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The Ongoing Struggle for Graphics Supremacy

By Gene J. Koprowski
Oct 16, 2003 10:45 AM PT

Graphics technology leaders ATI and Nvidia have been rolling out new innovations at a steady pace in the past several years, competing for desktop partnerships and mind share. The two companies have often been compared to Intel and AMD in the way they've battled furiously, but ATI and Nvidia don't have quite as much animosity toward each other.

The Ongoing Struggle for Graphics Supremacy

Some sources even claim that ATI and Nvidia recently have agreed to put the brakes on the speed at which the companies release new graphics products. The story goes that both companies are weary of putting so much money into research and development -- and of the subsequent hammering from the press if launch dates are missed.

There is also a chance that the companies have detected signs of resistance from first-adopter consumers who have begun to see the large amount of money they're spending on the latest graphics cards as wasted. After all, a few months down the line, new chipsets come out and effectively obsolesce their once-top-of-the-line cards.

Potent Graphics Processors

But even if the rumors are true that ATI and Nvidia have agreed to a truce of sorts, the pace of competition between these two graphics giants seems not to have slowed one whit. Earlier this month, for example, Nvidia and ATI both announced new products for notebook PCs at the CeBIT trade show in Hannover, Germany. The notebook news came on the heels of both companies announcing new desktop chips.

As the current market leader for mobile graphics chips, ATI plans to offer two new mobile products based on its Radeon 9000 series of desktop chips: the Mobility Radeon 9200 for mainstream laptops and the Mobility Radeon 9600 for performance systems. ATI also recently announced the Mobility Radeon 7000, an integrated chipset that combines a graphics processor with a chipset for controlling basic PC functions.

Along with faster processing and support for some of the enhanced graphics technologies included in Microsoft's DirectX 9 -- the latest version of Microsoft's PC graphics library -- the latest ATI chips include several new features. Overdrive, a package of hardware and software improvements in the 9200 and 9600 chipsets, allows those chips to run at higher-than-rated speeds if conditions permit.

The ATI Overdrive technology is essentially an automated version of overclocking. Thermal sensors in the chips monitor the temperature inside the laptop and throttle back the chips' speed if things get too hot.

Flexfit Packaging Design

The new Radeons also use "Flexfit," a new packaging design that lets notebook makers use the same motherboard with different graphics processors. The design will be a cost-saver for notebook makers and ultimately should allow laptop owners to upgrade their graphics cards.

The Mobility Radeon 9600 is expected to appear in laptops from major manufacturers starting in the upcoming months, followed shortly by the 9200 and 7000.

Meanwhile, Nvidia has announced two mobile chips that are based on the GeForce FX -- the oft-delayed desktop chip still making its way to retailers. The GeForce FX Go 5600 and 5200 include all of the DirectX 9 features from the desktop GeForce FX, plus advanced power management technology and a host of new multimedia features for displaying DVD and streaming video.

For example, the chip can analyze a video that's being displayed and can automatically enhance the presentation for the right balance of image detail and motion sensitivity.

Other Graphics Players

ATI and Nvidia aren't the only companies working on advanced graphics technologies. SGI, for example, recently debuted the Silicon Graphics Onyx4 Ultimate Vision, the fourth generation of the company's visualization technology.

SGI's single-system configuration can scale from two to three graphics processors, and it is said to offer eight times the graphics bandwidth of competitors' products -- at a price one-fifth that of earlier versions of the company's high-end graphics workstations.

Meanwhile, software developer AliasWavefront, a major player in Hollywood's computer-generated graphics industry, is trying to make a move in the market beyond its core developer base. For example, the company recently debuted SketchBook Pro, a companion application to the Tablet PC.

"Alias believes the innovations have the potential to change the way people collaborate," spokesperson Brett A. Gold told TechNewsWorld.

The software combines image-processing capabilities with annotation and presentation applications. "Users can use it as a mobile tool to annotate images, sketch ideas and present them on a PC -- when away from their desk," said Gold.

Onset of the Multimedia Era

One developer has been using tools from AliasWavefront to develop a real-time game that could revolutionize several industries. Called I-Race, the project is going live this fall on TV in the United Kingdom and, soon after that, on cable or satellite TV around the world, after an 18-month programming effort by 30 software engineers.

A joint venture between Telewest, the United Kingdom's second largest cable operator, and game developer VIS Entertainment (the maker of best-selling video games like State of Emergency), I-Race will be the world's first computer-generated TV channel.

Viewers will be able to participate actively in the animated races -- not just place bets on prospective winning stallions. They will be able to buy, name and train the animated racehorses, race against other enthusiasts and compete for prize money, just like the owners of real racehorses.

"What we have accomplished is the automated generation of broadcast-quality animated pictures, which wasn't particularly easy to do," Scott Maxwell, the software architect and project director for I-Race at VIS ITV, told TechNewsWorld.

Broadcast Graphics Everywhere

Programming for this technology was done largely in C++. The horses and racing stadiums were created with Alias Wavefront's Maya software. Kadara software was used to create the "virtual presenters" who broadcast the races. Windows 2000 was the operating system used on the computers running the races, and Nvidia GeForce 4 graphics cards were employed on the 17 PCs used to render the environments and horses in real-time.

Multiple rendering streams will produce the real-time animated broadcasts. "The key driver of the project was having to do it in real-time," said Chris van der Kyle, programmer and CEO of VIS Entertainment. "To convince spectators that the races are not fixed, nobody can know the outcome of the race before it runs. So the race actually does run live."

Developers like these likely will keep graphics companies -- especially ATI, Nvidia and SGI -- biting at each other's heels in the race to create the fastest, most capable graphics chipsets and workstations.

While there are certainly rumors in the air about Nvidia and ATI coming to terms about the pace of their development, neither company wants to be outpaced by a third-party upstart. In that sense, both will almost certainly keep pushing the envelope.


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