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Intel to preview workstation, 3D graphics

At a major computer conference next week, Intel will make a big play to ensconce its hardware firmly in the workstation computer market.

As part of its strategy to move deeper into digital content, Intel will make a big play to ensconce its hardware firmly in the workstation market by previewing a new version of its 3D graphics technology as well as providing details for a standard workstation blueprint.

The new workstation design and 3D graphics technology will debut at Siggraph, a major computer graphics forum to be held next week in Orlando, Florida.

Both Intel's workstation specification and its latest 3D graphics technology, called AGP Pro, are aimed at building more momentum for systems based on Microsoft's Windows NT operating software and the Intel architecture in the professional graphics field, said Andre Wolper, director of marketing in Intel's workstation division.

While NT workstation sales have zoomed in recent years, most sales have been to financial and corporate customers with lesser graphics requirements. To attract the more demanding users, Intel is trying to boost performance and simultaneously reduce the cost of development by undertaking more of the system design work.

Intel is also trying to compete head on with long-established, high-end Unix workstation vendors such as Sun Microsystems.

Unix stalwart Silicon Graphics has already indicated that it will adopt Intel architecture for some its workstations. For some time, PC vendors such as Compaq, Dell Computer, and IBM have been making inroads into the workstation market with Windows-Intel machines.

The apparently shifting momentum owes to the technological and marketing resources the two computing giants are capable of marshaling, along with their PC vendor partners. Intel created a separate workstation division last year to orchestrate its drive into this market.

AGP Pro will essentially be a version of its AGP technology optimized to work with the newest, and most powerful, workstations based on Intel's just-released, top-of-the-line Xeon Pentium II processor. So far, most of the tangible improvements wrought by AGP have been seen in the mid- to lower-end desktops segments, where AGP circuit boards improve "texture mapping," a technique for handling complex graphics images, said Tom Copeland, an analyst at International Data Corporation.

With AGP Pro, graphics card vendors will be able to make high-performance graphics boards that can use twice the number of chips for the most demanding 3D graphics applications, said Peter Glaskowsky, graphics analyst at MicroDesign Resources.

"Silicon Graphics has [large and powerful] graphics cards. If people want to compete with the big [workstation] vendors, they will need a card like this," he said. It won't be a huge market, but it is a start, he added.

The new AGP Pro technology will create a super-fast 233-MHz graphics data path capable of processing 10 million polygons a second, said Glaskowsky. AGP Pro will come out in 1999, said Wolper. The current standard runs at 133 MHz.

Meanwhile, Intel's workstation specification is being created to make adoption of its technology easier and cheaper. By posting a blueprint for Xeon workstations, Intel can take a lot of the guesswork out of system development and thereby undercut Unix workstation vendors even further, said Wolper.

"Right now, you have a number of vendors with customized solutions, and customized solutions create costs," he said.

Called WTX, the workstation specification will provide physical, electrical, and component requirements for assembling a Xeon workstation. One area of particular concern will be power consumption. Xeon chips consume more power than traditional Pentium II chips.

Siggraph starts next Monday in Orlando.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.