ATI Enters a Smoother Dimension

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ATI and Macs used to go together like a couple of high-school sweethearts. But after Macworld Expo in New York in 2000, when ATI made a few premature product announcements and stole some thunder from Apple CEO Steve Jobs's keynote address, the relationship soured a bit.

You'll still find ATI cards installed on several Macs in Apple's product line, but the arrangement is no longer exclusive. Witness Apple's newfound coziness with Nvidia: the 533MHz and 733MHz configurations of the Power Mac G4 list the Nvidia GeForce 2 as the standard graphics card (although you can specifically order a G4 with an ATI Radeon chip). Nvidia even shared stage time with Jobs during his keynote at last February's Expo in Tokyo where it touted its new GeForce3 processor. The graphics chip, which began shipping for the Mac last week, has generated tremendous anticipation among Mac gamers.

So the pressure's on ATI to rekindle the flame, both with Apple and with Mac users. The company hopes that a new rendering technology called Truform might be just the enticement.

Truform, unveiled Tuesday by ATI, is supported in OpenGL and designed for future generations of graphics processors. It adds detail to 3-D objects, making them look more natural by giving them smoother surfaces with more accurate lighting.

In games and computer graphics, 3-D images are composed of triangles. The more triangles, the higher the level of detail and realism. However, adding triangles takes time, effort, memory, and bus bandwidth.

Truform uses a new type of higher-order surface composed of curved triangles -- PN Triangles, dubbed "N-Patches" by ATI -- that permit surfaces to be generated entirely within the graphics processor. And it doesn't require any more bandwidth or memory.

What's more, for existing 3-D artwork composed of flat triangles, Truform does not require significant changes but rather enhances those models by adding triangles within the current form. This makes Truform compatible with older graphics processors, and therefor easier for software developers to implement in their games.

"N-Patches also allows for a higher level of scalability, meaning the number of triangles or polygons in a 3-D image can be varied according to the capabilities of the installed graphics hardware," Toshi Okumura, ATI senior product manager of desktop marketing said in a prepared statement. "Software developers usually create low triangle-count models so that their games can run well on low-end PCs" -- the most common hardware used by gaming consumers.

"N-Patches can take these 3-D models with low polygon counts and generate smooth, highly detailed images, affording most users a greatly enhanced visual experience with no compromise in performance or compatibility," added Okumura.

ATI expects to ship Truform-enabled chips for both PCs and Macs before the end of 2001. And because the company has been working with game developers on Truform since November, ATI expects several games that utilize the new technology to ship around the same time.

Whether or not this means ATI chips will regain their status as the standard graphic processor in Apple's high-end G4 towers soon remains to be seen. But an advanced chip technology will definitely turn Steve Jobs's head faster than love letters or flowers.

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