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Next Gen 3D Is On! 3Dlabs' P10 VPU

10-bit DACs - Color Precision Takes Center Stage

With the increasing interest in digital photography and the emphasis on digital imaging, the addition of a 10-bit DAC for the P10 architecture bears some scrutiny.

The DAC (digital-to-analog) in a typical graphics subsystem converts digital pixel data in the frame buffer into an analog voltage that, depending on its value, determines the brightness of a color. Typically, most graphics cards use an 8-bit DAC to each primary color, which can offer 256 levels of color, or 2 to the power 8 output signal levels. So, for an 8-bit DAC for the red component of an RGB signal, you would have 256 brightness levels available to you from white all the way to black with intermittent shades of red in between.

A 10-bit DAC will handle 2 to the power 10 or 1024 levels of color. Obviously, this means that you now have finer gradations of color between the white and black levels, which results in less banding of colors. Increasingly, Microsoft is pushing for even higher levels of precision from graphics vendors to meet the exacting demands of digital photography, high quality scanning, and image processing.

The impact on gaming is less clear, although higher levels of color precision does translate into better and sharper textures, too. Suffice to say, color precision, while not easy to distinguish, is an important element of the evolution of next generation graphics processors. The Windows display is going to get sharper, and brighter.

Conclusions

Getting excited about technology announcements is not always a good idea. You could be setting yourself up for disappointment. On the other hand, this is interesting stuff. Neil Trevett, 3Dlabs' VP of Marketing, is still the best 3D evangelist in the hardware business, so the company's message always seems to be strong and consistent Even the little information we have on the P10 points to a product that hits the mark on all the requirements for Microsoft certification, and that's an absolute must to get a product into the OEM channel.

In truth, 3Dlabs as a company hasn't been strong and consistent, but the graphics industry goes in cycles. It always has. No one stays on top forever, and someone always manages to come along and leapfrog to the top. Nvidia and ATi for now, and maybe there's a chance for others. It was this time last year that I was bemoaning the weakness of ATi's response to Nvidia . Maybe Creative Labs now has a legitimate shot with this new architecture as the foundation.

We won't know until we see and test the actual product. I would hazard a guess and say that even then it will be too early to tell. Creative hasn't exactly been good on following through when it comes to graphics. Toe in, and then toe out.

One thing is for sure, Microsoft's Longhorn is probably the single greatest opportunity for the graphics industry since it moved into the 3D age ten years ago. However, a lot is going to depend on how low Microsoft sets the bar. If Longhorn pushes the graphics requirement of the subsystem, and lives up to its promise, then it's open season. Longhorn needs to demand a GeForce3 and Radeon 8500 minimum base level of performance and features. Ideally, it would require a fully compatible DX9 card. Not just a card that has the drivers, but one that pushes everything to software.

The operating system has to be the next killer app because we can't rely on games - developers are going to be on DX8.1 for a while and playing on their consoles for a lot longer. PC gaming isn't dead, but is it really a driving force?

Even the extraordinary power of existing GPUs doesn't seem to be pulling the market as much as expected. Watch the skies. Big things are coming. It ain't over till the fat lady is FSAA'd. Let's see what everyone else has to offer. Next Gen 3D is on, baby!