Nvidia: Graphics is dead? Yeah right.

  • Analyst Opinion - For the last several weeks, Nvidia has been at war with Intel over a statement of one of Intel’s engineers made at IDF suggesting that GPUs could soon be obsolete. There is a fundamental difference in the opinion how visual computing will evolve between graphics companies and Intel: Nvidia’s latest graphics card announcement is a clear statement that the company plans to aggressively raise the performance bar and remain in the lead in this segment come Intel or high water.   

    As the battleground shapes up right now, the visual computing battle will be fought on three fronts -  gaming, productivity, and physics. Nvidia has moved the bar in all three fronts. The areas that are most likely to reveal interesting trends are productivity and physics.  So let’s have a look at those two.

    Productivity, visual networking and transcoding

    I mentioned a few posts ago that one of the big trends I’m watching right now is visual networking .  This trend is a result of the massive growth of services like YouTube and practices like video conferencing.  Especially video conferencing is being substantially accelerated as companies have started to dramatically increase their use of video conferencing systems to offset rapidly growing travel costs.  

    But both the creation and sharing of video and its transmission over existing networks require a lot of real-time video compression, which comes down to real-time transcoding of high definition video into more compressed video types.  Even if you are running one program at a time Nvidia told me that a video that typically might take 2.5 hours to transcode, may only take a little over 30 minutes with their fastest card. I’m dying to see if that is true, but even a 50% improvement would be worth the trouble in my opinion.
    These new cards from Nvidia have been substantially improved to deal with video transcoding in real-time and this should have real productivity benefits that go beyond playing games and watching movies.   Strangely enough, one of the large PC OEM advisory councils recently reported a dramatic increase in companies specifying discrete video solutions for just this kind of work, suggesting that these organizations were already seeing a very real benefit.

    Physics r’Us

    One of the more revealing battles we will see is physics on PCs going forward.  AMD/ATI actually went and licensed their physics technology from Havok, which is owned by Intel.  In terms of market penetration,  Havok is the leading vendor for game physics.  However, Havok isn’t the leading vendor - that was a company called Ageia, which made the PhysX engine. The problem with Ageia was that you had to buy a special card and there weren’t enough machines being shipped with that card to establish enough of a market to generate interest from all game developers.  Although, because it was so good, a number actually did.

    Nvidia has now taken this technology and put it in their graphics cards, which is dramatcially changing the market environment. The potential customer base is moved from 100s of thousands to 10s of millions, making the result vastly more attractive to developers.   

    The question that we will see answered is whether developers will jump on PhysX first and then create a crippled version of their games to work on Havoc systems. Or will they develop on Havoc first and ultimately deny gamers the enhanced capabilities available in PhysX?  I believe that it will come down to just how much better the game experience is when using either result and we should have a better idea about this trend by year end.

    AMD/ATI Response

    I expect a competitive response from AMD/ATI shortly and we will see how far they come to closing the performance gap with Nvidia.  Nvidia clearly got to market first, but we are outside of the big buying cycle, which starts in September. If AMD/ATI can make that cycle, they will be able to compete with this new offering.  

    Wrapping Up

    Until then, Nvidia moves to the top of the pile again with what appears to be a solid line of new products - something to get the juices flowing over the summer vacation and maybe allow you to crank Crysis up to a truly interesting level.
    I am looking forward to the improvements in transcoding because I’m constantly putting videos on my Zune for trips and I would love to be able to do that much more quickly given the fact that I typically wait until the last moment to remember to do this.  These new offerings hit home more as time savers than they do for gaming, but they represent a strong move into even more realistic gaming and multimedia experiences.   

    Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.  

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