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Nvidia does battle with Intel, Moore's Law

Nvidia CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang's vigorous defense of his company's graphics technology shows he's feeling the heat from Intel.

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

Nvidia CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang's jeremiad against Intel heralds future melees with the chip giant over computer graphics technology. Behind the sound and fury lurks Moore's Law.

Most observers agree that the graphics processing unit (GPU) is gaining on the central processing unit (CPU) as the single most important piece of silicon inside the PC. "When you start looking at a PC today, the (central) processor means less and less," according to Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat. The GPU is simply becoming a better way for PC makers to differentiate in a landscape dominated by Intel CPUs, he said.

The question is, who is going to be the largest provider of that differentiation and what form will it take? The pressure on Nvidia--expressed by Huang on Thursday at an analyst meeting--is understandable, as the company seeks to fend off both Intel and AMD, who are increasingly focused on graphics, said McGregor. "Nvidia faces serious challenges. One of their big customers (AMD) went out and acquired a competitor (ATI) and then (you have) Intel saying we're going into your territory." That has put Nvidia on edge. Intel, not surprisingly, is the biggest threat.

"Intel is going to be as competitive as they can possibly be," said Dean McCarron, founder and principal of Mercury Research. "There is a pretty different vision between what Nvidia has and what Intel has about the future of the market. You seem to see a lot of pressure on some kind of integrated solution (from Intel). That is not compatible with a standalone graphics market, where Nvidia is the largest player."

Nvidia is teaming up with Via to build a low-cost PC platform to compete with Intel. Nvidia

Huang sees his company doing battle not only with Intel but with a guiding principle put forward by one of the company's founders, Gordon Moore--that the number of transistors on a microprocessor would double every two years--as Intel continues to integrate more graphics silicon into its chipsets. "We can get integrated into anything. Integrated into a (chipset's) south bridge. If you're not good enough, then Moore's law is your enemy. Moore's law will stick you in some random chip. We get integrated into a speck of dust," Huang said at the meeting. Here he was saying that if Nvidia doesn't stay well ahead of Intel--where it is now--the CPU giant will simply integrate the graphics technology into its own silicon and Nvidia will become irrelevant.

Huang is confident his company can maintain its lead. "GPU technology is far, far ahead of integrated graphics," he said. "We can innovate our way forward. The world already has computing companies that make processors for everybody. I'm supposed to add the secret ingredient that differentiates it for the few. Now the few that I'm talking about happens to be hundreds of millions of people. I'm OK with that."

Intel sees a future where it is a bigger graphics player at the high end of the market. At the Intel Developer Forum in Shanghai earlier this month, Senior Intel VP Patrick Gelsinger spelled out Intel's vision: ray tracing-based rendering technologies that can be used in high-end gaming, an Nvidia stronghold. "An intro of these capabilities into mainstream gaming we believe is possible in the future," Gelsinger said. Another prong of Intel's strategy is to offer a graphics platform, code-named Larrabee, based on the long-standing x86 instruction set.

(More background from CNET on ray tracing here: "CPU: The future of GPU?" and a discussion of ray tracing vs. rasterization here.)

Referring to a question from the audience about Intel's Larrabee chip at the analyst meeting on Thursday, Huang responded: "The question from the gentleman is we haven't really talked about Larrabee and is he opening up a can of worms. Well, we're going to open up a can of whoop-ass in a little bit," Huang said, referring to future technology that Nvidia is working on.

Bravado aside, to effectively do battle with a circa-2009 Intel that excels in both central and graphics processing and AMD-ATI, Nvidia must seek new partners. It is turning to one of the only other--aside from Intel and AMD--x86 processor suppliers to build an alternative PC platform. Billed as "The World's Most Affordable Vista Premium PC," the sub-$45 processing platform will combine Via's Isaiah processor with an integrated Nvidia graphics chipset.

"Supporting Via's new CPU is not a big leap for them. And, it's a fantastic vote of confidence for Via because Nvidia wouldn't commit the engineering talent to it if Nvidia didn't believe the processor had a big opportunity," according to Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research.

Nvidia says about 73 million Intel integrated graphics chips go unused.
Nvidia says about 73 million Intel integrated graphics chips go unused. Nvidia

Nvidia, as it prepares for a long, grueling fight with Intel, got some solace on Friday from a report issued by Doug Freedman of American Technology Research itemizing why Nvidia may be in a better position than casual observers believe. These include:

• Nvidia remains the No. 1 graphics supplier as up to 73 million Intel integrated Graphics Processors (IGPs) are unused in systems due to "double-attach" with a Nvidia solution. (Note: Market share calculations from researchers such as Mercury Research and Jon Peddie Research show Intel as the No. 1 graphics supplier--ed.)

• Intel projects strong performance gains in IGP roadmap (10x performance in 2010), but from a very low performance base. 66 percent of top selling games fail or have issues in current IGP solutions.

• Intel multicores do not handle tasks better than discrete GPUs, but they are complementary in a heterogeneous computing environment.

• Integration of IGP with CPU does not present a threat, but may increase double-attach (adding a graphics card to a system with an existing integrated graphics chip) opportunities for Nvidia as it continues to add differentiated features for the few high-end graphics, gamer customers.