ATI Technologies

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ATI Technologies Inc. Template:Tsx Template:Nasdaq (where ATI is an acronym for Array Technologies Incorporated) is a Canadian manufacturer of graphics cards, graphics chips and graphics processing units for personal computers. Founded in 1985, their main headquarters is located in Markham, Ontario, Canada.

History

Founded by three Hong Kong-born immigrants, K.Y. Ho, Benny Lau and Lee Lau, it began as an OEM, producing integrated graphics chips for large PC manufacturers like IBM. However, by 1987 it had evolved into an independent graphics card retailer, marketing the EGA Wonder and VGA Wonder graphics cards under its own ATI moniker.

In 1997 ATI acquired Tseng Labs's graphics assets, which included 40 new engineers. In 2000, ATI acquired ArtX, the company that engineered the "Flipper" graphics chip used in the Nintendo GameCube games console. They have also entered an agreement with Nintendo to create the chip for the successor of the GameCube, codenamed Revolution. ATI was contracted by Microsoft to create the graphics chip for Microsoft Xbox 360. Later in 2005, ATI acquired Terayon's Cable Modem Silicon Intellectual Property cementing their lead in the consumer digital television market (press release).

Its current President and CEO is David E. Orton (formerly of ArtX). K.Y. Ho remains as Chairman.

Products

In addition to developing high-end GPU's (graphics processing unit, something ATI themselves call VPU for visual processing unit) for PCs, ATI also designs "lite" embedded versions for laptops (called "Mobility Radeon"), PDAs and mobile phones ("Imageon"), integrated motherboards ("Radeon IGP"), set-top boxes ("Xilleon") and other technology-based market segments. Thanks to this diverse portfolio, ATI has been traditionally the dominant player in the OEM and multimedia markets.

Currently it is the main competitor of NVIDIA. As of 2004, ATI's flagship product line is the Radeon series of graphics cards which directly compete with those boards using NVIDIA's GeForce graphics chips. As of the 3rd quarter of 2004, ATI represented 59% of the discrete graphic card market, while its primary competitor NVIDIA represented only 37%, but the two commonly trade market share majority, for example 2nd quarter had NVIDIA at 50% and ATI at 46%. As of 2005, ATI has announced that a deal has been struck with CPU and Motherboard manufacturer, Intel to create onboard 3D Graphics solutions for Intel's new range of motherboards that will be released with their new range of Intel Pentium M based desktop processors. This ATI solution will effectivly end Intel's range of entry-level desktop integrated graphics(The (high-end)boards using the latest chips, if they do have integrated graphics, will have Intel IGPS).

Graphics chipsets

This list is incomplete. Major product families are shown below:

