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A look at S3's DeltaChrome

Coming soon: A new entry in the DirectX 9 graphics sweeps
— 11:00 AM on September 18, 2003

YOU'RE NOT GONNA believe this. I mean, really, you're not, because I wouldn't have either, had I not seen it with my own eyes. S3 Graphics is back with a new chip, dubbed DeltaChrome, which looks like it might just be strong enough to become a player in the mid-range consumer graphics market. I've seen the A0 silicon, first spin of the chip, running games like Unreal Tournament 2003 and the Chrome demo well enough to convince me the thing has potential. Real potential.

The question with any new graphics chip, of course, is whether it can survive and prosper in the brutal world of graphics. One of my fascinations with graphics is the way we see the same story over and over again. You know the one, about the fiery, slow motion car crash. We've seen it time and again. Matrox's Parhelia hurtled along toward success with a promising spec sheet, until it hit a clock-speed wall and was disqualified. Sometimes, as a vehicle's metal warps under the force of the impact, great truths are revealed. SiS's Xabre chip morphed overnight from a four-pipe chip with two texture units per pipe to a two-by-four design. Similarly, NVIDIA's NV30 went from slow-to-market to just plain slow, and the world discovered it's a four-by-two design rather than an eight-by-one along the way. Now, the NV30 is the foundation for a whole range of underpowered graphics cards that perform in DirectX 9 about like I would perform as an NFL running back.

Graphics is hard, and lots of smart companies mess it up.

So naturally, I was skeptical when I visited S3's offices last week to get a preview of the DeltaChrome, S3's new DirectX 9-class graphics chip intended for the consumer market. What I saw there was intriguing, and gave me reason to hope S3 may navigate the transition from chip design to end-user product without slamming into a barrier in turn three.

The "new" S3 Graphics
S3 didn't fare so well back when the whole graphics market was in upheaval over the conversion from two dimensions to three. That was a while ago, and S3 has been relatively quiet since. The "new" S3 Graphics is reconstituted, retooled, and ready for another run at the mainstream.

S3's parent company, VIA, has made a significant investment in the "new" S3, making possible the purchase of state-of-the-art simulation equipment needed for the design of complex ASICs. As a result, S3's DirectX 9 graphics core, code-named "Columbia," passed notable verification milestones in simulation, and the A0 revision of the silicon is now quite functional. S3 says better design methodologies and improved tools should allow them to enter production with the next rev of the chip rather than the third or fourth, as in the past.

The total contingent of people working on graphics at S3 worldwide is now about 400, with 250 of those involved in software development. During its revival, S3 has gained back a number of senior employees who worked at the company in better times past. The company's history, checkered though it may be, is also an asset in the intellectual property department. Patent concerns could easily strangle a new entrant in the graphics biz, but S3 Graphics has a portfolio of over 200 patents, and access to more through parent company VIA and through a cross licensing deal with Intel.

The new S3 looks focused and dead serious, with an aggressive long-term roadmap and some apparently realistic near-term goals—which brings us to the centerpiece of S3's current efforts and the incarnation of the Columbia project: DeltaChrome.

The DeltaChrome chip (or at least a pretty plastic cover)