up a can of whoop-ass" on Intel when responding to a question about Intel's upcoming Larrabee graphics technology. He has also said many times in many forums that Intel's CPUs are "good enough"--not so thinly veiled code for: Intel CPU technology is past its prime.

So, the question must be posed: is he right? Are consumers placing more importance on the GPU than the CPU? And, maybe more importantly, are PC and chipmakers now putting significantly more development and marketing resources into all things GPU?

A quick answer to the first question is that consumers expect PCs to perform better when handling Web-based graphics, games, and video. So, yes, consciously or unconsciously, consumers are putting more emphasis on the GPU.

And there's a short answer to the latter question too: Advanced Micro Devices. If you look at AMD's Puma laptop platform, for example, there is an increased emphasis on graphics as being the performance driver of the platform. And certainly, as a chipmaker, the graphics technology from its ATI unit is making more of a mark these days than its CPUs.

But that doesn't mean the momentum is necessarily in Nvidia's (or ATI's) favor. The biggest sea change occurring in the PC market today is the not the shift from the CPU to the GPU, but the shift from mainstream laptops to inexpensive laptops, aka Netbooks. And right now, that market is all Intel, all the time.

"The bigger dramatic change that's happening in the industry is the en masse migration to low-cost solutions...Netbooks," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at investment bank Collins Stewart. He says Intel integrated graphics, in this sense, may pose more, not less, of a challenge in the future for Nvidia.

And the Netbook market demonstrates probably more than anything what the consumer mindset is. Graphics don't have to be great (or even that good) but adequate. (Though Nvidia is trying to disprove this with its Ion platform.)

Though Nvidia's CEO is right when he says GPU technology is far ahead of integrated graphics (Intel's current style of graphics), he's not necessarily right when he says there's a massive mind share shift to an Nvidia-style GPU-centric universe.

Moreover, Intel continues to improve its integrated graphics and is readying a discrete Larrabee graphics processor, to boot. Kumar says that Intel may be more of a direct competitor with Nvidia in the future than AMD-ATI.

So, the question is probably better posed this way: Will the world's PC consumers in the future see the Nvidia model or the Intel model as the true core of the PC? You decide.