Where next for high end graphics?

Tablets and hybrids haven't ended the graphics war

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This article is brought to you in association with LG Optimus 2X

Speculation about the death of the high end graphics card is a popular pastime these days, and with good reason.

Want a vision of the GPU apocalypse that keeps AMD and Nvidia executives at night? Compare 'Radeon HD 6990' with 'Angry Birds' in Google Trends, a tool which measures the popularity of search terms over time.

Proportionally, the number of people actively searching for information about the HD 6990 barely registers against the scale of people looking to splat pigs with pigeons on their iPads, a device which, in terms of hardware sophistication, is like using an abacus.

We've come a long way from the days when a new top end GPU launch could bring the net to a halt.

Google trends

Look at the Angry Birds graph again. No one knows yet how disruptive the new generations of tablets will be on the way we use the PC at home, but clearly they will. Analyst firm Gartner recently predicted that nearly 300m tablets will be sold in 2014, which potentially means three tablets will be sold for every four PCs.

And then there's the rise of the hybrid CPU/GPU processor.

According to market research firm iSupply, within the same timeframe 76% of desktop PCs will have have hybrid CPU/GPU chips, and this will massively impact sales of lower end add-in boards.

"In 2011 we see [growth in PC shipments] increasing slightly to just under 5%," Matt Wilkins, principle analyst for iSuppli, told TechRadar.

"In terms of the discrete graphics market, the constant increases in performance of graphics solutions now found as part of the microprocessors product, like AMD's Fusion and Intel's Sandy Bridge chips, are helping non-discrete solutions to satisfy the requirements of a larger part of the market. Therefore we believe the discrete graphics market is challenged in the medium to long term."

All is not quite lost for the demanding gamer, however.

"For users that demand the best graphics performance possible," Wilkins added, "the discrete solution will remain the optimum solution."

But who demands the best graphics performance any more? The last game which really forced PC gamers to upgrade their systems was Crysis, which appeared in September 2008. It's telling that the sequel Crysis 2 - also launched last month - has almost identical recommended hardware requirements despite a gap of two and a half years.

Portal 2

NO UPGRADE NEEDED: Valve's Portal 2 will break sales records with very modest system requirements

One PC games developer, who didn't want to be named, compared the graphics on Intel's Sandy Bridge hybrid processors to Xbox quality. As a result, studios are torn between increasing the realism of their environments with high cost DX11 effects, or optimising the hell out of their engines so that anyone with a recent laptop can purchase their products.

You don't have to be Alan Sugar to see which strategy makes the better business sense.

Valve's Source engine, for example, is famously lethargic when it comes to introducing new features, and it hasn't hurt sales of Left4Dead or Portal, has it? For the first 20 years of IBM PC compatible computers, it was a running joke that hardware was obsolete before it reached the shop door. Now, it seems, PCs simply aren't going out of date.

It's easy to see why both AMD and Nvidia are both diversifying into hybrid CPU/GPUs for low end systems themselves, AMD with x86-based Fusion and Nvidia with its ARM-based Tegra. Of the two, Nvidia seems to have the winning strategy - it's Tegra 2 chipset is in just about every significant Android Honeycomb tablet due to be released this year. AMD's Fusion processors, however, are only just starting to appear in netbooks, which are tipped to lose out to tablets in the long run.

Sandy bridge

HYBRID: Intel's Sandy Bridge will eat up low end graphics cards, but that makes high end ones all the more important

In among all this doom mongering, though, it's important to recognise a few facts. For both AMD and Nvidia, graphics cards are still big business. Around a fifth of AMD's profits comes from the graphics business, and Nvidia's mobile arm was loss making last year.

Importantly for Nvidia, although it makes relatively little money from desktop GPUs - just $30m profit off of £2.5bn sales - it's workstation-class Quaddro boards and Tesla general purpose GPUs are a license to print money. The profession arm of Nvidia made ten times more profit from these chips last year based on just over a third as much turnover as the desktop business.

Based on those figures, there's no way it's going to stop developing hardware for demanding industrial designers and GP-GPU based supercomputers. That's good news for the desktop business, because the actual GeForce, Quaddro and Tesla cards are, of course, identical.

Boom in high end graphics

What's more, some analysts believe that hybrid CPU/GPUs will flatten demand for low end and mainstream graphics cards, but they could be a very good thing for the high end market.

According to Jon Peddie, founder of industry watchers Jon Peddie Research, sales of top end graphics boards are actually growing at an average rate of 6% per annum.

"For the most part all the embedded GPU/CPU chips do in terms of GPU market share is replace the integrated graphics processor," Peddie said, "although AMD's Fusion [chips] run DX11 they do not have sufficient processing power to run AAA FPS games in any resolution, and Intel's SNB only supports DX10."

The current hybrids, in other words, are next to useless for gaming on a normal monitor with any kind of image quality turned on. If you want to game, they make upgrading a necessity.

Sceptics might counter with the argument that hybrid chips are still very new, and subsequent generations will only get better. But consider this: there are around 995 million transistors in a quad core Sandy Bridge processor with integrated HD 3000 graphics.

A Radeon HD5850 has a transistor count of 2154 million. In other words, you'd need to treble the complexity of a Sandy Bridge chip just to reach the levels of gaming performance of a second tier graphics chip from two years ago. You'd also need a heatsink the size of a house and an expensive motherboard with all the supporting circuitry currently found on a giant high end card.

And even if game engine development has slowed, it hasn't completely stagnated. There is still an upgrade cycle for gamers, it's just longer than it was before. And for the more hardcore hardware enthusiast, there are plenty of other technologies, like stereoscopic gaming and multimonitor set-ups, which require more pixel-pushing power than even a top end card is capable of.

Eyefinity

FULL SCREEN AHEAD: Will multimonitor gaming take off? AMD certainly hopes so

What's more, the bloodier days of the graphics war - when dodgy benchmark optimisations and other underhand marketing ploys were the tactics of choice - may (hopefully) be in the past, but as AMD's PR chief Dave Erskine recently proved, both GPU companies are still committed to having the 'fastest graphics in the world'.

Not only is it in their corporate DNA, chasing performance wins is part of their manifesto for shareholders. They're obliged to remain more than competitive, even if it's no longer a spectator sport.

There are a lot of disruptive influences which are changing the PC at the moment. Tablets, clouds, smartphones, hybrid processors and - of course - the global downturn. No-one quite knows what the home of the future will look like any more, and the concept of one 'winning' technology is finally being understood as quaintly naïve.

One thing is for sure, though: PC enthusiasts and their graphics cards aren't going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Finally, those GPU execs can get some sleep.

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