New chips and software that optimize how computers process 3D graphics were announced today by Intel. Pentium II systems based on this technology will follow, albeit gradually.
Based on Intel's Accelerated Graphics Port standard, the technology promises to make high-end 3D graphics more affordable.
A chipset is a group of chips that allows the processor, such as the Pentium II, to talk to the rest of the computer system. Graphics chips, on the other hand, control the images that users see on their computer screens.
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ATI Technologies appears to be taking the lead in offering high-performance AGP 3D chips. Hewlett-Packard, for example, will use a graphics chip from ATI Technologies and Intel's 440LX chipset in the Pavilion 8190 consumer PC, a Hewlett-Packard spokesperson said.
Dell Computer will offer new models on Monday with the 440LX chipset and AGP capability in its OptiPlex and Dimension line of PCs, according to industry sources. Also, Micron will also announce models on Monday with AGP graphics.
Compaq Computer, Gateway 2000, Digital Equipment, and others are expected to announce support and product plans for the 440LX chipset as well. These Pentium II systems will not start emerging in numbers until next month or later.
AGP essentially creates a high-speed data path between the graphics processor and the computer's main memory, according to Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research.
In current 3D graphics technology, the main data-path connection is between the graphics chip and specialized video memory, also referred to as the "frame buffer." Graphics board makers have to incorporate up to 8MB of pricey frame-buffer video memory onto graphics boards--and later this could shoot up to as much as 16MB as 3D gets more realistic and requires higher resolutions. This extra memory can dramatically raise the price of 3D-capable PCs.
However, by incorporating AGP, PCs can use low-priced main memory--instead of exclusively using expensive frame buffer memory--for complex 3D graphics, thereby allowing high-end 3D graphics to come to the average PC desktop, according to Scott Tandy, director of marketing for high-end graphics at S3.
AGP technology consists of three parts: graphics accelerator chips that comply with the AGP standard, an AGP-compliant system chip set such as Intel's 440LX, and software to make it all work.
For the software element, Intel will release a VXD, or driver software that will allow a computer running Windows 95 to run AGP, said sources. The VXD software is an interim fix and will be used until native operating system support comes with the release of Windows 98, which will occur in the first part of 1998, according to Microsoft.
Some graphics chip vendors such as S3 will wait until Windows 98 is out to fully support AGP. At that time Pentium II systems are also expected to be more prevalent, according to S3's Tandy.
Tandy also believes that applications, such as games, that specifically take advantage of AGP will not be available in any real quantity until Windows 98 is released.
Analysts agree that the technology will become more mainstream by the middle of 1998 after operating system support comes out, overall technology becomes more stable, and increasing numbers of graphic chip and board makers release AGP-enabled products.
In addition, semiconductor rivals Advanced Micro Devices and Cyrix are expected to have AGP-compatible chipsets for their semiconductors out by this fall, said Nathan Brookwood, a principal at Dataquest.
This in turn should eventually mean lower-cost alternatives to Intel's AGP systems in 1998. Intel currently is only making AGP available on its Pentium II chips, and not Pentium MMX chips.
"This is an opportunity for them," he said. "If AGP is unimpressive, it's a problem for Intel because there is not much reason to migrate to Pentium II."
AGP will first appear in consumer computers because that is where most 3D applications are targeted, said Michael Hara, director of strategic marketing at Nvidia. "With games and entertainment, 3D is already there."
Eventually, the technology will come to corporate desktops as 3D gets ported to presentation applications and other graphics-heavy business uses.
Analysts say the AGP hardware itself is not expected to raise the price of an AGP-capable PC much, maybe as little as five dollars or less.