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3DLabs eyes PC graphics comeback

The graphics chipmaker plans to re-enter the consumer PC market this year, once the company's acquisition by sound card maker Creative Labs is completed.

Graphics chipmaker 3DLabs plans to re-enter the consumer PC market this year, once the company's acquisition by sound card maker Creative Labs is completed, a company executive said.

3DLabs' current products are limited to graphics processors for workstations, high-end PCs used for demanding tasks such as graphics editing and scientific modeling.

But the company is convinced it has a winner with its new P10 design for graphics processors. The technology is likely to find its way into high-end graphics cards that will be sold under the Creative name, said John Schimpf, director of developer relations for 3Dlabs.

The graphics-chip business has undergone tremendous consolidation in the past few years, with more than a dozen companies leaving the business, which now consists largely of market leader Nvidia and runner-up ATI Technologies.

3DLabs responded to the market contraction by agreeing in March to be acquired by Creative, a Singapore-based manufacturer known mainly for its Sound Blaster line of PC sound cards. 3DLabs shareholders are scheduled to vote on the deal May 7.

Once the acquisition is approved, the 3DLabs name will remain, primarily associated with workstation graphics chips, including a line of chips to be unveiled this summer based on the new P10 design, Schimpf said.

The main breakthrough in the new design is that it splits the processor into subsystems that can be manipulated by game developers and other software writers. The chip will still support the standard OpenGL and DirectX libraries of graphics programming instructions, but developers who want to do their own programming to squeeze out extra performance can go to town, Schimpf said.

"We will be implementing OpenGL and DirectX as they currently exist," he said. "For developers who want to do what they've always done, this will support that. But it also gives the programmer a bunch of flexibility to create really interesting effects. You can really manipulate the data in interesting ways due to the flexibility of this architecture."

The first chips based on the new design will be 3DLabs-branded workstation products, but high-end PC cards based on the design should come out by the end of the year under the Creative name, Schimpf said.

"The technology we're developing will find its way into the mainstream market," he said.

Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron said Creative has a chance to carve out a niche in the high-end consumer market, although the programming features are likely to carry little weight at first.

Software programmers "write to DirectX," he said. "If the feature's not DirectX, it doesn't get used."

McCarron said that while high-end products are a small part of the overall PC graphics market, it's a profitable segment and one that could mesh well with 3DLabs' existing business.

"If they can grab some of the hard-core game players and other high-performance PC customers, they'd be looking at orders of magnitude larger than the workstation space, so I can see how it would be attractive to them," McCarron said.