The GPU Wars Go Mobile

A week after rivals NVIDIA and ATI Technologies launched faster graphics processors (GPU) for desktop PC, both companies Thursday announced their chips for laptops and other flat-screen devices.

Santa Clara-based NVIDIA released its GeForce FX Go series midrange 5200 and high-end 5600 chips, while Markham, Ontario-based ATI countered with its Mobility RADEON 9200 for laptops, Mobility RADEON 9600 for high-end systems and Mobility RADEON 7000 chipset for PCs.

The idea is to help make sure LCD displays show the same hi-resolution images as their CRT counterparts. This is also the first time that both companies have adopted HDTV standards as part of their chips. The move allows them to be used in next generation gaming platforms and even plasma displays.

“It’s no secret that laptops are becoming major gaming platforms,” NVIDIA Mobile Product Manager Tim Lau told “Many gamers live on their notebooks and play on the road. Even if they are docked at a monitor, the laptop is the driver. It was a challenge in the beginning adjusting to the LCD specs, but now that we’ve partnered with manufacturers like Samsung and Toshiba, we feel we’re on the right track.”

As far as graphics standards go, vendors are currently pushing for next generation visual technologies like XSGA and USGA, as manufacturers waffle between PCI and AGP interface technologies.

The key to success may lie with Microsoft’s DirectX , the API alternative to OpenGL . Both companies have pledged their support behind Microsoft’s latest version (9.0) as a driver for improved 3D graphics.

NVIDIA’s latest offerings are the mobile versions of its GeForce FX 5600 and 5200 chips for desktop computers. All four shipped in samples in February and are being marketed to the major OEMs and ODMs, with retail availability expected by April.

The chips include MPEG-2 encode assist, video antialiasing, adaptive B&W, de-interlacing and support for HDTV.

The Go5600 is manufactured on the 0.13-micron process, while the Go5200 is made on the 0.15-micron process, which makes it more compatible with gaming consoles. Sources say the Go5200 is the most likely candidate to replace the GeForce4 chips currently in Microsoft’s Xbox because it is pin compatible and inexpensive. Both chips are made by Taiwanese foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing .

As tempting as it sounds to buy one of the faster chips and replace the GPU yourself, NVIDIA warned that without the proper F5-bios update, cracking open the Xbox for a hot-swap could prove disastrous.

“Technically it is possible to re-solder the pins, but we strongly advise against it,” Lau said. “It is pin for pin compatible, but system bios updates affects so many systems, such as notebook lid cover suspend/resume and hotkeys. If you don’t update your system it could go dark and will never work ”

Meantime, ATI is looking forward to April. That is when the company says its RADEON’s should start popping up in laptops. The Intel Centrino-friendly family series supports antialiasing, version 2.0 programmable pixel and vertex shaders, as well as putting GDDR2-M memory on the die.

The new RADEON 9600 mobile chips also offer a thermally controlled over-clocking system that uses an on-chip thermal sensor to scale engine speeds based on the notebook thermal environment.

“[This] family is so far ahead of the curve that for the first time, we see mobile graphics processors that deliver cinematic imagery, performance and features superior to the competitor’s highest-end desktop products,” said ATI vice president Phil Eisler.

Of course, the true tale of the tape will be how many vendors the GPU rivals can score.

So far ATI says its laptop launch partners include Actebis, Alienware, Asus, Clevo, ECS, FIC, Fujitsu-Siemens, Gericom, HP, Medion, Media Markt, Mitac, NEC, Uniwill, and Voodoo PC.

NVIDIA’s camp includes Toshiba, Samsung, Fujitsu-Siemens, and HP. NVIDIA also said video game publisher Electronic Arts will standardize and test its games based on the GeForce FX Go line.

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