Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 2 (Feb 2002)

Graphic Equalizers

By Jenny Donelan

The Fire GL 8800 board from ATI Technologies represents one of the company's mid-range offerings for professional users. Like competitors Nvidia and 3Dlabs, ATI has other products aimed at the higher end of the market as well. All three chipmakers are working to establish a foothold in as many market niches as possible.

People who create 3D imagery for a living used to have a wide choice of graphics accelerators for their workstations. Now, with companies such as Diamond and 3dfx either absorbed, ceasing to make graphics cards, or ceasing to do business altogether, choices are more limited. Even this smaller pool of workstation-level products is based on chips from only three major manufacturers: ATI Technologies, Nvidia, and 3Dlabs.

Now that the players have settled into their positions, for the time being anyway, each chip vendor is bent on expanding not only the power of its products-which Nvidia and other companies have taken to calling GPUs, or graphics processing units, lest we underestimate their capabilities-but its user base. In the case of Nvidia and ATI, the expansion is upward, toward professional digital content creators and CAD users. 3Dlabs, on the other hand, is taking its high-performing-yet-pricey Wildcat technology and paddling it downstream a bit to the mid-range market. So each vendor is aiming for total market domination, or, to put it more politely, a share in each segment of the market. It all seems simple enough, and it would be, but for the issue of the graphics APIs (applications programming interfaces) DirectX and OpenGL.
The Fire GL 8800 board from ATI Technologies represents one of the company's mid-range offerings for professional users. Like competitors Nvidia and 3Dlabs, ATI has other products aimed at the higher end of the market as well. All three chipmakers are wor

The graphics API OpenGL was released by SGI in 1992 and is directed by the OpenGL Architecture Review Board, which consists of hardware and software vendors. Since that time, most high-end graphics hardware has been OpenGL-based. In early 2001, however, Nvidia announced the GeForce3 graphics processor, which was not based on OpenGL but on the Direct3D component of DirectX, Microsoft's API suite for game and multimedia developers. Though the GeForce3 was created for consumer-level rather than high-end cards, its use of Direct3D had implications that went beyond gaming.

Chief among these implications was the programmable hardware enabled by the latest version of Direct3D. In the past, developers had to select from a hard-coded palette of special effects available to them for hardware support. Any deviation from that standard palette would force the effects to be done in software mode, resulting in a dramatic drop in performance. With the GeForce3, Nvidia used Direct3D to make real-time hardware-based special effects available in a sub $300 card. Last summer, ATI also introduced its Radeon 8500/8800 chips, which use DirectX to provide hardware-based rendering and shading for fast, vivid game imagery.
For developers, Nvidia's online effects browser makes it easy to select multiple effects.

Chip vendors are not rushing to replace OpenGL just yet because, in the words of ATI's director of workstations Ed Huang, while "gaming and fast playback have traditionally been the strengths of DirectX, precision has been Open GL's." According to Jon Peddie, principal analyst with Jon Peddie Research in Tiburon, California, "Although DirectX is challenging OpenGL in many areas, and even leading it right now with regard to programmability, workstation performance is measured using benchmarks based on OpenGL. Therefore, as good and ubiquitous as DirectX gets, until there are meaningful benchmarks using it, it will always be second to OpenGL." To address this situation, both ATI and Nvidia are offering OpenGL extensions that provide some of the functionality of OpenGL in terms of applications.
For end users, Nvidia-based boards such as the Elsa Gloria DCC enable effects to be seen and used in real time.

So each vendor's highest end graphics chips are still based on OpenGL rather than on DirectX, but there's change in the wind. A public statement from 3Dlabs on the future of OpenGL, for example, admits to a "growing perception that OpenGL is lagging Direct3D in programmable functionality" and goes on to state that "Programmability is becoming recognized as the future of graphics."

The Who and Where of Workstation Graphics Chips
Chip Target market Availability of products based on chips
ATI GT1000 (IBM) Animators, CAD users ATI FireGL 4 or in OEM systems
Nvidia Quadro DCC Animators Elsa Gloria DCC card or in OEM systems
Nvidia Quadro2Pro CAD users Elsa Gloria III or in OEM systems
3Dlabs Wildcat III Highest end CAD, scientific visualization, and DCC creators Wildcat III 6110 and 6210 in OEM systems; channel availability to follow

In order to help the high end catch up with the lower, so to speak, 3Dlabs and other vendors are working on OpenGL 2.0, a new version of the API that will allow programmability in hardware, better memory management, and more control over the graphics pipeline.

In the meantime, graphics chip manufacturers are not sitting around waiting for the outcome of possible API battles, and new and more powerful chips and boards continue to surface with regularity. Here's a quick look at the latest such high-end offerings based on GPUs from ATI, Nvidia, and 3Dlabs.

