<mosaic.cnfolio.com>
Electronics Manufacturing – M528

An Analysis and Forecast of the Market Value of NVIDIA’s 8600GT GPU


Introduction

NVIDIA has grown to become the most widely known manufacturer of desktop graphics processing units (from here on referred to as GPUs) to date. They really boosted their reputation for home graphics on 31st August 1999 after the release of the first GPU, the NV 10, more commonly known as the GeForce 256. The technical definition of a GPU is "a single-chip processor with integrated transform, lighting, triangle setup/clipping, and rendering engines that is capable of processing a minimum of 10 million polygons per second” (Wikipedia, n. d., GeForce 256). The NV10 managed to process 15 million polygons per second, which in terms of home computing at the time was truly revolutionary. NVIDIA have continued producing GPUs under the name of GeForce and due to the success of the brand, are now onto their eighth generation. NVIDIA do not actually make and sell whole graphics cards, they only manufacture the GPUs. They configure these chips in terms of GPU and memory frequency settings and then sell them to a range of third party manufacturers. These manufacturers (such as XFX and BFG) then create the complete graphics cards using the NVIDIA chips and sell them onto retailers.

The eighth generation of GeForce graphics cards is a very significant one, as these cards are the first on the market to embrace Direct X 10 technology (from here on referred to as DX10). The first DX10 cards released were the 8800 models. Although released nearing half a year ago, these are still considered as cutting edge and top quality hardware and come with a price tag to match, even today a single 8800GTX can retail for over £525 (Overclockers, 2007, BFG GeForce 8800GTX Extreme Watercooled).

The 8600 series was released on April 17th 2007. This series is a very important one as it fills a gap on the consumer market that has yet to be touched, affordable DX10 GPUs. Previous to the 8600, NVIDIA’s only range of DX10 GPUs was the 8800 series, and due to the very high in prices these were dubbed only for the performance enthusiast. AMD (formally ATI) have yet to release a DX10 card so there has been no direct competition to drive the prices down. It should be noted that AMD do have a DX10 compliant card in the making that is due for release in the near future, the HD 2000 series (Wikipedia, 2007, Radeon R600). The lower specification 8600 models can be found for as low as £80, just days after launch. This means that the 8600 range falls well within the reach of the average PC user, it can be seen as a main stream card.

The Technology

Before the value and future of the 8600GT can be fully analysed, the technology that it brings to the market must first be understood. The speed and memory of the GPU are nothing special. The GPU core runs at a mediocre 540Mhz with the 256mb of DDR 3 ram running at 1400Mhz. This is connected using a 128-bit memory interface (NVIDIA, 2007, GeForce 8 Series). It is its DX10 features that make it stand out against the competition, rather than its plain processing power.

DX10 vs. DX9

Direct X is a series of Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, which allow for the creation and rendering of high quality software on a PC, specifically games. It was first released back in September 1995 by Microsoft, for their Windows 95 operating system. Direct X was created because Microsoft was worried that their new operating system would not be seen as a viable games platform. This was very important as back in 1995 the games industry was growing at a staggering rate. The reason that Windows 95 was seen as inappropriate for games programming was due to the differences it had with MSDOS. MSDOS allowed for direct access to the video card, sound and input devices (Wikipedia, 2007, DirectX). This meant that games programmers could access what they needed, when they needed it without any delays or troubles. Windows 95 incorporated a restricted memory model which limited access to all hardware. Through the Direct X APIs programmers were able to gain access to the required hardware peripherals and were able to produce the software which they wanted.

Although Direct X includes APIs for all multimedia functions, it is only the graphics side which affects the 8600GT. The latest instalment of Direct X is DX10. This is a relatively new design, released on November 30th 2006 (Wikipedia, 2007, DirectX). This release is a very significant jump from the previous version as it allows for more graphically intense software to be created. To achieve these results the way which hardware and drivers are accessed has been completely redesigned. Due to the radical changes, DX10 is not compatible with Windows XP, it is currently Windows Vista only. This is because the reformed driver model which Vista hosts allows for a greater bandwidth of information which the XP driver model would be unable to cope with (Wikipedia, 2007, DirectX). In basic graphical terms, it allows for a larger number of independent objects on screen at a given time. This is a great help for software developers as it gives them more freedom in creating impressive and realistic graphical displays.

The main graphics related improvements over DX9 are as follows (Toms Hardware, 2007, What Direct 3D 10 is all about), with the more important parts explained in detail :


Tight Hardware Specifications

One of the main problems with DX9 is that there was a lot of variation in terms of design specifications. Programmers had to allow for a range of different hardware configurations which meant that instead of high performance, they had to cater for high compatibility. A prime example of this is with Games consoles. Even today the first generation of Xbox can produce reasonably impressive looking graphics at acceptable frame rates. This is with very out dated hardware. This can be achieved because the programmers know exactly what hardware that the game is going to use. Therefore they can optimize their software for this type of hardware and achieve higher performance than if the game was designed for flexibility. DX10 specifies far tighter restriction on hardware designs. This means that although there will be different DX10 cards on the market, fundamentally they will perform their operations in the same way. This will allow programmers to streamline their software more accurately to perform its tasks without the worry of compatibility issues.

