||S3 DeltaChrome Update
September 19, 2003 Brandon Bell
Summary: Originally announced at the beginning of this year, S3's DeltaChrome GPU is poised to bring DirectX 9 graphics from a third competitor. What details have changed since we first reported on this card in January? Read all the details on product names and clock speeds as well as pricing and availability in this article!
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New details emerge on DeltaChrome
It has been well over six months since we first brought you details of S3ís DeltaChrome graphics core. If you recall the original article, DeltaChrome marks S3ís return to desktop graphics, a market it exited approximately three years ago.
DeltaChrome is a DX9 part targeted at the value, mainstream, and performance segments of the 3D market. Unlike ATI and NVIDIA however, S3 plans to service all three segments with roughly the same core architecture. All DeltaChrome chips are built on TSMCís 0.13-micron manufacturing process (with copper interconnects), with the key differentiating factors being clock speed and the number of pixel pipelines within the chip.
Formula One graphics from S3
For the mainstream and performance segments, S3 relies on an eight-pixel pipeline architecture (with one texture unit per pixel pipeline), with four vertex shaders backing them up, just like ATIís RADEON 9700/9800 family. Two parts will service the performance market: the F1 and the F1 Pole. S3 is shooting for core clock speeds in the 350MHz-400MHz range for F1 Pole, which would compare favorably to ATIís RADEON 9700 PRO at 325MHz. Unfortunately the graphics core will only have a 128-bit interface to its memory, which is half the width of ATI and NVIDIAís equivalent. With the 350-400MHz clock frequency S3 is shooting for F1 Poleís DDR memory, this equates to up to 12.8GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth, putting the F1 Pole at an extreme disadvantage to its competitors in this category.
Just below the F1 Pole is S3ís ďF1Ē DeltaChrome variant. The key distinguishing factor between F1 Pole and F1 is clock speed: S3ís target frequencies for F1 are 50MHz lower on the core and memory clock frequencies than F1 Pole. This is essentially the part S3 briefed us on at the beginning of the year.
From a technology perspective S3 has all their bases covered with DeltaChrome. This is a true DX9 part with full support of floating-point data formats and like ATIís 9700/9800, its pixel shaders can handle up to 96 bits of precision. The really cool part that really drew lots of attention in our first preview wasnít the 3D architecture of DeltaChrome but its integrated HDTV encoder. It supports all the major resolutions, 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p, making it the perfect solution for small form-factor setups.
For cleaning up video, S3ís pixel shaders can be used. They can also be used to add effects to video signals, this is supported by all video formats. ATI has similar technology in its 9700 and 9800 chips.
S3 is quick to point out that the F1 family is not about winning benchmarks in the segment itís serving, as it obviously lacks the memory subsystem to accomplish this, instead itís about delivering a part with the lowest cost, and highest value. S3 plans to undercut ATI and NVIDIA in pricing, which we estimate would put the F1 in the $200-$250 range. If S3 goes any higher than that, they run the risk of pricing their chips too closely to ATI and NVIDIA, who have their products already out on the market today.
SIDEBAR: All of the DeltaChrome variants support up to 256MB of memory.
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Audi S3 S8
S3 has plans for two more products to service the mainstream segment: the S8 and S8 Nitro. The S8 family is based on the exact same core as the F1 family, right down to the eight pixel pipes. S3 just takes an F1 core and clocks it lower, right now theyíre targeting a core clock speed of anywhere from 275MHz-300MHz. This is a lower clock speed than RADEON 9600/GeForce FX 5600, but thanks to its eight-pixel pipeline, S8 doesnít need high clock speeds for optimal performance. In fact, a 300MHz core clock frequency would put the S8/S8 Nitro well ahead of the competition in fill-rate.
In fact, with eight pixel pipelines, the S8 family matches up more evenly with the core architecture of the RADEON 9500 PRO.
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Like the F1 family, the S8 will take advantage of a 128-bit DDR memory interface with a clock speed target of 275-300MHz. This would provide the S8/S8 Nitro with up to 9.6GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth, the same figure as ATIís RADEON 9600 PRO. When you combine this with its 8x1 architecture, the S8 could be one compelling product in the mainstream segment.
