Sector guide: Graphics cards

We check out some of the latest developments in graphics
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While one half of the industry is pushing towards greater mobility and scaling down what already exists – a trend that started with netbooks and culminated in tablets – the other half is being driven to advanced, technologically demanding, new functions – most notably 3D.

The introduction of this new technology has been predicted to offer a huge boon to the industry, and no where is that more apparent than in graphics cards – which still do the bulk of visual processing.

As well as breaking new ground, common PC usages such as gaming and media editing also require up to date dedicated graphics cards – making the components one of the most common upgrade purchases.

At the moment, DirectX 11 and Windows 7 are the key driving factors in the market, allowing users to make the most of their hardware upgrades. Advancements such as tesselation, which is heavily featured in DirectX, makes for better graphics, but it won’t do anything without the hardware.

Most commentators agree that this and other factors, such as general demand for gaming, is driving the graphics card market into growth. “We are fortunate to be right bang in the middle of the next big thing right now,” says Craig Gore, graphics cards, processors and Microsoft product manager at KMS Components. “With DirectX 11 bringing us the best graphics to date and the 3D revolution in full swing, it’s certainly an exciting time for faithful PC gamers.”

Peter Yeung, HIS sales and marketing director, adds: “The revenue of the gaming market is expected to surpass that of the music and movie industries combined within a three year time frame. The gaming market is showing year–on–year growth of significant percentages. New game releases are more sophisticated, and more sophisticated content is more demanding on the PC.

"New games and the management of more rich content on consumers PCs means increased demand for a more realistic gaming experience and higher productivity during content editing. The upgrade segment is one of the fastest sectors of the hardware sales market because users rely on a better graphic card to view or edit their HD content.”

New product launches will, of course, also drive up sales. “The graphics market will always see a peak around new product launches, but the average trend is an overall growth for graphics in the entire sector including integrated platforms such as Nvidia Ion-based computing,” claims James Dean, Northern European PR at ZOTAC.

FUSION OF IDEAS

Often it’s the GPU manufacturers, mainly Nvidia and ATI, that push the direction of the graphics card market, in the same way that Intel and AMD’s CPUs often direct the general PC market. AMD (the owner of ATI) has made a particular splash with its Fusion launch this year. The firm claims it will kick start the ‘accelerated processing unit era,’ and that the new chips represent a ‘seismic shift’ for the computer industry, comprising processing capabilities previously spread across the CPU and the GPU onto a single die cast.

“After the stunning live demonstration we gave at Computex, it has become very clear to the market that 2011 is the year of Fusion,” Craig Connell, regional sales manager for Northern Europe at AMD tells us.

“When AMD bought ATI in 2006, it gained one of the world’s best microprocessor engineering teams. Immediately, the branding for AMD Fusion began and that culminated in the public demonstrations that everyone has seen across the web. Without a doubt, AMD Fusion will revolutionise the market.”

While this will no doubt have an impact, most are confident the holistic approach will not dent the discreet graphics card market any time soon. “In terms of AMD Fusion, I don’t think this will have any impact on the high-end discreet graphics market. ATI seems to have a firm commitment to driving the high end graphics card market,” says M2m Direct’s sales and marketing manager, Hitesh Kothary. “Fusion may perhaps take territory in the low-end, low power, eco arena.”

THE NEXT STEP

There’s no doubt 3D is going to be a major driving force in the next generation of graphics cards. As mentioned, the potential of the sector on all aspects of the PC are significant – however high initial costs may mean it takes a while to make a significant impact on graphics cards.

Glen Rhodes, product manager at Target says: “3D Gaming is probably considered as the next big step in PC gaming, although the cost of buying a new GPU, a 3D capable monitor and probably an upgrade to the processor, power supply and motherboard will be an expensive one, and it probably won’t be the ‘next big thing’ till the prices come down and enter the mainstream.”

Meanwhile, PC gaming – which is probably the largest driver in PC 3D tech – has been called into question over the years. With the explosive uptake in consoles, many publishers have shifted attention towards the Xbox 360 and PS3 rather than Windows based gaming – leading to recurring claims from those outside the PC industry that ‘PC gaming is dead’.

