IDF 2010: Sandy Bridge offers video transcoding acceleration

Subject: Processors | September 12, 2010 - 12:00 PM |
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It seems that all anyone wants to talk about recently is Sandy Bridge, Intel's next-generation microarchitecture set to be unveiled tomorrow at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.  We've fielded calls from AMD, NVIDIA, motherboard partners and other third parties all wanting to give us their thoughts or ask us for ours on the subject.  It is really becoming a compelling story.

Just today, a couple of interesting news posts went up at SemiAccurate, a site that tends to be more accurate than the name implies.  First, it would appear that the official launch of the new CPUs based on Sandy Bridge will be on January 9th right after CES.  Product reviews will probably start filtering in right before that at the start of 2011.  That is good news for consumers - you'll be able to get your hands on the goods in just a few short months now after quite a bit of time speculating and waiting. 

The second news post is probably more interesting, as Charlie has found the location of some important transistors on the Sandy Bridge die shot that has been floating around.  The find?  The transistors that will enable video transcoding acceleration.


These slightly brownish looking bits are what will apparently bring NVIDIA and the world of GPU computing to its knees.  It has long been rumored that Intel would not only bring a fairly high performing GPU into the Sandy Bridge architecture but that video encoding and transcoding would somehow work its way in as well.  This is important as it is one of the key things that makes modern graphics chips from NVIDIA and AMD (and the upcoming AMD Fusion parts) so compelling.  If Intel was able sneak in a few million transistors to get the job even MOSTLY done, it could be big news.

Here is the Sandy Bridge die as we know it today.  On the left hand side is the GPU components, the middle section is dominated by the CPU cores and on the far right you will see the northbridge connectivity and those meddling brown mystery transistors. 

If we assume that Charlie's information is correct, the next logical question is how generic or specific did Intel make this transcoding logic?  If the logic there is built specifically for video transcoding, taking an MPEG file and making it into an iPad-ready H.264 file very quickly, then I believe NVIDIA and AMD's GPUs will still have a formidable advantage with non-traditional computing methods.

It is also possible that Intel's engineers were more interested in creating a general purpose computing engine that somehow emulates the functions of a basic GPU.  If the logic there is really just a collection of small processing cores similar to shader units from AMD/NVIDIA then it could be that Intel's Sandy Bridge CPU might not just be faster at video transcoding; it could accelerate the full host of applications for content creation, photo editing and media viewing that are currently entrenched into the world of ATI Stream and NVIDIA CUDA. 

Obviously we realize it will take some time to get the drivers and
software support out there to enable this acceleration, if it exists. 
But what software developer in their right mind would NOT support
hardware that will eventually be found in nearly every PC sold in 2011?

On the desktop front that won't be enough to push out discrete GPUs but in the world of mobile computing, it could do catastrophic damage to NVIDIA's discrete solutions as well as AMD's.  Luckily, AMD bought a company called ATI and has such created CPU/GPU combination parts of its own so it to will have a complete package to offer OEMs and consumers. 

We'll be talking to Intel and AMD quite a bit later in the week but we did hear from NVIDIA on the topic over the weekend with this:

“Intel's been proclaiming the death of discrete graphics for years, but real GPUs just keep getting more important. Today’s visual computing applications -- like photo and video editing, playing games, and browsing the web -- use a GPU for the best experience.

 

Intel is telling consumers to wait until next year to get integrated graphics that don’t even support today’s Windows 7 technology, DirectX 11. Consumer don’t need to wait, there are excellent NVIDIA GPUs today at every price point that run rings around Sandy Bridge. Of course, our GPU performance will increase again next year to maintain our advantage.”

There is some truth to this statement of course: GPU computing has become more important than ever for consumers and yes if you want features like this today, then you need to ignore what Intel has and look for other NVIDIA/AMD options.  However, in 5-6 months, this argument won't be valid: Sandy Bridge will be out and readily available. 

As for how much that mystery transistor collection on the Sandy Bridge die will be able to do (just video transcoding or including more applications and uses) we will have to wait and see.  Hopefully, the waiting will be over this week. 

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