Discrete Fail: Why Do so Few PCs Feature Graphics Cards?


Despite all the hype over the GPU's prowess, the inventory of retail PCs show consumers aren't buying it

The GPU might be hailed as the new heir to the computing throne, but a stroll through any big-box PC retailer doesn’t bear that out—very few PCs under $900 even have discrete graphics cards. Instead, in the vast majority of machines for sale, the lowly, spat-upon integrated graphics rule the roost.

According to John Karabian, a product manager with No. 2 PC maker Acer, for the average consumer, it’s still just about the big three: CPU, RAM, and hard drive: “They know a 3.2GHz Core i7 is going to be slower than a 3.33GHz Core i7, 4GB is better than 2GB, and 1TB is better than 500GB.” The graphics card, Karabian said, is just something most consumers don’t think about, and if they do, it’s in a negative way. “The perception, it seems, in the marketplace, is that discrete graphics are only for gamers,” said Karabian.

Randy Copeland, president of Velocity Micro, agreed that the average consumer couldn’t care less about graphics in today’s market. Although Velocity Micro’s PCs are above the mainstream $900 PC, and all include graphics cards, he said it is difficult to market the benefits of the GPU to consumers.

“They don’t get the value of that graphics card unless there is a blue shirt there walking them through it,” Copeland said. “You don’t have a whole lot of space to sell someone a computer. It’s limited to the four or five bullet points [on the price tag], and that’s your sales pitch.”

Sub-$1,000 PCs, like this HP Pavilion, rarely feature discrete graphics.

Now, try to educate someone on the differences in the number of texture and stream processors in a GPU, and the memory bandwidth of a videocard.

Karabian agreed, saying the abbreviated life cycle of graphics cards makes it even more confusing.

“You really have to delve deep to find out why a Radeon HD 4870 is not as fast as a Radeon HD 5870 or a GeForce GTX 285. That’s a challenging prospect, and then you’re back to, ‘Oh, it’s only for gamers,’ ” according to Karabian.

Analyst Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research, said the situation is unfortunate because PCs, and especially graphics, offer particularly good value for the money.

“If a retailer can sell the benefits of more memory and clock speed of the CPU, then he/she can certainly sell the benefits of better graphics. However, it’s been pretty well established that higher CPU clocks don’t deliver as much bang for the buck as a more powerful GPU for anything that involves pixels. And, sadly, the applications aren’t making much use of the multicore CPUs being shipped today,” he said.

Peddie said discrete graphics will only become a harder sell as Intel and AMD release their respective lines of CPUs with integrated graphics cores. These chips have enough graphics power to capture all of the midrange PCs, as well as to eat into the low-end $100 GPU market. Integrated graphics accounted for 72 percent of PC sales in 2009, according to Peddie. That’s up from 68 percent just the year before.

“The problem is the consumer hasn’t been properly educated about the benefits of discrete graphics,” Peddie said. “Had Intel delivered Larrabee, it would have helped overcome that ignorance. But today, all the average consumer seems to know about discrete graphics is that they’re good for games. GPU compute for color correction, transcoding, video smoothing, and encryption isn’t being explained to the consumer the way I think it should be, so purchase decisions are made on price and not features.”

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