Discrete Or Obsolete: Will Integrated Chips Phase Out Graphics Cards?

Graphics cards have been around for more than a quarter century since the glory days of Commodore, but the introduction of integrated processors has perhaps put the discrete graphics business in jeopardy.

That's a strange outlook considering the two largest graphics cards companies in the world, AMD and Nvidia, have also been two of the biggest proponents of integrated chips. And considering the recent quarterly numbers from both firms, GPU sales don't look all that bad.

But solution providers and system builders believe integrated graphics processors (IGPs) such as Intel's Sandy Bridge family, AMD's Fusion APUs, and Nvidia's Tegra mobile platform are creating a fundamental shift in the industry that will marginalize the stand-alone graphics card.

According to a recent report from IDC, Sandy Bridge and Fusion chips already account for more than 60 percent of the total PC processor market in the second quarter of 2011 – after less than a year on the market. And despite the fact that discrete GPU sales have held steady so far this year, financial analysts seem to be prepping for the big fall in graphics cards shipments.

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Brad Penner, manager at system builder eBytes Computers in Steinback, Manitoba, said IGPs have certainly changed the PC landscape. Graphics were never a big focus for business users to begin with, and now with IGPs providing "onboard graphics" customers can reduce the price of a PC by ditching the graphics card. "Every machine that goes out of here has onboard graphics now," he said. "Graphics performance is not a consideration at all for the vast majority of PCs were sell."

Even at the low end of the market, Penner explained a discrete graphics card can cost around $100. And with desktop PCs costing $500, it doesn't make sense to spend 20 percent more on a graphics card when the vast majority of customers can get by with IGPs, which support HD video and in some cases even 3D visuals.

For example, Penner quickly looks up a high performance desktop model eBytes recently sold; the model boasted an Intel Core i5 2500K processor and an H55 chipset, which provides onboard graphics. The model did not include a discrete graphics card.

John Kistler, owner of J&B Technologies in St. Louis, said there was one reason that corporate clients requested systems with graphics cards: dual monitor support. Previously, only discrete GPUs could deliver multiple displays, but IGFs like Sandy Bridge processors can now support dual monitors. "The Sandy Bridge chips really changed the playing field," Kistler said. "You can now get dual monitor support without having to paying extra for a graphics card."

Kistler said corporate customers that wanted dual monitors represented about 50 percent of J&B's sales of systems with discrete graphics. "We'll see real productivity gains with multi-monitor support," he said. "Everyone is going to have dual monitors soon. Two monitors will be standard, four will be a step up, and six will be luxury."

For example, Kistler said most school systems J&B sells to now want dual monitor support. And while J&B may have sold 1,000 systems with discrete graphics last year, Kistler said this year he's sold none.

"This could be the death knell for the graphics cards business," he said.

Next: Don't Write Off Discrete Graphics Just Yet

While IGPs can deliver decent entry-level graphics performance for mainstream users, some system builders believe there's still a significant market for discrete GPUs. Jon Layish, president of Red Barn Technology Group in Binghamton, N.Y., says the average corporate customer doesn't need a system with high-end graphics capabilities, but there are still advanced applications and graphics-intensive tasks that can't be handled without a discrete GPU.

For example, high performance workstations for digital photo/video editing or CAD design can't run on IGPs alone. "There will still be a need for graphics cards because you can't do everything with the integrated chips," Layish said.

Layish also said he expects the overall market to adjust Sandy Bridge and Fusion; in other words, as integrated chips allow mainstream users to ditch graphics cards, new video-intensive applications and tasks -- such as advanced 3D imagery -- will necessitate discrete graphics.

Josh Smith, CEO of Biohazard Computer Systems in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, agreed with Layish and said it's too early to write off discrete graphics." Are we headed toward more integrated chips? Sure, absolutely," he said. "But graphics cards aren't going to disappear overnight."

Smith said as long as discrete GPUs continue to provide better performance on the whole than integrated chips, there will be a market for graphics cards that will be supported by high-performance users, PC enthusiasts and hardcore gamers.

Jon Peddie Research, which specializes in graphics market research, believes the reported death of discrete graphics has been greatly exaggerated. In an editorial early this month, Jon Peddie wrote that a significant portion of the PC market, around 35 percent, is made up of "double-attach" systems with both discrete graphics and IGPs.

Furthmore, Peddie said regions outside of North America like Brazil, India and China have "a stronger appreciate of the benefit of discrete GPUs" and that OEMs in those areas favor graphics cards system and their higher margins. So while Fusion and Sandy Bridge chips are selling well, Peddie wrote they are "not (yet) cannibalizing" discrete GPUs.

But Kistler said it's only a matter of time before IGPs start to really eat into the graphics card business, starting with entry-level cards. He said he expects Nvidia and AMD to cut back on the number of graphics cards launched, especially at the low-end and mid-range.

AMD itself acknowledges that its own IGPs will put a dent in its graphics card business. But the chip maker seems hardly concerned by this trend and is even welcoming it. In the company's recent second quarter earnings call, AMD interim CEO Thomas Seifert said Fusion APUs represent a greater opportunity than entry level graphics cards.

"In the long run, parts of this [discrete graphics] business will be cannibalized and the low-end discrete GPUs will be replaced with Fusion-type products," Seifert said. "And this is all goodness for us because it replaces low-cost margin revenue with high-gross margin revenue."

Tim will tell, however, whether it will be all goodness for system builders.