Los Angeles (CA) - Up until this year, the enthusiast gamer has been, by definition, a PC user - or, in deference to Apple, a "computer user." This year, thanks in large part to Sony, that's changing. From a marketing perspective, the enthusiast is the person who is more willing to spend money and adopt early. The money an early adopter might end up investing in a high-end, PlayStation 3-based gaming console is essentially what he might spend on at least a high-end computer, if not necessarily the top of the line.
For that matter, the PlayStation 3 is essentially a computer, albeit without a keyboard and mouse. But it does, after all, run Linux, as do a growing number of Intel-based PCs. So the comparison is inevitable: Of the two platforms - the PC and the PS3 - which is the better investment from purely a gaming perspective? Intel, of course, has a tremendously biased opinion on this subject. But in the light of more substantive competition than it has ever faced before, will Intel's perennial arguments continue to hold up? Or will subtle changes to those arguments shed some light as to where Intel wants to go with its push into gaming?
The company rented out a conference room to itself at this year's E3 Expo, where it showed off Core 2 Extreme-based desktop and mobile PCs that were clearly cranking out pixels at faster speeds than their predecessors - according to Intel, about 40% faster. Humphrey Cheung and Scott Fulton of TG Daily spoke with David Tuhy, Intel's general manager for its desktop products division; and Jodi Geniesse, the company's communications manager for mobile marketing, about some of the underlying issues governing Intel's new performance message - including lower power - and how it plays out to a new breed of customer who may be moving up from a generation not of PCs, but of consoles.
TG Daily:There are two top-of-the-line processors that are being tested here at E3 for performance. One of them is the Cell. The other one is in this room. Brass-tacks-wise, from the gamer's perspective, why is the Core 2 Extreme better?
David Tuhy: You almost have to look at it from a system level...Cell, which is an IBM and Sony collaboration, is a very, very dedicated processor specifically to their console frame, highly optimized for the pixel processing. Obviously, we're putting our thing into a PC, which is an open environment, and we're trying to advance on standard operating systems, to run games on top of this. So we have to worry about a lot more...
Intel's general manager for desktop platforms, David Tuhy, showing off one example of a portable desktop Viiv PC.
In the Cell environment, it's a Cell processing engine plus a third-party graphics vendor. It's highly optimized to that workload for giving the gaming experience to the console. I think they've done a great job; they've actually got a three-operand flow through their architecture, we actually have two. They can do multiply/accumulates based on their architecture, where we do our multiply through SSE [Streaming SIMD Extensions], and on our Core 2 Extreme, we double the SSE performance. It's actually got a true 128-bit SSE engine, which we market as "Advanced Media Processing."
The PC version of that is a CPU plus a graphics card, sometimes two separate, sometimes more. We have a system out here which has our top-of-the-line microprocessor, the Core 2 (the combined brand for the next-gen CPUs formerly code-named "Conroe" and "Merom"), with a quad Nvidia system for graphics. It's a different price point: It's going after the enthusiast gamers, but it can draw a heck of a lot of polygons. [I don't know off the top of my head] the number of polygons it can draw versus a Cell, but I think it's going to be higher, because there's a lot more bandwidth on the quad system than on the Cell system.
TG Daily: Up to this point, for the last 15 years, the argument in favor of PC gaming has been, "Hey, we have the performance lead. We can put gamers into the experience." Surely, Intel is reliant upon second parties like Nvidia and ATI to help you out getting [polygons drawn], but even that's still part of the Intel architecture. How does that improve and evolve with Core 2 Extreme?
DT: Specifically, we have taken a very different approach with Core than we have taken with any other architecture before on the desktop. We're leveraging what we've learned with the mobile architecture, that we learned back with Centrino, and we improved that in the desktop and the server architecture with 64 bits, virtualization technology, floating-point engines - we bill them together as "Core Engine." So for us, Core 2 is the biggest move forward in terms of an architecture advance that we've had in the last five years...in terms of net gain, both in terms of its performance - which is averaging 40% more in desktop - and also, at the same time, lower power. Usually, that's not what happens for us. Generally, when our performance goes up, so goes the power. We went a different way with a very power-optimized architecture.
