Graphics Cards

Video or graphics circuitry, usually fitted to a card but sometimes found on the motherboard itself, is responsible for creating the picture displayed by a monitor. On early text-based PCs this was a fairly mundane task. However, the advent of graphical operating systems dramatically increased the amount of information needing to be displayed to levels where it was impractical for it to be handled by the main processor. The solution was to off-load the handling of all screen activity to a more intelligent generation of graphics card.

As the importance of multimedia and then 3D graphics has increased, the role of the graphics card has become ever more important and it has evolved into a highly efficient processing engine which can really be viewed as a highly specialized co-processor. By the late 1990s the rate of development in the graphics chip arena had reached levels unsurpassed in any other area of PC technology, with the major manufacturers such as 3dfx, ATI, Matrox, nVidia and S3 working to a barely believable six-month product life cycle! One of the consequences of this has been the consolidation of major chip vendors and graphics card manufacturers.

Chip maker 3dfx started the trend in 1998 with the its acquisition of board manufacturer STB systems. This gave 3dfx a more direct route to market with retail product and the ability to manufacture and distribute boards that bearing its own branding. Rival S3 followed suit in the summer of 1999 by buying Diamond Multimedia, thereby acquiring its graphics and sound card, modem and MP3 technologies. A matter of weeks later, 16-year veteran Number Nine announced its abandonment of the chip development side of its business in favor of board manufacturing.

The consequence of all this maneuvering was to leave nVidia as the last of the major graphics chip vendors without its own manufacturing facility – and the inevitable speculation of a tie-up with close partner, Creative Labs. Whilst there’d been no developments on this front by mid-2000, nVidia’s position had been significantly strengthened by S3’s sale of its graphics business to VIA Technologies in April of that year. The move – which S3 portrayed as an important step in the transformation of the company from a graphics focused semiconductor supplier to a more broadly based Internet appliance company – left nVidia as sole remaining big player in the graphics chip business. In the event, it was not long before S3’s move would be seen as a recognition of the inevitable.

In an earnings announcement at the end of 2000, 3dfx announced the transfer of all patents, patents pending, the Voodoo brandname and major assets to bitter rivals nVidia and recommended the dissolution of the company. In hindsight, it could be argued that 3dfx’s acquisition of STB in 1998 had simply hastened the company’s demise since it was at this point that many of its hitherto board manufacturer partners switched their allegiance to nVidia. At the same time nVidia sought to bring some stability to the graphics arena by making a commitment about future product cycles. They promised to release a new chip out every autumn, and a tweaked and optimized version of that chip each following spring. To date they’ve delivered on their promise – and deservedly retained their position of dominance!

PC Components | Processors (CPUs) | PC Data Storage | PC Multimedia | PC Input/Output | Communications | Mobile Computing

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