Graphics wars: The big summer battle

Posted by Rob Enderle, Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

Analyst Opinion - Part of what makes this year somewhat different in graphics is that Intel has indicated that is now serious about graphics. There is a technology called Larrabee on the horizon that is promised to surpass the best that both AMD/ATI and Nvidia will have on the market in two years.  Having been down this path before, describing my feelings as a little skeptical would be an understatement. But Intel is a very capable company and they are executing very well at the moment. However, the first reviews of Intel’s new integrated part are available and, unfortunately, reality isn’t in line with expectations.  

Looking at Intel’s competition, Nvidia is off doing something different, focusing on a cure for Cancer, Cystic fibrosis, and Parkinson’s disease, they are aggressively moving their graphics capability into areas that could prolong life.  It is hard to argue that isn’t a good thing.

The ATI division from AMD, which had been a huge drag on the company for much of this year, is suddenly executing very well and seems to be delivering very competitive offerings. Many thought ATI cannot be competitive again, but their recent performance indicates that this concern may be unfounded.   

Intel graphics: The hunt for credibility

The first independent review of Intel’s integrated graphics is out and it isn’t promising. Effectively, it indicates that the initial product is below expectations and less capable than similar products from both Nvidia and ATI.
 
This could be largely due to the fact that it is a brand new part and that the software and drivers aren’t optimized yet. This is not uncommon for a new part. Also, since this is a mobile platform product and Intel generally favors battery life over performance in mobile graphics, this may also be the cause for Intel falling short. However, they promised impressive graphics and, at least initially, that isn’t what the first review is showcasing.  

The difficulty for Intel is one of credibility in graphics. As the largest component vendor in the PC market, they come to the table with a great deal of credibility in most areas.  But they have failed to execute on promises and expectations in graphics since the late 90s when they first convinced me that they were serious about this segment. To get developers and OEMs excited about Larrabee, their next generation platform, they first have to demonstrate they can meet the performance expectations they set on current generation offerings.   

This initial review indicates there may be a problem with that.   Once again this is just one review and later systems may do better, but if credibility is the problem to be solved, this review moved the ball in the wrong direction. Larrabee shows promise, but without credibility, it will be difficult to get backing.  

Nvidia saves lives

Nvidia is aggressively responding to the idea that graphics is dead by showcasing the other things that a graphics card can do.  While it was easy to get excited about the fact they were helping to make gaming physics go mainstream, it is their effort to cure diseases that scare the hell out of me that is actually more interesting to me.  

Out of Stanford here in California, the effort is Folding@home and it can be run on a number of machines from a variety of vendors but what makes the Nvidia part interesting is that they reported a 140x performance improvement with GeForce GPUs over the other platforms.

I’m a big fan of gaming and all that, probably way too much for my own good, but I’m even a bigger fan of living and this effort speaks to that.   Nvidia has their big analyst event in a few weeks and a bunch of us will likely be reporting from this wonderful event from the floor.   I’ll let you know then what wonders they showcase that week.  

ATI:  Finally executing

ATI has been off their game for awhile and the acquisition by AMD was largely made possible because they were in so much trouble.   There was a lot of speculation that ATI was done and would take AMD with them and, don’t get me wrong, AMD has had a tough year this year. However the reviews on their 780G chipsets from Tom’s Hardware and Anandtech gave me hope that their new 790GX part would kick butt.  In addition, the first early review of the 4870 X2 graphics card is very positive as well.
   
I’m still waiting for the first benchmark of their new 790GX Chipset but it appears to be drawing substantial praise and is impressive technically.   Summing this all up: AMD’s ATI division may be out of the woods.
 
And since it isn’t even September yet, the battles will only get bloodier.  But for a technology that has its heart in gaming, is that really a bad thing?

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.