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Nvidia confirms Mac support with GeForce 2 MX

Lets slip Apple's plan to offer card as build-to-order Mac option?

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Nvidia today clarified its position on Mac support - sort of. The 3D graphics company has certainly changed its mind since we quizzed it on the matter six months ago - back then it had a real downer on the platform, now it considers the Mac a viable market.

The question is, what is it going to do to attack that market? The answer is vague, to say the least.

Speaking at the UK launch of Nvidia's GeForce 2 MX chip, the successor to last autumn's GeForce 256, VP of strategic marketing Oliver Baltuch Nvidia was please to say work had been done to "make that market available to us".

A reference to a move on Apple's part to encourage 3D graphics vendors to move to the platform? Quite possibly. Apple has long turned to ATI for its graphics acceleration products, and continues to bundle the Rage 128 Pro and Rage Mobility kit in its desktop and notebook lines, respectively.

That recently prompted 3dfx to demand that Apple widens the 3D options made available to its build-to-order customers. With ATI cards be bundled, 3dfx claimed, with some justification, that it's much harder to sell competing products into the Mac space. Of course, 3dfx has an axe to grind here. It clearly doesn't like the way Apple's bundling programme tilts the playing field in ATI's favour. But at least 3dfx has been quietly supporting the Mac for some time with Voodoo 2 and 3 drivers, and will soon ship Mac-dedicated Voodoo 4 and 5 boards, which were designed to support the Mac from the ground up.

Baltuch's explanation of why the Mac market was previously unavailable to Nvidia centres on the graphics company's own limited resources and not having the right product until now - the GeForce 2 MX. That's a moot point, given the MX is a mainstream part while the superior GeForce 2 GTS might seem more suited to the high-end graphical work the Mac is best known for, but Baltuch side-stepped that issue, preferring to stress the suitability of the MX.

But then an Nvidia Europe colleague, when pushed about potential partners - since Nvidia doesn't make its own boards - let slip: "Apple of course." When asked for more details, we were told to await "a future announcement".

A curious statement to make, given recent Net rumours that Apple might be dropping ATI in favour of Nvidia. Other Apple sources claim that's not going to happen, but what we have here looks like a deal between Apple and Nvidia to offer the GeForce 2 MX, probably alongside ATI's Rage 128 Pro and perhaps even the upcoming Radeon 256. The MX is possibly a better choice than the GTS, since it's a third of the price, yet only half as powerful (based on fill rates), an approach that suits Apple's strategy of offering top-name kit that's nevertheless nobbled to keep the cost down. The Rage 128 boards that shipped with the Power Mac G3, for instance, were clocked way below their retail equivalents.

Key to moving the Nvidia part on to the Mac are drivers, and again Nvidia's staffers could only mutter about future announcements. If they're done right, though, they should support all Nvidia cards, allowing MX owners to upgrade later to GTS cards if they wish. If Nvidia does the drivers, they almost certainly will be done right, though the company's caginess over their production suggests someone else, possibly Apple, is doing the work.

Nvidia will certainly offer the drivers on its Web site, allowing Mac owners to buy PC versions of the product, but the Baltuch and co.'s tone suggests that's not how the company expects to lead the Mac graphics market, which it hopes to do.

Where does this leave 3dfx? Well, assuming Apple isn't ditching ATI - and we wouldn't rule that out, unlikely as it may be - and given the company's desire for the Mac to be perceived not only at the top of the graphics tree but as a great games machine (Jobs wants all those consumers on his side, don't forget), it makes sense to shot about having as many top-name graphics vendors on your side as possible, and the best way of doing that is getting Voodoo 4 and 5 into the BTO options list.

It also depends on 3dfx giving Apple a decent price, but given the company's willingness to discount Voodoo 2 and 3 cards to token margins - possibly even zero or negative margins, if some industry sources are to be believed - that's not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Either way, the addition of Nvidia is a major step forward for the Mac graphics market. ®

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