nVidia's new chip

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nVidia's new chip Nowonder

nVidia's new chip

GeForce 4 slips onto the scene a week earlier than planned.

NEW YORK (CNNmoney) - A secret's a hard thing to keep in the gaming world.

nVidia had planned to introduce its next-generation graphics chip Feb. 5 at a swanky affair in San Francisco. All questions about the chip were brushed aside with a knowing wink that said "wait and see." As PR strategies go, it was a pretty smart one, creating interest and building curiosity. Then the Power Mac G4 happened.

Apple's newest, most powerful machine has just gone on sale at Apple.com. Look close at the included components, though, and listed among them is a video card featuring the GeForce 4.

The chip, which is the company's successor to the GeForce 3 (a kissing cousin of the chip that's used to power Microsoft's Xbox), takes over several of the calculations formerly performed by a computer's CPU, allowing the machine to focus more on game speed and resulting in graphics that look more realistic than ever. Assuming developers code their games right, you'll see better collision detection (in other words, if you're playing the latest "Madden" game, you won't see one character reach through the body of another when making a tackle) and smoother movement in character joints (allowing your on-screen persona to move more like a live person does).

Power Mac video cards powered by the GeForce 4 will come with 64 MB of memory and deliver over 1 billion textured pixels per second (the more pixels per second, the smoother the images appear on screen). The Power Mac versions are part of the "MX" line, the lower-cost arm of the GeForce family. Expect faster, more powerful cards built around the chip for the PC.

While no major graphics card manufacturers have yet announced products built around the chip, it's a safe bet you'll see entries from all the usual suspects: Creative (CREAF: up $0.93 to $14.05, Research, Estimates) , Guillemot, Gigabyte and Asus. There has been no early word on what the cards will cost.

The introduction of the GeForce 4 comes right on schedule for nVidia (NVDA: up $0.78 to $65.44, Research, Estimates) . For the past several years, the company has regularly introduced a major redesign of its architecture every 12 months or so (the GeForce 3 was first announced in February 2001). Typically, it offers a souped-up version of the most recent product line each fall for hard-core gamers.

Legend's "Unreal II" will offer previously unimagined graphical quality.

For technology lovers (and I fully admit to being one), this rapid advancement of new chips is exciting. From a gamer perspective, though, it's not quite the big deal nVidia would like you to believe. Yes, the more advanced graphics are nice, but the gaming hardware and gaming software industries are out of synch. While the GeForce 4 offers some tremendous features, there won't be any games on the market utilizing those for likely a year or more. As it stands, only a small handful of games take advantage of what the GeForce 3 has to offer.

That said, there are a few titles currently in development that will push the graphical envelope. id Software's third "Doom" game, while we haven't seen much of it, has hinted at one of the largest graphical leaps in the industry's history. Meanwhile, Legend Entertainment's "Unreal II" will also demand more advanced cards to run at optimal performance.

You won't need the GeForce 4 to play these, and other games in the pipeline, but try convincing the hard-core gamer of that.

Hey, there's a reason nVidia, recently included in the S&P 500, has managed to thrive while the semiconductor and tech sectors tanked. In 2001, its stock was up more than 300 percent. The company may have a little trouble keeping a secret, but it sure knows its audience.


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