Intel risks 'bundling' graphics processor with new Core 32 nm CPUs

We've seen integrated graphics from Intel for several years, integrated into the chipsets of value-priced desktop and notebook PCs. Intel's 3D rendering capability has never been superior to that of discrete GPUs such as Nvidia's or ATI's but it's never had to be. But today, adhering to a plan set out by Intel in September 2008, that integration moves one step further, moving the company's 45 nm iGFX graphics processor onto the same die along with the 32 nm Core processor.

That means integrated graphics is not just for motherboards any more. Using the high-k-plus-metal-gate lithography process breakthrough announced in January 2007, which premiered during the previous 45 nm "Nehalem" generation, Intel's new "Westmere" generation CPUs for Core i3, i5, and i7 will feature a graphics processor clocked as high as 900 MHz -- essentially the same one used in Intel's previous integrated graphics chipsets.

Right away, this means that even the least expensive systems using Core i3 processors will include Intel's on-board facilities for streaming video -- what the company branded today "Intel HD Graphics." Intel will not preclude customers or OEMs from installing discrete graphics cards on their systems, to be used instead of the iGFX processor core (just as before). But now, as Intel spokesperson George Alfs told Betanews this afternoon, mobile (not desktop) editions of "Westmere"-based systems will include a feature called Switchable Graphics, which will enable them to "hot-switch" between integrated and discrete graphics without rebooting. Alfs stated this feature will be compatible with both ATI and Nvidia mobile graphics cards.

Lower-power mobile packages like Intel's 1.06 GHz dual-core Core i5 model 520UM ($241 in 1,000-unit quantities) will feature iGFX processors clocked at 166 MHz; by contrast, the higher-power 2.66 GHz Core i7 620M ($332 in 1ku) will be clocked at 500 MHz. But for the first time, Core CPUs will be geared for built-in automatic burst-mode overclocking, called "Turbo Boost." For high-workload periods, mobile systems can overclock themselves -- for example, the 520 UM can burst from 1.06 to 1.86 GHz on the CPU, and from 166 to 500 MHz on the iGFX. The 620M can burst from 2.66 to 3.33 GHz on the CPU, and from 500 to 766 MHz on the iGFX.

Turbo Boost mode on desktop processor affects just the CPU. The highest-order 32 nm desktop package released for consumers today, the dual-core Core i5 670 ($284 in 1ku) can jump from 3.46 to 3.73 GHz. Graphics speed is fixed at 733 MHz, though the next model down -- Core i5 661, from 3.33 to 3.6 GHz -- includes a 900 MHz iGFX processor.

These introductions today are clearly for the value and midrange OEM manufacturers, and embedded server makers. They're clearly aimed squarely at AMD's home base, the value-conscious buyer; and as such, they pack as much of the full Intel platform as it has ever fit onto single dies. With the exception of some Core i5 and i7 and Xeon embedded processors, these are all dual-core with hyperthreading -- a feature introduced in 2005, prior to the dual-core era, to help Intel implement parallelism while AMD already had it.

While bundling graphics with processing may be a sophisticated move for Intel from a marketing standpoint, it will be a very risky one from a legal vantage point. Last month's US Federal Trade Commission complaint against Intel specifically cited integrated graphics bundling on Intel's chipsets, as an anti-competitive practice by a player that would likely acquire a monopoly in the field if it succeeds.

"Intel also bundles its CPUs with its own GPU chipsets and then prices the bundle to deter OEMs from pairing Intel CPUs with non-Intel GPUs," reads the FTC complaint filed last month, referring to the company's practices prior to the Westmere release today. "Intel's bundling scheme has led to significant loss of consumer choice and has no legitimate justification except to exclude competition. Moreover, it has resulted in below-cost pricing by Intel in circumstances in which Intel is likely to recoup in the future any losses that it suffered as a result of below-cost pricing."

Not all of Intel's OEM customers appear excited by this arrangement. According to reporter Theo Valich last month -- formerly with Tom's Hardware, now on his own -- Apple refused to purchase Intel's "Arrandale" version of its two-chip Westmere sandwich, preferring instead a version without the integrated GPU. Apple has recently preferred ATI graphics components in its higher-end Macs, and has used Nvidia's in the past.

Intel's new releases will likely be featured during the company's Wednesday keynote address to CES at 7:30 pm EST tonight. Also expected to be discussed is the company's second generation Atom processor for small and embedded devices, including netbooks.

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