Power Management Opportunities in Graphics-Processors: Considerations for Regulators

Posted: 06.07.10

Since its introduction over thirty years ago, the personal computer (PC) has been able to satisfy the market’s needs for entertainment, productivity, engineering and design, reaching shipments in year 2009 in excess of 300 million units worldwide, and 95 million units in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) region1. The success of the PC is largely due to the users’ ability to adapt and configure it though open industry standards such as USB, WiFi, Bluetooth, PCI Express, DVI, and DisplayPort, to name a few. These standards allow the overall ecosystem to flourish and deliver purpose-built and innovative solutions for the consumer and businesses alike.

As a result of industry standardization, consumers can migrate their monitors, keyboards, and other devices from an older PC to a newer one, or they can upgrade their existing PC with a new graphics board, monitor, operating system, or other peripheral--capabilities that would not be possible without the use of open standards promoting interoperability. At the same time, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” PC that responds to the requirements of all consumers.

Depending on their graphics requirements, customers can choose from a PC equipped with low- cost, low-performance integrated graphics processors and/or high-performance discrete graphics processors. The term “integrated graphics processor” refers to a graphics processing device that is typically integrated with the PC chipset or the CPU and that shares the PC system memory. The phrase “discrete graphics processor” refers to a graphics processing device that includes its own dedicated memory and memory controller. Discrete graphics processors today enable high- performance 2D, 3D, video, audio and display capabilities that are particularly popular with European consumers.

PC systems sold in Europe tend to be of higher performance levels than global averages, and accordingly tend to have a higher proportion of systems equipped with discrete graphics. The heightened demand for high-performance graphics enables an established ecosystem of regional system integrators to flourish, meeting local customer demand with differentiated graphics products, and stimulating competition in the European market.

A telling example of the need for open industry standards can be found in the critical arena of power management for discrete graphics processors. Computer manufacturers (“OEMs”) and component manufacturers alike, in their race for differentiation and sales, strive to manage power down to the lowest achievable levels—seeking to minimize cost of ownership and to maximize battery life in the case of laptops—while still delivering the needed performance and features to PC users. Power management technologies continue to evolve and rapidly improve over time. For example, it has been reported that the energy efficiency, or performance per watt, of discrete graphics has improved more than tenfold since 20052.

These impressive improvements in the energy efficiency of discrete graphics evolved from the PC’s basic architecture and the existing array of open standards. In recent years, proprietary techniques for power management have been introduced in a limited fashion, but the special case nature of the implementation and incompatibilities with industry standards rule them out for general application.

Switchable graphics, one such proprietary technology for power management, allows dynamic switching from discrete graphics to integrated graphics in some notebook PCs. While switchable graphics solutions have had some success in the market, the solutions are proprietary by nature; relying on custom software and hardware developed by individual vendors. Products with switchable graphics are specific to individual product offerings by specific OEMs, and in some cases available only within specific countries or regions. Support for switchable graphics is not possible using the standard model for PC motherboards that leverages the diversity and choice offered by the open standards-based PC ecosystem. In addition, switchable graphics solutions are not upgradable, and are confined to a small subset of product combinations, do not offer choices in operating systems, increase system complexity and deliver reduced performance and capabilities.

Innovation in the PC market flourishes in a regulatory environment that enables open, interoperable industry standards3. Regulations setting power allowances for discrete graphics that cannot be feasibly achieved by available technologies within the context of industry standards force the industry into use of non-standardized, proprietary technologies, such as switchable graphics architectures. This in turn results in limited performance, choice and connectivity for PC end-users. To ensure that consumers continue to benefit from the results of an open and competitive PC ecosystem; and to promote innovation, a diverse ecosystem of computer builders, and market competitiveness in their jurisdictions, regulators should promote the use of open, available, and established industry standards.