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Chip vendors look to gaming for future sales

Column While game developers look to chips for more horsepower
Fri Mar 29 2013, 11:59

SAN FRANCISCO: GAME DEVELOPER CONFERENCE (GDC) provided an energetic backdrop for chip vendors like AMD, Intel, ARM and Qualcomm to make some interesting announcements, however it is apparent that game developers are asking for much more.

GDC, as its name suggests, is intended for games developers and the fact that semiconductor vendors have such a large presence is a testament to the power wielded by game developers and their demands for high-end silicon. What GDC showed me this year is that games developers want more, not just for final in-game visuals but to aid their workflow.

AMD decided to use GDC to release ts Radeon Sky graphics rendering cloud accelerators. The firm is betting big on the games industry to shift its graphics cards, whether they be consumer Radeon HD graphics cards bundling many triple-A game titles, Radeon Sky for the burgeoning cloud rendering market or its top-end Firepro workstation cards for game developers working with applications such as 3D Studio Max and Modo.

AMD's accelerated processing units (APUs) have a much wider range of use cases, but gaming will still help the firm sell chips, as evidenced by Intel's own 'launch' of its Haswell HD Graphics extensions. Intel reiterated that Valve's Steam hardware survey showed its integrated graphics core was the most popular GPU used by gamers on its service, but there is no doubt that AMD's A-series APUs have a noticeably higher performance GPU than Intel's present offerings.

Intel's Haswell graphics extensions showed that ex-AMD ISV relations guru Richard Huddy is finally having an effect on the way Intel works with games developers. Although Intel claimed that the GPU in its upcoming Haswell chip will be a step up from the one in its Ivy Bridge processors, the big announcement was almost buried.

With Intel's Instantaccess extension, the CPU and GPU can read and write to main memory. While Intel's integrated graphics have long partitioned off a set amount of main memory to use as a frame buffer, this will allow access to a far larger memory pool, though the firm did not provide any technical details on the addressing scheme.

Intel's Instantaccess extension should sound familiar, as it is what AMD has been touting with its unified memory access as well as Nvidia's Maxwell GPU architecture, but Intel is the first to announce products that make use of it. Where Intel's Instantaccess becomes interesting is when one considers the fact that Haswell's GPU will support OpenCL 1.2, though the firm didn't make too much of a song and dance about that combination at its launch.

ARM's strong presence was felt both at its own stand, though the firm didn't make any major announcements, and particularly through Qualcomm, which didn't have so much a stand but a whole corner of the show floor. Qualcomm also demonstrated its upcoming Snapdragon 800 chip that is intended for tablets, with an impressive positional audio demonstration that was made possible through a collaboration with audio software firm DTS.

Qualcomm has also been banking on gaming to push its chips and HTC was showing off a patched HTC One smartphone that supports OpenGL ES 3.0. HTC admitted that Qualcomm had its side of the OpenGL ES 3.0 support sorted months ago but the firm needed to make the appropriate software changes on its end to play nicely with its HTC One smartphone.

Qualcomm's ability to get its Snapdragon chips into such a wide range of devices is nothing short of astounding given its historic expertise has been in baseband chips. Arguably the firm has to make the most of its baseband business right now as Intel and Nvidia prepare their respective software defined radio products, nevertheless the fact that Qualcomm Snapdragon chips will be in 70 percent of Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphones is nothing short of amazing given that Samsung fabs its own chips.

Game developers also demanded more from GPU vendors, including full OpenGL support rather than just the OpenGL ES standard intended for embedded chips. It was also obvious that game developers want to be able to play around with higher resolution, more complex models within their workflow with 30 FPS rendering within the editor, which is no trivial task given that many items in games are rendered ahead of time whereas almost everything in the editor is rendered in real time.

All of the major chip vendors will look towards the gaming industry to drive sales, much like GPU vendors did 10 years ago. The only difference now is that the discrete GPU chip is not the main focal point anymore, rather it's all about getting more out of a single system on chip. µ


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