Sparks fly in graphics card wars

The graphics card wars – like the products – are typically both colourful and lively, but the latest round may force customers and game developers to choose their loyalties.

In question is a more advanced implementation of rendering technology called SmartShader, part of an upcoming ATI Technologies Inc. graphics chip expected to ship in September. ATI, based in Thornhill Ont., offers a peek at the technology in a white paper on its Web site. The preview has drawn both enthusiasm and criticism in the graphics (and gaming) community.

Essentially, ATI is throwing down a gauntlet, challenging game developers to first support its SmartShader rendering, which uses Pixel Shader 1.4, new technology in Microsoft Corp.’s DirectX 8.1 multimedia standard. NVidia Corp. supports Pixel Shader only through version 1.3.

Does it seem like they’re just getting picky about pixels? Perhaps. But game developers will have to choose which Pixel Shader to support in their code. If they want to support both NVidia’s GeForce3 and the upcoming ATI board (which will probably be called the Radeon 2), they’ll have to write more code.

The main difference is that Pixel Shader 1.4 lets graphics chips render up to six textures in a single pass instead of four, ATI’s controversial claim in its white paper. NVidia counters that the GeForce3 can render six textures, although it takes more than a single pass. The textures affect visual effects such as lighting and details of hair, water, wood, and other surfaces.

Fighting words

In fact, developers may have to choose which board to initially support, a contest NVidia is sure it will win.

“We’re pretty confident that developers are going to support our architecture. I say that because we’ve had a lot of overwhelming support and excitement,” says Geoff Ballew, product manager for the GeForce3 at NVidia.

ATI’s technical marketing manager of desktop marketing David Nalasco says the proof will be in the pixels.

“We believe NVidia is attempting to spread misinformation about our SmartShader technology in an effort to protect their perceived technology leadership in 3D graphics,” Nalasco says.

It’s impossible to fight vaporware, NVidia counters. Until ATI ships its hardware, there’s no way to tell which chip will be superior. Until then, the graphics battle is verbal.

“It’s hard to battle a paper spec,” Ballew says.

For their part, game developers aren’t talking. The battle remains academic for them, because they don’t yet even have reference boards for ATI’s new technology.

The irony of this graphics war is that game development has a long lead-time. It could be close to a year before any games appear that can take advantage of either company’s next boards. NVidia isn’t talking, but it’s expected to also release the next generation of its GeForce cards this fall.

Consequently, industry-watchers expect GeForce cards to eventually support DirectX 8.0 – and Pixel Shader 1.4 – as well.

Pixels get shady

The whole event is reminiscent of the transform and lighting (hardware T&L) fight of a few years ago. NVidia implemented it; then-rival 3dfx didn’t. NVidia, naturally, couched it as a crucial feature, its competition characterized the technology as an unnecessary extra, and eventually it caught on universally – in both hardware and software.

Similarly, the new implementation of Pixel Shader technology could someday be a new standard in graphics and gaming.

“These changes [in Pixel Shader 1.4] reduce or eliminate the need for multi-pass rendering – drawing each frame multiple times, adding more detail each time, which causes a major performance hit,” says ATI’s Nalasco.

Ballew counters, “They’re claiming that six textures is better. It’ll only be better if it’s faster.”

Microsoft, originator of Pixel Shader 1.4, won’t take sides.

“Microsoft is committed to working closely with all hardware manufacturers to deliver the best products possible,” a representative says. Hype wars?

In the meantime, the sparks are raising anticipation for new products and fueling the competition.

“It’s all about hype,” says Mike Goodman, an analyst at the research firm Yankee Group. “What ATI is trying to do is create awareness. If you go back and forth with them, you’re helping create awareness.”

By arching its corporate back, did NVidia give ATI’s hype validity?

“You don’t want to let competition just go, but at the same time you don’t want to help it reach legitimacy,” Ballew says.

Maybe they’re both just revving the crowds for the next release – and giving people reasons to see for themselves how ATI’s next graphics board stacks up against the GeForce3.

Nalasco agrees: “As always, products speak louder than words.”

ATI Technologies Inc. can be reached at Nvida Corp. can be reached at