The opinion within the industry is diametrically opposed to this. “I don’t know who’s been saying that PC gaming is dead but we’re certainly not seeing that in our sales figures,” says Matthew Parrish, VIP product manager. “Of course we can’t forget the impact of content in this market – after all, there is no need for a gamer to upgrade if they have no problems running their current software. New games that push the limits of performance always stimulate hardware sales, which is why the launch of Category A titles in the run-up to Christmas will help to boost graphics sales.”

Bill Donnelly, global PR director at Sapphire Technology adds: “Far from it. The console market appeals to casual gamers, who can just hook up to the TV and play at very reasonable cost – but the experience is way short of the latest high resolution, multi-screen solutions that can run on the PC to give a much more realistic and immersive experience. The PC with its ability to be upgraded and overclocked really is the platform of choice for the hardcore gamer.”

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

The graphics card sector is one of the most dynamic in the industry, and it’s not just gaming it has an impact on. Most software firms have by now woken up to the power of the GPU on a multitude of programmes, leading it to be used in more and more fields.

“The multi-core GPUs on today’s graphics cards can increase PC performance in ways you could not imagine a few years ago,” says Marlon Sharland, graphics product manager, Spire. “Taking video transcoding as an example, Nvidia’s CUDA or ATI Stream technology can speed up the conversion process by up to 18 times faster than traditional CPU-only methods. Converting a movie takes about 20 minutes instead of hours.”

Right now some of the latest tech, such as the aforementioned Fusion, looks like it could change the entire concept of the discreet graphics card in the future. Most agree however that there will always be a graphics card market in some form or another.

“Discrete graphics has, and always will be, a rapidly changing market. Integrated graphics are improving drastically, largely because ATI and Nvidia make cut down versions of their discreet chips for integration,” says Andy McLean, Nvidia product specialist at Enta. “However, they will never have the power or upgradeability of a discrete card. Many discrete cards also have extra outputs for HDMI, DVI and so on, and can also handle other usually CPU intensive tasks, Such as Nvidia’s CUDA being used for tasks such as video encoding.

Daniel Bennett, product manager at Realtime adds: “Dedicated graphics cards will always exist because there is a requirement for them from enthusiast PC gamers. They will always want the most powerful and fastest graphics card that will enable them to have the greatest immersion gaming experience that money can buy.”

GAINWARD NVIDIA GEFORCE GTX 460 GRAPHICS CARD
SRP: £189.99
Distributor: EntaTech

They say: Gainward’s award winning high-performance/wide-bandwidth hardware design powered by Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 460 GPU (40nm) integrating 1024MB/256bits high-speed GDDR5 memory which offers enhanced, leading-edge performance for the 3D enthusiasts

Specs: 700MHz clock speed, 1024MB memory, 1800MHz memory clock speed, 115.2 GB/s memory bandwidth, PCIe 2.0 Bus, 400MHz RAMDAC, VGA, DVI, and HDMI connectivity, two cooling fan slots

XFX ATI RADEON HD 5770
SRP: £98.99
Distributor: KMS Components

They say: Run up to three individual displays and resolutions when single large display is not needed

Specs: 850 MHz GPU clock, DDR5 memory, 4.6GHz memory clock, 800 processor cores, fan sink thermal solution

MSI ATI RADEON HD 5550
SRP: £65
Distributors: Overclockers UK, EntaTech, Realtime Distribution

They say: Low profile graphics card, perfect for small form factor or home theatre PCs. Consumes less than 39 watts under full load, and provides superior stability and reliability with ATI Catalyst software.

Specs: DDR3/GDDR5 memory interface, PCI Express 2.1 x16 bus interface, ATI Stream acceleration technology, 550 MHz engine clock speed, 352 GigaFLOPS Processing power, 4.4 Gigapixels/sec pixel fill rate

XFX ATI RADEON HD 5850
SRP: £239.99
Distributor: EntaTech

They say: The XFX Radeon HD 5850 with Eyefinity Technology, gives the firstever wrap-around in-picture experience to fully immerse yourself in the game, or maximize your productivity at work.

