S3 Graphics announced their European partnership with Club-3D today, supplying them with their new 'DeltaChrome' graphics processors. Matt was in London to check it out...
I gradually woke up in the early hours of the morning to find myself on train to London, travelling to the European launch of the DeltaChrome range of graphics processors. I was to hear the announcement that their European partner would be a little-known company called Club-3D. Although what I'd read up on the range of cards looked promising, especially that they had easily passed the latest DirectX 9 standards. I couldn't help but feel that perhaps S3 may have lost touch with the market, since the last time I saw a card on the shelves was back when real 3D gaming was only just taking off, with the Savage3D being the most well know card from that era. The new processors promised to strike a balance between excellent performance and price, but also between 3D gaming and 2D enhancements, mainly aimed at making Windows XP and video look better. Could they really deliver this, or was it just another way of justifying average performance..?
After my long journey into London, I was lead into a bar room in the basement of a building rather presumptuously named, 'The Agency', where I was greeted not by a laser-light show spectacular, not by a media-extravaganza and not even by several supermodels dressed as pixies handing out free promotional material, but by a man called Nadeem Mohammad, the Product Marketing Manager of S3 Graphics. Although a little disappointed, I was refreshingly relived at this brains-over-breasts approach, especially after talking to the guy and not only discovering he could answer all of my technical questions, but also that he had been very closely involved in the development of the DeltaChrome range, and was genuinely enthusiastic about its launch.
Mr Mohammad had brought along a less than modest Althon 64 FX21 system with 1GB of RAM, hooked up to a 15" LCD, with this system housing one of the first of three demonstration cards in Europe. My concerns about performance we're quickly being laid to rest as we got the benchmark result; just under 2500 3D Marks ('03), some potential after all? I think so, the card gave nearly 58fps running a UT2003 demo. These benchmarks suggest that the S3-DC not only outperforms the Radeon 9600 but is very close to matching the performance of a FX5700U.
How the benchmarks compared
So, fairly impressive stuff so far, but what about these claims of great 2D performance as well? Nadeem told us that S3 recognised the demand for good performance in other areas, in particular 2D aspects, and that "There are more to computers than just games". Hearing these words, I couldn't help see the similarity between them and Matrox's battle cry, as they ran on to the graphics card battlefield, only to be brutally cut down in the midst of a bitter stalemate between ATI and nVidia after hitting a core clock-speed wall. When talking about the on-going fights between ATI and nVidia, Nadeem told us that "if they hit first, we're not going to just stand there and take it, we'll defend our corner," later on he agreed that attempts to further the specification and secure exclusive compatibility contracts with game companies was not only damaging the efforts being made Microsoft to unify the standard, but the industry as a whole.
The DirectX and DeltaChrome specifications list
The main 2D hardware enhancement is the set of features specifically designed to cope with the more resource-intensive visual enhancements for Windows XP. Although no proof of these figures has been given, Nadeem told us that enabling these features with the DeltaChrome in your machine will cause a performance drop of about 2% where as using these enhancements whilst running a "leading competitors card" would see a performance drop of 20/30%.
It's not just XP that the card's hardware is geared up to cope with, its also has a "DeltaChrome Chromotion Programmable Video Engine" which boasts "MPEG-2 Decoding with Hardware Accelerated IDCT and Motion Compensation", basically meaning that should you want to play a DVD on your computer you should expect great quality, although I've yet to see a live demonstration of this yet.
The engine also has some real time effects, such a "emboss" and "neon", which although good for padding out white sheets, seem gimmicky and pointless. By far the most useful feature to be displayed by the Chromotion engine is the video decoding features, providing a noticeable improvement in video playback quality. This improvement in video decoding has the potential to improve the quality of those badly compressed cut scenes in games perhaps ringing true to S3's claims that "Best Game Experience doesn't mean Highest Benchmark". Other 2D features included a HDTV out, which isn't really applicable to Europe, but may considerably boost resolutions for those of you thinking of hooking it up to a projector.