DX10 also has greatly reduced command cycle counts. The idea of the GPU is to take the load off of the main CPU so that it can carry out other tasks. However, the main CPU is still needed to initiate the commands for the GPU. Although a relatively small amount of CPU time is needed, it still adds up. With DX10 the amount of cycles needed is drastically decreased as shown in the table below (Toms Hardware, 2007, What Direct 3D 10 is all about).

Cycle Counts

Reducing the dependence of the CPU allows it to carry out more essential tasks. It also allows the GPU to carry out its functions more reliably and interruption free, even if the CPU is at maximum load.

Instancing 2.0

Currently under DX9 architecture, each object that is displayed on the screen needs to be individually drawn, textured, lit and so on. Even if there is an identical object already drawn onto the screen, each one is counted as a separate entity. With DX10, identical objects do not need to be drawn again (Toms Hardware, 2007, What Direct 3D 10 is all about). To visualise the benefits of this, imagine an army of 500 identical soldiers in a PC game. With DX9 each one of these soldiers would need to be created individually, using a large amount of CPU and GPU power. Under DX10 this whole army could be created with a single draw command. This is one of the greatest advances of DX10 as it allows for much more to be happening on the screen at one time whilst requiring far less processing power than its DX9 equivalent.

Unified Architecture

To understand the unified architecture, shaders must be explained. A shader is essentially a “program” on the GPU which manages how certain elements are rendered (Wikipedia, n. d., Shader). DX10 uses Shader Model 4 meaning that it consists of unified shaders and geometry shaders. The Unified architecture allows the different shaders on a GPU to become dynamic. This is new to NVIDIA but allows for considerable performance increases in certain cases. AMD have already used this approach with their DX9 compliant GPUs. In basic the NVIDIA DX9 range of GPUs had a set amount of shaders. These were divided up into designated pixel and vertex shaders. This meant that the pixel shaders could not carry out the vertex shaders task and vice versa. This is best shown in the form of simple diagrams (Toms Hardware, 2007, What Direct 3D 10 is all about).

Shaders

As can been seen, it is possible for one set of shaders to be fully utilised whilst the other set is not being used to its full capacity. This results in wasted performance. If the shaders are dynamic then utilisation will always be 100%, this again is shown in the form of simple diagrams (Toms Hardware, 2007, What Direct 3D 10 is all about).

Unified Shaders

With dynamic shaders, the efficiency of the GPU will always be at 100%.

The Target Market for the 8600GT

Due to the price of the 8600GT, it could be argued that the target market is anyone who wishes to purchase a discrete graphics card. The term discrete means a separate GPU rather than one integrated on a motherboard, which is common place with budget PCs. However, there are many cheaper GPUs out there which are perfectly adequate for general home computing and even able to stream HD movies.

NVIDIA have aimed this card at performance enthusiasts and gamers who do not have the money to buy one of the top end 8800 DX10 models. Basically the majority of people who wish to own a DX10 card now can, the 8600 series has been labelled “DX10 for the masses” (Toms Hardware, 2007, Direct X 10 for the Masses). However if looked at in depth, this can be seen as an illusion. Firstly there are no DX10 games out at this time, nor is there due to be until June 2007 (Wikipedia, 2007, List of Games with Direct X 10 Support). Even then there will only be a select few games that are designed for DX10. This means that on the majority of games released in 2007, the difference in obtainable visual quality between running a game on equal powered DX9 and DX10 cards will be zero. There might be slight performance increases to be had from the DX10 cards but these will be minimal, next to nothing when compared with the performance gained on DX10 compliant games. By the time DX10 has become standard, both AMD and NVIDIA will have released a number of new models with increased power, and also lowered the prices of their first generation high end models significantly.

Manufacturers of complete PC systems may purchase the 8600GT to include in their PCs. This would enable them to advertise their PC as 100% DX10 compatible, which would be a valuable selling point. However, NVIDIA have released a cheaper 8500GT which would fit this spot perfectly. Also NVIDIA plan to release even lower end DX10 GPUs that will be supplied to OEMs only, allowing them to brand their PCs DX10 compatible for extremely low prices.

Most people will be lured by the prospect of having a fully up to date DX10 capable machine and will most likely not even consider the fact that all of the software they are using is only DX9.

