A few years back, graphics chipmaker NVidia could have been called a respected upstart in the industry. These days it's a behemoth, leading the marketplace after recently absorbing the previous graphics king 3dfx, and now it's putting its fingers into another large pie - made of Apple.
NVidia's GeForce2 MX graphics processing unit provides the display muscle for three of the four G4 systems Apple announced this week at the Macworld Expo - the 533-MHz, 667MHz, and 733MHz G4s. And it essentially brings the GeForce2 MX to the Mac, says Dan Vivoli, NVidia senior vice president of marketing.
Specifically, the Mac GeForce2 MX chip sports 32MB of 128-bit SDRAM video memory, a 350MHz RAMDAC, and fill rates up to 800 million texels (textured pixels) per second. NVidia showed off the chip in a 733MHz G4 on Apple's £2,799 22-inch, flat-panel Cinema Display.
While that display would make even Commodore 64 sprites look gorgeous, it's fair to say that Quake III and Oni, two graphically intensive games, looked as good as they ever have. On the G4, they appeared with excellent lighting effects and solid frame rates, at a playable 30-plus frames per second at 1280-x-1024 resolution in 32-bit-color Quake III.
And that's even without the MX's Digital Vibrance Control (which delivers brighter, richer colours) enabled. The calling card of the MX, DVC is built into the Mac MX, but it isn't activated yet, Vivoli says. A software upgrade will soon be available to activate the feature.
Another MX attribute being brought to the Apple table is the optional TwinView display, which lets you connect a second monitor to a single system. The chip also provides native support for all Mac drawing packages, which will appeal to the CAD users among the Mac faithful, Vivoli notes.
The faithful certainly offered their support when Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the Apple-NVidia partnership. Cheers erupted from the crowd when the NVidia logo appeared onscreen.
Not everyone's pleased with the announcement. Graphics chipmaker ATI, which previously handled all of Apple's graphics needs, now must share a slice of the action.
"ATI is focusing on the fact that they still have the majority share of Apple's business, and that will continue in the foreseeable future," says Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources. It will take at least a year before Apple can make sufficient changes to the PowerBook and iMac designs to integrate NVidia graphics, he says.
In fact, customers ordering the new G4s featuring the MX can select ATI's Radeon graphics board - with the same amount of memory and a faster clock speed - as an optional card at no additional cost. "Upgrading to the Radeon would be advisable," Glaskowsky says.
But the next generation of NVidia's graphics chip - code-named the NV-20 - will be Mac-compatible, as will all future NVidia chips.
"And the NV-20 will be better than the Radeon, so that will make it strongly advisable for most people to go with the NVidia option," Glaskowsky adds.
Even though ATI still handles the lion's share of Apple's graphics, it's eating less than it did before NVidia entered the market.
"Their share was 100 per cent the day before yesterday, and it's probably gone down to 90 per cent," Glaskowsky says. "I think that share will decline unless ATI takes some serious steps to establish to Apple's satisfaction that they are the preferred graphics technology provider." And NVidia, again an upstart of sorts, will be there too.