S3 ready to Savage 3-D chip market

Graphics chip maker S3 Inc. returned fire at rivals Intel Corp.

Graphics chip maker S3 Inc. returned fire at rivals Intel Corp. and Nvidia Co. on Monday, unveiling its next-generation chip aimed at speeding PC graphics.

Called the Savage3D, the chip looks ready to put S3 (SIII) back in the game as an answer to Intel's Intel740, which has been released, and Nvidia's RIVA TNT, which has not.

Intel Corp.'s solid entry into the graphics market is making it tougher for the old guard, especially S3.

S3 has been working to close up holes in its portable offerings. In November, S3 introduced its Virge/MXi graphics chips for portables.

"This chip spans the range of users: from hard-core gamers to mainstream users," said Michelle Belusar, product marketing manager for S3.

"This positions them well against Intel and Nvidia," said Mike Feibus, principal analyst at semiconductor market watcher Mercury Research Inc. "They're back in the saddle."

After several missteps, including a shareholder lawsuit and a missed product cycle, S3 is betting all on its latest chip.

Up to industry specs
It looks like a good bet, according to Feibus.

Savage3D should be able to pump out 125 million pixels per second, beating out Intel's (INTC) stated 50 million for its Intel740, but falling short of the 250 million that Nvidia expects its RIVA TNT to hit when it comes out this fall.

The new S3 chip also has a host of features that put it ahead of many of today's mainstream chips.

The first is tri-linear filtering, a technology for making objects appear much more smoothly detailed, rather than blocky. For Christmas 1998, Belusar estimates that 80 percent of the top-selling games will use the technology, instead of today's less-effective bi-linear filtering.

"Savage3D's performance doesn't take a hit when tri-linear filtering is turned on," said Belusar. And that's big, she said. Users will get quality without having to sacrifice smooth game play.

The new chip will also work with Intel's quad-speed advanced graphics port, or AGP, bus and use S3's proprietary texture 6X compression to fit more 3-D textures into memory.

Savage3D's features don't sacrifice 2-D or video either, said Belusar. "We think we have a great solution for DVD as well," she said.

Back in the saddle?
For S3, the chip came not a moment too soon. Savage3D follows a long dry spell for the graphics chip maker -- a spell that could have ended any chance to catch up in the fast-moving market.

The problem: the Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker didn't keep up with the times. "We openly acknowledge the fact that we missed a product cycle," said Paul Crossly, marketing manager for S3.

Yet, the graphics chip maker doesn't plan on repeating those mistakes. "We are already working on our next two generations of chips," said Belusar.

The Savage3D chip will be sampling this month and available in August, priced at $35 in 10,000-unit quantities.


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