Despite rumors of its demise, Nvidia says discrete graphics is alive and well, and the company will make a big push at the Consumer Electronics Show to prove it.
At the show Nvidia is expected to release a new family of GeForce 500M GPUs for notebooks, according to several reports. This wouldn't be too surprising since earlier this month Nvidia released the GeForce GT 540M, which is already available in some Acer laptops sold in China. Nvidia has been positioning these upcoming GPUs as the perfect complement to the so-called Sandy Bridge processors that Intel will release at CES.
Last year Intel introduced new Core processors that were not only the first 32nm CPUs, but also included a memory controller and integrated graphics--functions previously supplied by separate chipsets--in the same package, albeit on a separate 45nm chip. The move eventually forced Nvidia to exit the chipset business (a legal dispute is ongoing), though it continues to provide the MCP89 chipset for Apple's MacBook and MacBook Air, which use older Intel chips.
Sandy Bridge will integrate the graphics processor on the same 32nm chip for the first time. These laptop and desktop processors will include both quad-cores and dual-cores, and Intel is claiming a big jump in graphics performance. Rival AMD will also demonstrate its new Brazos notebook platform, which includes two new 40nm processors also with on-die graphics (AMD refers to these as APUs or Accelerated Processing Units).
Most systems already rely on integrated graphics, and the introduction of better graphics on the processor die has led to a lot speculation that discrete GPUs may now be squeezed out as well, especially on laptops. But Nvidia says this simply isn't going to happen. Integrated graphics may be getting a bit better, but games don't stand still either. The hardware requirements to play games such as Tom Clancy's HAWX2, Call of Duty: Black Ops and Mafia II are growing at an even faster rate, which means gamers will still want discrete graphics.
There are other advantages to discrete graphics as well. An increasing number of mainstream applications--including Web browsers, Adobe's Creative Suite 5 and Flash Player, and most video editing packages--are leveraging the GPU to improve performance. Nvidia's GPUs--as well as those of AMD--also support the DirectX 11 API, while Intel's Sandy Bridge does not. In laptops, Nvidia's Optimus technology, which automatically switches between integrated and discrete graphics depending on which application you are using, seems to be catching on. Finally, many of the same demanding PC games can also be played in 3D with a 120Hz display and Nvidia's 3D Vision kit. AMD hasn't really emphasized 3D, but it offers the Eyefinity multi-display technology with its graphics.
All of this explains why discrete graphics may have staying power even on Sandy Bridge. Nvidia recently announced that 200 new PCs slated for the first half of 2011 from Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba and others will offer its graphics combined with Sandy Bridge CPUs. This will include both laptops using GeForce 400M and 500M GPUs and desktops using GeForce boards, including those based on the new GeForce GTX 570 and GTX 580. The Intel P67 Express-based motherboards for Sandy Bridge desktops--from the likes of ASUS, EVGA, Gigabyte, Intel and MSI--will also support Nvidia's SLI technology, which means they can use multiple GeForce boards. AMD has its own version of this known as CrossfireX.
The GeForce GTX 570, which is available in boards starting at $350, stacks up well to AMD's latest high-end Radeon HD 6950 and 6970. Nvidia will almost certainly release lower-priced versions of its GeForce 500 series in the first half of 2011, but I don't expect any major changes to its GPU line until the introduction of the 28nm GPU, code-named Kepler, which Nvidia could announce at its GPU Technology Conference next October.