Where we really see the S8 doing well is not in the upper end of the mainstream segment (where Nitro resides) but towards the low-end. It could be argued that the RADEON 9600 and GeForce FX 5600 are underpowered parts, in some cases falling short of GeForce4 Ti 4200. This is because these cards donít have the fill rate to keep up in older games. Thanks to its eight pixel pipes, the S8 wonít have this problem. If S3 pairs the S8 with high-speed memory, they could do really well in the lower half of the mainstream segment.
For the value space, S3 has prepped the S4 and S4 Nitro. As their name implies, the S4 series employs a four pixel pipeline architecture, with one TMU per pixel pipeline, and supports the same feature set as the other DeltaChrome products. This puts S3 at a distinct feature advantage.
Like the other DeltaChrome products, the final core clock frequency for S4 has not been determined. S3ís range varies from 300-400MHz, so weíre looking at a fill rate that ranges from 1.2-1.6 Gigatexels/sec. S3 has settled on a final clock speed for the memory however: 300MHz.
It will be interesting to see how the S4 performs in comparison to its closest competitor, GeForce FX 5200/5200 Ultra. S3 is quick to point out that their dual hardware vertex shaders should give them an advantage over NVIDIA in systems with slower processors, a condition thatís prevalent in the value space. S4ís memory subsystem will fall short of GeForce FX 5200 Ultra however, which could give NVIDIA an advantage at high resolutions.
SIDEBAR: What lies next for S3? PCI Express and then its next generation DirectX 10 part.
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Now that youíre more familiar with S3ís plans for DeltaChrome, the big question is ďwhen will it be availableĒ? In our original preview, we gave you an estimate for the end of Q2. Weíre now approaching the end of Q3, and DeltaChrome still isnít here. S3 is now shooting for a December release, just in time for the Christmas holidays.
S3 feels this is an achievable date, but keep in mind that S3 will not be producing the boards themselves, rather they will rely on their board partners to release final products, just like NVIDIA does. S3 doesnít have final silicon yet, but they feel their next spin should be good enough to go into production with.
Board designs have been finalized, and according to S3, board manufacturers have liked what theyíve seen. Two designs are available, a six-layer 8Ēx4Ē BGA PCB and a four-layer 8Ēx4Ē TSOP design. The six-layer board sports an optional external power header for supplying the card with more juice, which can be utilized by F1 cards that ship at higher clock speeds. Since DeltaChrome is built on a 0.13-micron process with fewer transistors than ATIís RADEON 9700 PRO, S3 wonít need a dual-slot cooler like NVIDIAís GeForce FX 5900 Ultra; in fact a passive heatsink should suffice for cooling slower DeltaChrome models.
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So whatís our take on DeltaChrome? Right now itís still too early to call. DeltaChromeís specs look good on paper, particularly in the value and mainstream segments. However, DeltaChromeís specs are built to compete with products available today, ATI and NVIDIA wonít be standing still for DeltaChrome. In fact, faster products from both companies will be available before DeltaChrome ever sees the light of day.
Equally important will be S3ís software support. S3ís previous product, Savage 2000, didnít fare too well here. S3 needs to actively demonstrate that drivers are a top priority for DeltaChrome. If the drivers arenít top notch upon launch, consumers could be leery of DeltaChrome. Weíre also wondering who S3 has lined up for board production. The North American video market is incredibly cutthroat, and most board manufacturers are committed to ATI or NVIDIA, not both. Diamond Multimedia is long gone, so DeltaChrome may have a tough time at retail.
If S3 can make a comeback, it would be one of the biggest stories for the end of this year. A considerable number of challenges lie ahead for the company however, and it doesnít help that the product isnít quite finished. S3 needs DeltaChrome now, with solid drivers and a board manufacturer (or two) with extensive distribution capability. S3ís window of opportunity for DeltaChrome is quickly closing. If they donít act fast, they could be in for difficult reintroduction to the desktop 3D graphics market.
SIDEBAR: Does S3ís DeltaChrome have a chance in todayís 3D desktop market or are ATI and NVIDIA just too strong? Share your thoughts with others in the FS news comments!