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Located in the industrial area of Markham, Ontario, we began our day with a visit to ATI's main headquarters. It took a bit of work to get there, as we got lost finding the place, but once you're in the area, their buildings are pretty tough to miss. The main building is interesting, as each floor is theme based on elements such as wind, water and fire. Huge marketing banners hung from the top floors, and overall, a very impressive lobby area.
First up for the day were a couple representatives from the multimedia division. We met up with John Swinimer and Matthew Withieler and talked all about their TV and All-In-Wonder products, past, present and future. John heads up the multimedia PR efforts at ATI, while Matthew is the Product Manager of the team. We began by talking a bit about what products are covered under the multimedia umbrella. As expected, All-In-Wonder (AIW), and TV tuners of all favors are their main focus, but they also have a hand in consumer products, as well as the Media Center Extender for Microsoft.
We were given the ATI TV Wonder USB 2.0, which we've reviewed at the beginning of September, and were shown a top secret part. The cat is out of the bag now, and that part was a PCI Express based AIW X600 XT. At the time, the card was still in its infancy, but representative of what the final product should be. We've already covered the X600 XT, so there won't be many surprises when it comes to 2D and 3D performance. On the multimedia side of things, the card features new silicon for TV tuning, as well as offering dual display, as well as an FM tuner. Expect Multimedia Center to get an upgrade to take advantage of the new part.
Our conversations initially focussed on the AIW line, and we discussed some of the current and upcoming technology. As one may expect, a lot of planning goes into each new version of the AIW. As explained by Matthew, the team begins by evaluating which desktop parts are worth considering for their AIW line. At the same time, the design team works on the PCB design, which is quite a challenge given the limitations of board space. Heat is not much of an issue, as the parts selected by the multimedia team are low-power consumers. Naturally, ATI does take customer feedback very seriously, and strive to make additional improvements that can be met feasibly. Scheduling plays a role, as they try hard to release a desktop equivalent AIW product within a three month time frame.
Although the AIW X600 XT is a PCI Express part, it is a mainstream level desktop card. We asked if the PCI Express (PCIe) interface is causing complications and delays for the X800, but they replied no. As far as we were able to tell, the AIW X800 XT will debut as an AGP card, and although we can expect to see high-end AIW cards based on PCIe, the release date is something that will be market driven. In a nutshell, unless AMD also embraces PCIe, and we see more desktop boards in the market using this high-speed interface, our guess is we will not see a high-end AIW, PCIe-based, until ATI's next product refresh.
As of today, in terms of gaming performance, there is very little (in most cases none) benefit in rushing towards PCIe from a card maker's perspective. It's a shame we won't see a high-end AIW PCIe card anytime soon, because according to ATI, there will be some benefits when it comes to multimedia. PCIe allows the AIW cards to perform write-back for video content, and can be a real boon for real-time editing. Of course, software needs to be written to take advantage of it, but that should be ready by the time the AIW X600 XT arrives.
We have yet to sit down with ATI's Integrated team, but we did poke at John and Matthew about AIW features on desktop motherboards. They alluded to the fact that this is very much on their minds, and it isn't the lack of technology holding them back. The benefits to the HTPC crowd would be quite positive, and hopefully this is something we can talk more about by this time next year.
A lot of forum activity occurs whenever we here at VL review an AIW card. One heated debate has always been about the value, as users wanting new multimedia capabilities also had to spring extra dough for a "integrated" desktop card. ATI's response is that they do have a number of interesting solutions, such as PCI and USB 2.0 tuners that do address the issue, and it isn't necessary to go for the latest AIW as any high-end graphics card will suffice. At the same time, if multimedia capabilities are important to you, as well as high-end gaming, ATI has been careful to not charge too much of a premium over their vanilla boards. Granted, this is from a historical perspective, but we see little reason why they would deviate from their past strategy.
HDTV and HDMI are going to be big features of the digital family room, and we asked where ATI stands on this. Currently, as Matthew points out, the outputs for HDTV already exist for the AIW. Inputs are a different story, and as we discussed in our USB 2.0 tuner review, these cards are unable to decrypt HDTV satellite and cable signals. Over the air HDTV broadcasts are already supported by the HDTV Wonder, but given the AIW's target audience, it may be awhile before this feature is supported. HDMI is not being neglected, and it's something they are looking into, but for now they are playing it by ear and seeing where the market takes it.
