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ATI ships laptop graphics chip

The graphics chipmaker unleashes a new line of processors.

Graphics chip leader ATI Technologies is moving more aggressively into the stratifying notebook market with a new line of graphics accelerators.

Improving 3D graphics on mainstream notebooks is the focus of the new Rage Mobility-M and Rage Mobility-P processors. The Mobility-M chip, aimed at both less-expensive and ultraslim categories, integrates 4MB of memory on the same piece of silicon as the 3D and 2D accelerator, which translates into big power and space savings for laptop makers.

To date, most notebooks have come with 1 or 2 megabytes of video memory but now graphics chips, such as those used in Compaq's 6500 notebook line or Hewlett-Packard's 7100 line include 4MB of memory. Both lines use ATI chips. Generally, more memory means better performance and more colors.

Analysts say one of the more important aspects of the chip is power saving. "About two watts of power can be saved with this solution," said Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "Saving two watts on a notebook is a really huge thing. It can be as much as a third of the power of a subnotebook." Integrating memory also cuts about $12 off the manufacturing costs.

The Mobility-P, meanwhile, can accommodate more memory but it is external to the chip.

Having whiz-bang 3D graphics on a notebook, however, is thus far more a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, said Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron.

"It's a sales issue," McCarron said. Notebook makers want to stay competitive with desktop PC vendors, because "people are looking for one system instead of two."

Glaskowsky agreed: "There's really not many good reasons to get 3D on a notebook yet, except for games."

Some business applications such as Excel and PowerPoint are starting to use 3D, Glaskowsky said. "But most of this is 'eye candy' right now. We're waiting for meaningful 3D for business."

"On other hand, this new line also has better 2D graphics," he said. "Sometimes you're getting the 3D for free and you're 'future-proofing.'"

After the main microprocessor, graphics chips are the most critical piece of silicon in personal computers today. These chips handle the manipulation of images users see on their computer screens and are increasingly important as computer interfaces and 3D games become more sophisticated and demanding.

Glaskowsky says the Rage Mobility line should help ATI extend its desktop momentum in the notebook arena. The leader in desktop graphics is already doing well with the LT Pro family. These chips are featured in a variety of high-end notebooks.

The low end of the market, however, is dominated by chips from NeoMagic and Chips & Technologies, which is owned by Intel.

"ATI is already the recognized performance leader in the mobile graphics market, and Rage Mobility will add to that lead with state-of-the-art integration and low power characteristics,'' said Lou Leung, director, mobile component marketing for ATI, in a statement.

ATI is indeed on a roll, and it seems that very little can knock the company off its perch in the near future.

The company announced last month that revenue jumped 92 percent to $1.2 billion for fiscal 1998, which ended in August. Earnings shot up 253 percent to $168 million, a surge largely attributable to key design wins with major hardware manufacturers such as Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard, as well as strong ties to Intel.