S3 Graphics is the Rodney Dangerfield of the graphics industry. The company’s Chrome GPUs just don’t get much respect. But the latest model, the Chrome 530 GT, it has a feature none of ATI’s nor Nvidia’s discrete GPUs can match: Support for Microsoft’s Protected Audio Path for passing the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio on Blu-ray discs over HDMI.
S3’s Chrome 530 GT has an integrated AES engine that’s capable of re-encrypting losslessly compressed audio after it’s pulled off a Blu-ray disc and sent over the PCI Express bus and then out of the PC via HDMI. The chip also features a built-in 7.1-channel Dolby digital surround-sound processor. ATI’s latest GPUs have the integrated audio processor, but they can’t send Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD over HDMI because they don’t have an AES engine; Nvidia’s newest GPUs have neither an integrated audio processor nor an AES engine.
There’s just one big catch for S3: Its full feature set isn’t supported by any of the software Blu-ray disc players, so the company’s advantage is currently moot. As S3’s Benson Tao told us, “In a nutshell, yes, our hardware already has the support for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD over HDMI, but it is up to the ISVs [independent software vendors] to decide how to do the implementation.”
In fact, Tao told us that "the current version of Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 8 Ultra does not recognize the S3 Chrome hardware as a BD player, so you will get an error message when trying our hardware [with that software player]. PowerDVD Cinema 8 which is scheduled to be released by the end of November will support both Chrome 400 and 500 Blu-ray hardware acceleration."
Tao also said that "WinDVD 8, currently bundled with our Chrome 530 GT card, and WinDVD 9 both have native support for our hardware." Unfortunately, that support doesn’t include sending compressed audio over HDMI.
In addition to its Blu-ray support, the Chrome 530 GT S3 also delivers DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1 compatibility at an extremely low price point of just $44.95. The GPU’s runs at 625MHz and its 512MB of local GDDR2 memory is clocked at 500MHz. The chip can also access system memory using S3’s AcceleRAM technology, but the chip’s memory interface is a relatively narrow 64 bits wide.
The Chrome 530 GT sounds like a weak solution for gamers, but its Blu-ray support and the fact that it won’t require a large and loud cooler could make it the perfect solution for home-theater PCs. Provided, of course, that those ISVs decide to support it before AMD and Nvidia come out with something similar but faster.