ATI delays Radeon 9600

The chipmaker is rolling its top graphics processor to retailers now, but the next revision of its technology - carrying a lower price tag for consumers - will have to wait

ATI said it will be set to launch its delayed Radeon 9600 graphics processor later this month, later than expected but still reaching the market before Nvidia's competing chip, code-named NV35. The new chip is a key part of ATI's efforts to maintain a performance advantage over Nvidia, the graphics market leader. It is based on the same technology as the earlier Radeon 9700 chip but uses a more advanced manufacturing process, meaning that it can be sold at lower prices. ATI said on Wednesday that boards and cards based on the high-end Radeon 9800 Pro graphics processing unit (GPU) have begun shipping to customers and retail outlets, as promised in the chip's formal launch early in March. At the time, the company promised that it would "announce and ship products based on Radeon 9800, Radeon 9600 and Radeon 9200 technologies starting this month." While Radeon 9800 products have begun shipping, the other two chips will now go into volume production later in April, the company said. The 9200 is aimed at mainstream consumers, while the 9600 (code-named RV350) is intended to fill a broad niche in the market by combining ATI's high-performance technology with a low price tag. Horse race
Canada's ATI took the speed lead last year with the introduction of the Radeon 9700, the first graphics chip to take advantage of new programming capabilities built into DirectX 9, the latest version of Microsoft's library of PC graphics instructions. The RV350 uses the same basic design as the 9700 but will be built on the 0.13-micron chipmaking process. The chip has four pixel pipelines and two vertex engines and also supports DirectX 9. While the Radeon 9600 will be aimed at consumers looking to pay a reasonable price for cutting-edge technology, the Radeon 9800 is intended to maintain ATI's status as the performance leader against Nvidia. ZDNet lab tests published last month showed that the Radeon 9800 outperformed Nvidia's current top-end chip, the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, at least where it came to high-end features. The GeForce part is currently only shipping in limited quantities. Nvidia will be looking to bump past ATI in May with the NV35 chip, an improved version of the NV30 technology in the GeForce FX 5800. The one-upmanship between the two companies bears little relationship to the actual state of affairs in the GPU marketplace. While Nvidia is effectively a generation behind ATI -- which, unlike Nvidia, was shipping its current generation of chips before Christmas -- this has had little impact on Nvidia's leading market share, according to analysts. Manufacturing shift
Chipmakers have been struggling with the transition from the 0.15-micron process -- which refers to the size of the smallest features that can be printed on the chip -- to a 0.13-micron environment. Smaller features allow more transistors to fit on the same piece of silicon, boosting performance and cutting manufacturing costs. Nvidia decided to make the jump to 0.13 micron with the new GeForce FX chip, which resulted in repeated delays as chip foundries worked out kinks. ATI decided to wait until this year to make the shift, allowing it to essentially squeeze out an extra generation of 0.15-micron chips. ATI could not be reached to comment. CNET's David Becker contributed to this report.

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