For the graphics card market, May was one of the most action-packed months in some time. Scott Bicheno attempts to unravel this arcane world of benchmarks and Giga FLOPS?

PC Cards

One of the most rewarding aspects of working in the technology sector is that it’s constantly changing and nowhere is that more true than in the graphics card sector. This market has essentially been a duopoly since the turn of the millennium, with Nvidia and ATI engaged in an arms race in which neither stayed on top for long.

The past year has seen a disturbance in the force regarding the graphics market, with the acquisition of ATI by CPU giant AMD as the defining event. The knock on effects of this have included a transitionary period in which AMD/ATI has been slow to release products, allowing Nvidia to launch its launch its latest generation of graphics cards unopposed.

The fusion of a CPU company with a GPU one has provided exactly that; a concept called fusion in which the line between the two types of processor have become blurred. AMD launched its 690 series chipset, which improved the standard of graphics processing available without a separate graphics card, and Nvidia countered with the GeForce 7-series motherboard GPUs for use on AMD boards.

One thing is clear, however, and that is that if you want good graphics processing you still need a discrete graphics card. With on-board (integrated) graphics getting more powerful, this more than ever means the gamer and enthusiast market, a market that Richard Huddy, European developer relations manager for AMD, thinks is as healthy as ever.

“Every few years, when the new consoles arrive, the detractors predict the death of PC gaming and so far the PC market has continued to prove them wrong,” says Huddy. “The PC graphics market continues to generate both a great deal of enthusiasm and plenty of trade, but the most interesting change is that the slew of next generation cards that we’re introducing means that even the more value-conscious buyers can also gain affordable access to next generation gaming.”

Huddy’s comment about value-conscious buyers shows that AMD is keen to broaden the appeal of graphics cards beyond the enthusiast market, an aim clearly shared by rival Nvidia. “With the introduction of Windows Vista and DX10 for games, we are seeing more and more demand for a GPU,” says Nvidia European PR manager Adam Foat. “When you combine the GPU with our motherboard products you have the definitive PC platform at all price levels.”

There was much speculation at the time of the Vista launch that it would drive graphics card sales due to the increased graphical demands of the new interface. Jonathan Filleau, European category manager for graphic cards at PNY, has felt this effect.

“Since the beginning of the year, the market has been very active, partially due to consumers upgrading their PCs in preparation for purchasing Windows Vista,” he says. “To be compatible, the computer needs to support at least DirectX9.0 and to completely enjoy Vista the user will need a dedicated graphics processor.”

PNY is an Nvidia board partner, as is BFG. Graham Brown, European marketing manager at BFG, thinks the PC gaming market is set to explode. “With DirectX10 games on the horizon, the gaming industry has reached a point where realism and reality are starting to merge to a point where gamers can find themselves experiencing outstanding visual content and gameplay,” he says. “This could be one of most exciting times within graphics market to date.”

One of the key decisions any graphics card consumer has to make is whether to buy Nvidia or ATI. For the past year I think even AMD would have to concede that Nividia’s GeForce 8000 series of GPUs has been the choice of the performance junkies. This may be about to change, however, with the long awaited launch of the ATI Radeon HD 2000 family of GPUs. The R600 series, as it was codenamed, suffered a few delays prior to launch, which has allowed Nvidia to launch a new top-end card against it – the GeForce 8800 Ultra.

Matt Parrish, product manager at VIP Computers, thinks this has set the scene for an exciting phase in the graphics market. “The delay of the R600 means that both ATI and Nvidia are now launching key products at the same time, which certainly spices the market up a bit,” he says.

“You can expect both companies to offer strong products that tick all the boxes in today’s graphics market: supporting HDTV, next generation DVD technology, DirectX 10 and Windows Vista support. Rather than one vendor emerging victorious over the other, it’s more likely that both will score victories in the many different market segments.”

As you would expect, AMD and Nvidia have somewhat differing perspectives on the new products. “I am not sure they compare,” says Foat. “We have had a DX10 product out on the market now for six months with the 8800 GTX and GTS, and we launched our mainstream products the 8600 and 8500 a few weeks ago. From what we understand, there will be no competition from our competitors in the high end with 8800 GTX and on top of that we will have an 8800 Ultra, which will leave us with two products that will be out on their own when it comes to performance.”

Performance is ultimately what the processor market comes down to. So while Nvidia claims to be unrivalled when it comes to performance, AMD’s Huddy begs to differ. “One simple but useful metric that you can use to compare cards is the number of Giga FLOPS that they each offer – it’s a very direct measure of the available power of any chip,” he says. “We’ve roughly doubled the power of our cards since the previous generation and a single HD2900XT produces a stunning 475 Giga FLOPS which is a full 35 per cent more than the best we see from our competition.”

So which is better? I still have no idea and, I suspect, neither does the majority of the buying public. They may well have read reviews and bench-tests, but when they come into your shop they are very likely to still want some guidance. This is where the well informed retailer is at an advantage; by talking to your customer and matching their specific requirements to a price and feature set you guide them through the quagmire of stats and conflicting claims and simplify the graphics proposition for them.

Once you’re done if you could do the same for me too, I’d be eternally grateful.

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