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No More Graphics Cards, Gaming Platforms Are Offered Instead

Intel is not the only in its understanding of the future of computer usage: the top two designers of graphics cards also believe that the best computing experience is possible only with a tailored computer platform rather than with a set of hardware from different designers. With the launch of proprietary multi-GPU technologies, ATI and NVIDIA also demonstrate commitment to platform approach.

Throughout the history of the PC all the components of the IBM PC-compatible computers were generally compatible and interchangeable, which conditioned the widespread popularity of such PCs. For system makers as well as end-users it was very comfortable to have absolute compatibility between different components developed and made in the same timeframe (with some exceptions) and still have excellent usage experience. Nearly three decades after the IBM PC was invented, this paradigm is put under doubts: leading designers of computer components advice to install hardware developed by the same company for optimal compatibility, stability and performance.

NVIDIA’s multi-GPU technology SLI unveiled in middle-2004 and actually launched in December, 2004, was originally meant to operate at Intel Tumwater platform, but then NVIDIA started to recommend to use NVIDIA nForce4 SLI instead. In fact, virtually none SLI-enabled systems featuring the Tumwater chipset have been shipped commercially, which may indicate certain issues during qualification. System makers and computer users were quick to start utilizing NVIDIA nForce4 SLI-series, probably due to excellent qualification results.

ATI, who is not generally known for enthusiast-oriented chipsets, now also recommends to utilize its own RADEON XPRESS 200 CrossFire Edition core-logic with systems running graphics cards in multi-GPU CrossFire mode. While the company’s representative indicate that the RADEON X8 graphics cards themselves are compatible with any chipset, including Intel Tumwater, NVIDIA nForce4 SLI and possibly even VIA PT890 Pro, the best experience and compatibility would only be achieved on the RADEON XPRESS 200 CrossFire mainboards. While eventually the Markham, Ontario-based graphics company is expected to validate third-party chipsets for CrossFire, it is obvious that the market is strongly advised to use ATI’s own CrossFire gaming platform – two graphics cards and a mainboard, all powered by ATI.

Generally speaking, despite of the fact that it is a bit harder to sell a set of chips compared to selling of one chip, putting platforms on the market gives a number of strong benefits to silicon designers:

  • It is easier to tailor hardware for performance and stability provided that you know everything about it: NVIDIA already uses this ability to fine-tune systems enabled by its GeForce and nForce products using the nTune utility.
  • It is cheaper to qualify your own set of hardware for particular type of operation: there are plethora of possible hardware and software configurations out there, in case a company with limited resources ticks out a number of potential platforms, it may saves weeks of testing.
  • It is more profitable to sell three chips instead of two.
  • It is easier to provide support for a platform that consists of your own components due to better understanding of their architecture.

At the end of the day, the customers receive a somewhat better solution, whereas vendors spend less funds and get higher revenue/profits. Given the complexity of today’s graphics sub-systems, platform approach seems reasonable enough, even that it poses some danger to companies who specialize only on one particular type of production.

The bottom line is that if you want a premier graphics sub-system – consider not only graphics cards, but also a mainboard that is based on a chipset developed by the designer of your graphics processing units.

ATI RD480, ATI RD400 Enter the Scene

For the CrossFire platform ATI offers two new RADEON XPRESS 200 CrossFire Edition chipsets code-named RD480 and RD400 for AMD and Intel processors respectively. Both are re-worked versions of already introduced RADEON XPRESS 200-series core-logic products (this time without integrated graphics) with some new capabilities that allow ATI to call the products “built for the enthusiast”.

ATI RD400 mainboard by Sapphire. Click to enlarge 

ATI’s new RADEON XPRESS 200 CrossFire Edition North Bridges for AMD and Intel processors allow to share PCI Express x16 interconnection between two slots, providing x8 connection to both, and can be paired using PCI Express x4 bus with I/O controller from ATI Technologies or ULi Electronics.

Quite naturally, the new RD480 supports all the latest enthusiast-oriented AMD Athlon 64 processors with up to 1GHz Hyper-Transport bus. The revamped IXP450 I/O controller also brings high definition audio, which may be interested to some enthusiasts, but ATI advices its mainboard partners to use external controllers for Serial ATA II (ATI’s demo platforms use Silicon Image Controller) and Gigabit Ethernet (current demo mainboards use Broadcom’s chip).

ATI RD480 mainboard by Sapphire. Click to enlarge 

Not everything is clear about support of Intel processors for enthusiasts, such as Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, by ATI’s RD400 core-logic. ATI’s presentation slides imply that chips with 1066MHz processor system bus are supported, however, some of the company’s representatives claim that ATI does not have license for this bus. Just like predecessor, the RD400 sports dual-channel DDR or DDR2 memory controller supporting 400MHz and 667MHz respectively. While the IXP450 bridge can be paired with the RD400, external controllers for Serial ATA II and GbE will still be required for mainboards that provide top functionality.

Currently the main advantage ATI’s CrossFire platforms have over majority of NVIDIA SLI platforms is the lack of mode selector: as is known, the bulk of NVIDIA nForce4 SLI-based mainboards are equipped with a special card that determines whether one or two graphics chips are used.

To sum up, with the RADEON XPRESS 200 CrossFire platforms ATI is trying hard to provide the same level of functionality as rival NVIDIA Corp. offers with its nForce4 SLI products, but without really high level of integration. For instance, NVIDIA has built-in SATA II and GbE controllers, whereas ATI has to use external chips, which may be more expensive. Still, in case actual cost of CrossFire mainboards is not much higher than that of SLI platforms, the approach of ATI may be feasible.

ATI produces its new RADEON XPRESS 200 CrossFire Edition code-named RD400 and RD480 chipsets using low power 0.13 micron process technology and suggests that both core-logic sets will provide “huge overclocking potential” demanded by enthusiasts and overclockers.

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