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Intel takes lead in 3D graphics charge

New technology to be introduced by Intel may yield PCs just as capable as the high-end workstations from companies such as Silicon Graphics but much cheaper.

New technology to be introduced by Intel at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) next week in San Jose may yield PCs just as capable as the high-end workstations from companies such as Silicon Graphics but much cheaper.

Intel's Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) technology is expected to deliver four times the performance of current 3D graphics technology on the PC, industry sources told CNET this week.

Low-end add-on boards--mostly used to drive arcade-style games--are already widely available for PCs, but so far most of these systems are relatively expensive and still not powerful enough for full-blown 3D graphics. With AGP, Intel wants to set a standard for 3D chips that would work in conjunction with its recently announced MMX multimedia processor to deliver higher-performance systems at lower prices.

The AGP specification will define a technology for enabling high-performance 3D graphics on the 1997 volume desktop PC. Intel wants to use AGP to make it less expensive to run high-quality 3D graphics on personal computers--and thereby establish itself in one of the last PC chip markets it doesn't yet dominate.

To deliver it, Intel is partnering with major vendors of 3D graphics chips, including S3, ATI Technologies, and Cirrus, and wants to make sure that all the big graphics players are on board when this technology hits the market in force next year, sources said.

Intel will also include support for AGP in its own future chipsets, sources said. They expect Intel to integrate AGP technology into their motherboard designs and make it a major selling point for future motherboards.

"This is essentially an extension of PCI. Since PCI maxes out with high-end 3D graphics, they had to do something," said a source who asked not to be named.

PCI, or the Peripheral Component Interconnect, is a 32-bit, high-performance bus technology now used in nearly all PCs. There had been calls from vendors to upgrade PCI to 64 bits to meet the demands of 3D graphics, an undertaking that would have required the industry to upgrade to a new PCI standard. Instead, Intel's answer to the need for cheap and high-quality 3D graphics technology is AGP. "This whole 64-bit PCI thing will probably go away now," one source said.

Although Microsoft would not comment on the plans for AGP specifically, company officials acknowledged that 3D graphics cause a performance bottleneck crying out for a new solution.

But even with Intel's considerable weight behind it, AGP may not provide that solution immediately, according to analysts. "They have to get some of the big guys [PC vendors] on board like IBM and Compaq," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network.

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