The second thing we did is, we didn't require new instructions. We chose to optimize the current instruction set and give it more resources, so the SSE engine is a true 128-bit SSE engine, the cache now has advanced dynamics, it's a four-wide, out-of-order [instruction queue] machine. So several things we've done in the architecture where you can basically take an existing game and it just runs faster. Which is great, because it can plug and play with existing stuff.
Does there really have to be parity between PCs and consoles?
TG Daily: Yesterday at the Microsoft conference, Bill Gates unveiled Live Anywhere, giving people the idea of multi-platform gaming - where some people on a network are playing a game on an Xbox 360, and others are playing the same game on a PC. I'm scratching my head and thinking, doesn't this give the PC player an unfair advantage?
George Alfs, PR manager, Intel: Who said that's unfair?
TG Daily: Well, unfair in my favor, which is not bad.
DT: You get that from two dimensions. You get that from the rendering and the detail in the content, the depth of it and the physics, and you get it from [the fact that] these quad graphics systems demand more performance. These are not $299 systems. These are enthusiast systems. That's one thing that's different. Now, you're talking $599 plus an HDTV, you're getting into $1,000. But what we've seen anyway is, the PC has surpassed the PlayStation 2 in terms of its net polygons. Game consoles have taken a big move forward, and certainly on paper, they can generate a lot more polygons with that product than we can with a single graphics product. I think some of these quad-graphics systems can get there now. You take them and multiply them out by Moore's Law, and unless they do it in console about every two years, these PC systems will go past them...Once you get to that, you can ask yourself, "You know what, if the games are moving forward, if the quality...is getting more 3D-like, it's not getting that jittery stuff that gives people headaches, people who have a PC may have an advantage, because they get a lot more smooth experience and a faster response rate."
You look at a first-person shooter game like Day of Defeat and you see the shadow of the guy coming around the corner, those types of realism effects, if you get a better-quality display and a better-quality engine, those things give you a bit of an advantage, because the other guy doesn't see that shadow as clearly on his background as people are coming around the corner.
TG Daily: Consoles can get their performance because they can wring the best performance of the graphics, the sound, all the different components, and put them into a single box. Do you see Intel maybe one day coming out with their own console? You guys already do integrated graphics. You already have network stuff. I don't see where it would be that big of a jump to maybe do your own console.
DT: No, we haven't made any plans to make a console. Over half of [the job of maintaining a game console] is ecosystem - engagements, licensing, how you can get people to put the appliance in...almost a negative margin. And then to sell titles. In terms of silicon technology, for us, we see it. But to be able to do that other half, that's a big deal. That's something that takes a lot more consideration.
We're very happy with the PC model. I think a lot of people try to say PC gaming is dead, which is totally wrong. PC gaming continues to evolve...The openness of the PC allows a base of innovation from the Internet side and the software side, that just won't stop.
TG Daily: Not in the last two decades have game programmers really had to seriously consider the nuts and bolts of the microprocessor. There haven't been assembly programmers for games for years. The development engines allow developers to use high-level languages and graphical environments. So game developers don't really have a one-on-one meeting with the processor at any point in time. And Intel's message today seems to be, dual-core plus hyperthreading. If I'm a game developer, what are four cores going to get me?
DT: We did demonstrate a quad-core architecture in a server environment, which is extremely valuable for servers, because they can do online transaction processing, which is very parallel, a lot of queries. We've been working with [over 20 partnered] gaming companies to do general threading. Dual-core is, basically, an evolution of hyperthreading in the client space. Quad-core is, how many more parallel workloads can you do? Turns out that media, for sure, is an extremely parallel workload. You could take the screen and divide it into four. It's a very parallelizable workload. What we've been finding is that physics and AI also respond to multithreading. We certainly know that the graphics processors do a majority of the rasterization, the vertex and pixels, but even they use the processors a lot for setup, for [counting and preparing] the polygons...so there's still a graphics part of the processor. And that, as we know, is a very parallel workload, because of the nature of rasterization.
