Nvidia launches next-generation graphics chips

The PC graphics game entered a new level Wednesday as Nvidia Corp. launched two new graphics processors. The pricier GeForce4 Titanium chip boasts specifications designed to make PC gamers drool, while the budget GeForce4 MX chip offers improved graphics for business users and casual gamers.

The GeForce4 4600 Titanium's graphics-processing unit includes a 300-MHz core clock, a 325-MHz memory clock, and support for 128MB of 650-MHz DDR SDRAM (an amount Nvidia executives say future games will require). The chip also includes four independent 32-bit memory controllers, plus DirectX 8.1 compatibility, a bone of contention between ATI Technologies Inc. and Nvidia. Finally, it also features dual vertex shaders--a design gleaned from the company's work on Microsoft Corp.'s X-box.

Graphics cards featuring the GeForce 4600 Titanium chip set are expected to sell for US$349 to US$399. (Nvidia does not manufacture graphics cards, only the chips.) Nvidia executives also say they plan to launch two other iterations of the Titanium chips with slower clock speeds that will appear on boards priced at US$299 and US$199. Australian pricing has not been released.

Graphics on a Budget

The consumer GeForce4 MX 460 offers many of the same features as the gamer-oriented GeForce4 Titanium chip, including a core clock speed of 300 MHz. The MX also includes support for 64MB of 550-MHz DDR SDRAM, full-scene antialiasing, and dual DVI or TV-out (depending on the card vendor). The company will also eventually ship two lower clock speed versions of the MX 460.

New to this line of chips is support for dual displays using nView technology, which lets you hook up any combination of up to two analog or digital monitors (including CRT and LCD monitors). Some boards will even let you hook up an analog or a digital monitor simultaneously with a TV. Software lets you customize and control both desktops, allowing you to configure the way the chip displays applications and windows on each.

Visiontek Ships First

Graphics board vendors Asus AG, MSI Computer Corp., PNY Technologies Inc., VisionTek Inc., Leadtek Research Inc., Gainward Co. Ltd., and EVGA have all signed on to sell boards with Nvidia's new chips. Boxes are due to hit stores in February or early March, Nvidia says. VisionTek will be among the first to ship its Xtasy MX boards, which it says will hit US retail shelves Wednesday. The company says its Ti version should arrive in stores by early March.

In anticipation of the new chips, Nvidia has already ceased manufacturing current MX 400 and 200 chips as well as recently released GeForce2 and GeForce3 Titanium chips.

Let the Games Begin

Gamers have been waiting more than a year for games with DirectX 8 hardware acceleration. A year ago Nvidia released its GeForce3 cards, which it claimed would support DirectX 8 hardware acceleration. However, games to support the standard have yet to arrive to this day.

The same thing happened with the GeForce3 Titanium 300 and 500 cards, which are now being "slowly and gracefully phased out," says Stephen Sims, senior product manager at Nvidia. Sims says now that the next generation of cards is here Nvidia is counting on developers to create games that take advantage of the technology.

The company is confident that Star Wars online, Unreal Tournament II, Comanche 4 (with a high-resolution mode that only works with the GeForce4 Ti), and other games with DirectX 8.1 support will arrive shortly, Sims says. Now that both Nvidia and ATI chips are compatible with the same version of DirectX 8.1, games can be coded for both cards instead of one or the other.

"[DirectX] 8.1 gives everyone a chance to stabilize," Sims says. "Developers are trying to create a common code base."

Real-World Tests

We installed Nvidia-supplied reference GeForce4 Titanium and GeForce4 MX boards on two Dell Dimension 4100 Series machines, both featuring a PIII-933 CPU, 128MB of PC133 SDRAM, and running Windows Me. We used Nvidia reference drivers for reference boards and vendor-supplied drivers for vendor boards.

We turned on antialiasing and set the resolution to 1280 by 1024 with 32-bit color, then loaded up Remedy Entertainment's game Max Payne. Neither board had problems handling the large textures and complex scenes in the game, but edges appeared smoother and panning was effortless with the high-end Titanium model. Edges were a bit jagged using the MX-based card.

PC World's Test Center also ran lab tests on Nvidia's reference boards using our suite with Quake III, Unreal Tournament, MDK2, and Test Drive 6 running resolutions and color depths ranging from 640 by 480 using 16-bit color all the way up to 1600 by 1200 under 32-bit color.

In our Quake III tests, the GeForce4's frame rates were slightly lower than Visiontek's 6964, using the previous generation GeForce3 Ti 500 chip. In Unreal Tournament, the two boards' frame rate scores were identical. The GeForce4 pulled ahead in MDK2, where it hit 112 frames per second to the Visiontek's 88 at 1600 by 1200 at 32-bit color. While the scores were nearly even in our frame rate tests, Nvidia's new chips showed remarkable image quality with a remarkable amount of clarity and smoothness in all of our games.

The GeForce4-MX iteration makes a big improvement over its MX-400-based predecessor, especially at the highest 1600 by 1200 resolution and 32-bit color where it tied and even beat some GeForce3 Titanium 500-based cards. In Quake III, with 63 fps, the GeForce4 MX reference board bested the top-scoring budget MX-400 on our chart, the Gainward CardExpert GeForce2 MX Twin View/VIVO Golden Sample, which earned 19 fps at the same resolution. It managed to earn very good subjective image quality scores in all but our Unreal Tournament test game.

As gamers eagerly await titles to go with new chips, new boards, and new versions of DirectX 8, Nvidia looks steadily onto the future. "As for DX9," Sims says, "It's on everybody's radar. We're definitely working with Microsoft on that."