May 17, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Intel's chipset road map lacks a driver
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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.
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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