Nvidia about-face brings questions

Despite chest thumping at the company's gaming conference, a last-minute announcement of support for high-end gaming graphics via Intel silicon raises questions.

Brooke Crothers
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.
3 min read

Update at 6:45 .p.m. with additional information about QPI licensing.

Nvidia's last-minute conference announcement has turned into a bit of shocker.

Despite all the chest thumping at its gaming conference this week, the high drama of Nvision reached its denouement with a waving of the white flag. The world's largest graphics chip supplier announced support for high-end gaming graphics using Intel silicon. This has raised doubts about its clout in the gaming PC industry, based on the reaction at many hardware enthusiast Web sites and at least one PC maker.

Representative of the shock expressed after the announcement, a headline at AnandTech said: "Hell Freezes Over: Nvidia Announces Native SLI Support for the Intel X58 Chipset." Translation: Nvidia must use Intel supporting silicon to get its technology into future gaming systems--not its own.

One PC maker agrees with this sentiment. "When they were top dog they could have gotten away with this," a representative said, alluding to the Nvidia nForce 200 chip that, until the about-face Thursday, was required to enable high-end Nvidia graphics on future Intel Core i7 systems.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the representative said Nvidia was quickly getting boxed out by AMD's ATI graphics unit at his company. Though there are also performance reasons for this newfound preference for ATI graphics over Nvidia, in this specific case PC makers, and users alike, don't want to add a special Nvidia chip to enable graphics on high-end gaming systems, he said.

And this reaction is echoed at Anandtech and other hardware Web sites. "We heard from the very start that most motherboard manufacturers weren't going to use the nForce 200 + Intel X58 combination," according to Anandtech, referring to the i7's supporting silicon, the Intel X58 chipset.

At issue is Nvidia's Scalable Link Interface, or SLI, a critical technology for game enthusiasts who want to use more than one Nvidia graphics board to power the most demanding PC games like Crysis. Nvidia had been saying that the only one way to get to high-end game nirvana was by using its own supporting silicon.

But the Thursday announcement changed all that. Now users can configure SLI systems for Intel's upcoming Core i7 processors "natively" as Nvidia puts it. That is, without the Nvidia nForce 200 chip. "That's (the nForce 200) been the only solution. And that's been a very, very high-end solution," said Tom Peterson, director of Technical Marketing for MCP production at Nvidia.

All of this can be traced back to an earlier issue centered on whether Nvidia would make chipsets based on Intel's QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) technology to work with the i7. The company has indicated that it will not. "When we go to Bloomfield (i7 processor) we've already announced that we have no intention of building a QPI-based chipset. Because of that, we've offered only nForce 200," Peterson said.

(Correction: Nvidia maintains that it has a QPI license but has elected not to make a QPI chipset.)

This, in turn, has fueled speculation that Nvidia will get out of the chipset business. "I can see where some people would think that in the longer term, especially with the (i7)" said Dean McCarron, principal and founder of Cave Creek, Ariz.-based Mercury Research.

But McCarron thinks Nvidia will stay in the business in the near term. And this is borne out by Nvidia's indication this week about an impending announcement of a new integrated graphics chipset for Intel's current Core 2 architecture--not the i7.