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High time for Intel to get serious about graphics

Microsoft's internal e-mails show just how desperate Intel was to water down the requirements for Vista performance, as the performance of its top integrated graphics chipset was "barely" acceptable to Microsoft executives.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read

When a high-ranking executive at your strongest partner openly thinks your technology "barely works," perhaps it's time to make that a higher priority.

A series of internal Microsoft e-mails discussing Intel's 915 and 945 integrated graphics chipsets in unfavorable terms made its salacious way around the Internet this week. Microsoft is currently being sued over its Windows Vista upgrade programs, which were designed with pressure from Intel, but over the objections of the PC industry, to include support for a graphics chipset that couldn't run Vista's Aero interface.

In February 2007, just after Vista launched, Microsoft's Steve Sinofsky told CEO Steve Ballmer that the 945 chipset, required for the "Vista Premium Ready" logo, could barely run Vista. And everyone (inside the PC industry, at least) knew the widely used 915 chipset that was awarded the "Vista Capable" logo couldn't even think about running the advanced display driver model used to deliver the fancy Aero interface, considered one of the major selling points of Vista.

Juicy stuff, for sure, but it's old news that Intel and Microsoft have been in engaged in "coopetition" for years. The real lesson is just how badly even Microsoft thinks of the current state of integrated graphics.

Intel likes to mention that it's the world's leading supplier of graphics technology. The only reason it can claim that mantle, however, is because people like bargains, and the way they get those bargains is through the use of integrated graphics chipsets.

Around 75 percent of the notebooks, and around 60 percent of the desktops, sold last year used integrated graphics chips. The rest use discrete graphics chips made by Nvidia and AMD that offer far more powerful performance for games and video.

The integrated graphics chips, usually thought of as "good-enough graphics," really aren't that good. Intel has had loads of problems with its graphics chipsets and their support for PC games or other intense graphical programs. Most of that software will run, but not in an ideal fashion, and lots of people expect that shiny new PC to be able to run PC games without fits and starts or jerky gameplay.

Intel has put the 915 and 945 chipsets behind it, but challenges remain. It still encountered problems with the release of the 965 chipset, and the G30 series has yet to make it into notebook PCs. This area represents arguably Intel's most glaring weakness at present.

The company has shown it's getting more serious about graphics, hiring more engineers and focusing some of its design prowess on projects like Larrabee. And it tried to take a big step forward in the performance of its 965-series integrated graphics chipsets by adding support for functions like transform and lighting. It had lots of problems delivering drivers for that chipset, however, and when those drivers arrived, they didn't deliver a uniform boost in performance.

Nvidia and AMD are way ahead when it comes to understanding how to build graphics chips. Nvidia has been doing this for years, and AMD recognized the growing importance of graphics when it acquired (for far more than it should have paid, however) ATI Technologies in 2006.

Graphics chips and CPUs like the Core 2 Duo are two very different beasts, but the wholesale embrace of multicore processor designs means that at some point, graphics technology becomes just a core on the main chip. AMD is well underway with planning for its Fusion processor and Nvidia seems to be eyeing broader uses for its high-powered graphics chips.

This is Intel's next great challenge, now that it has thankfully derailed the March of Itanium and soothed the burns from the Netburst architecture.

It needs to somehow get up to speed with Nvidia and the former ATI when it comes to graphics knowledge while keeping an eye on the rest of its business. Intel has found it difficult in recent years to break into new areas, such as flat-screen TVs or cell phones, that have very different processing requirements and architectures than the CPU.

But those other bets were just that, bets. This time, Intel has no choice. Intel can't afford to fall behind as the PC industry changes; it's one thing to swing and miss when trying something new, it's quite another to miss the mark on your home turf.

By the time Windows 7 rolls around, Intel will need to do better than "barely works."