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Fri 15 Sep 2006 04:00 AM

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Joining forces

Windows Middle East's man in the know, Jason Saundalkar, discusses what AMD and ATi’s recently announced merger might mean for consumers, in addition to what the future of computer graphics might hold...

|~|Tech-talk-monster-main---m.jpg|~|In the future, your PC’s CPU could be responsible for rendering game graphics.|~|Rumours of AMD and ATI’s merging have been circulating for quite some time on line but I can safely say that, like many of my friends and colleagues, I was still surprised when the deal went through at the end of July.

In the short term, perhaps the most interesting effect of this merger is the fact that AMD now finally has the capability to put together its own platforms, much like Intel has done with its Centrino platform for example. A platform can contain any number of different components and in Centrino’s case this involves a Pentium M processor, a mobile Intel core-logic chipset, and lastly, a wireless adapter from Intel itself, supporting either the ‘b’, ‘b/g’ or ‘a/b/g’ standards.

Selling platforms means you’re effectively saying that these components are guaranteed to work with each other and that gives customers and companies more faith when buying. This is something AMD has never really managed to do as it has never really found its stride when developing in-house chipsets. Now that ATi is under wing, AMD can easily put together a CPU and chipset platform at the very least, which will no doubt help it compete with Intel. Should AMD decide to go this route (and I think it should), then ATi’s Crossfire Xpress 3200 chipset, released earlier in the year, could very well be the first core-logic chipset it uses.

Where does nVidia fit into all this? While it’s possible that AMD could cancel any chipset licensing deals it has with nVidia, this seems very (and I stress, very) unlikely. AMD’s track record shows that it isn’t one to shut out its partners. That sort of thing is right up Intel’s alley however, in that shortly after the AMD deal was signed, Intel pulled ATi’s chipset license, which means there will be no more ATi core-logic chipsets for Intel systems from the end of the year.

Now, and this is where things get interesting, let’s shift focus to the long term. Intel has been hinting about moving GPU (graphics processing unit) functions back onto the CPU for sometime now. If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Hang on a minute, didn’t they design GPUs so that the CPU didn’t have to do graphics work?’ you’d be right, but consider that when that move was made CPUs were still sub 1GHz and were, more importantly, only single-core.

In the long term, bringing GPU functionality back onto the CPU core could take a number of forms. You could have a dual-core CPU with one standard processing core and one dedicated GPU core. Seeing as how both cores would be so closely connected to each other, it’s very reasonably to assume that this sort of set-up would eat the current ‘CPU working with a GPU over an external bus’ for breakfast in terms of performance. Want to drool a little more? Think of a quad-core CPU being two standard processing cores and two dedicated GPU cores. I should point out however, that this sort of set-up isn’t a spectacular new design, in fact the present and upcoming gaming consoles (including the PS3) draw performance from their extremely high bandwidth data paths between the CPU and GPU. Moving GPU functions onto a CPU die is just taking things another step further.

Intel is of course in a better position to converge CPU and GPU technology as it already has the skills and capabilities to produce both processors and graphics chipsets. In AMD’s case, the firm is capable of developing and producing CPUs but it has no experience with graphics chipsets at all.

This is where the merger between AMD and ATi comes into play. AMD could have either played catch up to Intel for a long time by developing the necessary technology and skills itself to build a converged CPU and GPU product or, it could do the smart thing and buy a company that already has loads of experience with GPUs. And the last time I checked, ATi is one such firm.

Jason Saundalkar (jason.saundalkar@itp.com)||**||

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