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The State of 3D

 

ATI and NVIDIA, 1H 2005

 

by Josh Walrath

            Mindshare has always been an important factor in the computer industry, and the massive swing from year to year between all of the different competitors just shows how volatile this marketplace is.  For the past several years ATI has had a lock on mindshare when it comes to high performance 3D graphics.  ATIís first real dominant product was the Radeon 9700 Pro, and the follow up products such as the 9800 and the very popular 9600 have helped to cement this reputation.  Things appear to be swinging back the other way, but the big question is if both of the big competitors will achieve parity with each other, or will one or the other again regain dominance in both marketshare and mindshare. 

ATI

            Big Red has had a good run for the past several years.  With the acquisition of ArtX, and the integration of those engineering teams, we have seen some amazing products from the Canada based ATI.  As mentioned above, the Radeon 9700 Pro redefined the 3D graphics landscape with its outstanding performance and amazing feature set of the time.  ATI continued to build on this foundation with the 9800 series, and finally culminated with the current X800 and X850 series.  While the chips are different from each other, they are all based on the now classic R300 architecture.  While ATI has added more bells and whistles to increase the abilities of their technology, the differences between the R300 and the latest R480 are not as large as one would expect.

            ATI continued to grow marketshare throughout the past several years by providing top quality high end solutions, very robust and full featured midrange parts, and a more advanced budget part (the Radeon 9000 and 9200 series had a significant performance and feature set advantage over the competing GeForce 4 MX series).  This solid lineup allowed ATI to dominate the market from 2002 until 2004.  It wasnít until NVIDIA was finally able to put enough GeForce 6x00 products on the shelf to knock down ATIís share a bit.

            2004 appeared to be a bittersweet year for ATI.  At the beginning of the year their 9800 series of cards dominated the upper midrange and high end, while the 9600 series certainly fared better than NVIDIAís midrange offerings.  Many were looking forward to the next generation of Radeon parts, and they were not disappointed by the performance the X800 series brought to the table.  Not only did these products have great performance, but ATI promised very good stocks of them by the beginning of June 2004.

            June initially appeared promising as we did see stocks of X800 Pro and X800 XT PE boards hit the market (albeit in small quantities).  Soon after though, the prospects of buying an X800 XT PE board became very dismal, and the X800 Proís were still in tight supply.  It seems the major OEMís were eating up nearly all of ATIís stocks of these products, and very few reached the smaller system builders and retail markets.

            ATI relied on TSMCís 130 nm Low-K line to produce the X800 series of chips, and production never came close to meeting demand.  Evidence points at low yields due to the design of the part.  Speed bins could also play a factor here, as the Pro clocks in at 475 MHz, the XT at 500 MHz, and the XT PE at 520 MHz.  Achieving these speeds could have been a major problem for ATI.  Other sources claimed that ATI gave up on the R420 chip by the end of October and started fabrication of the respun R480 (metal layer change, PCI-E support).  This may not be entirely true, as of early March of 2005 very good supplies of X800 Pro, XT, and XT PE parts have shown up at retailers (all AGP, supposedly based on the R420).  At first glance it appears as though ATI has finally been able to produce enough R420 parts to meet demand.  If this is in fact true, it is unfortunate that supply finally caught up with demand 9 months after the release of the X800 series.

            To address the midrange market more adequately, ATI released the X700 series of products.  These were meant to address the $175 to $260 PCI-E market.  These new chips supposedly have the power to outperform the older 9800 Pros and 9800 XTs, even though the X700 is limited to a 128 bit memory bus.  The X700ís improved memory handling abilities and the use of higher speed GDDR-3 helps to alleviate this situation, plus it lowers the overall packaging and PCB costs by sticking to a 128 bit path.  Originally the X700 was supposed to show up in three different flavors; the X700, X700 Pro, and X700 XT.  For what appears to be a variety of reasons (product placement, pricing, speed bins, yields, etc.) the X700 XT has been dropped from the lineup.

            When placed head to head with the GeForce 6600 GT, the current high end X700 Pro typically performs slower in a wide variety of games and applications.  It is still a very solid performing part, and for the record it does surpass the 9800 series of cards.  It is a very solid midrange card, but due to the pressure from NVIDIA, it may not get the recognition that its predecessors, the 9600 Pro and XT, got when they were competing with the midrange GeForce FX products.  There have also been initial reports of more fabrication problems with these chips and their design.  This could be one of the largest factors as to why the X700 XT was dropped from the lineup, as the speed bins were not shaking out as they were supposed to.  The X700 cards in peoplesí hands do not appear to want to clock much more than 500 MHz at most, which is the base speed of the GeForce 6600 GT.  The one advantage the X700 Pro has over the GeForce 6600 GT is that many of the X700 models come with 256 MB of memory.  More is always better, and many feel that while the 6600 GT is an excellent performer, it doesnít come with enough memory to let it stretch its legs on games such as Doom 3 (which in High Quality mode utilizes over 200 MB of texture data).  Other upcoming games will also feature a greater amount of texture data, and will more aptly utilize 256 MB cards.

 

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