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Doomsday in 2012 for Integrated Chipsets

Time is running out for today's most popular graphics technology, with motherboards' integrated graphics chipsets (IGP) poised become a thing of the past by 2012 -- thanks to radical changes in CPU architecture.

The prediction, by graphics market analysts at Jon Peddie Research, is a relatively safe forecast to make, but one with a lot of complexity under the hood.

One of the primary tasks for the IGP is as a memory controller, sitting between the CPU and main memory. AMD (NYSE: AMD) has been out of that business for five years since the introduction of the Athlon, and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) has begun its own transition with the Nehalem architecture.

The second step in this process involves AMD and Intel putting graphics processors on their CPUs. AMD began this with its "Fusion" project, and Intel has something similar in the works, with Nehalem processors that come with a graphics processor core on the chip.

The end result is IGP obsolescence -- a mighty downfall for a technology that today dominates the market.

In 2008, IGPs represented 67 percent of all graphics chips shipped, according to Peddie. In 2011, however, that figure will have dropped to 20 percent. Within two more years, it will be less than 1 percent.

"End-users won't notice a thing," Jon Peddie, president of the firm, told InternetNews.com. "It will have a slight impact on cost of parts to the down side, and an impact on power consumption. So it will be very valuable to laptops."

Not everyone is as far along with the shift. VIA Technologies, which makes the ultra-low power C7 processor used in some netbooks, also uses the front-side bus design Intel is now phasing out, so it will likely have to make some big changes as well.

Evolution for graphics hardware

As a result of the changes, two configurations are likely to proliferate beginning in 2012: CPUs will either contain the memory controller and a low-power graphics processor, or will work in combination with discrete graphics processors from AMD/ATI, nVidia (NASDAQ: NVDA) and eventually Intel, which is preparing its own GPU, Larrabee.

For the laptop world, this will be a significant shift. When a laptop is plugged into a wall, it will use the more power-hungry discrete graphics for better performance. But when operating on the battery, it will switch to the lower power integrated graphics.

"The graphics inside the CPU are not going to be very powerful," Peddie notes. "Discrete graphics won't go away. In fact, they will be enhanced because of the low performance of the embedded graphics. So this creates an opportunity for discrete graphics."

Ironically, Peddie notes that even though Intel doesn't have a dog in that fight as yet because it doesn't have a discrete graphics part, it wrote the software to manage the switch between the integrated and discrete graphics drivers

In desktops, there will be a fight for the mid-range, where the processor accesses the system memory through high-speed connectors like Nehalem's QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) and AMD's HyperTransport. Whereas discrete graphics chips come on a card with dedicated memory, the integrated graphics use the system memory.

Therefore, nVidia's fight with Intel for the right to make Nehalem chipsets does make sense, Peddie argued.