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GDC 2007

We search for hardware news amid the software guys

THIS MAY COME AS a shock, but the Game Developers Conference is still very much, well, a conference for game developers. The agenda is full of sessions on topics like game design, using Microsoft's XNA tools, and the immortal "PS3 Audio: More than Extra Channels." The attendees look and dress like game developers, which is to say that wearing slacks and a shirt with a collar on it to GDC is akin to wearing a giant, flashing orange sign that says, "I do not belong here." The last few days of GDC also include a more traditional trade show-style expo, complete with giant banners, booths, and even the occasional booth babe.

Since we irresponsibly skipped out on CES this year, I decided to attend the expo portion of GDC 2007 as part of my penance. So I packed my shirt and slacks and headed out to San Francisco to declare to all present that I was a first-time GDC attendee with absolutely no sense of how to dress. Fortunately, lots of folks on the expo floor seemed sympathetic, and were thus willing to talk at length with the guy with the funny clothes. What follows is my report from GDC, complete with what may be TR's first booth babe picture in, heck, five years.

As with many of our trade show reports, I've divided my comments according to the companies involved, until that breaks down and I just start rambling.

Intel didn't have much to announce at GDC, but they did pull out the roadmaps and give us a bit of a sneak peek. The next big event on their agenda for desktop hardware is the replacement for the 975X chipset, dubbed the X38. This new bit of core logic is due to arrive in the third quarter of this year, probably in July or August, and will incorporate a host of new features, including support for DDR3 memory at speeds up to 1333MHz, PCI Express 2.0, and the ICH9 south bridge. The ICH9 will come in standard, R, and DH varieties, and like any new chipset these days, it will have even more SATA ports. Another new feature of the X38 will be 1333MHz front-side bus speeds, which it will need in order to support Intel's upcoming "Penryn" 45nm processors.

As for those processors, Intel's 45nm parts remain on track for introduction in the first quarter of 2008. We already know these chips will essentially be a die shrink of the current 65nm Core 2 Duo, with only minor tweaks for features or performance. One of those tweaks will be the addition of SSE4 instructions aimed at improving performance in multimedia, graphics, and other applications. Interestingly, Penryn's quad-core variants will not be monolithic, single-chip quad-core parts. Instead, they will have two dual-core chips placed together in a single package, like the current "Kentsfield" quad-core processors.

Intel won't officially confirm it, but multiple sources have reported that the desktop variants of Penryn will be code-named Wolfdale and Yorkfield. Wolfdale will reportedly be the dual-core part, with 6MB of L2 cache and support for a 1333MHz FSB. Yorkfield, meanwhile, is the quad-core variant, expected to be a pair of dual-core chips paired up for a total of four cores and 12MB of L2 cache. Probably because Yorkfield's two chips would each place an electrical load on the bus, the quad-core part's FSB is rumored to be limited to 1066MHz.

One thing Intel did seem eager to confirm was the fact that Penryn derivates will not feature Hyper-Threading, the simultaneous multithreading capability built into the Pentium 4, despite persisent rumors that the tech will make a reappearance soon.

Intel's GDC booth was showing off a number of multithreaded games, including Crysis and Supreme Commander. Another eye-catcher was this impressive arcade-style setup for racing games:

HP and Intel are working on this setup together. The display uses two projectors. Both projectors are aimed at the screen, and a camera is used to assist in calibrating the system. The host PC then uses real-time image processing to align the overlapping images for output to the projectors. The end-result is a visually seamless, wraparound wide-aspect display.

The chair is from a company called D-Box, and it moves about on three electric actuators. I was told the chair currently costs about fifteen grand, at which point my heart skipped a beat. D-Box is apparently working on bringing the price down, though, so hold off on the major cardiac events.

After talking with folks at Intel's expo booth about high-end gaming hardware, I headed across the street to a hotel suite to talk integrated graphics with some other Intel reps. They were showing off the graphics core of the G965 chipset, especially its video playback and acceleration capabilities, which Intel has branded with the Clear Video moniker.

In order to show off how, er, clear Clear Video can be, Intel had set up a little bake-off between the G965 and a Radeon X1600 discrete graphics card. The bake-off consisted of a single scene from the HQV video quality benchmark CD, and in this scene, the G965 appeared to be markedly superior at avoiding a certain type of blocky artifact. Of course, trade-show bake-offs are not always perfect beacons of light and truth, but we'll be sure to watch this test scene in our own upcoming reviews of integrated graphics solutions. The good news here is that Intel does seem to be paying attention to video playback quality and acceleration.

The G965 graphics core is intriguing for other reasons, as well. The GPU has a unified shader architecture that consists of eight programmable, scalar processing units. This shader core can accelerate both video and graphics operations, and Intel claims it was built for DirectX 10's Shader Model 4.0. That said, the G965's prospects are somewhat clouded for several reasons.

For one, current owners of the G965 aren't getting hardware-accelerated vertex shading out of it, even in DirectX 9. Intel is, however, addressing this issue with a new driver revision that adds hardware vertex processing, and I saw a demo of Half-Life 2 running at reasonably acceptable frame rates with an early version of the new driver. Intel plans to make a beta version of the driver available online soon.

Beyond that, Intel openly admits the G965 may never receive a DirectX 10-capable graphics driver, even though the architecture could support it. Part of the problem, they admitted to me, is processing power. Remember, an eight-core unified shader is the equivalent of a two-pixel-wide pipeline, and that doesn't even account for vertex or geometry shader processing, which are shared on the same processing elements.

Intel claims the G965's unified architecture is a solid foundation for future DX10-capable parts, regardless of what happens with this generation's graphics driver. To that end, we can expect a new chipset from Intel with more graphics processing power later this year. Before that happens, the G965 will find a larger audience when its mobile version makes a debut as part of the upcoming Santa Rosa mobile platform.