ATI: Radeon 9700 is double the power of GeForce4

ATI promises to revolutionise the graphics industry with double the speed than anything else on the market, plus more features. The chip may allow ATI to regain its lead over Nvidia

ATI Technologies on Thursday released details of its upcoming Radeon 9700 PC graphics chip, saying it will deliver twice the performance of anything else on the market, and will lay a new foundation for cinematic 3D graphics.

"Any company that wants to compete in the high end will have to follow in our footsteps," said Rick Bergman, ATI's general manager for the desktop, in a statement.

The chip's performance and features are a significant improvement over those of GeForce4, the flagship product of market leader Nvidia, according to industry analysts, and even when GeForce5 arrives in the autumn the race could still be close. The Radion 9700 could give ATI a rare chance to regain the lead over its dominant rival.

"This is not the first time they've had the fastest graphics chip on the market...but it is unusual for ATI to have both significant features and performance advantage," said Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of influential industry newsletter Microprocessor Report. "That's exactly what you need when you're competing with someone as aggressive as Nvidia... This is ATI's strongest opportunity in some years to retake the lead."

Nvidia first began to chip away at ATI's leading spot in computer graphics in 1999, but as of the first quarter of this year held 44 percent of the desktop PC market, compared with ATI's 24 percent, according to Jon Peddie Research.

Most major graphics board vendors announced plans to make Radeon 9700 units, including Creative Labs Asia, Gigabyte Technology, Hercules Guillemot and Tyan. The boards will be available in August at the earliest; Hercules said its boards will ship in September.

The chip includes features designed to increase raw performance and realism, and to give programmers more control over the way graphics are rendered. It supports DirectX 9, the next generation of Microsoft's programming libraries for gaming, which opens up new sets of features.

The chip has eight parallel rendering pipelines capable of processing 2.5 billion pixels per second. It uses four parallel geometry engines to process more than 300 million polygons per second. The chip uses a high-performance 256-bit DDR memory interface, which provides 20GB per second of graphics memory bandwidth, and supports the emerging AGP 8X specification.

The chip has more than 100 million transistors, making it more complex than most desktop PC processors. Intel's Pentium 4 processor, for example, contains 55 million transistors.

For increased realism, Radeon 9700 uses a technology called Smartshader 2.0, which supports up to 16 textures per rendering pass, and vertex programs of up to 1,024 instructions with flow control, ATI said. The increased complexity of shader programs, running in real time, allows programmers to create more realistic effects.

ATI's Smoothvision 2.0 technology uses a new anti-aliasing implementation for more detailed smoothing of 3D objects. It supports up to 16 bilinear or trilinear samples per pixel.

Videoshader and Fullstream, new to Radeon, are used to clean up video for improved television and DVD quality. The hardware supports MPEG-2 encoding and decoding.

ATI also unveiled details of its upcoming Radeon 9700 board for the Mac. Arriving in early autumn, the board will feature 128MB of DDR memory and dual-display support for CRT and flat-panel monitors. Pricing was not announced.

If ATI hits its performance goals and the new chips sell, the company's resurgence will be an oddity in the exceedingly tough market for graphics chips.

Just a few years ago, more than 40 companies designed graphics chips, which sell for only $50 to $90 at the high end. The tight competition meant that companies were spending 18 months to develop chips that had a shelf life as their flagship chip of only six months.

Missing one or two product cycles was often followed by a slide into oblivion. 3Dfx, which enjoyed an Apple -like following in 1997 because of its Voodoo chips, began to spiral following a few product delays (3Dfx was eventually acquired by Nvidia). S3, once of the big names in graphics, morphed into consumer electronics manufacturer SonicBlue after multiple reorganizations.

Intel snuffed out its attempt to get into high-end graphics after a year and a half of embarrassing sales, but later found a niche in making integrated chipsets for cheaper computers.

When Nvidia trumped ATI for the lead in the graphics market, some analysts speculated that the market would become fairly stable as few remaining challengers remained and the company continually showed that it was capable of coming out with products every six months.

Nvidia also continued to increase its market share, as well as its collection of high profile deals, such as the contract to supply chips to Microsoft's Xbox. In the first quarter, Nvidia held 44 percent of the desktop PC market, compared with ATI's 24 percent, according to Jon Peddie Research.

Still, ATI continued to hold the lead in graphics chips for notebooks while maintaining design teams for desktop chips.

"This is the leapfrog process these companies have been in for years," said analyst Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research. "Nvidia had an advantage for a while as ATI was reorganising... but they're very much back in the game now."

CNET's David Becker contributed to this report.

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