We have run some stuff internally to see what some things might look like, like a Winmark 3D 2006 on a quad-core, and the scores go up significantly. So we know there's inherent value there. We're working with [partner game developers] on threading, so they know that they can scale with the number of threads that come into the system. Because once you've launched a process, as long as you can launch eight of them, they can take their time or, if they each have a core, they can all go through.
TG Daily: Is there a value proposition for the casual gamer to go to multicore?
DT: You know, that's funny, because the more resource-starved a person's PC is, the more you actually benefit from having the dual-core. A lot of people have things going on in the background of their PC. They'll have the game that they're playing in front of them, and then people have a little firewall, or virus protection software, or they'll have little accessories or popups going on in the background. You'll [often] see 50 processes running on a PC today. So what we're finding is, all those background tasks can really be bothersome to someone when they're trying to game, because it interrupts them. So they'll turn all that off. The busiest gamers will get everything out of the Start Menu, every single thing off of their control bar, so they don't get interrupted. Well, dual-core helps that a lot. It takes care of those processes in the background, relieves you, and balances out your system. We're seeing that in the gaming world, and in the corporate world too. People will turn off their virus protection software that I.T. has put on there, because it's so bothersome. Their media slows down, and imagine someone in your corporation turning off their virus protection software. Not a good deal.
Intel's Jodi Geniesse explains her company's concept of handheld gaming to TG Daily's Humphrey Cheung.
Jodi Geniesse: We went from Centrino [last] December, to January introducing our first dual-core. We had about a 70% performance increase there. Nine months later, we're talking about shipping on Merom. So from December to August, we're roughly doubling the performance...with a 28% reduction in power. That's an awesome engineering feat. Gaming performance today, versus last year, isn't comparable.
TG Daily: It seems to me, with the evolution of the mobile platform in gaming...in a sense, you're creating a virtual console for yourself.
JG: Yeah. We're starting to see more segmentation in the [mobile] market, moving towards more gaming-specific laptops. These days, Dell and Toshiba, these are the big guys introducing segment-specific gaming laptops. I think the trend - and you see larger OEMs starting to do the same - is towards a mobile gaming form factor.
TG Daily: What aspect of multicores will benefit gaming in the future? I hear a lot about speech recognition...How will multicore help with that?
DT: There's a general category of workloads that we've been watching for quite a while...voice recognition being part of it, visual recognition being part of it. Data mining on the desktop: I actually run a lot of searches on my own desktop for stuff that I know I have. Recognition, identifying things, converting things to different languages, data mining - being able to search through all your photos and find pictures of your kid, or a wedding. We see that happening with virtual workloads, the most popular case being ray tracing, which is the future generation of how people will be doing these games. Today, it's rasterization; but if you look at Hollywood, a lot of the new movies are being made using ray tracing, which is a very different algorithm for rendering the content. That's how they get so much realism into their [films]. That's a very [parallel] workload. For a CPU guy like me, my benefit is that I can jump very quickly. My graphics controller is great at taking a block of data, and doing XORs, comparisons like mad, and them moving that data and drawing it out. So recognition, mining, and synthesis - those workloads are the key to how multicore will evolve. It's financial, it's professional, and it's consumer. It's all three of those.
You said something about the way gaming is developed today. There's actually a gaming engine - the id engine, Half-Life, Valve - and it's really those folks that we need to work most closely with, and we do, to be able to get their engines to respond to multicore, dual-core. That's a big chunk of our research also, to work with those leaders in that technology, and figure out where they want to go, and make our technology intercept it.
There's more: Read all E3 2006 stories on TG Daily