Processor Whispers: About Ivy Bridges and Tegra Hitches
by Benjamin Benz and Martin Fischer
Intel causes confusion with the Ivy Bridge's launch date, HP starts a second restructuring attempt and NVIDIA launches rumours about a Tegra 4 – all (amongst other things) because of Apple.
While everything is sprouting and coming into leaf, Intel's plants need some extra time this year. And so, a certain ivy-covered bridge in the Devon town of Ivybridge still hasn't made it into the spotlight. As for the Ivy Bridge chip's launch date, even Intel has lost track of it now. According to an internal chart with more than half a dozen more or less sensibly staggered dates scheduled, vendors are supposed to start selling the dual-core Ivy Bridge generation of processors before they are allowed to talk about them. We are eagerly awaiting the silent movie moments behind the shop counters. In any case, Intel already gave us something to smile about when it tried to slip us a non-disclosure agreement for Z77 mainboards, which had already arrived in shops.
Apparently, it's not the brand new 22nm production process with three dimensional FinFET transistors that is to blame for the delays, but the whims of big Intel clients. Allegedly, some of them have made last-minute changes to their orders, to favour the low and ultra-low voltage variants (LV and ULV). But only the best-of-the-best silicon die receive these energy efficiency classifications, and so it takes longer to produce enough of them. It also appears that Apple has changed its mind on short notice and now wants chips with HD 4000 instead of HD 2500 graphics, which have 16 instead of only 6 shader units. However, taking into account that Intel is heavily advertising new Ultrabooks with Ivy Bridge processors, it would seem a fatal mistake to make the Ultrabook manufacturers and their customers wait in favour of Apple.
Meanwhile, the overall Ivy Bridge delay should make the large notebook manufacturers happy: they have a few more weeks to sell off their Sandy Bridge stocks at reasonable prices. The losers are the smaller competitors with empty warehouses. They will now have to equip brand new barebones systems with old Sandy Bridge processors for some weeks, which will most likely, to put it mildly, confuse some customers.
Down the Valley
Ultimately, the delays might also stem from the "damper" the IT market as a whole received as a result of the hard disk shortage caused by the flood in Thailand. In the fourth quarter, the sales went down by 5.9%, which resulted in a meagre annual rise of 1.3%. Unperturbed by this, Globalfoundries can rejoice over a quarter of a million wafers with 32nm structures that the former AMD manufacturer has by now produced. And yet, Intel probably noted this with a quiet smile and is already working on 22nm Atoms with a powerful graphics core – codename "Valleyview". The GPU is supposed to originate from its large brother, Ivy Bridge, and be four times as fast as the current version. This doesn't mean a lot, but it could solve a pesky problem: Intel doesn't have any 64-bit drivers for the PowerVR graphics of the current Atoms, and the ones for 32-bits are nothing to be happy about.
Angry Like a Wolf
Speaking of PowerVR, according to Jon Peddie Research, it's Imagination Technologies, maker of PowerVR, that dominates the SoC market. Reportedly, no other company sells more GPU designs: with a market share of 50% the company, based in the small town of Kings Langley near London, easily leaves its competitors Qualcomm (33%), Vivante (4.8%) and NVIDIA (3.2%) behind. Jen-Hsun Huang's "super chip" Tegra can currently be found in "superphones" and tablets, but things are not so "super" as far as the market share is concerned. Actually, regarding some topics, nerves seem to be raw in Santa Clara: for instance, NVIDIA tried to completely cut us off from all communication concerning the new Kepler graphics card GeForce GTX 680 and also refrained from sending us a sample, because a previously published item simply didn't suit them.
It must have annoyed NVIDIA's charismatic boss even more that Apple publicly and offhandedly commented on the weaker graphics performance of the Tegra 3 in comparison to the current iPad PowerVR core. That was at the beginning of March. And now, what a coincidence, there are rumours about the Tegra 4: it could feature a heavily downgraded Kepler architecture, which will have its debut in the GK104 of the desktop graphics card GeForce GTX 680. Supposedly, the mobile ULP GeForce core comes with somewhere between 32 and 64 shaders. Well, the numbers might be right, but why should NVIDIA equip Tegra SoCs with cores compatible with Shader-Model 5.1 when version 3.0 of the OpenGL ES interface – the standard for mobile graphics scheduled for this summer – will only just introduce optional geometry shaders and is mostly derived from the old OpenGL 3? And as for the much-discussed CUDA operations, which the Tegra 4 GPU should be able to manage, the Unified Shaders of Model[ ]4.0 are sufficient. For smartphone chips, the mantra is: leave out what you don't need, because it saves space, reduces costs and makes the battery last longer.
This surely doesn't matter so much with the monster processor Power7+ from IBM. According to the first available pictures, it will pack four CPU dies on a giant ceramic module. It's still unclear, however, what's going to occupy the remaining space. Newcomer Adapteva would surely say: cores, cores and more cores. Its Epiphany E4K processor has 4096 cores – admittedly, tiny ones – and is supposed to reach 5.632 teraflops at 700 MHz of clock speed while, nonetheless, consuming only 80 watts. If correct, the chip, produced in 28nm structures by Globalfoundries, would be more efficient than all current GPGPU implementations or competitors like Larrabee and Knights Corner.
HP is meanwhile dreaming of equipping its own workstations with that knightly power. While the head of HP's department for workstation and thin clients, Jim Zarafana – with obvious pride – presented new models and merrily philosophised about possible future workstation tablets with us, his boss started restructuring the company, again. Zarafana won't be affected though, as his business sector is growing quickly – even if mainly at the expense of the competition. However, the HP dinosaur "VJ" (Vyomesh Joshi) is being consigned to history after 31 years of service so that his Printing Group can be merged with the PC branch under the lead of Todd Bradley. After the failed attempt with Touchpad and WebOS, this branch of the company would be well advised to quickly pull an iPad competitor out of its hat. HP – possibly with a partner – is allegedly working on a Windows 8 tablet.