2013 is going to be a landmark year in the history of semiconductors that promises to revolutionize today's processing technology. Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ:AMD) have recently announced a series of important developments in the microarchitecture of their x86 processors, which experts believe will usher in a new era in graphics-intensive computing.
We've seen raging debates among chip enthusiasts on the possibility of an Intel assault on AMD's graphics. While Intel fans believe that with upcoming Haswell and Silvermont, the semiconductor giant will finally prove its graphics superiority after years of underperformance, the AMD camp seems confident with the company's upcoming memory architecture hUMA (heterogeneous Uniform Memory Access). AMD loyalists, a large proportion of which are gamers, also have faith in AMD's new APU technology, code named Jaguar. In this article I'll analyze Intel's potential threat on AMD's graphics lead.
AMD's hUMA vs. Intel's Haswell and Silvermont
Intel is expected to make a generational leap with its upcoming processors with more powerful cores and more RAM that are perfectly integrated while AMD's hUMA merely emphasizes that the CPU and the GPU have a shared address space, and they share both physical and virtual memory. AMD's hUMA isn't something that signifies a generational leap.
So far Intel has provided more die space for its CPU cores while AMD has its APUs with more die space for graphics. But Intel is bringing a major structural change in its newer processors with more emphasis on graphics.
Haswell's Integrated Graphics: Intel's upcoming 4th Generation Core 22nm processor, based on Haswell microarchitecture, will have Tri-Gate '3D' transistors introduced with Ivy Bridge. The general design of Haswell will incorporate four cores (Intel claims that the cores in Haswell are more powerful than the Ivy and Sandy Bridge cores), integrated graphics, an integrated dual-channel DDR3 memory controller, an integrated PCI-Express 3.0 controller and a ringbus that links each component. The CPU architecture will have new features including new instructions (AVX 2) and support for transactional memory (TSX).
The integrated graphics of the Haswell will support the latest versions of the most important APIs, including DirectX 11.1, OpenGL 4.2 and OpenCL 1.2. There will be a model with six cores (GT1), another with 20 cores (GT2) and two other models with 40 cores (GT3 and GT3e).
Intel's Introduces Branded Graphics Iris: Intel is getting ready to put pressure on the dedicated graphics card business with its new Iris brand (GT3 and GT3e) of graphics processors that will come in-built with Haswell chips. There will be five different graphics configurations, in order of performance: Iris Pro 5200, Iris 5100, HD 5000, HD 4600/4400/4200 and HD graphics. Intel claims Iris will deliver 2x - 3x performance than HD 4000 graphics, which sounds like an amazing feat for a single generational leap.
Xbitlabs says that in some cases Iris graphics cores will bring Intel's integrated graphics close to solutions from its arch-rival AMD. It further adds that in case Intel's performance estimates are accurate, the Iris Graphics Pro 5200 integrated graphics offering in its best implementation (desktop chip in BGA packaging) will deliver a little higher performance compared to AMD Radeon HD 7660D core of the AMD A10-5800K application processing unit in 3DMark 11 benchmark.
Improved Graphics of Silvermont: Intel recently revealed that its new low-power architecture, the 22nm Silvermont, will represent major transformation from the previous versions of the Atom architecture. Unlike Atom, which targeted only the mobile market, Silvermont is also aimed at datacenters and embedded markets.
Silvermont-based chips will have an out-of-order execution engine, similar to Intel's Core and Xeon processors, instead of Atom's in-order execution engine. With its new system fabric architecture, Silvermont will also replace multi-threading with modules that can include up to eight CPU cores. Moreover, Silvermont will be able to dynamically share power not only among the CPU cores, but also between the CPU and GPU, which will enhance its graphics performance.
With Intel's move to 22nm FinFET SoC process using "3D" transistors, customers will get 3x the performance from Silvermont than current Atom SoCs. Other vendors won't be able to deliver chips with FinFETs until the end of 2014. Intel will introduce Silvermont's 14nm die-shrink version Airmont next year.
Why AMD's hUMA can't compete with Intel's GPUs?
AMD has ambitious long-term plans for its graphics business. AMD will eventually merge the instruction sets for GPU and CPU. Their upcoming memory architecture "heterogeneous Uniform Memory Access" or hUMA is the first step in that direction.
So far AMD has its APU combining CPU and GPU on the same die, but the same physical memory used by them has been kept in separate spaces. To access the memory the CPU and the GPU use different pointers and share the memory by moving (copy and paste) data back and forth, which takes time and causes delay.
With hUMA, the CPU and the GPU will share a single memory space and no copying of data will be needed. GPU can access CPU memory addresses directly by passing a pointer to the entire data structure since the GPU can follow embedded links.
AMD will launch its first processor codenamed Kaveri based on hUMA that will combine 2-3 compute units using AMD's Steamroller cores with a GPU. Kaveri will embed a small ARM core also for enhanced security. In that sense it's not a standalone processor.
For AMD, hUMA won't be enough, unless developers write extensive programs to take its advantage. But with AMD's small market share, it's unlikely that developers will rewrite their programs until they see AMD isn't losing its graphics lead. Intel's recent announcement of GT3e Iris Pro graphics, which will sport a second die with 128MB of embedded DRAM in addition to the Haswell die, could be more than enough for eroding developer interest to write programs for AMD.
Intel to move ahead of AMD with rebirth of PCs
For high-end PCs, Intel isn't just playing a catch up game to AMD by adding more execution units to its processors. Intel is actually trying to leverage its CPU lead in integrated GPU to move ahead of AMD with advanced graphics like Iris.
If Intel's Silvermont provides significant performance boost, the demand for lower-end PCs will also increase gradually and the famous Wintel combination could become alive again.
The rumor mill is abuzz that for the first time new generation of game consoles will see significantly lower CPU and GPU performance than modern PCs, which implies that the game business is on the verge of serious transformation. With the advent of mobile gaming in addition to free PC-based games, console-based high-end gaming is losing steam.
Both Sony (NYSE:SNE) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) will incorporate AMD's 8 Jaguar cores in their upcoming consoles, PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720 respectively. Jaguar is the building-block of an APU that's made of x86 CPUs.
But with Haswell things are going to change. Some developers are already considering Haswell and Intel is hoping to hit the developers as they focus on the next generation of games consoles. Haswell isn't just another processor with the sort of integrated graphics to run a few casual games, claims Christos Georgioupoulos, Vice President of Intel's Software Group, and General Manager of its Developer Relations Division.
"GT3e is our even more capable integrated graphics," says Christos. The GT3e version is going to be based on the same silicon as the more standard GT3 processor graphics, so it will have the same number of shaders/execution units, but the 'e' will denote a higher operating frequency. And that, Intel hopes, is going to give the next generation of consoles a run for their money. "The consoles right now are going to be refreshed at the end of 2013, we think we're going to have something competitive in terms of, hopefully, performance, capabilities and even as a volume platform for gamers."
Intel is playing its cards for a leadership position in CPUs as well as graphics, from PCs to smartphones and tablets. The street doesn't seem fully convinced though, and is waiting to see how things pan out. However, prudent investors are accumulating Intel's stock, which is clear from the ongoing consolidation after Intel announced its graphics roadmap. Meanwhile, AMD's stock has seen a fierce short-covering rally on a small base in terms of market cap. I believe it's the right time to shift your long position from AMD to Intel.
Disclosure: I am long INTC. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.