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Is mindshare shifting from CPU to GPU? Intel to Nvidia?

Posted: 20 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:blog? GPU CPU? graphics Larrabee netbook?

By Brooke Crothers
Nanotech: The Circuits Blog

Amid the hoopla of the Nvidia-Intel legal sparring, Nvidia's CEO Jen-Hsun Huang could not resist the obligatory dig at Intel as a bully out to cripple the competition. And no Nvidia critique of Intel would be complete without its oft-repeated assertion that the GPU is in and CPU is out!a thinly-veiled reference to the graphics chip maker's credo that PC processor mindshare is shifting from Intel to Nvidia.

Here is the statement that Huang inserted into the Thursday Nvidia release about the Intel court filing. "At the heart of this issue is that the CPU has run its course and the soul of the PC is shifting quickly to the GPU. This is clearly an attempt to stifle innovation to protect a decaying CPU business." (CPU stands for Central Processing Unit; GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit.)

This is not the first time Huang has said this. He said!now rather famously!last year that Nvidia was going to "open up a can of whoop-ass" on Intel when responding to a question about Intel's upcoming Larrabee graphics technology. He has also said many times in many forums that Intel's CPU's are "good enough"!not so thinly-veiled code for Intel CPU technology is past its prime.

So, the question is: Is he right? Are consumers placing more importance on the GPU than the CPU? And, alternatively, are PC and chip makers now putting significantly more development and marketing resources into all things GPU rather than all things CPU?

A quick answer to the first question is that consumers expect PCs to perform better when handling Web-based graphics, games, and video. So, yes, consciously or unconsciously consumers are putting more emphasis on the GPU.

And there's a quick answer to the latter question too: Advanced Micro Devices. If you look at AMD's Puma laptop platform, for example, there is an increased emphasis on graphics!less on the CPU!as being the performance driver of the platform. And certainly, as a chipmaker, the graphics technology from its ATI unit is making more of a mark these days than its CPUs.

But that doesn't mean the momentum is necessarily in Nvidia's (or ATI's) favor. The biggest sea change occurring in the PC market today is the not the shift from CPUs to GPUs but the shift from mainstream laptops to inexpensive laptops, aka, Netbooks. And right now that market is all Intel, all the time. "The bigger dramatic change that's happening in the industry is the en masse migration to low-cost solutions´Netbooks," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at investment bank Collins Stewart. He says Intel integrated graphics, in this sense, may pose more, not less, of a challange in the future for Nvidia.

And the Netbook market demonstrates probably more than anything what the consumer mindset is. Graphics don't have to be great (or even that good) but adequate.

Though Nvidia's CEO is right when he says GPU technology is far ahead of integrated graphics (Intel's current style of graphics), he's not necessarily right when he says there's a massive mindshare shift to an Nvidia-style GPU-centric universe.

Moreover, Intel continues to improve its integrated graphics and is readying a discrete Larrabee graphics processor, to boot. Kumar says that Intel may be more of a direct competitor with Nvidia in the future than AMD-ATI.

So, the question is probably better posed this way: Will the world's PC consumers in the future believe Nvidia-style graphics is the true core of the PC or Intel's CPU-plus-reasonably-good-GPU vision? You decide.

- Brooke Crothers is a former editor at large at CNET, and has been an editor for the Asian weekly version of the Wall Street Journal. He writes for the CNET Blog Network, and is not a current employee of CNET. Contact him at

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