On the eve of announcing its first graphics chip, Intel is already moving further into graphics territory, as the microprocessor behemoth collaborates with 3DLabs in developing a graphics processor to complement its upcoming 64-bit "Merced" chip.
The development effort with 3DLabs constitutes another prong in Intel's relatively recent campaign to aggressively boost its presence in the graphics arena.
On February 17, Intel will introduce the i740, a 3D graphics processor for mainstream desktops, representing the first prong of its grand strategy. The second push will likely manifest itself as a graphics chip for notebook PCs.
Following these two efforts, the 3DLabs/Intel chip will be released roughly within the same time frame as Merced, according to Raj Singh, vice president of sales at 3DLabs.
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Analysts estimate the chip will appear in sample batches toward the end of the year and become available generally in 1999.
"They'll start to see revenue in 1999," said Arun Veerappan, semiconductor analyst with Robertson Stephens.
While Intel is cooperating on the project, Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research, believes that it 3DLabs is performing most of the development work. Intel's participation likely concentrates on ensuring that the new chip works with Merced. Intel, he pointed out, is also an investor in 3DLabs.
Although tight-lipped about the project, Singh indicated that 3DLabs is controlling most of it. At the moment, for instance, it is uncertain whether Intel will act as the manufacturer of the chip or whether 3DLabs will have its main manufacturing partner, IBM, will do the job.
Still, the collaborative effort means an increased role for Intel in a market that already has too many competitors, according to most. The end result is likely to be companies dropping out of the market or trying to shift their product lines into more protected niche markets.
"There are some several dozen graphics chip makers out there right now and with Intel getting in there as a significant player will make it that much harder," said Michael Slater, editorial director of the The Microprocessor Report. "Intel is not going to take away the entire market, but they will be a significant player. For the others, it is a question of how long they can last and how much market share they can hold onto."
Separately, 3DLabs this week said it has started to sample its Glint GMX chipset, a pricey graphics-processor chipset for NT-based workstations.
3DLabs' new Glint GMX family marks a new high watermark for Windows-Intel-based graphics computing, said Singh. Unlike most graphics processors, the GMX comes as a two-chip set, rather than a single chip. The new addition to the solution is the Gamma geometry chip, which performs the geometry calculations typically performed by the CPU. Adding this chip improves overall system performance.
The rendering part of the chipset is essentially the same high-end graphics chip 3Dlabs currently has on the market, said a 3DLabs spokesman.
Although more efficient, the GMX chipset is not cheap. The chipset will sell to computer manufacturers for between $638 and $734 in quantities of 10,000. A completed board will cost around $2,000. The solution will likely come to market by the end of the first quarter.
'Typically, you'd expect to see it in some of the sub-$10,000 systems. Certain aggressive [manufacturers] could even incorporate it at the $7,000 level," Singh said, adding that price at this level of the market is less of an issue.