3Dlabs took the unusual step of pulling forward the announcement of its next generation graphics architecture, the P10 visual processing unit (VPU), a product we didn't expect to be talking about for another two weeks. While this architecture is going to find its way initially into the Oxygen line of workstation graphics cards from 3Dlabs, it also heralds some of what we can hope to see coming from Creative Labs this Christmas.
I have to say that there wasn't as much information to back up the P10 launch as you would normally expect with a major chip launch, and this is an announcement that is two years overdue from 3Dlabs, but like I said the announcement was extremely hurried. Nevetheless, it's interesting to see the direction 3Dlabs is taking and reflect on the influence of Longhorn on the P10's specs. The next killer app for 3D may be the operating system, which I think is a signifcant development. It also means that we can predict what to expect in next gen products from other graphics chip vendors, and do geek gossip over coffee.
Therefore, I surmise, 3Dlabs has done us all a big service rushing out their announcement. By making the P10 public the company is giving us a glimpse into the issues that are going to drive 3D graphics hardware architectures in the coming months for almost all the graphics industry, and it's damn good stuff.
Some of the key points of damn goodness came up at WinHEC 2002 this year and P10's feature list reflects the directions Microsoft was giving hardware developers at their conference. Things like,
Full programmability - While Nvidia and ATi have mature programmable graphics products on the market, it's worth noting that they still retain some level of support for the old fixed function pipeline with some form of integrated T&L circuitry. The next step for the graphics chip industry is to move to a fully programmable pipeline and to remove those pesky transistors for fixed function graphics. Graphics is going to need all the silicon real estate it can muster, but every chip will use those extra transistors differently.
Multi-tasking Graphics - Microsoft's next generation operating system, Longhorn, is pushing the industry to create graphics processors that will offload almost all of the typical functions of managing windowed displays. This means that every window on your desktop becomes a 3D texture, whether it is running a game, a digital video, or an Office application. The CPU has to handle all of Longhorn's open apps, videos, and games running in multiple windows, and Microsoft is working on determining how much graphics hardware it should ask for as a minimum to keep its OS humming. The graphics processor becomes a true partner processor for the CPU, but the question is, how low will Microsoft keep the bar on graphics performance and features? Will Microsoft open up the PC and graphics markets by demanding a significantly higher level of 3D graphics performance for base level Longhorn systems than what we are seeing today, or will it try and hedge its bets by staying a generation or two behind the curve?
Bye bye VGA - We have to say bye bye to VGA, and the sooner the better. VGA is the last of the big legacy items remaining on the PC. It makes ISA look nimble and hip. With no VGA, graphics processors get to ditch the lowest common denominator.
Just in case you are unfamiliar with the nuances of the programmable 3D graphics pipeline, I suggest you give Tom's excellent review of the GeForce3's technologies a look:
The above article is a great place to get a good grounding on where the programmable 3D graphics pipe got its big start in the mainstream. And Tom does a good job of explaining terminology and how pixels flow through the pipeline. I could have cut and pasted the stuff, but I believe that's illegal.