In a special event on Tuesday night in San Francisco, Nvidia launched the GeForce 6800 series, its newest flagship graphics chip aimed at high-performance desktop computers. The new chips promise better performance and newer capabilities for gamers and others looking for the smoothest, most realistic 3D graphics.

Architectural improvements in the new chip include the implementation of a 16 pipeline architecture. The new chip features eight times the floating-point shader calculating ability, four times the shadow processing ability and double the vertex processing ability of the GeForce FX, Nvidia's current top-end desktop hardware.

The GeForce 6800 is designed for PCI Express interfaces and also offers full support for AGP 8x interfaces. It also supports GDDR3 memory, and features a 256-bit memory interface. The chip was manufactured using a 0.13 micron process technology.

Nvidia touts the GeForce 6800's support of Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 3.0 and OpenGL 1.5, giving a tangible improvement to games and applications on both Windows PCs and Macs.

Also new to this graphics chip is 32-bit shader precision, displacement mapping, geometry instancing and other features. Full floating-point support is provided through the entire rendering pipeline, and the chip also uses a new rotated-grid anti-aliasing feature and 16x anisotropic filtering. All this adds up to textures that are rendered onto three-dimensional objects much more clearly than previous chips, Nvidia claims.

The GeForce 6800 also features a programmable video engine that can be used for high-definition (HD) video playback. The video engine supports MPEG encode and decode, and integrates a TV encoder.

The first GeForce 6800 chips are already shipping to Nvidia's card manufacturing partners, OEMs, system builders and game developers. Nvidia anticipates that retail boards featuring the new graphics hardware will be released within 45 days.