Intel's first high-end 3D graphics chip, the Intel 740, is coming this February. By most accounts, it could alter the market for good.
Although some sources state that prototypes of the 740 produce more heat than competing processors and that it still needs work, the 740 is expected to perform in the same league as the Riva 128 from Nvidia, one of the leading 3D PC graphics accelerator manufacturers. It should cost between $20 and $30, the same as the Riva.
The 740, however, comes to market backed by the massive manufacturing and financial infrastructure of Intel. Even if the i740 never becomes the leading performance chip for PC games in the market, observers say it will be a strong chip that can be pumped out in volume, much to the detriment of the mass of graphics vendors.
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"Very few of the manufacturers have the access to the fabs that Intel does," said Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources. A "fab" is a manufacturing plant.
"S3 could be the big loser here--S3 doesn't sell to the performance market. Intel has the resources to beat S3 on those terms and they have the performance," he added.
Performance-wise, the main 740 competitor is the Riva 128, according to Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research. Nvidia's chip sits toward the top on the 3D solutions at the moment, and has also been picked up by OEMs such as Compaq for use in workstations.
"Intel is at the top end of the performance band [with the i740], but they are not without competition," he summarized.
Michael Hara, director of strategic marketing at Nvidia, acknowledged that Intel has a leg up in manufacturing, but said that the Riva will continue to enjoy performance advantages, especially as it has already been tested in the market. "They are a much bigger presence in the manufacturing world. They have that advantage," he said.
Nonetheless, "we are going to ultimately be competitive," he added.
Further, changes in the desktop arena will also tend to weaken Intel's chance for complete dominance, Hara added. "[Manufacturers] want the flexibility to incorporate the best technology," Hara said.
"Build-to-order" manufacturing could help even more because it will not require the manufacturer to select a graphics card until the order is placed, giving PC vendors more flexibility in choosing graphics chips and thereby not necessarily locking them into an Intel design.
One issue that still needs addressing is in the area of heat dissipation. The 740 processor is said to produce more heat that other processors of its class.
"It's pretty damn hot. It's a big, fast chip and a big, fast chip puts out a lot of heat," said a source who has seen the processor.
While excess heat is not uncommon with high-end graphics processors, prototypes of the 740 are running hotter than comparable accelerators on the market, said sources. Add-on board makers have in fact proffered board designs with the 740 that include a separate fan and/or heat sinks to cool the chip.
The chip will first appear on add-on cards, according to analysts.
An Intel spokeswoman confirmed that the chip will come out in the first quarter of 1998, and also stated that the questions about heat dissipation may be exaggerated.
"Keep in mind that what anyone has seen has been pre-production silicon," she said. In other words, the chip isn't finished.