The world's largest graphics processing unit (GPU) suppliers are split over what central processing units (CPUs) to combine with their graphics devices for mobile applications. While Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) (NYSE: AMD) backs the performance and compatibility features that x86 designs offer, Nvidia Corp. (Nasdaq: NVDA) is packing low-power ARM Ltd. (Nasdaq: ARMHY; London: ARM) cores with its graphics processors. Whether x86 or ARM will become the standard is anyone’s guess, but the stakes are huge in the rapidly growing mobile sector.
According to Nvidia, mobile devices will outsell PCs by a ratio of 10 to 1 in "just a few years." AMD representatives agree that the mobile market will continue to skyrocket. AMD and Nvidia also agree that graphics will play a huge role in the value-added propositions of smart mobile devices. As an example, consider how catchy graphics help to prompt millions of users around the world to buy an iPhone or an iPad, powered by propriety architecture from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL).
Representatives from AMD and Nvidia say their GPUs will allow mobile devices to offer stunning graphics, similar to what discrete GPUs bring to the PC sector. Indeed, it would be interesting to be able to run graphically intensive 3D games or CAD drawing applications on a tablet or even a smartphone one day, which both companies say will be possible.
But again, unlike Nvidia, AMD says tomorrow’s mobile devices will run on x86 architectures that will eventually overtake ARM’s lead. It is also important to add that AMD has not yet formally announced that it will target smartphones, but a representative says AMD "will hammer away at tablets and other mobile devices out there." An x86 architecture, at least in the immediate future, AMD contends, is better adapted for tablets that offer more computationally intensive applications than smartphones do.
Nvidia, on the other hand, says the lower-power capabilities that ARM devices offer for longer battery lives is what mobile graphics require, with the graphics processor doing most of the heavy lifting.
It is necessary to mention the role Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) might play, although that will likely hinge on its relationship with Nvidia. Intel's CPU-integrated graphics make it a leading volume producer, yet the high-end, discrete graphics market belongs to AMD and Nvidia. So while Intel seeks design wins in the mobile space with its Sandy Bridge architecture, which combines a CPU and graphics processor on a single die, it is highly likely that Intel will put its lawsuits with Nvidia aside and seek licensing deals for high-end mobile graphics in the future. It has also been long speculated that Intel might seek to outright buy Nvidia, but that is the source of another discussion altogether.
For the time being, Nvidia has recent history on its side since ARM CPU architectures dominate the mobile space with their low-power features. But according to ABI Research , the performance/power ratio that x86 devices offer will soon approach that of ARM-based devices, and they are slated to represent 18 percent of the smartphone market alone, which does not include tablets, by 2016.
AMD also points out that next-generation fabrication processes will enable more powerful x86 CPUs to consume much less power. According to AMD, its upcoming 22nm design process will allow processors to consume a low 7 watts of power, which will offer the performance of a CPU with high-end graphics cores in mobile devices.
But whether an ARM or an x86-based architecture becomes the standard for mobile devices in the future, I doubt that will spell the end for either AMD's or Nvidia's graphics business, given both companies' histories of adapting their technologies to meet the demands of the day. While the market is fickle, it may also turn out that there will be enough room for x86 and ARM as well as MIPS Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MIPS; OTC: MIPBV) devices in the mobile space.
In the meantime, look out for some stunning mobile graphics applications that AMD and Nvidia will offer with both x86 and ARM designs.