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Who's In, Who's Out, and What's New in 3D Graphics

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Who's In, Who's Out, and What's New in 3D Graphics

It's been a wild, wild ride in the 3D graphics business the last six months or so. One major player has vanished, another is slowly coming back from seeming oblivion, a third is dominating the OEM market, while others are proving that making your own graphics chips still makes sense. Quietly holding up the foundation of the heap, however is that 2000 lb. Gorilla, Intel.

With their acquisition of Chips and Technologies (a video chip company at the time) in 1998, many of Intel's fruits have to come to bear on the market. Thanks to their firm control over the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) PC video interface and their implementations of integrated video, Intel has gone from being a non-factor in the video chip market to garnering a huge segment of lower-end video processor shipments in new PCs.

Who's Out - for Good

It's hard to believe, but 3dfx, the maker of the famous Voodoo series of video cards and one-time OEM chip supplier to video card makers such as Diamond, Hercules, Aopen, STB, and others is in the process of shutting down forever after selling its technology and the Voodoo trademark to nVidia in December 2000.

In retrospect, it appears that 3dfx's decision to convert from a chipset vendor selling to various OEM customers to a retail-oriented company selling its own 3dfx-brand video cards was a huge mistake. A few years ago, 3dfx was a graphics powerhouse comparable to nVidia. But, while nVidia maintains its neutrality, happily selling high-performance 3D chipsets to anyone who shows them the money, 3dfx wound up competing against its former customers, who promptly switched to chipsets from nVidia. As a result, nVidia is the OEM champ - and if you have a 3dfx video card, you'd better get to www.3dfx.com and pull down drivers while you can.

Who Was Out - But Is Coming Back

When S3, Inc announced it was transforming itself into a new Internet-focused company called SONICblue in September 2000, the fate of S3's 3D chipsets was uncertain. A deal had previously been announced between SONICblue and Via Technologies to create a joint venture for 3D graphics chips and integrated chipsets, but legal details delayed the start of the new S3 Graphics, Inc until January 2001. Delayed or not, this is good news for existing users of "classic" S3 video chipsets such as the Savage 4which remains in the current product line of the new S3 Graphics, Inc (www.s3graphics.com).

But S3 Graphics, Inc is doing more than just recycling existing "classic" S3 chipset designs. In the mobile market, the Savage MX and IX are popular choice among major notebook computer makers such as Toshiba and IBM, while the new SuperSavage supports AGP 4x and a 64MB frame buffer.

If you like low-cost systems with integrated video but want to see more options than Intel's 810 and 815 series, watch for desktop systems using the new ProSavage PM133 and KM133 chipsets (the PM133 is for Celeron and Pentium III-based systems; the KM133 is for AMD Athlon and Duron-based systems). Twister is an integrated chipset offered for mobile Pentium III and Celeron-based systems that is also based on the Via Apollo PM133-series motherboard chipset and S3 Savage 4 video.

Who's In with OEMs Everywhere

As the final chapter of 3dfx's company history suggests, the big winner in the OEM chipset business is nVidia (www.nvidia.com). While nVidia received the rights to the Voodoo name and technology from 3dfx, it's uncertain as to when or whether any obviously 3dfx-inspired products will be coming from nVidia. But, nVidia has plenty of "invented here" products to be proud of. Their GeForce 2 family of chipsets bridges every desktop marketplace from the high-performance gamer (GeForce 2 Ultra) to the low-cost business system (GeForce 2 MX series). The new top-of-the-line GeForce 3 features ultra-realistic programmable texture effects through powerful pixel and vertex shaders and is four times faster than the GeForce 2 Ultra for some operations.

NVidia's products are available from major system manufacturers such as Compaq, Micron, Gateway, Dell and others as original equipment. NVidia is also the leading choice of add-on card makers such as Hercules, Creative Labs, Elsa, Visiontek and many others. With a wide variety of chipsets, models, and vendors, NVidia is the dominant OEM vendor today - and provides excellent performance for all types of systems.

Who's In - And Does It All

While nVidia has wrested the OEM chipset business away from rivals such as the "old" S3 and the now-defunct 3dfx, ATI Technologies (www.ati.com) continues to prove that you can make your own chipsets and also make a great retail and OEM video card product. While earlier chipsets were also-rans in 3D graphics, ATI's Radeon chipset offers performance comparable to the GeForce 2 GTS series and comes in a wide variety of configurations, including speedy DDR SDRAM cards, economical SDRAM models, and All-In-Wonder (for DVD playback and video editing). Specialized versions of Radeon technology include the Radeon VE dual-display card for desktop systems and the Radeon Mobility chipset for notebook computers. Note that Radeon VE and Radeon Mobility sacrifice some of the standard Radeon 3D bells and whistles (they lack hardware transform and lighting, for example), so hardcore gamers should stick with the standard Radeon-based cards for blazing 3D performance.

ATI's current Radeon and older Rage 128-series chipsets are also popular with system OEMs in both desktop and notebook computers, but if you want to buy an ATI-chipset video card, it's going to come from ATI itself, either as a retail box or "white box" OEM product.

The other major "all-in-one" company, Matrox Graphics (www.matrox.com/mga), has their spotlight on their most recent product, the G450. The G450 offers outstanding dual-monitor support and blazingly fast 2D operation, (perfect for office-automation and Web design) but poor 3D graphics performance.

What's New

The following table summarizes the latest videocards or chipsets from major makers.

Product Chipset 3D
Performance Level
Vendor Representative Notes
NVidia GeForce 3 Ultra-high Hercules 3D Prophet III GeForce 3 -based products available from many vendors
  GeForce 2 MX 200 Low to Moderate Products to be announced
  GeForce 2 MX 400 Low to Moderate Products to be announced
ATI Radeon High ATI Radeon 64MB DDR TV-out
  Radeon VE Medium ATI Radeon VE dual-display
Matrox G450 Low Matrox G450 dual-display
S3 Graphics ProSavage PM133 Low to moderate DFI CM35 (motherboard) Integrated motherboard chipset for Pentium III/Celeron
ProSavage KM133 Low to moderate Gigabyte GA-7ZMM (motherboard) Integrated motherboard chipset for AMD Duron/Athlon

Finally there is Intel. Their push in the video market was two-fold. First they created the defacto standard video interface for PCs, the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) slot. Then they decided they should have control over what plugs into that slot. The latest push is to integrate video directly into the Memory Controller Hub (MCH) of their newer low-end chipsets, making the chip a GMCH (Graphics Memory Controller Hub).

While the capability of this integrated 3D AGP video is nowhere near that of the independent video chipset and card makers, it is quite adequate, even decent, and basically "free" with the system. It is ideal for the lower-end commodity systems using these chipsets. By infiltrating the video market from the inside (motherboard chipset) out, Intel quietly owns a large portion of the market in new systems. Even if these integrated video products do perform on the lower-end of the spectrum, that is also where there is a lot of volume. It seems that "Intel Inside" is taking on a whole new meaning.

© Copyright 2002 Pearson Technology Group. All rights reserved.

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