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ISSUE 228 JULY 2009

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NVIDIA

ON THE BRINK?

Is the mean, green grap hic danger? Jeremy Laird is s machine in mortal taking a

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hings are often not what they seem in the computer chip industry. Lest you forget, 12 months ago AMD looked dead in the water. Today it has arguably the best graphics chips in the world, as well as a much more competitive CPU product in the Phenom II. Wind the clock back five years or so and it was Intel in a world of pain. Its quest for clockspeed had come horribly unstuck with the Pentium 4 Netburst architecture, while AMD was minting it with the all-conquering Athlon 64 processor. In an industry in a state of constant technological revolution, the pecking order between the key competitors can change in a heartbeat. Today, the company surrounded by question marks is none other than NVIDIA, everyone’s favourite mean, green graphics machine. The challenges it faces certainly seem immense. For

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starters, its desktop and laptop chipset businesses will soon be squeezed by Intel’s new approach to processor architectures. Meanwhile, its core PC graphics business is in the trenches, fighting a losing battle with AMD over value and production efficiency. As for the new Ion ultra-mobile platform, the next generation of Intel’s Atom processor looks like killing it stone dead before it’s even drawn breath. Then there’s the Tegra smartphone chip. Despite being launched a year ago, it’s so far failed to secure any significant design wins. The final nail in the coffin will come when the underperforming Sony PlayStation 3 dies and takes NVIDIA’s console cash flow with it. At least, that’s how the devil’s advocate argument against NVIDIA goes. Of course, there are two sides to every spat and you won’t be surprised to hear that the ever-bullish message from NVIDIA itself is that the future looks brighter than ever.

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NVIDIA on the brink?

Is NVIDIA in mortal danger? That’s a question we’ve been increasingly pondering in recent months. The case for the prosecution goes like this: pretty much every part of the business is either under immense pressure or at risk of evaporating altogether. Take its PC chipsets. With Core i7, Intel has shifted towards producing processors with more features integrated into the CPU. Later this year, Intel will release its first processor with on-package graphics. At which point, any third-party chipset with integrated graphics – such as NVIDIA’s GeForce 9400 – will seem redundant. Poof goes a large slice of NVIDIA’s chipset business in desktops and laptops. AMD has similar plans to bring integrated graphics cores into its CPU dies, so even that slice of the market looks like toast. It’s also notable that NVIDIA chose not to produce a chipset supporting the Core i7 in favour of waiting for the mainstream Core i5 to appear. The process of market shrink has already started. Much the same problem applies to NVIDIA’s new Ion ultra-mobile platform for the Intel Atom processor. It’s undoubtedly an extremely attractive looking platform compared to Intel’s rather pathetic Atom chipsets. The problem is that the next iteration of Atom, known as Moorestown, is due out later this year. Moorestown is pretty

much a system-on-a-chip design, doing away with the need for supporting chipsets. It very much looks like the rug will be pulled from beneath Ion just as it begins to establish itself in the market. Meanwhile, NVIDIA’s meat-andpotatoes PC graphics business has been having a torrid time of late. Part of the problem is the surprising return to form of AMD with the ATI Radeon HD 4000 series of graphics chips. These are some of the most effective and efficient GPUs of recent memory. They’re also extremely compact and therefore cheap to produce. The upshot is that margins and profitability on NVIDIA’s bigger, more costly chips are being squished.

PRODUCTION VALUES

NVIDIA has also been suffering from production quality problems involving the packaging materials used with many of its chips. It’s hard to know how bad the problem is, but the company has reportedly admitted to spending over $40 million trying to patch things up. At the same time, some analysts suggest that the broader market trend is towards a polarisation of the PC graphics market in favour of integrated at one end and performance graphics at

announced a handful of design wins with lesser-known Taiwanese device makers. Finally, there’s the minor matter of games consoles. Here, the evidence is rather more tendentious. And yet, somehow, a consensus has emerged that says NVIDIA’s bombastic behaviour has burned bridges with both Microsoft and Sony. If the general internet scuttlebutt is to be believed, there’s virtually no chance of NVIDIA tech appearing in the next Xbox or PlayStation consoles. Meanwhile, Nintendo is carving a new niche for itself in accessible gaming, which places much less emphasis on graphical grunt. In that context, it seems unlikely that Nintendo would decide to ditch its long-term graphics supplier AMD any time in the near future. Playing devil’s advocate again, let’s recap. NVIDIA’s desktop and laptop chipset businesses are being pinched, Ion looks like a dead duck even as it’s being launched, NVIDIA’s core PC graphics business is in hot water, Tegra is a virtual non-starter and its console cash flow will die with the PlayStation 3. All of which paints a rather gloomy picture for NVIDIA. But is it fair? Well where better to get the case for the defence than NVIDIA itself in the shape of Derek Perez, the company’s long-serving director of PR? If Perez can’t spin NVIDIA’s current situation into a tale of impending glory, nobody can. The first thing Perez emphasises is that the PC industry is facing a change that will play to NVIDIA’s strengths.

