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Trident takes tiled path back to desktop graphics

Posted: 16 Sep 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:trident? video card? dx? graphics? tiling?

Trident Microsystems Inc. will try to take a tiled graphics architecture into the PC mainstream this fall in an uphill battle against a growing number of players generally pushing highly parallel architectures. Trident's XP4 taps tiling to maintain a relatively low, 30 million-transistor budget and, thus, fit into cards that will generally sell for less than $100.

"This is our return to the desktop mainstream and performance segments," said Le Nguyen, a marketing VP for Trident, which has focused primarily on notebook graphics for the last several years.

Tiling divides a scene into squares or tiles that are individually rendered based on calculations of which elements will actually be displayed. That generally makes the approach more efficient in its use of memory and bandwidth than traditional architectures, which render all pixels regardless of whether the pixels will need to be displayed.

Microsoft Corp., working with Trident and a number of other graphics companies, pioneered the tiling concept several years ago, but the resulting Talisman approach proved too complex to be implemented cost-effectively. Last year, STMicroelectronics and Videologic Systems (now named Pure Digital) teamed up to deliver the Kyro, the first commercial graphics chip to use tiling. The chip saw significant sales in Europe, said Dean McCarron of Mercury Research, who tracks the PC graphics market.

Trident's XP4 is the next major attempt to implement tiling. The part "may be able to get more performance per transistor than other architectures, but I'm waiting to get my hands on one before passing judgement," said McCarron.

Nguyen said Trident will squeeze 80 to 90 percent utilization out of its DDR memory bus thanks to tiling, while traditional rasterizing techniques may not see more than 30 percent utilization of the memory interface.

Trident faces plenty of competition in a PC market that is expected to be essentially flat this year. "The bigger story is that, all of a sudden we are seeing new desktop graphics products from a number of companies we haven't heard from in a while," said McCarron. "The market had been decimated by the move to integrated graphics in PC core logic chip sets, and it's taken everyone a couple years to regain their equilibrium."

Crowded field

Indeed, last July 18, ATI Technologies Inc. launched a fresh assault on high-end desktop graphics when it announced its Radeon 9000, 9000 Pro, and 9700 graphics chips.

The high-end 9700, designed in part by engineers from the ATI-acquired ArtX Inc., which designed graphics for the Nintendo Gamecube, sports eight rendering pipelines, four geometry engines, and a 256-bit DDR memory interface. It uses the 8x AGP host interface and will appear on cards that retail for $400.

By contrast, Trident's high-end offering has half as many pipelines, its memory interface comes in 128-bit and 64-bit versions and it uses the 4x AGP interface to a host processor.

Last May, Matrox Graphics Inc. staged a comeback in desktop PC graphics with the launch of its Parhelia-512, which also sports a 256bit DDR interface and is expected to appear in $400 add-on boards. The part has four vertex shaders on board and weighs in at 80 million transistors in a 0.155m process.

Market leader Nvidia Corp. is expected to bring out its next-generation desktop graphics chip, the GeForce5, in the early fall. "Competing on performance with Nvidia will be tough, but competing on value is where potential for some success lies," said McCarron.

Nvidia commanded 41 percent of the entire PC graphics market in this year's Q1, ATI held 22 percent and Intel claimed 14 percent, according to Mercury Research estimates. The remaining 23 percent is split between a number of smaller players, such as Silicon Integrated Systems, Via Technologies, 3Dlabs and others, each typically with a single-digit percentage of market share, McCarron said.

The latest wave of graphics parts supports Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 API for graphics under Windows. The API aims to create more realistic graphics by providing a more programmable software interface than its predecessor, DX 8.

For example, rather than use texture mapping to apply a wallpaper-like texture to a surface and then add lighting effects to it, DX 9 lets designers call pixel or vertex shading programs to control lighting and other effects on a per-pixel basis. That's expected to give a more detailed and realistic look to such effects as reflections on a moving car or wind blowing through fur.

Chipmakers are working with a beta version of DX 9. A final version is expected in the fall, but games using DX 9 "won't arrive until Christmas 2003," said Nguyen.

The Trident XP4 comes in three versions. The T3 runs at 300 MHz, supports up to 256MB of 700MHz DDR memory and uses a 128-bit memory interface. The T2 scales the core back to 250MHz and DDR support to 64MB and 500MHz. The T1 runs at the T2's speeds but uses a 64-bit memory bus.

All of the parts support a 4x AGP interface to the host and a 64bit, 66MHz PCI interface. They are made in a 0.135m process at United Microelectronic Corp. and shipped in a 612-bump BGA package.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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