Nvidia splits PC market with new chips

The graphics chipmaker's new GeForce4 comes in two separate desktop flavors for the high-end and midlevel PC markets, a first for the company.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
4 min read
Nvidia hopes to divide and conquer the PC market, grabbing a bigger chunk of the mainstream segment, with the release Wednesday of a new PC graphics chip in two desktop flavors.

Nvidia's new GeForce4 chip comes in separate versions for the high-end and midlevel PC markets, a first for the company. The GeForce4 Ti will include every new bell and whistle for hard-core game players and other demanding PC enthusiasts, while the GeForce4 MX will be a less-expensive, stripped-down version of the chip for mainstream home and business PC users. A mobile version of the chip for laptops is also being released Wednesday.

PC makers announcing plans to adopt the new chip include Toshiba, which said it will include the GeForce4 440 Go, the mobile version of the new chip, in its Satellite 5005-S507 laptop. The new notebook, which will also include a 1.1GHz Pentium III, 512MB of memory and a 15-inch high-resolution display, will be available later this month starting at $2,000.

Apple Computer announced last week that its new Power Mac G4 models will include a GeForce4 MX chip.

Hewlett-Packard announced that it will offer the GeForce4 MX as an upgrade option in all custom-configured Pavilion home PCs. Compaq Computer and Gateway are also expected to offer the graphics chip within the next few weeks.

For those looking to upgrade existing PCs, graphics cards using the GeForce4 MX are already available from VisionTek, and other manufacturers plan to have cards in stores within the next month.

The typical strategy for Nvidia and other graphics chipmakers has been to offer a single version of a new chip for high-end PC users and let the previous high-end chip become the new mainstream product.

Steve Sims, senior product manager for Nvidia, said the dual-release approach allows the company to deliver important, new technologies to a broader group of customers. "We took the things that we thought would benefit the consumer the most and brought them to the midlevel market," he said.

Such improvements in the GeForce4 include Lightspeed, Nvidia's new design for harnessing graphics memory, and nView, technology for supporting two displays on the same graphics card.

"Stuff like nView--we thought that was a big advance that was important to bring to both chips," Sims said.

Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources, said a two-pronged product release makes sense as Nvidia competes with rival chipmaker ATI Technologies for mainstream consumers.

"Basically, Nvidia is trying to dominate the whole market now instead of just dominating the high end of it," he said. "To do that, they need to have products in every segment."

Though high-end graphics chips offer plump profit margins, the market is limited, Glaskowsky said.

"The profit sweet spot is definitely at the high end, but there are only a few million people that buy these $400 and $500 graphics cards," he said. "The bulk of their revenue comes from the people who buy the midrange products, and the competition is much tougher there...It makes sense to get leading technology into that segment a little sooner."

Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron agreed. "They're better off getting both of them out," he said. "There's really no risk of the midrange product taking sales away from the high end."

Besides Lightspeed and nView, the most notable advances in the GeForce4 involve more resources devoted to processing special graphics effects such as anti-aliasing, in which designers display selected parts of an image at much higher resolutions, allowing for increased detail and realistic movement.

"We believe anti-aliasing is the next place people are going to be looking for big improvements in graphics, where designers are going to go to get more visual acuity," Sims said. "Usually the negative of anti-aliasing is that it's slower, because you're doing all this extra work. We've come up with ways to move data around more efficiently, so we're pushing a ton of pixels but not sacrificing speed."

The GeForce4 Ti, which is part of the Titanium line, also allows designers to create images in layers, so only the information that needs to be presented at a given moment is drawn by the chip.

McCarron said the GeForce4 chips represent a new era in graphics chip design, where improvements have gone beyond boosting raw processing power.

"Really, the main changes are what I'd almost qualify as fine-tuning of lots of little blocks in the system," he said. "There are some bulk improvements...but basically what they've done is gone through their existing architectures and made real improvements in just about every part of the chip. That's where they get all this extra performance to increase rendering quality."

The upshot, Glaskowsky said, is that PCs will soon be able to match the graphics sophistication of animated films such as "Monsters, Inc."--which drew praise from animation buffs for the detailed blue pelt sported by one of the main characters.

"It's a bit premature to talk about doing realistic fur and hair on a PC now, but in a few years that's going to be a very viable thing," Glaskowsky said.