  • EGA / VGA Wonder - IBM "EGA/VGA-compatible" display adapters (1987)
  • Mach8 - ATI's first "Windows Accelerator" (IBM 8514/A clone) (1991)
  • Mach32 - VGA-compatible enhanced feature-set accelerator (32bit "true-color" acceleration) (1992)
  • Mach64 - one of the first chips with "motion-video" acceleration (hardware bitmap zoom, YUV->RGB color-conversion)(1994)
  • All-In-Wonder Series - Recognizable in its modern form from 1996 and unique to ATI, a multimedia video card offering TV tuning, MPEG/DVD acceleration, and 3D gaming on a single card. Several models also include features such as HDTV encoding and digital TV tuning.
  • Rage3D - ATI's first "3D-accelerator" VGA (1996) (later products use a shortened name 'Rage')
  • Rage/Pro - While inferior in 3D-capabilities to the Rendition Verite1000, the Rage/Pro's low cost, robust Windows-GUI acceleration, and hardware DVD-acceleration made the Rage/Pro and its derivatives bestsellers to the OEM market. Rage/Pro was also the first ATI chip to include a triangle setup engine, making it possible to support OpenGL in hardware.
  • Rage/128 - ATI's first performance+feature competitive 3D-accelerator, "best-in-class" DVD-playback (1998)
  • Rage Fury MAXX - Launched 2000, this was ATI's first and only foray into dual-chip videocards. Despite possessing twin Rage 128 Pro processors, it was plagued with driver issues and unexceptional performance.
  • Radeon Series - Launched in 2000, this is the mainstream ATI 3D gaming consumer card. ATI often produces 'Pro' versions with higher clock speeds, and sometimes an extreme 'XT' version, and even more recently 'XT P.E.' versions.
  • Radeon X Series, a 2004 addition to the Radeon line - X300, X600, X700, X800, X850 - similar to GeForce 6 Series. Architecturally, these cards are still direct descendants of the original 9700 core, with various improvements and additions such as power optimization, and an increased number of pixel pipelines. The newest generation has also been given the 'X' designation. They are the X1300 (RV515), X1600 (RV530), and the X1800 (R520). These are to compete with the GeForce 7 Series
  • Mobility Radeon Series - A series of miniaturized versions of Radeon graphics chips for use in laptops. ATI has traditionally been the major player in this field, while introducing innovations such as modularized RAM chips, DVD acceleration, and "POWERPLAY" power management technology. More recently the M10 (mobility 9600) and M11 (mobility 9700) chips have brought near desktop performance to the laptop sector. ATI also has a X-series for laptops which uses PCI-Express.
  • FireGL - Launched in 2001, following ATI's acquisition of FireGL Graphics. Workstation CAD/CAM video card, based on the Radeon series.
  • Imageon - Introduced in 2002 to bring integrated 3D graphics to handhelds, cellphones, and Tablet PCs. Current product is the Imageon 2300 which includes 3D engine, MPEG-4 video decoder, JPEG encoding/decoding, and a 2 Mega pixel camera sub-system processing engine with support for 2MB of ultra low-power SDRAM.
  • CrossFire - This technology is ATI's response to nVidia's SLI platform. It allows, by using a secondary video card and a dual PCI-E motherboard based on either ATI's new RD480 or RD400 chipsets, the ability to combine the power of the two videocards to increase performance through a variety of different rendering options. The technology utilizes an external connector and a master video card (CrossFire edition, which must be purchased specifically) to send the rendering information to the slave card(any PCI-E based card), which sends the resulting image to the video card. Unlike nVidia's solution, the CrossFire technology can theoretically be used with any card, and should technically be able to be implemented on any motherboard with 2 PCI-E slots. This technology is not available in retail.

Upcoming graphics cards (core names) include: R580 (name pending).

Microsoft's Xbox 360 video game console will contain a custom graphics chip produced by ATI. Gauging the performance and feature set of the ATI Xbox 360 graphics core is difficult as there is no direct parallel between the PC part roadmap and the console chip design.

As the ATI Xbox 360 GPU is custom built from the ground up to be used in a console, the chip features may or may not be used in future PC parts. Some of these features include “Intelligent Memory” – a section of on-die memory that has logic built in (192 parallel pixel processors) to do features like anti-aliasing, thereby giving developers effectively anti-aliasing at no performance cost. Another feature of the ATI Xbox 360 GPU is the “True Unified Shader Architecture” which dynamically load balances pixel and vertex processing (freeing developers from having to fiddle with geometry vs fill balance issues).

Personal computer platforms / chipsets

Early north bridge parts produced by ATI included Radeon 320, 340, 7000. Typically these were partnered with a south bridge chip from ALI. They sold in respectable volumes, but never gained enthusiast support.

In 2003 ATI released the 9100 IGP, with IXP250 southbridge. It was notable for being ATI's first complete motherboard chipset, including an ATI southbridge, admittedly light on features, but stable and functional. It included an updated Direct-X 8.1 class version of the 8500 core for the integrated graphics, based upon the 9100. Internally, ATI considered it one of their most important product launches.

The RADEON XPRESS 200/200P is ATI's PCI Express-based Athlon 64 and Pentium 4 motherboard. The chipset supports SATA as well as integrated graphics with DirectX 9.0 support, the first integrated graphics chipset to do so. Technically, the XPRESS 200 IGP is based on the X300 core. Integrated into the north bridge, two pixel pipelines operate at a core speed of up to 350MHz, and each one has a single texturing unit.

Market trends

ATI was founded in 1985, and in order to survive, initially ended up shipping a lot of basic 2D graphics chips to companies such as Commodore. The EGA Wonder and VGA Wonder families were released to the PC-market in 1987. Each offered enhanced feature-sets surpassing IBM's own (EGA and VGA) display adapters. May of 1991 saw the release of the Mach8 product, ATI's first "Windows accelerator" product. Windows accelerators offloaded display-processing tasks which are normally done by the CPU. (In fact, the Mach8 was feature-enhanced IBM 8514/A compatible board.) 1992 saw the release of the Mach32 chipset, an evolutionary improvement over its predecessor.