Software and Varia
Having the right hardware is only part of the solution, and we asked John and Matthew about the software. Although the Multimedia Center (MMC) suite isn't updated as frequently as the Catalyst drivers, the multimedia team doesn't sit around watching movies. Each Friday they have a brainstorm session, and realize they have a ton of features they'd love to commit to. Again, this is very community driven, in that they listen to what their buyers want, and do what they can to add it. On that note, Linux support is something they know needs to be corrected, and for our lovable penguin fans, this is something they do spend some development time on. One thing users should not expect is the ability to stream content to be burned directly to CD. As Matthew explains, this process is very CPU intensive, and the end result will likely be dropped frames for a great deal of the install base, and possibly a nice collection of coasters.
Given the number of reviews in print and online, we gave ATI a chance to "shoot" with their opinion of the reviews. John chimed in by saying that the majority of reviewers focus too much on gaming performance, when that is not the sole purpose of the card. The AIW feature-set, and especially image and video quality are a part of the reason why the cards are so popular. In other words, doing four or five gaming benchmarks, and jumping straight to the conclusion is missing the boat with AIW reviews. In John's words, "Readers already know how a 9800 XT or X800 is going to perform, so focus more on what the AIW can do other than playing games."
We wrapped things up with their opinion on the competition, and the differences between the North American products, and Worldwide. To start, they are not so arrogant to think they have a vice grip on the market. There are plenty of competitors, and ATI is firm on keeping a leg up in regards to image quality and hardware/software suites. As for the regional card differences, it's akin to PAL and NTSC televisions. It simply will not work. ATI is working closely with their International partners in educating their market of the differences, and it's all about getting the word out. Long story short, if you're in Europe, and you're eyeing an online bargain on a North American card, don't even bother as the hardware, let alone the regional based software is completely different.
That sums up our meeting with John and Matthew. We thanked both of them for their time, and that's when we turned our attention to Darren McPhee and Jon Carvill, Senior Product Marketing Manager, and PR Manager respectfully of Integrated and Mobile Graphics.
Mobile and Integrated
Darren discussed mobile graphics, and we spent some time talking about the swappable graphics parts for notebook computers. They had a high-end dell with them, and although it was running a "mere" 9700, we saw some 7000+ 3D Mark scores, which was something unthinkable at the beginning of this year. The thing to keep in mind is that mobile graphics differ from desktop in their naming conventions. He pointed out that the mobile 9800 is not an adapted desktop 9800, but rather it's an eight pipe X800. In summary, mobile is trying to establish it's own product line, despite having, in our opinion, a fairly confusing way of doing it.
As expected, the target market for the high-end graphics solutions will be mobile gamers who have no desire of lugging a 40lb desktop PC around. The ability to upgrade the graphics will be a big plus, but realistically, we don't think you'll have the ability to do "generational" upgrades (much like jumping from the desktop 9800 to the X800). That being said, there are a couple ways to keep this feasible, which is either by a module path, or a pin path. A module path is much like how Dell does it now, where the graphics module remains consistent during the life of the notebook. A pin path will require a mere chip swap, but that likely will not be the case until we see PCIe parts for notebooks. In closing, Darren expects the performance gap to close between desktops and notebooks.
This past May, the 9100 Pro IGP was announced. We talked a little about their previous 9100 IGP, and overall, they were pretty satisfied with the platform. Although acceptance in the end-user community may not have been earth shattering, the chipset was well received by OEMs for their price/performance ratio, stability and compatibility. I did point out we here at VL experienced some difficulties with the 9100 IGP, though it may have been an isolated case. Nonetheless, Jon mentioned that the chipset garnered enough attention that it made its way into the Disney PC, which is a low cost PC geared towards a younger crowd. Obviously, enthusiasts are going to scoff at such a machine, but given the target market, it is an attractive solution that provides more than enough power and features most kids will ever need.
Jon then slipped us a little secret (which is a secret no more) regarding ATI's AMD initiative. As many of you probably know by now, we can expect an ATI solution to compete against the nForce series. All the good stuff, such as Dual Channel support, a competitive graphics solution (competitive for onboard graphics that is) and PCIe will all be there. There will also be native support for SATA, which is something we think is a must these days.
During the Break...
Lunchtime was fast approaching, and we were getting hungry, and when we get hungry, we get distracted. When we get distracted, people die! Especially when I'm driving. Thankfully, much of our lunchtime conversations revolved around the important topics, such as comic books and movies.
