Nvidia chip offers preview of Xbox graphics

The same Nvidia graphics core that will power the game console is part of the new GeForce3 chip for Macs and PCs.

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Behind Apple's new graphics chip
Dan Vivoli, senior VP, Nvidia
Gamers must wait until fall to get their hands on Microsoft's Xbox, but they will soon get a glimpse of its graphics might: The same Nvidia graphics core that will power the game console is part of the new GeForce3 chip for Macs and PCs.

"They will share a lot of the same features," Nvidia spokesman Brian Burke said of the chip that Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced during his keynote speech this week at the Macworld Expo in Tokyo. Jobs said the new chip will be available as an option on built-to-order Power Macs next month.

Nvidia is expected to announce the PC version of the GeForce3 at a press conference Monday night on the eve of the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose, Calif.

Nvidia declined to comment on its PC plans Friday, but industry analysts say the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has already lined up broad support from PC makers for the chip.

The new chip has two key advantages over its predecessor and current rivals: It can produce more realistic images and is programmable, meaning that programmers can create their own special effects to give their games a more distinct look.

"What we have done is basically opened up the hood," Burke said. "We allow game developers to go in there and create their own special effects."

Although graphics chips have grown quite powerful in recent years, computer games have tended to look rather similar because programmers have had to rely on the same effects, such as the lighting of scenes. The GeForce3 changes that situation and also allows programmers to apply shading to individual pixels, creating a more realistic look.

The Geforce3 gives a further edge to Nvidia, the top dog in the cutthroat graphics chip business. However, analyst Jon Peddie said that rival ATI Technologies will also be introducing the latest version of its Radeon family soon after the GeForce3 buzz dies down.

"They are waiting for the dust to settle" from Nvidia's announcements, said Peddie, head of market researcher Jon Peddie Associates.

As for the GeForce3, formerly code-named NV20, it is much more intricate than its predecessor, offering 57 million transistors compared to about 20 million in the Geforce2.

"It's huge," Peddie said of the new chip. However, the chip won't be three times as physically large thanks to advances in chipmaking technology. The GeForce3 will use finer 0.15 micron wiring.

Even though it?s costly to produce a larger chip, Nvidia's use of the same core for the Xbox as for PCs will help cut the cost of the chip, Peddie said.

"The combination of the two platforms which don?t compete with each other allows them to build more parts which brings down the cost," Peddie said. ATI should enjoy a similar advantage by using the same core for Nintendo's forthcoming game console as it does in other markets.

The move should keep the two companies well ahead of the pack in the market for standalone graphics chips, although Peddie said Asian chipmakers SIS and Via Technologies could pose a threat in the market for low-cost integrated chips.

Until a major shakeout last year, there were a lot more competitors in the graphics chip market.

Nvidia scooped up the assets of rival 3dfx in December, capping off a year that saw a number of players exit the graphics chip market, including S3 (now Sonicblue), Gigapixel, ArtX and Intergraph.

Although the GeForce3 will make its debut on the Mac, Peddie said it is Windows owners who will see the greatest initial performance gain. That's because Microsoft's DirectX graphics standard already takes advantage of the chip, while the support in Mac OS 9 is more limited. However, Peddie added, applications written for Mac OS X will also be able to take full advantage of the GeForce3.

Peddie said that Nvidia has been holding seminars for software developers for several months to help them optimize their programs, primarily games, for the chip.

Still, Apple considers being first with the Nvidia chip a big deal.

"There were times when we didn't have the fastest (chip)," said Linda McNulty, director of worldwide product marketing for Apple's desktop lines.

Apple has been seen moving away from ATI in favor of Nvidia, although analysts have said that even if Apple wants to move completely to Nvidia it will take time. Nvidia's goal of cracking the Mac market became reality in January when its chips became a part of Apple's Power Mac line.

McNulty rebuffed the notion that Apple is making a complete switch.

"Our (goal) is to have choice for our customers," McNulty said.