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GPU War Goes Mobile, Pitching AMD vs. ARM vs. Intel

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 {complink 103|Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD)} backs the performance and compatibility features that x86 designs offer, {complink 3926|Nvidia Corp.} is packing low-power {complink 444|ARM Ltd.} 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 {complink 379|Apple Inc.}.

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 {complink 2657|Intel Corp.} 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 {complink 7280|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 {complink 3455|MIPS Technologies Inc.} 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.

9 comments on “GPU War Goes Mobile, Pitching AMD vs. ARM vs. Intel

  1. Ashu001
    April 11, 2011

    Bruce,

    Sorry to bring this up like this-But did'nt Intel lose this battle a long waaay back???

    By virtue of not betting aggressively on the Mobile Space??

    ARMs designs are way too superior (from a design point of view today).I

    I had one question though-

    “According to Nvidia, mobile devices will outsell PCs by a ratio of 10 to 1 in “just a few years.”

    Does this statement include Laptops,Netbooks as well as Smartphones in the mobile space??? If yes,then this statement is quite accurate.Otherwise the term “in just a few years” could mean forever in the technology space…

    Regards

    Ashish.

  2. Bruce Gain
    April 11, 2011

    @Ashish: those are the same questions I have/had. If you can get more info. out of Nvidia about it, please let me know.

  3. Nemos
    April 11, 2011

    “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.”

    Very, very interesting, if this statement becomes true then we will see a keen competition among the companies.

    Furthermore, I want to mention that the key to be successful and dominate to the mobile market is to achieve low power consumption and realistic graphics in the mobile.

  4. DataCrunch
    April 11, 2011

    What I thought was interesting is that at this year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) event, Microsoft announced that its next Windows version with support ARM based systems from companies like, Nvidia, TI and Qualcomm.  This is an about face from their usual steadfast support of the x86 architecture.  Looks like Microsoft is hedging its bet and by supporting ARM can reach a larger mobile audience.

  5. Wale Bakare
    April 11, 2011

    Very interesting article. Two things could be infered on this piece:

    1 – With innovations spur on as a result of more graphical features integrated. The discussion about Tablet computer emerging as a replacement for PC and Laptop might resurfaced again but market researchers have not predicted this anyway.

    2 – Intel, being a giant chip maker – i foresee some fast & smart move in the nearest future.

  6. Anand
    April 12, 2011

    “AMD also points out that next-generation fabrication processes will enable more powerful x86 CPUs to consume much less power.”

    Bruce,

     Dont you think this argument holds good for Nvdia also ? Next-generation fabrication processes will also aid ARM CPUs. So how is AMD improving its performance/power ratio for x86 devices, is it just by betting on next-generation fab processes ?

  7. saranyatil
    April 16, 2011

    I would say WOW, if we are going to get a bonus of low power and great graphics. This will attract most of the game freaks. i would prefer these phones or tablets over my playstations,my passion will always be remain in my hand held device.

  8. Bruce Gain
    April 16, 2011

    @Anandvy: but the question for me is what can they do with x86 devices that they cannot do with ARM CPUs? 

  9. Bruce Gain
    April 16, 2011

    @Wale Bakare: But what can Intel really do? I think it is more up to the software and GPU makers.

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