Intel's Next-Generation GPU Will Play Blu-ray 3D

For years, Intel's integrated GPUs were the laughing stock of gaming and a thorn in the side of everyone who purchased what they thought was a high-end laptop or desktop only to find its video solution suffered from a deep delusion of competence. Faced with lacerating low-end graphics competition from the likes of both AMD and NVIDIA, Intel responded with the surprisingly adequate 45nm GPU fused into its Arrandale and Clarkdale processors.

Having proven its ability to wheeze once around the track, Intel has set its eyes on a loftier goal. According to industry sources, the GPU partnered with the upcoming Sandy Bridge processor will be capable of smoothly playing Blu-ray 3D. Sandy Bridge will also integrate CPU and GPU into the same package (like Llano will), and shrink the GPU die down to 32nm. That gives Intel room to expand the GPU core's size/capabilities, but the degree to which the company will choose to do so is debatable. For all its improvements, Arrandale—launched in 2010—added support for technologies (fast Z-clear and hierarchical Z, among others) that ATI incorporated into the Radeon 8500 back in 2002. Despite substantial improvements, Intel isn't going to be shooting for the moon.

Blue Kitty People + 3D + Integrated Intel Graphics. ZOMG!

We're more enticed by the idea of improved Intel graphics than by the announcement of Blu-ray 3D playback support. It doesn't seem likely that the majority of would-be purchasers would be interested in Blu-ray 3D. In order for the standard to catch, the laptop to feature a 3D-capable display and a Blu-ray drive, while the customer needs to have the appropriate 3D-encoded version of the movie. Stack those on top of each other when the overwhelming percentage of laptops ship with DVDs, and Blu-ray 3D is little more than a niche within a niche.

According to Dean McCarron of Mercury Research, Intel's new GPUs will still be a win-win for consumers. While integrated GPUs dominate both mobile and desktop sales, the percentage of notebooks sold with discrete GPUs has actually been growing in recent years.  "There is a growing interest in switchable graphics, in which laptops have both integrated and discrete graphics, McCarron said. That allows users to switch between them depending on the application they're using. More laptops are shipping with both graphics processors -- up to 45 percent of the laptops worldwide in the second quarter.

"Irony here is that each graphics solution -- whether it's Intel integrated or discrete -- is succeeding on its merits," McCarron said. "It's not like you're picking one or another."

Early, unofficial benchmark results have indicated that the Sandy Bridge GPU could perform equivalently to an AMD HD 5450, but we're not ready to trust those numbers just yet. In additional to being unofficial, when Intel launched Clarkdale early this year, it sampled a version of the chip whose GPU was clocked substantially faster than the average part. If it does the same with SB, reviews may not match what the average customer sees.

AMD and NVIDIA will undoubtedly counter with faster low-end parts if Sandy Bridge's GPU starts stealing sales, but the news shouldn't have much impact on AMD's plans for Bobcat and Llano. Bobcat's integrated GPU is still virtually certain to make hash of Atom's, while Llano's integrated part, according to rumors we've heard, is targeting a performance level well above the 5450. If the integrated market was eating away at discrete sales it could mean trouble for NVIDIA, but McCarron's comments imply that's not happening.