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Sun deal expands role of ATI chips

ATI is tops in the PC world, but this is the first time its chips will appear in a dedicated line of Unix workstations.

Chips from graphics giant ATI Technology have leapt the gap from mainstream personal computers to Unix workstations.

ATI's Rage Pro Turbo graphics chip will be used in Sun Microsystems' low-end Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 workstations. ATI has been the graphics chip of choice for personal computers from many of the top vendors, including Dell Computer and Gateway, but this is a first instance of ATI chips appearing in a dedicated line of Unix workstation computers.

"It's a way overdue move," because the otherwise good Sun workstations were "saddled with two-and-a-half-year-old graphics chips," said Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources.

The ATI chips will be integrated into Sun workstation motherboards, the circuit board where the core parts of the computer reside.

The "pizza box"-shaped Ultra 5 models are small computers that rely on the motherboard's graphics chip to send images to the computer monitor, but the Ultra 10 workstations come in bigger cases and can take advantage of more powerful plug-in graphics cards. Both models use Sun's UltraSparc IIi chip and run Sun's Solaris version of the Unix operating system.

The Rage Pro Turbo chip provides acceleration for drawing three-dimensional objects and provides realistic color for the Sun workstations. Before, the on-board graphics were limited to displaying images that used only a relatively small 256 colors.

"Basically, this is the only design win for PC graphics chips in the Unix workstation space," he said, although he noted that countless Intel-based systems running the Unix-like Linux operating system use ATI graphics chips.

And ATI and other mainstream graphics companies are moving into the higher-end workstation market, added Kathleen Maher of Jon Peddie Associates.

While it's significant that ATI is making an appearance on a Unix workstation, the Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 aren't the most glamorous machines.

"Basically, they're PC clones that have Sun's relatively powerful UltraSparc processors grafted in," Glaskowsky said.

Sun's selection of the mainstream graphics chip company ATI fits its goals of keeping prices down for the Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 models, Glaskowsky said. Those workstations use many mainstream PC technologies, such as the IDE disk drive interface and the PCI bus to handle communications with the system processors.

Sun will face stiffer competition in the low-cost workstation market in January when Silicon Graphics comes out with its line of Microsoft Windows NT workstations with Intel. Prices on those SGI boxes will descend below the $4,000 line and will be "enormously faster" in graphics and other performance features, he said.