S3 Graphics: "The Market Is Screaming Out for a Solid Third Supplier of Graphics Products – We Will Be That Company"

S3 Graphics, the king of the graphics market a decade ago, is currently relatively quiet developing graphics cores that are primarily used in emerging markets. But the company has some solid plans for come back with its soon-to-be released Chrome20-series as well as future generations of products. We interviewed Nadeem Mohammad to find out more about S3 today.

by Anna Filatova , Anton Shilov
09/19/2005 | 03:11 PM

X-bit labs had an opportunity to visit S3 Graphics headquarters in Fremont, California earlier this month prior the formal announcement of the Chrome20-series of graphics chips. While the general information about the new product series is still under wraps, we decided to sit down with Nadeem Mohammad, who is Product Marketing Manager at S3 Graphics Inc. in Fremont, CA, and talk about S3 Graphics today and the company’s plans for the future.


The Company Today

X-bit labs: Given that S3 Graphics has been pretty quiet for a few years, can you tell our readers a little bit about your company and how it relates to S3 Inc.

Nadeem Mohammad: In 1999 S3 acquired Diamond Multimedia – this marked the start of the transformation of S3 from a pure graphics processor company into one with multiple business units with various focuses and subsequently changed its name to SonicBlue. It after this transformation that S3 Graphics was formed as a joint venture between VIA technologies and SonicBlue – consolidating all the graphics chip related business into this new focused company. So in essence S3 Graphics is the original S3 and people which folks can associate with the products which revolutionized the graphics industry in the early and mid 1990’s.

X-bit labs: S3 Incorporated used to be the world’s No. 1 supplier of graphics chips in the mid-nineties, who employed more than 650 of developers. Can you tell us, how many developers work on S3 Graphics’ chips today?

Nadeem Mohammad: We have a similar number of employees dedicated to S3 Graphics discrete and integrated graphics business even today – but in addition we leverage central R&D resources from VIA Technologies, particularly for core library development and I/O cell developments.

X-bit labs: Do you hire additional engineers, testers?

Nadeem Mohammad: Yes we are always in market for quality engineering staff, we have several worldwide locations, each with their own employment resource requirements..

X-bit labs: Where are you based at this point?

Nadeem Mohammad: I am based in Fremont , CA, this is the head quarters of S3 Graphics.

X-bit labs: Where the core of the team is physically located, in California, or in Taiwan?

Nadeem Mohammad: The core teams are located in California and China.

X-bit labs: What are your general targets to achieve on the market? Do you have ambitions to become as big as ATI and NVIDIA?

Nadeem Mohammad: The market place is screaming out for a solid third supplier of quality graphics products – and we will be that company. Both of two companies you mentioned have expanded their business beyond graphics processors and their sizes reflect that, so when S3 Graphics and VIA are viewed together as an entity the relative of sizes of resources become quite different.

X-bit labs: S3 Inc. used to have numerous add-in-card and OEM clients, including big names like ASUS and Compaq. Who are your main clients now?

Nadeem Mohammad: This year you will start to see an increased about of public activity in OEM and big brand name arena, our Chrome20 series of products are attracting a lot of interest from many new and old customers. So I would say “watch this space”

X-bit labs: S3 Incorporated used to have a highly-experienced execution team. Now that Rick Bergman is at ATI, Kenneth Potashner at Newport and some others also joined different companies, can you reveal who leads S3 Graphics today? If possible, tell our readers something about those people and other key employees of the company.

Nadeem Mohammad: Dr. Ken Weng joined S3 Graphics early this year as general manager to lead its return to the the performance graphics market. With his proven background in graphics, chipset and CPU from SGI, Chips and Tech, and Amdhal in early years, this is definitely expanding the experienced management team already in place at S3 Graphics. When established as a VIA affiliate company during 2000-2001, S3 Graphics immediately strengthened the leadership. Both the hardware vice president Michael Shiuan and software vice president Iming Pai had returned to lead the new S3 Graphics product development, and they were both proven key leaders during S3's rising and dominating years. Along with the engineering management was marketing vice president Dr. Gerry Liu who also joined VIA and S3 Graphics in 2000 and had previously been Trident's graphics business president. We're confident that our new product marks the beginning of our exciting return to the desktop and notebook graphics market.

X-bit labs: How do you share the work between your employees? How many graphics architecture engineers are there, how many ASIC designers are there, how many software developers are there? Do you use VIA’s ASIC engineers?

Nadeem Mohammad: The division of work between the various engineering groups and sites is quite complex – but one of the essential elements of designing a successful graphics chip is to engage the software driver team at the very earliest stages of architectural definition. It is the driver folks who have to be very familiar with the way the OS and applications use the drivers and in turn how to map these requests in an efficient manner to graphics processor commands. We do leverage VIA’s central engineering support services and also we license external IP as and when appropriate.

X-bit labs: Do you develop any products beyond PCs? For instance, chips for handheld devices, etc.?