But it was probably the Mach64 in 1994, powering the Graphics Xpression and Graphics Pro Turbo, that was ATI's first recognizably modern media chipset. Notably, the Mach64 chipset offered hardware support for YUV to RGB color space conversion, in addition to hardware zoom. This effectively meant basic AVI and MPEG-1 playback became possible on PCs without the need for expensive specialist decode hardware. Later the Mach64-VT also allowed for scaling to be offloaded from the CPU. ImpacTV in 1996 went further with 800x600 VGA to TV encoding. ATI priced the product at a point where the user effectively got a 3D accelerator for free.

ATI’s first integrated TV tuner products shipped in 1996, recognizable as the modern All-in-Wonder specification. Featuring 3D acceleration powered by ATI's second generation 3D Rage II, 64-bit 2D performance, TV-quality video acceleration, video capture, TV tuner functionality, flicker-free TV-out, and stereo TV audio.

However, while ATI had established a reputation for quality multimedia capable cards popular with OEMs, by the late 1990s consumers began to also expect strong 3D performance, and 3dfx and nVidia were delivering. The first warning was seen with in January 1999 with the All-in-Wonder 128, featuring the Rage 128 GL graphics chip. While the basic 16MB version sold reasonably well, the improved but delayed 32MB version did not, because it lacked 3D acceleration appropriate for its price point. It became clear, if ATI was to survive, the company would have to develop integrated 3D acceleration competitive with the products nVidia was designing.

ATI’s first real 3D chip had been the 3D Rage II. The chip supported bilinear and trilinear filtering, z-buffer, and several Direct3D texture blend modes. But the pixel fillrate looked good only next to S3’s awful VIRGE range, and the feature list looked good only next to the workstation type Matrox Mystique. The 3D Rage Pro released in 1997 improved, offering a fill rate equal to the original 3dfx Voodoo Graphics, and a proper 1.2 M triangle/s hardware setup engine. Single-pass trilinear filtering, combined with a complete texture blending implementation. The Rage Pro sold in volume to OEMS, due to DVD performance and low cost, but was held back by poor drivers. It was only in 1999, almost 2 years after the original launch, the drivers finally came good, delivering a 20-40% gain over the originals. Subsequently ATI learned to better prioritise driver development.

Work on the next generation 128 GL was helped by the acquisition of the Tseng development team in 1997. Designed to compete with the RIVA TNT and Voodoo2, it was notable for an advanced memory architecture, allowed the Rage128 to run in 32-bit color with a minimal performance loss. Unfortunately, at the time most games ran in 16-bit color, where nVidia’s parts excelled. The RIVA TNT2 came out with improved clock speeds, and the GL quickly became relegated ATI's usual position, of a strong OEM alternative to the market leaders, with outstanding DVD performance, attractive when priced low enough.

The part was updated in April 1999, with the Rage 128 Pro, featuring anisotropic filtering, a better triangle setup engine, and a higher clock rate. The Rage 128 Pro's MPEG-2 acceleration was far ahead of its time, allowing realtime MP@HL (1920x1080) playback on a Pentium3/600MHz. ATI also ran an experimental project called "Project Aurora," marketed as the MAXX technology, consisting of dual Rage 128 Pro chips running in parallel, with each chip rendering alternate frames. Because the MAXX required double the memory, suffered from buggy drivers, and failed to deliver knockout performance, it was not a successful launch. As a result, ATI discontinued multiple chip development for mainstream products.

By this point the pattern seemed fairly clear. ATI were good at producing low end OEM friendly parts, with good 2D features, DVD acceleration, and rounded 3D feature sets. What they had failed to do, was challenge effectively at the high end of the market. So at the Game Developer's Conference in March 2000, developers were curious but generally somewhat skeptical, about a new claimed sixth-generation graphics chip. This was a period when companies often announced products, they then failed to deliver on time, or on spec. However, ATI subsequently demonstrated beta silicon behind closed doors at GDC, and named the product the Radeon 256.

