CeBIT 2007 Coverage: Part 4

This time we examine Philips’ amBX technology for video gamers, think about prospects of solid state drives and take a look at NAND Flash technology from Intel. Besides, we glance at a “liquid-cooling for everything” concept from EVGA and Innovatek. We also visit booth of Zalman to find 3D displays there and learn about termination of its agreement with top gamer Fatal1ty.

by Anton Shilov
03/22/2007 | 02:44 PM

Feel the Vibe: Philips amBX Examined

Philips introduced its amBX technology a little less than one and a half years ago with the aim to redefine video gaming, movie watching and music listening experience with new types of effects enabled by specially created devices.

 

Philips promised that through enabled devices – such as LED color-controlled lights, active furniture, fans, heaters, audio and video – strategically placed in the user’s room, gamers or movie watchers will have even more immersive experience than they do today with large high-resolution screens, 7.1 channel audio and other entertainment-related hardware. This year the company plans to finally launch the first product series that features amBX concept: several sets of gaming peripherals, which we had a chance to try-out at CeBIT 2007 show in a special booth.


Philips amBX conceptual art. Click to enlarge

So far there are not a lot of games which should support amBX from the start – there are only five of them to be precise (Broken Sword: The Angel of Death, DEFCON, Toca Race Driver 3, Rail Simulator and Darwinia), however, the company has enabled amBX light effects with some older games, including Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Need for Speed Undeground 2, Half-Life 2, F.E.A.R. and so on (currently there are about 50 titles listed) with the help of special patches that come with its FXGenerator software. From some point of view amBX may seem like Ageia PhysX, a technology fully dependant on support by game developers, but the difference is that there are ten games taking advantage of PhysX after a year on the market and there is one games that takes advantage of amBX ahead of its commercial launch with four more “coming soon”.

Philips plans to offer three versions of amBX kits for gamers this spring:

Even though among the amBX supporting titles Toca Race Driver 3 is available now, Philips demonstrated how amBX premium kit for gamers affects formula 1 driving using a proprietary demo game. Given that racing occurs during a sunny day, Philips’ LED light units that can display up to 60 million of colours do not provide any kind of noticeable effects with this demo game. However, the fans and vibrating pad certainly do: the former are blowing like the wind does during cycling (evidently, F1 drivers wear helmet and a special mask that does not allow those helmets to weld on to pilot’s head in case of fire and hardly feel any wind) and the latter is vibrating whenever the driver hits something.


Philips amBX demo system at CeBIT 2007. Click to enlarge

Generally speaking, the particular demo game is not very good example of what amBX could do: it is funny that there is some kind of physical feedback to your actions, but it not really exciting and it provides no additional immersion. A much better way to demonstrate the amBX would be using the Pier level from Far Cry, as it features a lot of wind while the character is flying a hang-glider, some vibration effects and lighting effects would also play a big role. Evidently, the demo system’s mouse should also feature force-feedback and the demo should be carried out on a monitor at least 24” in diagonal.

Fatal1ty Free: Zalman Drops Fatal1ty, Intros 3D Displays

No More Fatal1ty from Zalman

Zalman, the company which became well-known for its quiet, but efficient, cooling solutions has not only been improving its cooling product lineup, but also has started to introduce new products, e.g. 3D monitors that can be used in conjunction with Nvidia Stereo technology are shown at CeBIT 2007.


Computer case by Zalman with 3D glasses on top. Click to enlarge

A significant focus for the company in the past few years has been the market of hardware for video gamers. To tap the market of gaming hardware, the company hired Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendell and even released some new products under that brand-name, but this year the firm decided to terminate the agreement, probably due to necessity to assign relatively tangible funds on supporting the brand, which did not attract a lot of attention to the company’s actual products (and whenever a product is sold, hardware manufacturers have to pay royalties to Fatal1ty).

If last year Zalman displayed Fatal1ty-branded CPU and GPU coolers, a power supply unit and a computer case, then this year the company showed none of those devices, but demonstrated redesigned Fatal1ty computer case which has been re-branded into ZMachine.

Zalman Goes 3D

Besides its usual cooling devices, Zalman demonstrated a series of Zalman-branded monitors which are capable of displaying 3D images provided that special glasses are worn and Nvidia stereo driver is used.


3D display from Zalman. Click to enlarge

Unfortunately, the company does not provide any extensive explanation about how its stereoscopic technology works and the following is our guesstimate.

Nvidia driver offsets odd and even lines on the screen by n pixels to the right and to the left and displays them. Zalman’s monitor has a special coating that does linear polarization for every pixel (it spreads light vector from every screen pixel into two [or more] so that to interpret odd and even lines like they were under different angles) and then the glasses do circular polarization for each tip of the light vectors so that to they looked like circles and the brain would interpret the image as a volume one. Basically, Zalman’s approach is similar to autostereoscopic display approach with the difference that the Seoul, Korea-based company offers special glasses.


