Nvidia on Monday officially launched its long-awaited next-generation graphics processor, the GeForce FX, claiming a power boost of four times over the company's previous high-end product. But the real story, Nvidia said, was the design work that has gone into the chip -- from its ability to run complex shader programs right down to a patent-pending thermal management system.
The cooling system is a crucial innovation, said Nvidia senior product manager Geoff Ballew, allowing the 125-million-transistor chip to run at full throttle without burning a hole in the PC's casing. It occupies two ports on the PC's board, side by side, one of which is taken up by air vents. The system introduces a feature called "silent running", which monitors the chip's pipeline activity and reduces the fan speed when the GPU has less work to do. The system even has its own power connection.
"Heat is the enemy of microprocessor performance," Ballew said. "This is an overclocker's dream. But instead of making them build one themselves, we're going to productise it and make it available through retail." He noted that PC processors such as the Pentium 4 are getting hotter with each new generation and will need similar cooling mechanisms before long.
Other design improvements are more directly related to creating more complex, believable 3D graphics. Nvidia is aiming for "cinematic computing", or real-time PC graphics on par with the best that film 3D animation and special effects can offer. To this end it designed the GeForce FX to execute complex programs called shaders, which can be customised by game designers to give objects and environments a unique look and feel.
The chip can execute shaders of up to 65,000 instructions long. Special features have been built into Microsoft's DirectX 9 graphics programming interface to expose the chip's capabilities, Ballew said.
One demonstration of programmability literally amounted to watching paint dry: it consisted of a model of a 1950s pickup truck that aged slowly, losing its lustre and then rusting and decaying until it was completely decrepit. The truck's paint alone consisted of 14 different shaders, Ballew said.
"Now all objects will be this way in games," he said. "They won't be static. They will change over time, age and deform."
As for the raw power to render all this complexity at 60 frames per second, the chip will run at 500MHz and churn out 200 billion operations per second, or gigaflops. This could be represented as more than 560 million times the power of ENIAC, usually recognised as the first digital computer, Nvidia said. Ballew went on to explain that if the mass of all those ENIACs were compressed to the physical size of the GeForce FX, it would create a black hole with an event horizon of 1/4 mile.
In the chip's packaging and manufacturing process, Nvidia also followed its historical pattern of using cutting-edge techniques. It uses flip-chip packaging, a technique adopted in PC processors about two years ago that allows more efficient cooling.
The chip uses a 0.13-micron manufacturing process from TSMC, compared to the 0.15-micron process used by ATI's next-gen Radeon 9700 chip. The smaller feature size improves efficiency, reduces heat emission and makes the product less expensive to manufacture. However, the process has taken Nvidia time to perfect, with the result that the Radeon 9700 chip launched several months ahead of the GeForce FX.
"We didn't compromise on our technology in order to get to market faster," Ballew said.
Nvidia said it would begin shipping silicon to its board partners next month. They will begin shipping their cards in January, with products hitting retail shelves in February. Ballew said that the cards would be priced in line with previous products aimed at enthusiasts. Top-end graphics cards can sell for £250 to £300.
The "FX" in the name refers to both cinematic special effects and to the fact that this is the first new product since Nvidia integrated the design team of acquired chipmaker 3Dfx.
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