ATI Technologies makes both chips and cards. Last year, the company acquired the FGL Graphics division of SonicBlue (maker of Fire GL cards), which gave it a workstation-level brand with which to compete with boards based on high-end chips from both Nvidia and 3Dlabs. ATI recently issued a couple of entry-level and mid-range cards, the Fire GL 8700 and 8800 respectively, built on its confusingly named Radeon 8800 chip (confusing because ATI also makes a line of consumer-level boards called Radeon that are made with other chips-not 8800s-called Radeon). The Radeon 8800 is ATI's newest GPU to offer vertex and pixel shading. But the company's highest end board, powered by the OpenGL-based GT1000 chip (created by IBM, now ATI's), is the Fire GL 4, which costs around $2000. In terms of performance and customer base, the Fire GL is "inching into Wildcat territory," says Huang, and this is a direction in which the company plans to continue. ATI has also turned DirectX vertex and pixel shading into OpenGL extensions, so that high-end application users can reap some of these "consumer-level" benefits.

Nvidia, much in the news last year for the introduction of the GeForce3, manufactures graphics processors and OEM boards. Its products are also the foundation for graphics accelerators from Elsa. Besides the aforementioned GeForce3, the company makes higher end chips called the Quadro DCC and the Quadro2Pro, with the former aimed at digital content and game development, and the latter at mechanical CAD applications. The Quadro DCC is based on the company's GeForce3 technology and features its nfinite FX Engine with programmable vertex and pixel shaders, as well as drivers optimized for applications such as Discreet's 3ds max and Alias|Wavefront's Maya. The OpenGL-based Quadro2 Pro features hardware-accelerated anti-aliasing and two-sided lighting.

Nvidia's master plan, according to general manager for workstation products Jeff Brown, is to ensure that it covers the entire graphics user base from gamers (consumers) to professionals (game developers) and on to CAD jockeys and the like while ensuring compatibility among all the bases. Nvidia says it is also committed to maintaining legacy compatibility for product generations as far back as those based on Nvidia's TNT chips.

Since acquiring the Wildcat technology from Intergraph in the summer of 2000, 3Dlabs has owned the fastest horse in the stable-at least if you're measuring swiftness in terms of OpenGL benchmarks such as SPEC viewperf. While the Wildcat cards don't tend to win out on price versus performance (they're costly, though getting less so), they do usually triumph in terms of sheer speed. Just as other cards begin catching up to Wildcat, 3Dlabs usually trots out a newer, faster entry and this year is no different. This month, 3Dlabs is scheduled to begin shipping boards based on its next-generation Wildcat III technology (the successor to Wildcat II). The Wildcat III 6110 will offer 208mb of onboard memory for slightly under $2000 and the Wildcat 6210 will have 416mb of onboard memory (a 128mb frame buffer and 256mb of texture memory) for less than $3000.

Last year, in an effort to increase accessibility to its technology, 3Dlabs began offering some of its products in the channel and even directly to users instead of strictly on an OEM basis. The company's latest tack is to set the Wildcat II family of cards, which it will continue selling even after Wildcat III ships, as the high-end/mid-range competition to other company's boards. Like Nvidia and ATI, 3Dlabs is endeavoring to cover its bases by selling to a range of users. "Wildcat will always be focused on the professional marketplace, but we are moving into some very interesting places [such as the mid-range]," says Jeff Little, 3Dlabs' director of product marketing. And, as a major player in the OpenGL 2.0 movement, 3Dlabs is showing a great deal of interest in Direct3D-like capabilities.
The Wildcat III 6210 is the new high-end product from 3Dlabs. The company continues to make products that score high in OpenGL-based benchmarks, but is also looking ahead to incorporating DirectX-type hardware programmability in future products.

When it comes to workstation graphics, all signs are pointing in similar directions. Certainly, graphics processors will become more complex. "The graphics chip is going to resemble a CPU more than a fixed part of the graphics pipeline," says John Schimpf, director of developer relations at 3Dlabs. And as that happens, graphics power will be available to more and more people "What used to be the high end, we're going to bring to the mid-range. What used to be in the mid-range, we're bringing to entry-level," says ATI's Huang, describing his company's product line, but who could as easily be talking about the market as a whole. The high end, presumably, will get higher.

And while the OpenGL folks are looking to emulate Direct3D, Direct3D developers are seeking to gain some of the power and precision of OpenGL. Notes Peddie, "Overall, end users will not likely see the benefits of OpenGL2.0 until 2003. By that time, DirectX 10 will be out, and it will be a horse race as to which one the application developers choose to support. The AIB [add-in board] suppliers will have to supply drivers for both APIs for several years." Which graphics API, if either, will eventually win out is less important than the end result-graphics processors that make the power of both available to the greatest number of users.

Jenny Donelan is managing editor of Computer Graphics World.

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