ECTS 2001 redux

All the best bits, without a trip to Docklands

A quick look at the more interesting aspects of this season's European Computer Trade Show.

Things kicked off with a range of talks, from the future of graphics technology to an exploration of the Xbox's audio systems. The latter also looked at the highly optimised implementations of DirectSound and DirectMusic supported by Nvidia's audio processor. DirectSound in particular has been completely rewritten from the ground up for the console, proving once again that this is not simply a bunch of PC parts cobbled together and placed in a funky black and green case. The possibilities of the dynamic music and audio scripting systems included in DirectX 8 are virtually endless, and with the addition of full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound support gamers should be in for an aural treat once developers start to take full advantage of the system's capabilities.

The talk on the future of graphics was largely about Nvidia hardware. After feedback from developers, it seems that Nvidia's approach from now on will be to make each new card more and more programmable, building on the flexible pixel and vertex shaders included in the GeForce 3 to allow developers increasing control over the rendering pipeline rather than imposing a limited selection of preset operations. Already the GeForce 3 allows developers to implement everything from fish-eye distortion to the kind of motion blur and depth of vision effects touted by 3dfx shortly before its demise.

And to demonstrate the sheer power of the latest hardware, David took an off-the-shelf GeForce 3 and proceeded to demonstrate Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within being rendered in realtime. It was a bit of a cheat, because the textures weren't quite as rich and the backdrops had been grossly simplified, but seeing several thousand polygons worth of Dr Aki Ross being shifted in real-time was certainly an eye-opener. With full-scene anti-aliasing the frame rate came in at a mere 12-15fps, but it "should be running at 24fps in a couple of weeks". A hint that Nvidia is about to announce a GeForce 3 Ultra?

Processors

Intel had a decidedly smaller presence than at ECTS 2000, but then last year marked the launch of the Pentium 4. Ironically, it might have been better off putting on a big show this year. AMD were nowhere to be seen, off parading around behind closed doors, and Intel had a lot to say.

Processor speeds are still doubling once every 18 months, and the 2GHz Pentium 4 really flew. Prices are still dropping. Although this puts Intel neatly in line with AMD, almost clock for clock according to PriceWatch, they maintain that this has more to do with improved yields and the decision to push P4 as the main Intel processor. This is the 'real' launch of the P4, and in its new form factor using new fabrication techniques it will continue to scale spectacularly. Northwood, the next iteration, has already been demonstrated at 3.5GHz.

Pentium III is all but finished. Rumours sprang up last week that the 0.13 micron Tualatin would become the new Celeron rather than the new desktop PIII, and although neither of the Intel representatives we spoke to would confirm it, it seems like a logical move.

The subject of Rambus isn't quite as touchy as we had thought it might be. Everyone was enthusiastic about it, pointing out how cheap it has become. Although Intel has been experimenting with i845, a Pentium 4 platform for SDRAM and, soon, DDR, in performance terms neither is very far from the other, and it is the view of executives at Intel (and benchmarks on the Web) that Rambus is still the way to go.

We had expected Intel to launch the 2GHz Pentium 4 then perhaps back off for a while, launching 2.1 and 2.2 in time for Christmas. Not so, it would seem. There's nothing to hold them back now, and with the lowest processors in the chain (1.3, 1.4 and 1.5GHz) all retailing at the same price, there seems to be no end to the upscale.

Graphics

We wanted to ask Guillemot/Hercules about its relationship with Nvidia. In the past both have flatly denied that there is friction between the two over the Guillemot's 3D Prophet 4500 Kyro II board. Jackie Seear, Guillemot's UK Marketing Manager, told us that the problems with GeForce 3 chip allocation were marketwide, not down to some childish feud. According to Jackie, the AO3 revision of the GeForce 3 chipset was buggy, and this meant waiting for the AO5 to arrive in bulk. At the moment supplies are still low, and every company that offers GeForce 3 is suffering.

Beyond the GeForce 3 though, Guillemot still had plenty on show. Its range of graphics cards has grown to cover every sector of the market, with two Kyro II boards - the 64Mb version now joined by a 32Mb version - and two boards based on the original Kyro, one of which is a PCI card.

Speaking of Kyros, ST Microelectronics' tiny little back-room stand was being used almost exclusively to showcase the Kyro II rendering 60,000 polygons at 60 frames per second. A demonstration to end the speculation that the card can’t hack it, we were told. The show also showcased the release of the company’s SDK, and a few factsheets about PowerVR MBX, which will slot into 3G mobiles whenever they lift off. Apparently the chip has run Quake III before board members at 30 frames per second. Impressive tech.

ATI, which had one of the larger stands at the show, hinted that it intends to offer its new Radeon chips, the 7500 and 8500, to companies like Hercules, ELSA and the like, a la Nvidia. The message seems to be that Guillemot/Hercules would be interested, but it would need a reason to take them. A gap in the market to fill, that's how.

Elsa had the new black PCB GeForce 3 card on show. Now, these cards aren't merely special because of the PCB, but also because the company will be advertising them as overclockable. This is an interesting idea, and we're not sure how the company will get round the warranty implications. But Adam Foat, Elsa UK's product Manager said that he had seen chips scale to 240MHz core and 560MHz memory. Impressive figures.

Aside from the GeForce 3, Elsa had several interesting technologies on display. Firstly, its entry-level TFT displays. These 15in models will be priced around £450, and they look stunning. There's very little visual tearing, unlike virtually every TFT display we've ever seen, and even from the most acute angle, every detail is still perfectly visible. On the more expensive side of things, they had 4D displays. You stand still while two cameras train in on your eyes and generate an appropriate image - which jumps out of the screen at you. An optical illusion, but a very impressive on and we dare say useful one when it comes to 3D design. Elsa also plans to launch stylish 19in and 21in monitors in shades of metallic grey.

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