SAN MATEO, Calif. Graphics chip vendor Nvidia Corp. plans to enter the chip set market next year with an integrated core logic device. The company plans to use its relationship with Microsoft Corp. to gain a toehold in the chip set segment with a device that integrates South Bridge functions with networking and audio capabilities.
Nvidia's integrated chip set efforts will grow out of its work for Microsoft's upcoming gaming console, the X-Box. Nvidia has contracted to produce a graphics chip for X-Box. Nvidia has announced that it will also produce a second device, the Media Communications Processor (MCP), for the X-Box.
The MCP will process audio signals and link the X-Box to peripherals via several integrated cores, including phoneline, USB and wireless networking cores, according to Dan Vivoli, senior vice president of marketing at Nvidia. The MCP will run alongside Nvidia's graphics controller and an X86-based microprocessor from Intel Corp. "When we got the design win for the graphics processor, we were pretty sure we would also get the bid for the media processor," Vivoli said.
Although the MCP is being designed for use by Microsoft, Nvidia plans to modify it and market it to the PC market as a South Bridge core logic device.
"The South Bridge these days is such a messy multiplexer," said Vivoli. He hopes that the addition of networking cores, which often are implemented as separate chips on network interface cards, will make the Nvidia product attractive to PC vendors that now see network-readiness as a required system feature. Oddly enough, the initial MCP for X-Box will be designed first but will appear second, while the version for the PC will be designed second and appear first, probably early next year. The X-Box is scheduled to debut next fall, in time for the 2001 holiday season.
To complement the Nvidia South Bridge product, the company will also launch its own North Bridge device that incorporates the same graphics technology as Nvidia's discrete high-performance GeForce graphics chips. Vivoli said both core logic parts should be available early next year, adding that Nvidia has already secured some design wins for the components. While an earlier Nvidia graphics core, the TNT2, is currently used in an integrated North Bridge component marketed by Acer Laboratories Inc., the South Bridge chip will be the first integrated core logic device marketed under the Nvidia brand.
"I think this is a good move for them," said Mike Feibus, principal analyst for Mercury Research (Scottsdale, Ariz.). "They are doing what every remaining graphics company needs to do."
Feibus said a growing trend of the industry is to include graphics features in a chip set, thereby eliminating the need for a discrete graphics chip. While this means less-than-stellar imaging performance, it is also a way to cut system costs. And cost is clearly a major driver in the PC market, said Feibus, who estimated that up to 70 percent of the total graphics market will be represented by integrated graphics-chip set devices by 2005. "There will always be a need for discrete graphics chips because the performance is better, but I question whether selling only those parts is a viable business model," he said.
Inferior graphics performance is a traditional complaint leveled against devices that integrate graphics and core logic functions. The charge is generally true, Feibus said, because such integrated devices use older graphics designs that have already proven themselves as discrete chips, and which are then implemented as cores. Nvidia will follow this same model, offering in 2001 a GeForce core that was launched as a standalone graphics processor in 1999. However, the core should still outperform other integrated North Bridge devices from competitors such as Intel Corp. or Via Technologies Inc., which use even older graphics designs.
Jon Peddie, president of the market research firm Jon Peddie Associates (Mill Valley, Calif.), said Nvidia's move into core logic "is not a huge leap" for the company. The traffic routing features of a graphics controller are similar to the data routing tasks of a chip set, he said, and the six-million-transistor graphics chips Nvidia has designed demonstrates an ability to produce complex products, he said.
With proven technical expertise, Peddie said he expects Nvidia to succeed in the chip set market. Its primary competitors will be Intel, and Taiwanese chip set vendors Acer, Via Technologies and Silicon Integrated Systems (SIS). Although Intel has a large market presence, Peddie attributed it to chip set sales linked to Intel's processor sales, as the technology of the integrated devices is poor, he said. The Via and SIS devices are comparable, he said, while Acer seems to be a step behind. The technology of all three Taiwan-based vendors will lag behind Nvidia's designs, he said. "There is clearly a vacuum of technology, and Nvidia will be at the top of the heap," Peddie said.
With its integrated devices, Nvidia is clearly looking past its traditional PC end markets. Vivoli said the MCP part, with audio and networking functions, could be a fundamental element in a wide variety of consumer electronic systems tied into digital home entertainment networks. With the North Bridge part on deck, Nvidia designs could become the heart of PC platforms as well, he said. "We are looking to build a platform architecture for the 21st century," he said.