Intel, AMD Competition Stepping into Integrated Graphics Realm

Intel and AMD both took advantage of the IDF show to show off their upcoming processor platforms that will feature CPUs and GPUs on the same die.

SAN FRANCISCO-Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are about to see their competition relationship further heat up as they prepare to roll out new processor platforms that feature graphics technologies integrated onto the die.

Intel executives put their upcoming "Sandy Bridge" second-generation Core architecture onto center stage during their Intel Developer Forum event here Sept. 13-15. The 32-nanometer chips, which should start appearing in systems in early 2011, will offer the CPU and GPU (graphics processing unit) on a single piece of silicon, a move designed to improve such tasks as high-definition video, 3D rendering, gaming, social networking and multimedia. Removing the discrete graphics card and putting those capabilities on the die with the CPU also will lead to space savings and greater energy efficiency.

AMD also is moving in that direction with its Fusion initiative, born out of the company's acquisition four years ago of graphics vendor ATI. The upcoming APUs (Accelerated Processing Units)-AMD's name for chips with integrated CPU-GPU capabilities-will come out in systems next year in the form of the "Zacate" 18-watt chip notebooks and desktop PCs, and the 9-watt "Ontario" processor for netbooks and other small form-factors. Both are part of the "Brazos" APU platform.

In a hotel suite nearby the IDF event at the Moscone Center here, AMD officials showed off the Zacate, including a demonstration that they said showed their chip running significantly faster than Intel's current Core i5 processor.

Bob Grim, AMD's director of client platform marketing, said the APU chips are the culmination of a vision that company officials had four years ago when they bought ATI. Last year, CEO Dirk Meyer announced that AMD was essentially combining its CPU and GPU businesses as it marched toward an integrated platform, and last month AMD officials said they were phasing out the ATI name, so that all their products were identified with the AMD brand.

AMD has gotten criticism from some analysts for being late with the APUs-which were first expected to appear in 2008-and essentially allowing Intel to catch up. In an interview with eWEEK, Grim said that while systems with AMD's APUs would be coming out about the same time as those with Intel's Sandy Bridge, there were some key differences, including the positioning of the processors.

Grim said the expectation is that Sandy Bridge will first appear in high-end PCs and then cascade down to the midrange later. In contrast, Zacate will appear in systems in the $500 range.

"We're bringing it in at the heart of the mainstream market," he said.

That will mean that the large number of customers looking for a high-performing, energy-efficient system with high-end graphics capabilities will be able to get one immediately from an AMD-powered system, according to Grim.

AMD officials also expect broad support from OEMs and ISVs when the new platform is ready, he said.

In the demonstrations, AMD ran a Zacate chip against a 2.4 GHz Core i5 from Intel. Grim would not disclose details of the Zacate chip, including its speed.

In one demo using the video game "City of Heroes" from NcSoft, the frame rate on the Zacate chip was about double that of the Core i5. Using a beta version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 browser, Zacate's speed was about three times that of the Intel chip when running the Amazon Shelf performance test.

In a test showing a spinning wheel of color, Zacate again bested the Intel chip.

Grim conceded that the Zacate processor was running against an existing Intel chip that didn't have the strong integrated graphics of Sandy Bridge, but noted that while the system with the Core i5 processor sold for about $800 on the market, a faster Zacate-based PC would come in at about $300 less.

In a research note regarding Sandy Bridge, Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, noted the promise that the integrated graphics capabilities held for Intel, but pointed out the competition it faced from not only AMD, but also the likes of discrete graphics vendor Nvidia and Qualcomm, with its Snapdragon processors based on ARM designs.