Nadeem Mohammad: S3 Graphics develops the graphics cores which are used in all of VIA technologies core logic solutions for PCs, in addition we are engaged with companies interested in taking our PC products into the mobile and handheld arena – I can not comment any more than that.

Chip Development Process

X-bit labs: Generally speaking, both DeltaChrome and GammaChrome graphics chips utilized the same graphics architecture. Given that you have not declared any tangible feature-set improvements in the Chrome20, does it mean that this is still the architecture originally unveiled in 2002?

Nadeem Mohammad: We have made a conscious decision not make too many disclosures about the internal operation and architecture of our processors. Our DirectX 9 architecture has been improved substantially from DeltaChrome and even GammaChrome, once you have a chance to run the new Chrome20 series in your labs you will find better performance per clock than our previous products.

X-bit labs: How much time does it take to design a GPU from scratch?

Nadeem Mohammad: Starting from the initiation of a new architecture to first silicon can take technology investment of between 2 to 3 years. Fast cycle – time-to-market products can be developed as derivatives in a much shorter time.

X-bit labs: How much time does it take to shrink a graphics core to a new manufacturing process and add minor improvements?

Nadeem Mohammad: It is highly dependent on the actual process transition, standard library model availability and changes. Some process changes can be considered optical shrinks, this usually implies that the same manufacturing equipment is being used in the fabrication line and the process steps are the same – just more precise and tuned for the new geometry. I would say that could be about 9 months, including time for testing and qualification.

X-bit labs: Feature-set wise S3 Graphics was late with some of its products, in our perspective. Did you do anything to improve the situation?

Nadeem Mohammad: We have been improving our time-to-market with each new product – I would be first to acknowledge we still have a lot of room for improvement. We have made many changes to the way we work and operate, particular to reduce the time lag between production silicon to high quality production desktop boards – a critical item which previously was out of our control.

X-bit labs: Tell us a little bit about your Destination Generation products that should sport Shader Model 4.0 capability. When did you start the development? Is it more challenging to design a chip with unified pixel and vertex processors? What manufacturing technology will you use in late 2006 when the Destination products are supposed to arrive?

Nadeem Mohammad: This architecture for this new generation has been in development quite a while, originally as part of our advance research group. This was well before any engagement in Microsoft on the DirectX 10 specification. I can not comment on any of the features or specification of this product family. I will say that I am personally very excited about this design – it will have features and capabilities which I have dreamed about since my first work on graphics processors back in 1987! 2006 year is going to be a milestone year for the entire graphics industry.

X-bit labs: The Chrome20-series is said to be made using 90nm process technology. None of graphics chips designers has unveiled 90nm products even formally yet. Is it hard to design a 90nm GPU?

Nadeem Mohammad: That makes our Chrome20 demonstration to you an industry first – that’s great. It is not easy to design and manufacture 90nm of this complexity, and I can totally understand some of the problems facing our competitors. It comes down to experience and partner support. A lot of our process and design engineers have been in the graphics industry for over a decade, S3 used to have a great reputation for driving the leading edge processes and it’s still in our genes today. We also have access to a wealth of resources from our affiliate VIA Technologies. As you can see from our demonstration our 90nm Chrome20 series products are alive and kicking, we do not anticipate any problems due to the process, clocks are hitting targets, power consumption is well within expectations, yields are acceptable – we’re in good shape.

X-bit labs: What do you consider acceptable yields?

Nadeem Mohammad: All wafer companies have formulae based their measured defect densities and their experience on how long it takes to further improve them. These information coupled with chip size and process layers can be used to project theoretical yields. When yields match or exceed these numbers – then we’re happy – and we consider it acceptable! I hope that helps to explain this?

X-bit labs: What will be the expected clock rates?

Nadeem Mohammad: We are currently not releasing details of the final clock rates but to give you an indication, there will be members in this family of products which will have higher clock rate than any GPU announced or available as of to date.

X-bit labs: What do you consider as the most important features, characteristics of a GPU when developing it?

Nadeem Mohammad: It’s a careful balance of performance, power, video features, cost and compatibility. If anyone of these parameters are outside the range of acceptability of the target market the product would be not considered.

X-bit labs: How many transistors does the Chrome20 have?

Nadeem Mohammad: We currently are not disclosing details, the actual number depends how you count, but for now approximately 60 to 80 million transistors in advanced 90nm, is a reasonable range.

X-bit labs: What do you mean by how to count? Isn’t there only one way count the transistors?

Nadeem Mohammad: Internally graphics companies count their designs in terms of logic gates, which in turn can be translated into transistors by a simple multiplier. In addition modern designs use large amounts of internal memory, for caches and registers etc., their routing density can be very high compared to standard logic. To confuse things further there are analog portions of the design which may have large transistors – many order of magnitude larger than those in logic gates – companies could choose to count them literally or as “logic-transistor” equivalent. It is not clear to me how some of the big numbers some other folks talk about are generated – actual transistors or equivalent using logic density or cache density.

