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Working silicon of Larrabee, Intel's upcoming 2010 discrete GPU was shown running a ray-traced scene from id Software's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. The GPU will become the only desktop GPU based on an x86 architecture. Intel brags of its efficiency, saying the water effects (reflections, transparency, etc.) were accomplished with only 10 lines of C++ code.  (Source: CNET/YouTube)
Intel prepares to jump into the discrete graphics market

In the 1990s a plethora of graphics chip makers rose and fell.  Eventually only two were left standing -- NVIDIA and ATI.  ATI would later be acquired by AMD.  Though AMD was in a fierce battle with Intel in the multicore era, it also managed to score some points in the last generation graphics war with its 4000 series cards (RV770). 

Before this happened a third player, Intel, had attacked the market and quietly built up a dominant marketshare in low-end graphics. Its integrated GPUs popped up on netbooks, low end laptops, and even a number of low-end desktops.  Now the graphics market seems poised to flip yet again.  NVIDIA is on the verge of seizing much of Intel's low-end and mobile marketshare, thanks to its Ion platform and new mobile GPUs.  And AMD (ATI) looks poised to attack in the latest round of the discrete graphics wars with aggressively priced DirectX 11 GPUs.  That leaves Intel, which is preparing to take on NVIDIA and AMD with a brand new discrete graphics offering called Larrabee.

First revealed at SIGGRAPH in August of 2008, Larrabee is now reality.  Intel has just shown off working models of Larrabee GPUs at its Intel Developers Forum in San Francisco.

Built on a multicore die-shrink of Intel's Pentium 54C architecture, the powerful new graphics chip was able to render a ray-traced scene from the id Software game, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, with ease.  Ray-tracing is an advanced technique that has long been touted as an eventual replacement to rasterization in video games.  Currently it is used for the high quality 3D animation found in many films.

The demo also gave a peak at Gulftown, a 6 core, Core i9 processor. Built on the new upcoming Westmere architecture (a Nehalem die shrink), Gulftown is the "extreme edition" counterpart of Clarkdale (desktop) and Arrandale (laptop). 

Larrabee, however received the most interest.  The working chip was said to be on par with NVIDIA's GTX 285.  With AMD's latest offerings trouncing the GTX 285 in benchmarks, the real question will be the power envelope, how many Larrabees Intel can squeeze on a graphics board, what kind of Crossfire/SLI-esque scheme it can devise, and most importantly the price.

A direct comparison between NVIDIA's GTX 285 and Larrabee is somewhat misleading, though, because Larrabee is unique in several ways.  First Larrabee supports x86 instructions.  Secondly, it uses tile-based rendering to accomplish task like z-buffering, clipping, and blending that its competitors do in hardware, with software instead (Microsoft's Xbox 360 works this way too).  Third, all of its cores have cache coherency.  All of these features stack up to (in theory) make Larrabee easier to program games for than NVIDIA and AMD's discrete offerings.

The GPU also still has some time to grow and be fine tuned. It's not expected until the first half of 2010.  Intel is just now lining up board partners for the new card, so it should be interesting to see which companies jump on the bandwagon.

At IDF Intel also gave hints at the rest of its upcoming graphics plans.  It says that it's preparing to take a "big jump ahead" in integrated graphics with an upcoming product to be released next year, which will compete with the NVIDIA Ion.  Intel is also preparing a system-on-a-chip package with Larrabee and an Intel x86 processor, which it is using to target the mobile and handheld devices market. 

It's unclear, though, how low Intel can push the embedded Larrabee's power envelope or when the SoC will arrive.  It did make it clear, though, that it is targeting the chip for "non-PC" applications.

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By Targon on 9/25/2009 7:13:53 AM , Rating: 2
People buy video cards to handle graphics, and it is a VERY rare person who cares more about GPGPU stuff than about graphics for games/applications.

So, DirectX, or OpenGL is the name of the game. Extra features mean NOTHING if the product can't do well what people want it to do.

So, can it keep up with even the low end AMD or NVIDIA graphics cards when it comes to current applications? If the answer is no, then it won't sell well in the consumer space.

At this point, even the Intel integrated stuff ONLY sells because Intel provides a discount on processors to OEMs if they buy the two together. This makes for cheap systems, but it ALWAYS means that there is a trade-off for low cost systems.

So, you have systems with an Intel processor with inferior graphics capability, or you have an AMD processor with acceptable integrated graphics. You have to pay a bit more to get the Intel processor with NVIDIA graphics.

What the laptop industry REALLY needs is to get behind a STANDARD laptop PCI-Express slot which would make it so you can pick and choose what graphics you get in a laptop, rather than being stuck with something supplies by the chipset manufacturer. Until that happens, low cost Intel systems will have inferior graphics.

On a positive note, since your average consumer would find the AMD processors to be fast enough for their needs, they won't find that there IS a trade-off to meet the demands. If they want graphics, they CAN get an AMD processor. If CPU power is more important, they can go with an Intel processor in a low cost machine. But if Intel can't make a graphics product that can handle DirectX 11 at least as well as the integrated AMD or NVIDIA products at launch, no one will want the thing.

And if x86 processing is what you want, we will be seeing 6-core processors next year, and you won't need special programming to make use of the extra cores.

By Penti on 9/25/2009 8:42:10 AM , Rating: 2
To be fair everything is software these days, fixed function is long gone, there is a completely different team on Larrabee, like people as Tom Forsyth who has previously written a DX software renderer. GPGPU is also important today, legacy GLSL, coming OpenCL, CAL/CUDA and it's becoming more important every day even in the consumer space. If it means they can do something faster on Intels chip that's great. It's a very flexible solution and I think it will have some performance. It's not their new IGP though.

"Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be." -- Steve Ballmer
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