Friday, April 2, 2010

Rethink Your Default Graphics Card - Watching Industry Trends

I am not an industry analyst, by as an engineer I do have an ability to track trends. As I try to convince my wife that the tax refund we will be getting is best spent on a new computer for me, I have been researching components for my next big gaming CAD rig. (Not to mention the need for it to handle CADVille.) During my research, I found a repeating trend.

I should start by stating I've always been a fan of AMD CPUs. In my personal experience, they handle heavy math processes (like CAD, FEA, matrix and mathematical computations) better than Intel. No proof, just experience. I've also been more inclined to use nVidia based graphics cards. nVidia is the marketing name everyone recognizes and they appear in all the ads for best performance for specific applications, like the app was designed specifically for nVidia. I've also heard bad stories about ATI drivers and complex steps to update ATI video drivers. But as I was researching components for my potential new computer, I found something interesting which reminded me of the trend I have seen in the past.

Here's the trend I've noticed.
This is a simplified depiction of the trend. In it, you see both Intel and nVidia having technological leaps over time. (I depict a square saw-tooth pattern, but I do not mean to imply that the technology from these companies flat line. That is hardly the case; this is just a simplified illustration.) These are the big PR and marketing announcements that ring through the industry. On the other hand, AMD and ATI continually make steady improvements to their product lines over time. No big break throughs, no giant marketing campaigns, just steady growth. If you were to change the axes to Performance vs. Cost, you can see a steady increase in value from AMD/ATI and a step increase from Intel/nVidia. This trend matters because it clearly shows that there are times when nVidia is a better buy than ATI and when ATI is a better buy than nVidia. The same goes for AMD or Intel. If I were to put my finger on a point in the curve where we are now, I would place it somewhere at a point where AMD/ATI are slightly above the curve for Intel/nVidia in terms of value.

Not being very familiar with the ATI product line, I opted to probe AMD for some information on their cards, both the Radeon and the FireGL and try to figure out where the future of ATI graphics cards are going in terms of Win 7, DirectX 11, OpenGL, and some other technologies unique to ATI and how they compare to nVidia technologies. I managed to find someone willing to entertain my conversation and I was even showed a preview of the new FireGL V8800 model, not even released to the market yet. Let me tell you.... AWESOME!

Over the course of the next few blog posts, I will highlight what I'm learning about the latest in computer graphics. The thought I want to leave you with is this, don't just buy based on brand name and comfort. We're on a different point of the curve now, and your best value may just be with the brand you don't hear much about.