Specs: 1GB GDDR5 memory, ATI Eyefinity technology with support for up to three displays, ATI Stream technology, accelerated video transcoding (AVT), 40nm process, ATI Avivo HD video and display technology

EVGA GEFORCE GTX 460 1024MB EE
SRP: £179.99
Distributor: Micro-P

They say: Full support for Nvidia PhysX technology, enabling a totally new class of physical gaming interaction for a more dynamic and realistic experience with GeForce. Designed for the new PCI Express 2.0 bus architecture offering the highest data transfer speeds for the most bandwidth-hungry games and 3D applications, while maintaining backwards compatibility with existing PCI Express motherboards for the broadest support.

Specs: Nvidia GTX 460, 675 MHz GPU, 336 Pixel Pipelines, 400 MHz
RAMDAC, 3600 MHz effective memory, 240Hz max refresh rate

ZOTAC GTX 460 AMP!
SRP: £209.99
Distributors: Realtime Distribution, KMS Components

They say: ZOTAC Boost Premium harnesses every aspect of your ZOTAC GeForce GTX 460 series graphics card and features five applications to enhance and edit high-definition video, experience and enjoy the web like never before and access digital entertainment content

Specs: 1024 MB GDDR5 memory, 810 MHz core clock, 1717 MHz shader clock, 4000 MHz memory clock, 256 bit memory interface, dual-link HDCP capable

GIGABYTE GTX460 OC 1GB DDR5 WINDFORCE
SRP: £179.99
Distributor: Target Components

They say: Ultra durable VGA board reduces voltage ripples in normal and transient state, thus effectively lowers noises and ensures higher overclocking capability

Specs: GTX 470 graphics processor, 400 graphics adapter RAMDAC, 607 processor clock speed, 448 stream processors, 1215 shader clock, 1280 maximum graphic adapter memory, 3348 memory clock speed

SAPPHIRE HD 5770 FLEX EDITION
SRP: £145
Distributor: Realtime Distribution

They say: The first graphics card to support ATI Eyefinity on three screens without the need for a DisplayPort monitor or expensive active adapter, and up to four screens from one card

Specs: 800 Stream processors, 1GB GDDR5 memory, 850MHz clock speeds, 4.8GHz effective memory, dual heatpipe cooler and profiled fan with dust resisting sealed ball bearings

KFA2 NVIDIA GEFORCE GTX 460 LTD OC EDITION
SRP: £224.99
Distributor: VIP Computers

They say: The KFA2 NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460 graphics card sets the new standard for high performance gaming in the latest DirectX 11 games.

Specs: 1GB video memory, GDDR5 memory, 810MHz engine clock, 256-bit memory interface, 46 stream processing units, 400MHz RAMDAC, 2560x1600 maximum resolution, hinged fan for easy cleaning

SAPPHIRE HD 5870 1GB VAPOR-X OC
SRP: £365.99
Distributor: Realtime Distribution

They say: Vapor-X cooling enables the card to run cooler and quieter. A cooler card means more room to overclock

Specs: 875 core frequency, 5000 memory frequency, 256 memory bus, GDDR5 memory, dual 400 MHz RAMDAC, 160.00 GB/sec peak memory bandwidth

HIS 5870 1GB ATI
SRP: £325
Distributor: M2m Direct

They say: With DirectX 11 support, and DDR5 memory this is a fantastic, leading performance card

Specs: 1024MB memory, GDDR5 memory, 400 MHz RAMDAC, Radeon HD 5870 PCIe series Chipset

ZOTAC GTX 460 1GB DDR5
SRP: £189.99
Distributor: Realtime Distribution

They say: Massive overclockability – pound for pound one of the best GPUs ever made

Specs: 675MHz core clock, 336 stream processors, 1350 Mhz shader clock, 3600 MHz memory clock, 1GB memory size, GDDR5 memory, 400 MHz RAMDAC

ASUS GTX460 1GB DDR5
SRP: £209.40
Distributor: Spire

They say: The most anticipated card from Nvidia since the GTX480 gives unprecedented performance for the price and with up to 4 times the DirectX 11 tessellation performance of the competition without sacrificing high frame rates

Specs: DirectX 11, PCI Express 2.0, GDDR5 1GB memory, 675MHz engine clock, 3600MHz memory clock speed

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