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Could 3D chips threaten Intel

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Heere's Roy...

Recently the memory market has started to go a little soft and most in the industry point the finger of blame at a flat PC market and a jump in output from Micron. Bad news. But in another corner of the computer world business is booming. The world of 3D graphics is going gangbusters as every four months another generation of 3D chips comes out offering better resolutions and faster speeds. Unlike processors, which have effectively topped out in terms of what we need them for (let's face it -- who needs a Pentium PIII 600MHz to open an Excel spreadsheet?), 3D engines have miles and miles of room to develop. Not until we can play Quake at a photo realistic level can we even be said to be close to the end of the line for 3D graphics. Even then, trying to render sunlight across dappled water or through a forest canopy will test the technology to its limit. That level of graphics is at least six to eight years away. Over the next few years we will also see 3D Office applications emerge along with 3D Web browsers that actually get used. This -- and games -- will drive the need for faster and faster 3D graphics chips and larger and larger frame buffers. The average amount of RAM per graphics card is now 16MB and 32MB cards are now becoming more popular. This Christmas there will be plenty of 64MB graphics cards out too. So how could this threaten Intel? By Q4 of this year there could be a new generation of 3D engines that have more transistors than the Pentium. These processors used to be known by their generic brand ie. S3, ATI, Matrox or 3dfx. But now nVidia and 3dfx rate their products by speed. Thus 3Dfx and nVidia have parts marketed and rated at between 125MHz and 183MHz, and faster parts are on the horizon. Ask any gamer what's more important -- a fast processor or fast 3D and they'll tell you it's the 3D that counts. What gamers want today we will all be using tomorrow. For proof just take a look at the PC in your office -- it was gamers that pushed the need for the sound, the video playback and the 3D acceleration that you have today. It's gamers that push the boundaries in PC's today from networking to monitors. The fact is that a PC assembler could quite feasibly start building PC's with just one processor, say an AMD K6 or Pentium PII at one MHz and then sell them based on the speed rating of the 3D chip. One price for a PC with an nVidia TNT 2 at 150MHz and another for an nVidia TNT 2 at 183MHz and so on. After all, it's an open secret in this business that once you get beyond a certain point, it's impossible to tell -- just from using it -- whether your PC has a faster or slower processor. But any user could tell from the frame rate in a game whether he was using a faster or slower graphics engine. Based on the textures, shadows and special effects he could also spot which features the chip had. Being able to differentiate between products means being able to charge more for what's better. Right now Intel only has the speed rating to differentiate its products, the machines themselves are not noticeably different from the users point of view. We face a future in which the 3D chips are going to become increasingly important. You heard it here first. ®

Roy Taylor is MD of 3DSL

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