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Nvidia courts workstation crowd

The graphics chip giant unveils new high-end chips for graphics designers, scientists and other workstation users.

Graphics chip leader Nvidia has introduced a pair of workstation chips that are expected to help propel high-end graphics out of the realm of custom million-dollar computing systems.

The Quadro FX 3000 and Quadro FX 3000G, launched Tuesday, are intended to be used in high-end workstations, which are beefy PCs that handle tasks such as 3D animation and drafting. The new chips are designed to tackle heavy-duty applications such as mechanical design and medical imaging.

Until recently, the complex, highly detailed images produced by such applications could only be produced by custom visualization systems that typically cost $1 million or more, said Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of industry newsletter Microprocessor Report. But the new Quadro chips are designed to have enough horsepower to process such images, allowing the work to be done on workstations built with standard microprocessors and other off-the-shelf components.

"It used to be that if you needed to run these kind of applications, you sent (workstation and supercomputer giant) SGI a million dollars and they built something for you," Glaskowsky said. "Now, everybody's working on these scalable, commodity-based architectures where they use commodity chips, add some intelligence and create a high-end visualization system. The old business of making million-dollar machines is pretty much gone."

Graphics boards fitted with the new chips will sell for $2,300 to $3,000.

The Quadro FX 3000 chips can handle such work partly because a new memory design allows information to be pumped back and forth from the memory chip at a rate of up to 27GB per second--double the rate of previous workstation chips, said Jeff Brown, director of workstation product marketing for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia.

The new Quadros also have built-in support for overlapping and blending images, allowing the chips to control large display walls, something that otherwise would have required expensive custom equipment.

"It's enabling custom applications to be deployable over standard workstations," Brown said. "Something that had previously been relatively inaccessible and very expensive is now within reach for a lot more companies."

That's why Glaskowsky expects the market for high-end visualization systems to grow exponentially over the next few years.

"General Motors might have one visualization system for all the guys that do body design, and everybody has to share that," he said. "But that system that used to be a $250,000 thing--it's now a $20,000 thing. They're going to think, 'Why not have one for each workgroup?'"

IBM and Hewlett-Packard have already announced plans to use the new Quadros in their high-end workstations, as have specialty manufacturers such as RackSaver and Polywell Computers.