Zalman 3D stereo technology's working principles. Click to enlarge

Nvidia’s stereo technology is nothing new and has been known for many years now. It is pretty simplistic to explain, however, it is uncertain whether it is as simplistic to provide support for it, as the latest ForceWare driver that features technology is 91.31 (dated June 29, 2006).

The impression is fairly good: the stereo 3D actually works and can be seen. But the experience is not really extraordinary, as viewing angles for 3D on this monitor are 8-12° vertically and 90° horizontally, which essentially means that users should sit in front of their monitors still while watching movies or playing video games, as a movement in any direction would indisputably interrupt the stereoscopic 3D experience. Moreover, users who wear glasses (or have different kinds of issues with eyes) will not be able to use 3D stereo on such monitors.

Zalman will have three 3D monitor models – 19” with 1280x1024 resolution, 19” with 1440x900 resolution as well as 22” with 1680x1050 resolution – all based on TN+film matrixes with 300:1 luminance of white,1000:1 contrast ratio and 5ms response time.

Even though pricing of 3D monitors from Zalman may be considered as low compared to solutions from Sharp or Nec, e.g. Zalman’s 19” model should cost around $499, it is greatly overpriced compared to typical LCD panels of that size, which cost about $200 in the U.S.

Let It Rain: Liquid-Cooling for Everything from EVGA and Innovatek

Back in the days liquid-cooling was used only by hardcore computer enthusiasts and overclockers to get maximum out of their systems. Unfortunately, those liquid-coolers were not really reliable: at some point, due to corrosion or holes in liquid pipes, water got inside a PC and damaged either a mainboard, or a graphics card, or both. Unreliability was, and to some extent still is, the reason why PC manufacturers do not widely use liquid-cooling method.


EVGA Nvidia nForce 680i SLI mainboard with water-cooling.
Click to enlarge

But technologies do improve in many ways: on the one hand CPUs and GPUs became so powerful that they may consume hundreds of watts of power, on the other hand manufacturers learnt how to make reliable liquid-cooling systems. For over a year now EVGA and Sapphire Technology have been offering their liquid-cooled Black Pearl- and Toxic-series graphics cards, however, no company ships mainboards with liquid cooling for CPU and chipset. EVGA wants to be the first one and at CeBIT 2007 it showcased an appropriate product.


Innovatek's water-blocks on EVGA nForce 680i SLI mainboard.
Click to enlarge

EVGA, in collaboration with Innovatek, a German maker of water-coolers, installed water-blocks on the microprocessor as well as on north and south bridges of the chipset, which should guarantee stability amid improved overclockability. When combine with the Black Pearl graphics cards, the system turns into a fully liquid-cooled one.

  
Systems using all-liquid cooling concept from EVGA and Innovatek. Click to enlarge

Currently EVGA is investigating whether there is demand for such mainboard products on the market and the final decision will be made shortly. Obviously, the biggest concern is the price: it is not going to be low and users will still have to acquire a water-pump which is not cheap too. It is indisputable fact that enthusiasts today are eager to spend terrific amount of money on personal computers, but it is questionable whether it makes sense to create a batch of bundles with EVGA’s nForce 680i SLI mainboard with water-blocks, as there are not many of such enthusiasts.


Hard disk drives cooled with liquid-cooling system.
Click to enlarge

Loading at the Speed of Thought: Intel Demos Benefits of Robson

All the users who utilize their computers for intensive and resource-demanding tasks know how irritating are moments when a program like Photoshop is loading slowly for ten times a day, or when images which are supposed to be accessible quickly take a precious minute to load.

Loading multiple large items from a hard drive may be improved by using Intel’s code-named Robson technology, which allows to cache parts of frequently used files, their location and other types of information needed to improve response times of a system running Microsoft Windows Vista operating system. Robson, however, will not help if a portion of large files not accessed for a period of time needs to be retrieved by an end-user, as the limiting factor would still be performance of hard disk drive (HDD).


Intel Robson module. Click to enlarge

At CeBIT 2007 Intel demonstrated some benefits of its Robson technology with a vivid example. A company’s representative turned on two similarly configured notebooks from Asustek Computer with Intel Core 2 Duo processors inside and then started to load a bunch of pictures while using Google Earth. The scenario is typical for an end-user who came back from holidays and who wants to share his impressions with his friends and colleagues by demonstrating pictures. It takes a little more than one minute to get everything ready on a Robson 1GB-equipped PC and it takes more than two minutes to load the same portion of information without Robson.


