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ATI uncovers comeback chips

The graphics chipmaker begins its bid to regain market leadership with new processors that boast significantly faster performance than current ones.

SAN FRANCISCO--ATI began its bid to regain the leadership of the graphics chip market Thursday with new processors that boast significantly faster performance than current ones.

As expected, ATI announced new versions of its Radeon chip: the Radeon 9000 for mainstream PCs and the Radeon 9700 for high-end systems. Third-party vendors will begin selling graphics cards based on the 9000 this week, while Radeon 9700 cards are set to go on the market in the next 30 days.

Canada's ATI was the leading maker of graphics chips for portions of the 1990s but surrendered its lead to Nvidia several years ago, amid drastic consolidation in the industry and reorganization at ATI.

ATI executives are confident the new Radeon chips can put the company back at the front of the pack.

"We're introducing the most radical advance in graphics technology" in nearly a decade, Chief Operating Officer Dave Orton said at a press conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. "We've developed the holy grail of computer graphics."

Although it will be some time before results of independent benchmark tests of the new Radeons are available, demonstrations at the press conference were convincing, with the Radeon 9700 running games such as "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" twice as fast as the leading Nvidia chips.

Several physical improvements have led to the performance boost. Resources for critical elements such as rendering pipelines, color bit depth and memory bandwidth have been doubled in the new chips.

But the most significant boosts in the realism and sophistication of computer graphics are expected to come from the exploitation of new programming resources in the new chips and the next version of Microsoft's DirectX library of graphics instructions. The combination means the new chips are fully programmable, able to independently execute software instructions rather than simply taking orders from the PC's main processor.

Exploitation of such resources will depend on the development of accessible programming tools. ATI is counting RenderMonkey, its drag-and-drop interface for graphics programming, to allow artists and other creative professionals to experiment with effects previously accessible only to high-level software coders.

"The whole point is to let everyone work in an environment they're comfortable in," ATI product manager Andy Thompson said.

The 9700 offers the biggest performance boost, but the 9000 includes enhancements such as support for multiple monitors and Fullstream, which is technology that improves the appearance of streaming video.

Major PC makers so far have kept mum on plans to adopt the new Radeons, but ATI executives said they are confident that leading PC companies will support the chip. The press event included a video testimonial from a Dell Computer executive.

Video cards based on the 9000 are expected to sell for $109 to $129, while 9700 cards will be around $400. ATI executives said that new products for workstations, Macs and notebooks will be announced in the coming months.