ATI, Nvidia butt heads in desktop graphics

ATI (Markham, Ontario) leapfrogged market leader Nvidia (Santa Clara, Calif.) last August when it announced its 150-nm-based Radeon 9700, six months before Nvidia was ready to ship its top of the line GeForce FX made in a 130-nm process. Now both companies are rolling out a family of products based on those cores and made in 130-nm and 150-nm processes.

“By the end of May or June we think we will have more 130-nm products into the market than our competition,” said David Orton, president of ATI.

 ATI announced today (March 6) three chips based on the R300 core. The 9800 is a high-end 130-nm version of the 9700 launched last August. It runs at 380 MHz, about 20 percent faster than the 9700, and sports eight graphics pipelines for a potential throughput of eight pixels per clock cycle. It has a 256-bit memory interface.

The 9800 improves the memory controller of the 9700 and adds a new f buffer, opening the door to an unlimited number of graphics shading programs for Microsoft’s DirectX 9 applications programming interface. It is aimed at high-end graphics cards that retail for as much as $400.

ATI’s new mainstream chip, the 9600, has four graphics pipelines and a 128-bit memory interface. It supports both DDR and DDR II frame buffers.

The low-end 9200 is based on a previous generation R200 core and supports DirectX 8.1. All three chips use the AGP 8x interface and will be in production in the next few weeks, said Rick Bergman, general manager of ATI’s desktop group.

Orton said ATI had its best quarter ever in unit shipments, selling about 10 million graphics chips. However, the company is still investing heavily in R&D at about 16 percent of sales and is trailing Nvidia in profit margins at about 28 percent of sales, below its target of 30.

“You can’t lead with margins that start at with a 2,” said Orton.

Adding to the cost burden is the fact that next-generation PC graphics products will be among the first wave of parts to support the PCI Express interface being spearheaded by Intel Corp. “We will see a spike in R&D at the prototyping level” because of that shift, Orton said.

Analysts give ATI kudos for beating Nvidia to market by six months with the current generation, though they don’t expect it will shift the overall leadership in PC graphics away from Nvidia.

“There’s inertia involved in creating or undoing a reputation. ATI’s challenge is to continue to excel. If they can’t, people will ask in six months, what was the name of that company again?” said Jon Peddie, of market watcher Jon Peddie Research (Tiburon, Calif.).

For its part, Nvidia is rolling out mainstream and low-end chips to go with its high end GeForce FX 5800 part announced last fall which processes eight pixels per clock.

The new 5600 and 5200 parts use a 128-bit memory bus and processes four pixels per clock. Nvidia won’t comment on exactly how many graphics pipelines they support. The 5200 is made in a 150-nm process and does not include the memory compression technology in the other devices.

Source: EETimes