The 'deblocking' feature for video decompression
Another nice feature, especially for those who've invested in a LCD monitor, that's been built into the processor is the native hardware support for display rotation, this means that you can play games with your LCD in portrait mode. Although this is possible on other cards without "hardware rotation", you can expect to see major visual anomalies, especially with game geometry. Although S3 suggested that these problem will be completely eliminated by this feature, I did notice several, more minor, geometry problems when this portrait mode was demonstrated in two of the 3D mark tests which would be serious enough to make games based on this same LAT/rendering method(s) unplayable I'm sure. The problems were (comparatively) minor enough however, to lead me to believe that this could simply be a driver issue. So what is the situation with support and drivers?
Providing yet another break from the near-political level of spin that could be expected from the larger graphics card firms, Nadeem told us that the current drivers were not exactly perfect adding "We haven't had as much experience as the major players, we're not ashamed to admit but they are getting better every day." With a team of 50 coders working on this task I'm sure we'll be seeing those bugs being well and truly flattened soon, although the issue still does raise slight concern. As for support, no direct customer support will be given instead, as with all-most all GPU manufactures, this will be handled by the reseller (in this case 3D-Club). Nadeem told us that we could expect a support cycle of the very minimum of 3 years, adding that "we're still releasing driver updates for the old S3 cards!"
The 3D-Club card's, which will initially be available in 2 flavours, are due for release in Early 2004. The first to be released will be the DeltaChrome S8, the mainstream/performance offering, and the DeltaChrome S4, the budget solution. These will be followed a few weeks later by the DeltaChrome S8 'Nitro', which is fitted with the same GPU, overclocked to around 30Mhz faster, we're also expecting a Nitro version for the S4 working off a similar principal. These Nitro versions will cost an estimated £10/£15 extra than the standard versions, and for the tangible performance increase, I don't really see the value, especially considering the card will use more power, produce more heat and also have its working-life time decreased, although we don't expect any warranty or support penalties from the manufactures. The expected price for the S8 will be €155, that's just under £110. Another series of cards in the performance range are due to be released, but details are vague on this a the moment.
After the presentation was over, we talked about the future of the DeltaChrome GPU and for the S3 company itself. Nadeem told us that due to the low power consumption (and thus heat production) of the chip, we can expect to see it with little to no feature reductions in the next generation of laptop/notebooks, and didn't rule out the possibility of integrating a slightly reduced version of the chip on the VIA-EPIA Micro-ATX motherboards! Also in line for the next generation of processors was the PCI-Express, a much faster method of getting data from system memory to the card, complying almost perfectly with Moore's Law. Dual GPU's were also discussed, Nadeem telling us that we may well see more information on that in 2005.
With all this said it was time to hop back on the train, on my long journey back I had plenty of time to draw some conclusions about the DeltaChrome after my fears about performance and price had disappeared. However I was still left with two major concerns, the primary one being that the European partner3D-Club, not only were they little heard of by the average buyer, but they represented many other companies too. This all leaves me concerned as to whether or not 3D-Club will be able to give the DeltaChrome (and S3 Graphics) enough momentum to join nVidia and ATI at the top. This is not as concerning as it would be, as S3 have secured another production partner which they cannot yet announce, Nadeem telling us that we'd be "pleasantly surprised". My other concern was about driver issues, as in earlier previews we'd seen some quite strange anomalies, especially in shading and transparencies, but as mentioned earlier with a team of 50 people and promises of good support these issue have a good chance of being resolved, although perhaps not immediately.
To anyone out there thinking of buying themselves a new graphics card this Christmas, I'd suggest you wait for our rigorous review and benchmarking of the demo-card, testing the claims and its weaknesses, sometime in the coming weeks. Anything that promises performing nearly as well as a FX5700U for less than £110 is definitely worth a second look at in our opinion!