SANTA CLARA, Calif. Over the next few years, the market for integrated graphics chip sets will diminish and ultimately disappear. But in the short term, Nvidia Corp. sees an opportunity it is attacking with a chip for Penryn-class Intel processors that it claims delivers five times the graphics performance of Intel's own integrated parts.
The move highlights an historic turn on the road map for PC processors. Starting in late 2009, both Intel and archrival Advanced Micro Devices will roll out CPUs that have embedded graphics cores, aiming to save space and power while improving graphics for some notebook computers.
Over the following two years, both companies will offer such chips for a widening variety for desktops and notebooks. Until such processors become widespread, there remains a significant but narrowing opportunity for graphics cores integrated with I/O controllers as part of a PC chip set, something Nvidia hopes to capitalize on with its GeForce 9300 officially shipping in production quantities Monday (Oct. 15).
The chip packs 16 of the cores used in Nvidia's existing eight-core GeForce 8400 chips. The 9300 is Nvidia's first integrated graphics chip to support all the steps of H.264 video decode as well as the company's C-language graphics programming environment for graphics (called CUDA) and its technology for linking multiple graphics processors.
The H.264 support lets the chip host playback of Blu-Ray movies on some third-party media players, currently excluding the Windows Media player. It can also process 7.1-channel audio over an HDMI interface. It also supports DisplayPort and DVI interfaces.
The I/O controller on the chip can link to DDR2 and DDR3 DRAMs at up to 1.3 GHz. It supports 2.5 and 5 GHz PCI Express links as well as 12 USB 2.0 ports and six serial ATA interconnects.
The 9300 can render games at 30 frames/second compared to about 10 frames/s for Intel's integrated graphics chips. It dissipates 32 W maximum, runs at core speeds up to 580 MHz and is aimed for use on motherboards costing less than $100.
"This redefines what you can build for a $500 PC in the home theater space," said David Ragones, a product line manager for Nvidia.
The chip arrives at a time when AMD and Taiwan's Via Technologies have exited the market for integrated graphics chip sets for Intel CPUs, leaving a market opening for Nvidia, albeit a temporary one.
Nvidia is likely to see significant growth in unit sales with the new chips, though profits for the parts will be under heavy pressure, according to one market watcher.
Dean McCarron, principal of Mercury Research (Cave Creek, Ariz.), said AMD and Via shared a market of nine million chip sets a quarter before their exit, down from a peak of as much as 20 million units. In the wake of their departure, Nvidia's business in the sector jumped ten-fold to as many as three million units a quarter, he estimated.
With its new chip Nvidia "could double its shipments and still not see the market back to its historic level," he said.
McCarron said competing for chip set sales with Intel is tough going because the company aggressively bundles CPU and chips sets in programs that can effectively lower the price of the chip sets to well under $10. In addition, Intel is shifting its chip sets into its latest process technology as it prepares to integrate the parts as cores on its next-generation CPUs.
"It's not an impossible market, but you are clearly facing Intel's economies of scale," said McCarron. "Still, there is always demand for multiple price/performance points."
"You can offer twice the performance and half the price, and it will still be hard to penetrate that market because Intel does such a good job bundling its chips," said Adam Kozak, a chip set product marketing manager AMD.
McCarron projects a significant market for integrated graphics chip sets through 2010. Beyond that time, broader integration of graphics into CPUs may make the market "uninteresting for Nvidia," he said.
"The architectures are changing so that chip set vendors will be left without anyone to dance with," said Kozak of AMD. "But I'd expect it to be a slow transition because it takes awhile for the market to adopt new technologies," he added.
The short term opportunity is significant enough that AMD is expected to release one more version of an integrated graphics chip for its own CPUs before its so-called Fusion processors that include graphics cores become widespread.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you see an 880-class chip set for pre-Fusion products and as a hold over during the transition to Fusion," said Kozak.
Although integrated graphics chip sets will eventually go away, discrete graphics chips are "a safe island," McCarron said. That's because CPUs face power and size limits on how much graphics they can integrate, and those cores likely will not keep pace with rising user performance demands.
Overall, McCarron projects discrete graphics will generally decline from about 15 percent to high single digits, paralleling growth rates for PCs overall.
Thus "everybody [in the PC industry] is looking at ways to expand into new markets," said McCarron. "They are doing lots of R&D in new markets and most of it is focused on mobile," he added, noting Intel's Atom and Nvidia's Tegra mobile CPUs.