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New graphics chips enable next-gen gaming

The next generation of computer games sporting more realistic visuals than ever is not yet in full swing but a range of new graphics chips is letting gamers beef up their PCs today in anticipation.
NVIDIA CORPORATION
The NVIDIA GeForce 8M Series of notebook graphics processors are the first to support DirectX 10 delivering unparalleled levels of graphics realism and film-quality effects for games and applications. (PRNewsFoto/NVIDIA Corporation)NVIDIA CORPORATION
/ Source: Reuters

The next generation of computer games sporting more realistic visuals than ever is not yet in full swing but a range of new graphics chips is letting gamers beef up their PCs today in anticipation.

It's the latest round in the grudge match between Nvidia Corp., the last remaining independent graphics chip company, and ATI, which was folded into PC processor maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. last year.

The new chips are some of the most impressive pieces of silicon ever produced — sporting more than half a billion transistors, hundreds of processing engines and accompanied by more than half a gigabyte of memory.

The magic lies in their ability to run games using DirectX 10, the latest version of the software from Microsoft Corp., enabling games to run on its Windows operating system.

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Only a handful of games take advantage of DirectX 10 now, but the most anticipated releases later this year — jungle shooter "Crysis," online role-playing game "Age of Conan" and "Unreal Tournament 3" — all use it.

"People are buying the new cards because you buy with a degree of headroom to support games coming down the pipeline. People want to buy today knowing they can maximize that experience," said AMD spokesman Jon Carvill.

AMD brought its newest Radeon chip to the table last month, giving it a powerful product to compete with Nvidia's GeForce lineup, which it refreshed in late 2006.

Garnering praise
Reviewers have praised the $400 Radeon 2900 XT's specs and said that although initial tests showed it underperforming a comparable Nvidia card, the results should improve as AMD's engineers tweak its software.

"Fortunately AMD's driver team has a very solid history of delivering steady performance improvements as they become more familiar with the architecture. A month or two from now the performance picture could be drastically different," FiringSquad.com, a gaming hardware review site, said recently.

Nvidia has had six months to flesh out the GeForce family, which is now capped by the 8800 Ultra, whose $800 price tag essentially limits it to hardcore gamers who don't blink at spending as much on a PC as other people would spend on a car.

"That's for the guy who has everything. Amazingly enough, we sell a ton of them. It's a lot like the car industry -- you've got to have the fastest hotrod," said Derek Perez, head of public relations for Nvidia.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 8400, which goes for well under $100 and puts next-gen gaming within reach of the mass market, albeit with images that are less sharp and motions less smooth than pricier cards produce.

All that has helped Nvidia grab market share from AMD. In the market for stand-alone graphics cards — rather than the low-powered integrated graphics chips in many inexpensive PCs -- Nvidia saw its share rise to 59 percent in the first quarter, up from 47 percent a year ago.

"Nvidia's 8 series is competing against AMD's prior generation right now. The competition will likely heat up in the second half as AMD fleshes out its 2000-series product line," said Dean McCarron, head of market research firm Mercury Research.

AMD promises mid-range and low-end Radeons will be coming out in time for the crucial back-to-school PC buying season.

"Right now what we're focusing on is getting our mainstream products to market. These are the big-volume sellers for us and will drive mainstream adoption of DirectX 10," Carvill said.