“Margins and profitability on NVIDIA’s bigger, more costly chips are being squished”

“The shift towards general purpose computing on the GPU is not if, but when”

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the other, with relatively little volume in the middle. With Intel’s new CPU strategy increasingly cutting NVIDIA out of the bulk of integrated, that leaves NVIDIA fighting for scraps at the performance end of the market. Making matters even worse, Intel is about to launch its own performance graphics chip, codenamed Larrabee. Say what you want about its unconventional X86-based architecture, but thanks to Intel’s sheer clout, it’s bound to win some market share at the expense of AMD and NVIDIA. And even if the first Larrabee chips are clunkers, in the long run you’d be bloody brave to bet against Intel eventually getting it right. But what of Tegra, NVIDIA’s mobile wonderchip? It’s certainly impressive on paper, packing far more graphics horsepower than any other platform for smartphones. However, despite having unveiled it a year ago, NVIDIA has only

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NVIDIA on the brink? “Applications are now appearing that begin to leverage the parallel computing of graphics chips. Even if you take away conventional graphics processing and gaming, parallel processing is becoming the norm. And big new markets such as HPC (high performance computing) in industries including oil and gas are just starting out,” Perez reckons. Unsurprisingly, he says NVIDIA is best placed to cash in on this industrywide shift towards parallel computing or, as some would have it, visual computing: “The bet about the shift towards general purpose computing on the GPU is not if, but when.”

FUSION POWER

As for the threat to NVIDIA’s chipset business from CPU-GPU fusion chips, Perez is unconvinced. “There’s an assumption in all of this is that Intel’s on-CPU graphics will be good enough. But there’s absolutely no evidence to support that view,” he says. And he has a point. The history of Intel’s integrated graphics cores is one of mediocrity at best. But isn’t it hard to imagine a PC with two integrated graphics cores – one in the CPU and another on the motherboard? “If we continue to innovate with great products such as the GeForce 9400M, our chipset business will continue to thrive,” he says. But what of Ion? Surely the arrival of Intel’s Moorestown system-on-a-chip replacement for the current Atom processor will kill that chipset stone dead? “Just because Intel will build it, that doesn’t mean it will perform as Intel claims or that it will be what people want. How good will the graphics and audio be in Moorestown?” Perez asks. Moreover, he says, 40 per cent of netbook returns are from unsatisfied customers and much of that is due to poor video performance. What people need isn’t a better Atom processor, but a better graphics core, which is exactly what Ion delivers.

Will the arrival of Intel’s Moorestown system-on-a chip kill NVIDIA’s Ion?

That may be true for netbooks, but Ion is too power hungry for truly compact devices. Which brings us neatly to Tegra, NVIDIA’s chip for smartphones. Perez admits NVIDIA’s inexperience in the market may have led the company to underestimate the time it would take

undoubtedly true. But beyond that, it’s hard to see how Intel and AMD’s CPU-GPU chips won’t damage the 9400M’s prospects, no matter how awful Intel’s integrated graphics may be, or how many corners AMD cuts. We aren’t, therefore, entirely convinced by Perez’s pitch. NVIDIA’s chipset business will be pinched by the coming era of fusion processors – the only question is by how much. And that leads to the greatest NVIDIA-related question of all. Will the company be forced to get in on the x86 game and produce a CPU core of its own? NVIDIA is currently putting out mixed messages. Perez dismisses the idea, saying, “We didn’t need x86 for our first 15 years and we won’t need it for our next 15.” However, NVIDIA VP Mike Hara recently told an audience of investors and analysts that it would eventually make sense for NVIDIA to do with x86 what it’s done with an ARM core in its Tegra mobile phone processor. In other words, include a general purpose x86 core within a larger system-on-a-chip design. The only problem is that of the x86 core itself. Where would it come from? While ARM is happy to license one of its cores to NVIDIA, it’s hard to imagine AMD or Intel doing the same. Which leaves the likes of Via as a possible, but underwhelming, potential CPU core supplier. That’s assuming NVIDIA is unable to pull off a spectacular coup and produce an x86 core of its own without incurring the litigious wrath of AMD and Intel. Whatever happens, the next few years will be make or break for NVIDIA. ¤

“It’s hard to see how Intel and AMD’s CPU-GPU chips won’t hurt the 9400M’s prospects” to win it over with Tegra. “Our PC mentality told us to think in terms of a year,” he says, “but the reality for mobile phones is more like five years.” Still, he claims we’ll be able to buy an MID or phone powered by Tegra no later than Christmas this year. More importantly, he’s adamant that NVIDIA will announce a partnership with at least one big mobile phone maker within a year. We’ve also heard that NVIDIA is close to announcing a major deal with car maker Audi that will see Tegra chips powering in-car infotainment systems. That’s a large potential market. As for NVIDIA’s core PC graphics business, Perez agrees that the momentum is in the $120 to $199 range and that its entry-level discrete business is under threat, not least from NVIDIA’s own GeForce 9400 integrated graphics. But he also thinks there’s plenty of potential for the GeForce 9400M integrated to cash in on the $399 to $599 notebook market. In the next six to 12 months, that’s

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Nvidia on the brink