Driver Issues

X-bit labs: Graphics chip designers ATI Technologies and NVIDIA Corp. have hundreds of engineers working on drivers. How many software developers do you have?

Nadeem Mohammad: We have close to 300 engineers in our software department.

X-bit labs: While S3’s products are capable of producing acceptable performance and quality in a lot of popular games, some games are still unlikely to satisfy end-users, which is a result of the lack, or very reduced collaboration with game developers. Can you name game developers that you constantly work with to ensure smooth operation of your GPUs with their titles?

Nadeem Mohammad: We have been making great process on this regard – particularly in the last 18 months, we have active engagement with over 80 game developers include leading companies and publishers which include, EA, Microsoft, Activision , Relic, Remedy, Crytek and many others.

X-bit labs: S3 Inc. used to have a pretty comprehensive web-site for developers, currently the information for developers seem to be limited with “ISV Corner” at ChromeZone web-site. Do you plan any improvements?

Nadeem Mohammad: There is certainly a lot of room for improvement on the website – our ISV group’s focus has been to establish contact with all leading developers and publishers and ensure we deliver sufficient samples to ensure great out of the box compatibility and performance – as such I think our developer corner had been neglected. Our ChromeZone will however get a boost once we launch Chrome20 to ensure our customers have a quality resource to get the latest game patches and driver updates.

X-bit labs: How many games have been tested for compatibility with the Chrome20-series chips?

Nadeem Mohammad: The number increases daily – I believe the last count was in the order of 200ish.

New Products

X-bit labs: Can you tell us about power consumption of the Chrome20?

Nadeem Mohammad: Power consumption is becoming an increasing important parameter for the graphics subsystem in desktop and in mobile. The Chrome20 series will feature industry leading performance per watt characteristics – which will make it ideal for Home Theater PCs or Media Center Edition setups – when low power translates to cooler/quieter setup.

X-bit labs: Any precise figures concerning the consumption, like peak, idle consumption? Or any kind of comparison with existing solutions.

Nadeem Mohammad: We will be releasing actual data when we formally launch the product. But to give you an indication – a Chrome20series desktop could be consuming less than half the average power of some other processors while producing the same performance.

X-bit labs: Can you talk more about the Chromotion 3.0 technology to be implemented into the Chrome20-series?

Nadeem Mohammad: Chrome20 will feature a new generation of Chromotion, our programmable video technology – but I can not release any specific information at this moment – to give you a taste you should expect enhancements in the media formats we support and even better support of widescreen displays, such as HDTVs.

X-bit labs: Talking of HDTV connectivity – how does your solution compare with those of your competitors?

Nadeem Mohammad: We were the first company to offer HDTV component video output , directly from the GPU. We support all the way up to 1080p, which is quite an achievement –our competitors are still trying to catch up.. This super high resolution is actually gaining quite a lot of momentum, I see a lot more TV’s available now which support 1080p than this time last year. I have one of our graphics boards hooked up to my HDTV at home – and one of things I use it for is slide shows of our digital pictures – and our friends always are stunned by the image quality of true HDTV on a big 65” screen – its almost like seeing a big poster of every picture! I am convinced the wide availability of HDTV will greatly encourage the use of PC in the living room, and the Chrome20 series have lots of features which will enhance the experience in this situation.

X-bit labs: Will there be any mobile versions of the Chrome20 product lineup?

Nadeem Mohammad: Absolutely yes – we have a strong reputation with the major notebook OEMs, and our current generation GammaChrome is considered to be one of the best mobile graphics processors available. The Chrome20 mobile series will further extend our performance/watt industry position. I’m personally very excited by the possibility of having high performance game play capability in a true portable notebook.

X-bit labs: What market segment is the Chrome20 Series targeting?

Nadeem Mohammad: The final retail price of an add-in board using a Chrome20 Series processor could vary quite substantially – depending on memory configuration and product SKUs – but in general the main focus will be upper mainstream up to lower mainstream graphics, for example in USA retail this translates to a price range of $79 up to $179 approximately.

X-bit labs: Who will be your board partners in the USA and Europe?

Nadeem Mohammad: We are talking to several companies, but unfortunately I cannot disclose any names at this moment.

X-bit labs: Who are your retail partners in the U.S. and Europe?

Nadeem Mohammad: Our board partners have established retail channels which we will leverage. In the U.S. we also have our G-Store online outlet, accessible from S3Graphics.com.

X-bit labs: You are talking about OEMs and their considerations about superiority of the GammaChrome. Which OEMs use the GammaChrome, or any other product from S3 Graphics, right now?

Nadeem Mohammad: I can not disclose the names of the OEMs we are working with – I will have use the old phrase “watch this space”.

X-bit labs: When can we actually expect the Chrome20-series products to be available?

Nadeem Mohammad: Well within the next two months.