Finally released in 2000, the Radeon core became known in later versions as the 7000 and 7500, reflecting its Direct-X 7 compliant features set. The core established a number of notable firsts, such as a complete DX7 bump mapping implementation (emboss, dot product 3 and EMBM), hardware 3D shadows, hardware per-pixel video-deinterlacing, and a reasonable implementation of many advanced DX8 pixel shader effects. It is fair to say nVidia products of the period delivered greater raw power in terms of fill rates, but ATI started to open up a clear quality and shader performance advantage. Still, it was only the 3 series of Detonator drivers that unlocked an unexpected 20% performance gain, that enabled nVidia to hold onto the performance crown.

ATI proved the Radeon card had not been a one off, by following up with the Radeon 2 (R200) core in 2001, marketed as the 8500. While again it lacked a little in raw power compared to nVidia's offerings, it offered impressive visual quality, strong DirectX 8.1 shader performance, and a rich feature set. As usual with ATI products it proved popular with OEMs, partly because it offered wider motherboard compatibility than nVidia's offerings of the period. Driver support continued to be an area of weakness for ATI, although over time this was considerably improved. The 8500 finally established ATI as a serious performance and feature integrated chipset competitor to nVidia, in a period when other graphics card companies such as 3dfx were going out of business.

The 7000 and 8500 cards were warning shots for nVidia, demonstrating they could not take for granted their dominant market position. But 2002 proved to be the decisive year for ATI, with once again an unexpected introduction of a new Radeon architecture. Designed from the ground up for DirectX 9 operation, the 9700 turned out to be one of the most innovative graphics cards ever released. Furthermore, ATI beat nVidia’s equivalent part to market by several clear months.

At the same time ATI introduced their branded "Catalyst" driver suite, which addressed many of the quality, compatibility, and performance concerns raised about previous driver releases. And a decision was taken for core chip technology to be licensed out to third-party "Powered by ATI" board manufacturers, adopting nVidia’s business model. All of which together, suddenly put nVidia on the back foot, for the first time since the ill fated NV1 project, to the amazement of the entire industry.

From then onwards, the challenge for ATI became to hold onto their high end advantage, while filtering their technology down to the mid and low end of the market, where the greatest volume sales are made. So ATI refreshed the 9700 to the 9800 Pro in 2003, featuring a small and relatively quiet cooling solution. The 9800 went on to become one of the most popular and best selling enthusiast cards of all time. And in the mid range, the 9600 was introduced with half the number of pixel pipes of the 9800 Pro.

At the low end the old Radeon 8500 core was clocked 50 MHz lower to improve manufacturing yields, and called the 9200. Partly because it could be cooled passively, ATI delivered a manufacturing cost advantage over the previous bottom end favorite the GeForce 4 MX. In sum, 2003 was the year ATI started to transition their high end 9700 advantage to the mainstream, and wrest control of the discrete graphics card market away from nVidia.

In 2004, ATI released the RADEON XPRESS 200 motherboard chipset, intended as a direct competitor to the more established nForce motherboard brand of chipsets from arch rival nVidia. The 9700 core finally trickled down into the low end market in the form of the 9550, a cheaper to manufacture 110 nm version of the 9600, clocked down to 250 MHz. The 9550 quickly replaced nVidia's 5200 as the favorite bottom end discrete OEM card, and largely because of this, almost unnoticed ATI completed one of the most surprising turn arounds in recent chip history.

According to data from Mercury Research, ATI Technologies' market share rose 4% to 27% in the Q3 2004, while nVidia's share dropped 8% to 15% from 23%. Intel's market share rose 1% to 39% in the Q3 2004, holding on to the market number 1 position, although Intel only ships low performance integrated solutions.

In 2005, ATI began shipping the x800 XL PCI-E card, an 110 nm shrink of the x800 core, originally sampled on a 130 nm low-K process. This brought 16 pipeline cards closer to the mainstream. The x800 range marks the end of the old 9700 feature set / core as ATI's performance platform. The lack of 32 bit rendering and SM 3.0, enabled smaller dies sizes and better yields than NVIDIA parts of the period.

In October 2005 ATI finally released the much delayed Radeon 90 nm X1000 series. The alpha silicon had actually tapped out a year earlier, but a mysterious circuit bug had reduced clockable speeds by 150 MHz, and delayed mass production for several months. This critical delay left the high end of the market to NVIDIA's 7800 line. While ATI retained slightly greater market share, margins and profitability slumped.

External links

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