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How much Graphics Power Does a PC Really Need?

The Exploding Cost Of 3D

Widely accepted industry 3D standards define the features and capabilities a graphics processor must have today. The most popular of these standards is Microsoft's Direct3D (part of DirectX) which has had several generations defined so far. The graphics chip makers work very closely with Microsoft in defining current and upcoming specifications of this 3D standard. You can find more information on DirectX and 3D standards here: THG Graphics Card Buyers Guide .

To allow each new iteration of the DirectX standard to create more and more realistic video output, the computing power of the graphics processors is continually being increased. In addition to raising clock speeds, this is achieved by increasing the number of transistors that make up the chips. As a result, the production cost of the chips has continued to rise. This has occurred despite production processes seeing several breakthroughs over the past years, and even though they continue to be improved, working at smaller and smaller scales.

For example, the GeForce 256, which NVIDIA launched towards the end of 1999, consisted of 22 million transistors. The chip supported hardware T&L, was DirectX 7 compliant and came with 32 MB of memory. Today, the most complex DirectX 9 processor in the market is NVIDIA's GeForce 6800, which consists of 222 million transistors and comes with 256 MB of RAM; versions with a whopping 512 MB have already been announced.

In terms of 3D performance, saying that these two chips are worlds apart would be a bit of an understatement, even if we looked beyond their respective transistor counts and DirectX generations.

GeForce 256GeForce 6800 Ultra
Core Speed120 MHz400 MHz
Memory Speed150 MHz550 MHz
Memory Bus128 Bit256 Bit
Chip Man. Pr.220nm130nm
Pixel Fillrate480M Pixel/s6400M Pixel/s
Texture Fillrate480M Pixel/s6400M Pixel/s
Geometry Rate15M Vertices/s600M Vertices/s
Memory Bandwidth4.8 GB/s35.2 GB/s

Why expend all this effort? Again, the answer is games, since they are the only consumer applications that actually take advantage of a card's 3D capabilities, a fact that won't change for some time. Of course there are also professional applications such as Computer Aided Design (CAD), raytracing and video-editing, which also require a fast and 3D capable graphics card. However, consumer cards are not the best choice for this type of software. ATI and NVIDIA offer a special workstation product line of cards with highly optimized and certified drivers for applications such as AutoCAD, Maya, Avid, Catia, Lightwave, Softimage, 3DSMax and so forth.

The next generation of Microsoft Windows, code-named "Longhorn," will offer a hardware-accelerated user interface that will require a 3D graphics card . However, we don't expect that graphics cards will need to be overly brawny to run it. Besides, there will also be an alternative user interface as a fall-back option that won't require a fast 3D card at all.