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Game's not over for graphics chips

As ATI and Nvidia compete for the attention of PC hot-rodders, smaller chipmakers are finding opportunities in the middle of the market.

As ATI and Nvidia compete for the attention of PC hot-rodders with the fastest graphics chips available, smaller chipmakers are finding opportunities in the middle of the market.

The past few months have the seen modest rebounds by several chipmakers that seemed to have been squeezed out by the drastic consolidation in the graphics industry. Matrox and 3DLabs have both released new products, and now former chip giant Trident Microsystems is looking to get back into the desktop game after several years of focusing on laptop chips.

Trident next month will unveil a new line of graphics chips aimed at mainstream PC buyers. Video cards based on Trident's XP4 chips will offer performance comparable to the latest mid-range graphics processors, with prices starting at $70, compared with $100 for comparable Nvidia and ATI products and up to $400 for high-end graphics cards.

"We don't give a hoot about the $300-to-$400 market," said Le Nguyen, vice president of marketing for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Trident. "We have a different approach. We want to enable a lot of people with new capabilities."

Nguyen said the key to Trident's pricing is a collection of algorithms that allow the chips to process the same amount of visual information as competitors but with fewer resources. The XP4 has about 30 million transistors, compared with 100 million in the latest high-end chips from ATI, meaning the chips are smaller, consume less electricity and generate less heat, eliminating the need for the cooling fan included on most current video cards.

"The key is the mathematics behind the chip," Nguyen said. "We have a very efficient algorithm--that allows us to do more with less."

Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of influential industry newsletter Microprocessor Report, said there's more room lately for smaller graphics players such as Trident, thanks to Microsoft's efforts to standardize graphics programming. The current and upcoming versions of the software giant's DirectX graphics libraries include support for high-level programming instructions that formerly required specific support from the chipmaker.

"Microsoft has standardized it so that a company like Trident that doesn't have $150 million to spend on R&D can pretty much keep up," he said. "Companies like Matrox and Trident can make very competitive products. And if they have a lower cost structure for development and manufacturing, they can use price to gain a piece of the market."