First look: Nvidia’s integrated graphics

geforce_9400m_chipshot1Intel beware: Nvidia has its scope trained squarely on your dominance in the notebook graphics market. With an estimated 140 million laptops in the wild in 2008, more than two-thirds of which feature nothing more powerful than basic integrated graphics chips, it’s a huge segment that Nvidia has until now had no access to.

First look: Nvidia's integrated graphics

The 9400M is the key that Nvidia hopes will allow it to eat away at Intel’s share. Combining the north bridge, south bridge and GPU into one chip less than half the size of Intel’s GMA X4500HD, it could be the great leap forward we’ve been waiting so long for. The integrated graphics solution that can actually run the latest games – we’d almost given up hope.

geforce_9400m_die_shot-218x300With 16 parallel processing cores, the chip is at least 70% GPU, with the rest of the essentials crammed around the edges where there’s room (as the die image clearly shows).

It offers full support for DirectX 10, PhysX, CUDA and even contains dedicated hardware for high definition video processing – Nvidia claims full-spec Blu-ray capability on a single battery charge, including all the PiP and BD Live features.

Gaming power

To demonstrate its power, Nvidia’s notebook general manager Rene Haas gave us a little side-by-side demonstration – pitting the brand new GeForce 9400M-equipped Macbook against a Centrino 2 Sony Vaio FW. Running Call of Duty 4 on both, at 1,024 x 768 and medium settings, the results were eye-opening.

The Sony exhibited all the stuttering motion and painful hangs we’ve grown accustomed to in low-end laptops, barely gettting close to 10fps throughout the level. By contrast, the MacBook ran happily at what we’d estimate to be around 25fps throughout, barely even hiccuping when the action hotted up and the effects began flying. Sure, it’s not Crysis at Very High settings, but it is a laptop with integrated graphics running a cutting-edge game at a playable framerate – and that’s something no manufacturer has yet offered us.

Photoshop

As exciting as this is, it’s in non-gaming applications that more useful advances may be appreciated. Haas fired up Photoshop CS4 on both demo laptops and opened up a whopping 3GB image ready for manipulation. As anyone who runs Photoshop on a laptop will expect, rotating and zooming the image on the Intel-equipped Sony was patchy at best: zooming was achieved in paused steps, while a 90-degree rotation left us with a progress bar for more than a minute before we saw any change.

The 9400M-equipped MacBook, on the other hand, simply flew through the image. Rotation was handled on the fly, while zooming exhibited the same smoothness we loved in Microsoft’s Deep Zoom technology when it was first demoed.

CUDA-accelerated Photoshop

(Click thumbnail to play video)

In short, laptops with integrated GPUs can now benefit from the same CUDA-enabled technological advances as those with power-hungry discrete cards taking up the slack.

Nvidia claims the 9400M will offer five times the performance in the same power envelope as its Intel integrated rival – a bold claim indeed, but one backed up by the demos we’ve seen. We’ll be running it through our own intensive performance and battery tests in the coming weeks as laptop manufacturers unveil their first offerings with the integrated GPU.

Future potential

I spoke to Haas after the demo and asked if he thought the success of this chipset would be detrimental to Nvidia’s discrete laptop chips, but he was unequivocal. “Are we cannibalising ourselves by releasing this? I don’t think we are. Larger laptops will always have the need for discrete graphics, and there are still plenty of people who’ll prefer the power of a discrete chip in smaller laptops.”

He also threw up a few very interesting prospects on the horizon for the Geforce 9400M. CUDA-based upscaling of DVDs to 720p or more is on the agenda, potentially doing away with the need for expensive HD drives. And your low-end integrated GPU could also soon be enhancing YouTube videos – pixel interpolation of grainy streamed video is a highly parallel-processor-intensive task which lends itself well to CUDA, and Haas was hopeful it could even be with us before the end of 2008.

Whether we get there this year or next, it’s clear that Nvidia’s newest baby has the potential to shake up the integrated graphics market in a huge way. Intel has had it pretty easy for years now, despite every new advance coming with claims of genuine 3D power, and every one failing to live up to that promise. Nvidia may be struggling in the graphics card market right now, but by finally proving that an integrated chip can handle gaming it’s just diverted a whole new revenue stream towards its own coffers. Intel needs to pull its socks up.

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