Graphics chip makers turn up the heat

After ATI's dramatic comeback this summer with the Radeon 9700, Nvidia is plotting its revenge at Comdex Fall with the NV30

The graphics chip industry is readying for a renewed scuffle this autumn, as chipmaker Nvidia prepares its bid to regain the performance crown and other chip designers refresh their products.

The first big launch will be Nvidia's NV30 chip, which, according to a source close to the company, will make its debut at the Comdex Fall trade show in Las Vegas, held from 18 to 22 November. Rumours about the launch have been appearing on hardware-oriented Web sites.

Details of the NV30 are sketchy, but the chip is Nvidia's answer to ATI's Radeon 9700 chip, which has been the clear performance leader since its introduction in July, according to experts and ZDNet UK Labs tests. The Nvidia chip is believed to have been redesigned from a six-pipeline design to accomodate eight pipelines, like the Radeon 9700.

The top-end Radeon chip has more than 100 million transistors -- twice as many as most PC processors -- and is capable of churning out 2.5 billion pixels per second. The chip clock speed is 325MHz, while the memory speed is 310MHz. Nvidia's current GeForce4 Ti 4600, by contrast, has 63 million transistors.

To leapfrog ATI, Nvidia is expected to boost clock speed, perhaps into the 400MHz range, although the company has said that clock speed will not be its emphasis. Nvidia's real innovation is expected to be greater programmability, or the ability to add new features in hardware.

This new direction, which arrives along with Nvidia's own high-level graphics programming language, Cg, will mean that graphics cards arrive off the shelf with more up-to-date hardware features, and that the functions carried out in hardware can be updated as techniques are invented and refined. It will also give graphics card owners a way to keep their hardware up-to-date while they are waiting for faster, more complex graphics chips to arrive.

Products based on NV30 -- which will probably be branded as GeForce5 -- may arrive by the end of this year or early next year.

ATI is planning a revamp of its high-end line with the R350 and RV350 chips, the company has confirmed. Little has been divulged publicly about these processors, but the R350 is likely to use a 0.15-micron manufacturing process, compared with the more advanced 0.13-micron process Nvidia will apply to the NV30. The RV350 will launch later and will be a simplified form of the R350, using a 0.13-micron manufacturing process. When graphics cards based on the RV350 arrive in the next few months, ATI could again gain an advantage over Nvidia.

Silicon Integrated Systems (SIS) has said it is planning to launch a new Xabre 600 graphics chip in the fourth quarter, with support for DirectX 8.1, AGP 8x support and a higher clock speed of 275MHz, bringing it up to par with GeForce4 and Radeon 9500 products. The Xabre 600 targets a lower price point than ATI's and Radeon's high-end offerings.

Trident Microsystems is to launch its new XP4 chip in the fourth quarter using a 0.13-micron process, which could put it into competition with Nvidia. Trident, like SIS, concentrates more on the mainstream graphics market, shying away from the high end.

See Chips Central for the latest headlines on processors and semiconductors.

To find out more about the computers and hardware that these chips are being used in, see ZDNet UK's Hardware News Section.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Go to the Chips Central Forum.

Let the Chips Central editor know what you think by email. And sign up for the weekly Chips Central newsletter.