Asustek's laptops with and without Robson. Click to enlarge

The benefit of Robson should be no less apparent in other tasks that require to load a lot of frequently used data from hard disk drives, but the question is whether machines with Robson are going to be significantly more expensive compared to similarly configured personal computers without this technology.

Gran Storismo: Prospects of Solid State Drives

If Intel’s Robson is projected to speed up loading of frequently used data and is not expected to boost performance of a storage sub-system as a whole, then solid state drives (SSDs) are developed to turbo-charge PC’s performance overall: any data can be stored on an additional Serial ATA flash-based drive that is as fast as a Porsche 911 when compared to a Ford Focus.

We’ll Wait, We’ll See – Flash Product Makers

At CeBIT 2007 there were a lot of talks regarding the SSDs in general and manufacturers of flash memory devices currently have no clear opinion on the matter, as nobody seems to be really confident regarding the demand towards rather expensive solid state drives, which currently cost about $350 for 32GB in 2.5” form-factor (when shipped in large quantities) and $600 for 32GB in 1.8” form-factor. Meanwhile, there are rumours that end-users may be charged approximately $750 for 64GB and roughly $2000 for 160GB SSD.

It is clear that prices for flash memory have been gradually decreasing for several years now, but recently a number of manufacturers of flash reallocated their manufacturing capacities to dynamic random access memory (DRAM) and spot prices on flash either stabilized or even increased. While 1GB, 2GB and even larger memory cards and USB sticks are sold at pretty affordable price-points, 32GB SSD requires much more memory chips and additional controllers, something, which makes the products pretty expensive.


Solid state drives from Super Talent. Click to enlarge

So far only Sandisk and SuperTalent have unveiled their Serial ATA solid state drives, whereas companies like Corsair Memory, OCZ Technology and Patriot Memory have decided to keep to the “wait and see” strategy.

“We are planning to make solid state drives with capacities from 32GBs to 160GB once the price becomes reasonable,” said OCZ’s chief technology officer Michael Schuette. The reasonable price, which mass end-users are going to pay, is from $150 to $250 and currently this range is far from existing SSD pricing. Corsair Memory even believes that to some extent it is more reasonable to manufacture a 32GB USB flash stick rather than to make a 32GB SSD.

Flash Price Trends Don’t Favour Rapid Adoption of SSDs

Spot price of an 8Gb chip dropped from $43 in January, 2006, to $10 in December of $2006, according to market tracker DRAMeXchange. Market research firm iSuppli has forecast NAND flash prices to drop approximately 35% to 40% in the Q1 2007 compared to the Q4 2006, which means that 8Gb flash chip could cost as little as about $6 (at press time contract price of one 8Gb multi-level cell [MLC] chip was roughly $6).

32GB solid state drive requires either sixteen 16Gb NAND flash chips or thirty two 8Gb NAND flash devices. Considering the forecasted minimal price of 8Gb NAND flash chip in late Q1, it means that memory alone for a 32GB SSD would cost about $190 (financially, there is no difference between the number of chips, as 16Gb cost approximately two times more compared to 8Gb MLC) and that the final price of an SSD would still be well over $300.

If we take a look at the current NAND flash chips pricing and compare it to the price of SSDs, we will notice that the actual price of NAND flash devices accounts for 50% to 60% of an SSD price.


1.8" solid state drive from Sandisk. Click to enlarge

It is also more than questionable whether it makes sense to install 32GB solid state drive. Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium requires more than 10GBs to install itself alone and it would be better to save at least 5GBs for the operating system. A modern game also wants 4GB – 5GB of hard disk space and at the end 32GB may not be enough for those enthusiasts who are eager to spend additional money on performance of storage solution.

That said, 64GB SSD is a more likely candidate to appeal to masses, but it requires thirty two 16Gb chips (or sixteen 32Gb chips, but financially there is no difference at least now), each of which is priced at $11.88 at press time, according to DRAMeXchange, which means that memory for a 64GB solid state drive currently costs up to $380.


1.8" solid state drive from Sandisk without cover

If the price drop pattern for 16Gb chips keeps the forecast, e.g. 35% quarter-over-quarter, and the cost of memory devices continues to account for about 55% of an SSD price, then it will take many quarters before 64GB SSDs can reach the masses. In order to cost $250, 64GB SSD should incorporate 16Gb memory devices that cost $4.28, which is going to happen in late Q3, whereas if we want to get a 64GB for $200, then we will have to wait till late Q4. Considering the fact that flash prices recently went up, the aforementioned timeframes may be delayed by a quarter (e.g., 64GB SSD will cost $250 in Q4 and $200 in Q1 2008).