Intel’s Larrabee Aims to Take on Nvidia and AMD

Last week, Intel offered up a sneak peak of its Larrabee graphics processor, due out in 2009 or 2010 and guaranteed to raise the competitive pressure on graphics chip makers Nvidia and AMD. Unlike its existing integrated graphics chips, Larrabee will be a standalone processor, but don’t expect that it will be a success.

As computing has required faster chips, Intel and other chip makers have added more cores, a tactic that GPU makers have used for years in order to increase parallel processing. GPUs from Nvidia contain as many as 240 cores while those from AMD, which that company acquired when it purchased ATI Technologies in 2006, have hundreds. So they’re faster.

But they’re also harder to program, something Nvidia is trying to solve with more flexible chips and a new programming tool called CUDA. But most enterprise and consumer software runs on x86 chips and needs adaptations to take advantage of GPUs. Intel’s Larrabee chip has multiple cores, but is not a GPU. Intel claims this offers people the performance gains and ability to render graphics much like a GPU does, but that Larrabee’s x86 architecture allows for easier programming.

It’s nearly impossible to judge a chip until you’ve seen it in action and tracked whether OEMs want to put it in their devices, but my bet is that Intel won’t be able to compromise with a many-cored CPU and believe it will beat a GPU at its own game. Nvidia and AMD are hoping as much, especially Nvidia, which has the dominant GPU market share — right behind Intel’s integrated chips — and wages an almost constant battle again Intel’s PR on this front. As Nvidia’s small but fierce marketing team faces off against Intel’s Goliath, grab some popcorn, because it’ll be a graphics showdown worth watching.