Intel's chipset road map lacks a driver

An attempt by Intel to improve the performance of basic graphics technology has been stalled by software development delays.
Written by Tom Krazit, Contributor
Executives in charge of Intel's integrated graphics program once hoped to take a giant step forward with the company's latest chipset. Instead, it's running in place.

The newest addition to Intel's chipset lineup, the 965 series, contains several transistors for processing the "transform and lighting" functions that render lifelike graphics in PC games, but the chip giant has been unable to complete the software driver needed to make it work.

Even though the chipset was released last summer, that driver won't arrive until at least August, Intel said this week. The company blames a push to deliver stable drivers for Windows Vista as well as customer demands for improved video-processing performance.

But some analysts think, given the complexity typically required to make cheap integrated graphics behave like their more powerful discrete graphics cousins, Intel should have known it was in for trouble. Discrete graphics are separate cards that plug into a PC's motherboard, and come with memory and their own processor, called a GPU.

"It's an incredible miscalculation on their part," said Jon Peddie, owner of the research firm Jon Peddie Associates.

In fairness, Intel has been firing on most cylinders lately, with revamped processor designs and manufacturing breakthroughs. And rival Advanced Micro Devices is foundering as it awaits the arrival of new chips that will help shore up its average selling prices.

However, the rollout of the 965 chipset has not gone very smoothly. Intel may be the world's biggest supplier of graphics technology, but that's only because PC buyers like to search for bargains and because of the success of Intel's Centrino marketing strategy.

A price-and-performance issue
More than 75 percent of the notebook market, and a little more than 60 percent of desktops, use integrated graphics rather than expensive discrete graphics from Nvidia or AMD's ATI division. That's not because those integrated graphics chipsets deliver cutting-edge performance, it's because they are far cheaper.

But Intel wanted to change that with the 965 chipset. The company wanted it to be the "next-generation scalable architecture" for its chipsets, carrying it forward as Vista PCs replaced Windows XP and games were released for the so-called DirectX 10 technology inside Vista, said Josh Newman, chipset product marketing manager for Intel.

But while the hardware is there to support DirectX 10 games, the drivers are not. As a result, the 965 isn't all that different from Intel's previous-generation chipsets when it comes to 3D game performance, Newman said.

For the first time with the 965 chipset release, Intel added processing units assigned to transform and lighting functions. That's also known as vertex processing, which has been a crucial part of graphics technology since the end of the last decade, said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research.

"It's an incredible miscalculation on their part."
--Jon Peddie,
owner of research firm Jon Peddie Associates

Simply stated, the "transform" part represents the calculations that must be done to render a moving object in a game. "Lighting" refers to the computations needed to represent different sources of light and how that light reflects off objects inside a 3D game. Vertex processors--anywhere from four to 50 of them--are built directly into discrete graphics chips from Nvidia and AMD's ATI division and have been for years, Peddie said.

Until the 965 was released, Intel used a combination of software and its CPUs (central processing units, or the Core 2 Duo) to make those calculations. That was good enough for many users, but more powerful games need their own dedicated hardware in addition to the CPU for optimal play. And there are some PC buyers who want it all: a cheap system that can also play all the cool games.

So Intel tried to make a breakthrough with the 965, adding vertex processing for improved performance at a low price. But it has not gone as well as planned.

First, the company was late with the integrated graphics version of the chipset, something it had hoped to deliver in July 2006 alongside the Core 2 Duo launch, but couldn't get out the door until September.

New drivers also were needed to light up the advanced hardware. Those weren't ready in September, when the integrated graphics version of the 965 finally shipped after a two-month delay. They remained unavailable for last week's launch of the newest Centrino Duo technology with a mobile version of the 965, and they aren't expected to arrive until August, Newman said.

What has taken Intel so long? For one thing, Intel says the ever-changing requirements for Windows Vista drivers forced it to pull resources away from the project to make sure it had stable drivers for all of its chipsets.

"We had to do many, many iterations of engineering work to get a functioning driver for Vista," said Mike Joy, graphics software product marketing engineer for Intel's mobile platforms group. Intel wasn't alone in having problems creating graphics drivers for Vista; Nvidia also suffered several delays getting its own drivers ready.

Intel also says that PC companies, when informed of the time crunch, wanted Intel to focus on improving the video processing quality of the 965 chipset over 3D technology like vertex processing. "We put our focus first on video, but now we're refocused on getting our vertex processing capabilities delivered," Newman said.

However, at the recent Centrino Duo launch event in San Francisco, Mooly Eden, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile platform division, said the delay was related to a problem with the interaction between the driver and the hardware, not external forces. "There was a bug, and we're fixing it," he said, declining to specify the exact nature of the problem.

Peddie thinks Intel was biting off more than it could chew when it decided to beef up its integrated graphics hardware. Discrete graphics cards use dedicated memory right next to the graphics processing unit, which means that the GPU doesn't have to reach over to the main system memory when it's looking for instructions. But that's expensive: graphics cards range anywhere from around $200 up to $800.

"It all comes down to a choke point, and that choke point is system memory access."
--Jon Peddie,
owner of research firm Jon Peddie Associates

With the 965, Intel's integrated graphics tried to be more like a GPU with hardware dedicated for specific graphics functions, but Intel couldn't put memory on the chipset to support those capabilities because of cost pressures. So, the graphics have to share a bridge to memory with the CPU, which requires some fancy footwork on the part of the system architect to help the chipset decide which part--the graphics chips or the CPU--gets to use the lanes of the bridge at a given time, Peddie said.

"It all comes down to a choke point, and that choke point is system memory access," Peddie said.

Intel denied that the trouble related to the driver delays had anything to do with the complexity of its system architecture. "I don't think our CPU chipset architecture is limited in terms of what it can deliver in memory bandwidth," Newman said.

However, memory bandwidth concerns played a central role in Intel's struggles before the arrival of the Core 2 Duo. Intel plans to change its chipset architecture in 2008 with its Nehalem generation of processors. Some of those chips will use design philosophies popularized by AMD's Opteron design, such as integrated memory controllers and point-to-point links between processor cores.

Integrating the memory controller improves memory bandwidth because it allows the controller to run at the speed of the main processor, shuttling information back and forth between memory much faster than a front-side bus--which lives outside the CPU--is capable of doing.

Intel's graphics problems haven't caused a huge ripple in the industry, mainly because influential buyers who care the most about graphics performance never planned to buy a system with the integrated graphics version of the 965 chipset. But they do underscore the fact that now that Intel has mapped out a solid plan for its processor division, it must turn its attention to graphics.

Apple didn't even bother to include the 965 chipset in the latest revision to its MacBook lineup, staying with the older versions of Intel's integrated graphics technology. Intel appears to have gotten the message in recent months, hiring more and more graphics engineers and announcing plans to increase graphics performance by a larger margin each successive year.

And at least, once the drivers are finally ready, Intel will be able to deliver a significant performance boost with its existing hardware, McCarron said. "Essentially, what this amounts to is a delayed benefit," he said.

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