After lunch, John Swinimer took me for a tour of their facilities. Cameras were off limits (for obvious reasons) but I can say that their lab facilities are quite nice. I also found it interesting that their product partners, such as HIS and MSI, send their engineering parts over to ATI for qualification. Unfortunently, some maintenance was being done on one of their machinery, so I was unable to watch the manufacturing process of their engineering samples.
Desktop and Catalyst
After the tour, we closed the day by meeting Stanley Ossias, Senior PR Manager of Discreet Graphics. Basically, Stanley oversees a wide variety of areas, covering product and driver design, marketing, developmental priorities, defining product specifications and milestones, and working closely with various OEMs.
As many of you may recall, it wasn't really that long ago in calendar years that 3dfx was king of the hill when it came to gaming. Soon after, NVIDIA took the performance crown before the Radeon 8500 came along. Although the Radeon 8500 didn't turn things around in performance, and until the proverbial tennis match of back and forth action between the competitors, ATI had been alone at the top of the mountain. Why the focus on gaming (despite good OEM success) a few years ago? According to Stanley, this was a conscious decision by ATI, as gaming was considered niche at the time when you look at the overall scope of PC purchases. However, 3D graphics have resulted in some interesting technology breakthroughs, and this is in line with the growth of the gaming community. They realized they needed to play a bit of catch-up, and refocused and committed to the growing market.
So far in 2004, the team has been pretty happy with the overall success of their products. They managed to deliver on schedule, despite having to change graphic interfaces at the start of Summer. We asked why not go with a bridged solution, but according to Intel, that wasn't the optimal way of doing things. We tried, and tried, but we weren't able to get any hints on what to expect now that the Summer is over.
As some of you may have noticed, finding a PCIe X800 has not been the easiest of tasks. Stanley was not the only one to mention this (though he was the first), but right now the market for AGP and PCIe is fairly split, with the PCIe parts being horded by OEMs, and AGP for consumers. The problem has to do with what we pointed out earlier, in that end-user PCIe adoption has been relatively slow compared to OEMs as they tend to release new product lines twice a year. It is because of this, given the marketing and manufacturing cycles, they require the parts to remain competitive, and unfortunently, this creates problems for the rest of us.
Catalyst and Gaming
A few years ago, ATI drivers did not have the best reputation among enthusiasts, but we've seen that change for the better with the Catalyst series of drivers. Stanley explains their process is mostly proactive, meaning they try to deliver a number of features, along with fixes, to take advantage of the new hardware. They admit that there will always be some issues, as it's impossible to get it right for all applications (i.e. games).
On the topic of gaming, Stanley feels that a mix of performance and image quality is of the most importance. Realistically, most modern video cards deliver enough speed, so they do place a lot of emphasis in making the game look good. The key here is balance at all levels... low to mid to high-end.
Shader Model 3.0 and Doom 3 Performance
Given some of the demos we've seen that day, we asked for his opinion on benchmarks, particularly synthetic vs real-world. Both are important he says, as synthetic benchmarks such as 3D Mark03 provides a base or "benchmark" in which to compare. The problem of course is possible driver optimization, so a balance with real-world benchmarks is needed. On that note, we bugged him a little about the performance gap with NVIDIA regarding Doom 3. Stanley recognizes that scores can be improved, but timedemo'd benchmarks are not true indicators of actual gameplay. At the same time, it's not like the X800 is hitting single digit benchmarks, and the game experience is quite good.
We wrapped things up with a discussion about Shader Model 3.0 compliance, or lack thereof on the R420. Stanley mentioned that at this time, there is no need for it. ATI's focus is optimizing the most impact for the number of transistors on the card. Why waste chip real estate on features that may not be used? To be honest, we're not going to argue that much, as by the time we see Shader Model 3.0 games, we don't think many power users are going to be running X800 or GeForce 6800 cards for that matter.
It was quite an experience meeting the teams partly responsible for the enjoyment we get out of using our PCs everyday. Marketing mumbo jumbo aside, ATI are committed in the entertainment side of things and making productivity, and of course games, that much more fun. We'd like to thank John Swinimer, Matthew Withelier, Stanley Ossias, Jon Carvill and Darren McPhee for taking some time off their busy schedules to speak with us today.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to post them in our forums.