It's like the movies. Different summer; same story. The king rules his domain with an iron grip, until a contender to the throne rises from the masses to challenge his position. If this were a movie plot, chances are the audience would scorn it, feeling cheated by yet another remake of a remake. And in reality, not even the cast has changed in this power-struggle drama: NVIDIA in its typical role as "The King," ATi as "The Challenger."
Yet what would indeed be a cheap attempt at cashing in on previous successes in the world of the silver screen may be no less than a case of history repeating itself in the graphics market. After all, once upon a time it was NVIDIA who was the upstart, and the now-defunct graphics pioneer 3dfx ruled 3D-land. But, irony of ironies, NVIDIA came, saw and conquered, annexing the toppled champion and integrating the remains of his empire into its own. It was also roughly at this point that the remaining competition began to be hopelessly outpaced and outclassed by NVIDIA's developments. Meanwhile, ATi was still completely focused on the lucrative OEM market and in no way prepared to play catch-up with NVIDIA. In other words, there simply was no competition for NVIDIA.
Q4 2001 Standalone Market Share by Mercury Research. Information from Trident.
Of course, this wouldn't be the classic story of drama and conflict if the tides hadn't begun to change. Last year, ATi introduced its second-generation Radeon card, the 8500. Hampered at first by logistical problems during its introduction, it soon began to test the ruling champions forces, and several skirmishes ensued. Still, the fact remained that, at best, the 8500 had barely achieved parity - which was nonetheless quite an achievement. In the end, the GeForce3 proved to be superior in a number of ways. The introduction of the GeForce3 Ti line was expedited, which only served to solidify NVIDIA's lead, giving the company some more breathing space. Only a few months later, the GeForce4 Ti followed, and King NVIDIA once again seemed unstoppable, retaining the performance crown and, thus, the upper hand in the war.
Interestingly enough, the challenger decided to switch tactics - instead of working on a refined update to the 8500 series (the way the established king would have), the Canadians concentrated their efforts on its successor. In the past months, we have witnessed all sorts of preludes to a renewed skirmish on both sides, with white-paper attacks countering driver-leak feints. Now the time has come, and ATi is launching a new offensive, lead by its newest champion, the Radeon 9700, alias R300. But enough of the drama, for now. Let's look at the real-life impact of the new generation.