NVidia unveils GeForce3 chip set

You'll first see the new chip set in cards for Power Macs and PCs, and a version of the chip set is also booked for use in Microsoft's upcoming Xbox game console.

In fact, Apple Computer previewed the GeForce3 at MacWorld Tokyo earlier in February, crediting it with enabling photo-realistic graphics and custom lighting that heightens drama. It will be available for the new Power Mac G4 introduced in January.

The Mac version of the card will sell for $US600 (around $1100), with the PC version starting around $US500 (around $900), hefty prices for a computer component.

Put the price in perspective, suggests Martin Reynolds, a research fellow at Gartner. Looking around the next bend of this race, he says, "in a year or a year and a half, this technology will be standard fare for PCs."

On the surface, the GeForce3 doesn't appear striking: Its 200-MHz core clock speed is the same as that of the GeForce2 GTS (and slower than the 250 MHz of the GeForce2 Ultra). Its memory clock speed is the same as that of the Ultra. But its smaller .15-micron design, more-efficient graphics handling, and loads of transistors (57 million, more than twice that of the GeForce2 GTS) make it a much faster chip set than any in the GeForce2 line.

"These devices are at least as complex as the latest processors from Intel," Reynolds says. In fact, the Pentium 4 has 42 million transistors, 15 million less than the GeForce3.

Programming options boost realism

It's remarkable how far the 3D graphics market has come in the past few years, Reynolds notes. "The growth of the consumer market has funded the development of new and faster chips," he says.

These new and faster chips don't just speed up frame rates and increase screen resolution -- they often use effects that make objects look better, such as the GeForce3's high-resolution antialiasing.

Antialiasing removes the jagged edges of graphical objects to provide a smoother image, but the process can also slow performance to the point that many users turn off the feature. The GeForce3 promises nearly four times the speed of the GeForce2 Ultra in antialiasing, says Geoffrey Ballew, product manager for the GeForce3 line.

But it isn't the speed increases alone that make the GeForce3 stand out, it's also the flexibility of its NfiniteFX engine. Since the engine is programmable, developers can create lighting effects and custom looks for screen objects and backgrounds instead of being forced to choose from a limited set.

John Carmack, lead programmer at Id software and the brains behind the first-person shooters Doom and Quake, praises the chip in his online .plan file.

"The short answer is that the GeForce3 is fantastic," says Carmack. "I haven't had such an impression of raising the performance bar since the Voodoo2 came out, and there are a ton of new features for programmers to play with."

The capabilities of the GeForce3 mirror those supported by Microsoft's DirectX 8 application programming interface, says product manager Ballew. "We worked with Microsoft to define it, and we will work with Microsoft to refine it," he says.

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Joel Strauch

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