How People Chose Which Video Card to Buy

Since the desktop discrete video card market is dominated by just two brands, AMD and NVIDIA, reputation counts for a lot. NVIDIA has proven slightly more popular than AMD over the last year or so, but AMD is not far behind. In the year of 2006, ATI were actually slowly gaining on NVIDIA’s lead. NVIDIA's share of the market fell to 53.8% and AMD rose to 46.2% mostly thanks to the Radeon X1650XT and X1950Pro (BeHardware, 2007, 2006 GPU Sales). Obviously if people want a DX10 card right away they have no choice but to buy an NVIDIA card, namely the 8600 range if they want an affordable one. Due to this it is likely to see NVIDIA slightly pulling away from ATI in the first quarter of 2007, especially with the early release of main stream graphics cards.

Windows Vista

As stated earlier in this paper, DX10 is Windows Vista compatible only. Although DX10 GPUs can be used in Windows XP, they will only be able to render at the DX9 level. This could prove to be a problem with the 8600GT. The reason for this is that similar to all other initial Windows releases, Vista has been called buggy and sluggish compared to its predecessor, Windows XP. This really affects the market for the 8600 GT as the general public are currently reluctant to upgrade to Windows Vista. This problem is further compounded by the disastrous first release of NVIDIA’s Windows Vista graphics card drivers. The NVIDIA drivers for the GeForce 8 series still do not take full advantage of the hardware under Windows Vista. Furthermore, SLI is currently completely incompatible with DX10 (Wikipedia, 2007, GeForce 8 Series). SLI is a technology where two identical video cards can run parallel to each other, providing vastly increased performance. No doubt NVIDIA and Microsoft will iron out their issues in the future, but by that point NVIDIA’s reputation for running under Vista may already be badly tarnished. Also it is highly likely that the first generation of AMD DX10 cards will be out at that point, meaning that NVIDIA will face direct competition.

The Performance Benchmarks for the 8600GT

Due to the recent release date of the 8600GT, there have been few benchmarks to compare its performance to other GPUs out there. The benchmarks that have been released show interesting results. It should be noted that there are no current DX10 applications released, therefore these benchmarks are all running DX9 applications under Windows XP. Although the DX9 benchmarks cannot show exactly how the 8600GT will perform with future DX10 applications, they can give an insight.

In some applications, the 8600GT fails to deliver anywhere near the expected performance. The benchmarks below (Guru 3D, 2007, GeForce 8600 GT and GTS review and Shootout) show how the 8600GT performs using a modified version of the very popular doom 3 engine. The 8600GT fails to beat its equivilant GPU from the previous generation, the 7600GT.


Poor Benchmarks

Another worrying benchmark is shown below (AnandTech, 2007, 8600 GT/GTS Follow-up Performance). This time frame rates were recorded whilst playing the very power hungry Supreme commander game. Both the 7900GS and x1950pro are priced the same as the 8600GT, and both of these cards perform noticeably better.

Poor Benchmarks

The final benchmarks shown below (Toms Hardware, 2007, DirectX 10 For The Masses) are taken from a program called 3DMark 05. This is a universally used benchmarking program that tests every aspect of a video cards performance (again only DX9 features). These once again show the 8600GT failing to keep up with the competition in the same price bracket.

3D Mark

The lack of brute force power is worrying for the 8600GT range. The upcoming DX10 game titles are classed as next generation software. To put this in perspective, both the PS3 and the Xbox360 are running DX9 hardware. The new DX10 games are going to look very impressive, but are also going to require substantial processing power to render them at acceptable frame rates. Looking at the benchmarks above, It is unlikely that the 8600GT will be able to produce this power.

How the 6600GT and 7600GT may help boost the 8600GT sales

The X600GT models have been a mid range GPU for NVIDIA since the 6th generation of the GeForce. Both the 6600GT and 7600GT were both highly successful in providing a very capable GPU for a reasonable price. Of course these GPUs are out dated now, but the reputation they have built may well help the 8600GT. Before the release of the 8600GT people just assumed the GPU would be of the same relative calibre of its predecessors. This false assumption may live on, with many people failing to look in depth at performance bench marks and buying the card purely from its reputation.

The Future of the 8600GT

Whilst the 8600GT may be selling at reasonable rates now, it would not be surprising if sales begin to drop in the near future. Although there is no official release date, AMD are likely to launch their range of DX10 GPUs over the coming weeks. This will mean NVIDIA will have direct competition. This will cause the overall DX10 prices to drop and the weaker top end DX10 models will soon become main stream price. NVIDIA are also due to release their new high-end card, the 8800Ultra in the very near future (The Registry, 2007, NVIDIA readies 8800 Ultra) which will cause further price drops. Since the jump in performance between the 8600GT and the 8800 GPUs is huge, people will be willing to pay a bit more to gain the extra power. General NVIDIA sales will also slightly drop as people will no longer be forced to buy NVIDIA for DX10 hardware.

The final event which will cause even fewer sales of the 8600GT is when DX10 Benchmarks become available. The 8600GT will be able to be tested on DX10 software to see if it can cope, and the current benchmarks show that it will not be able to. Although it will be capable of rendering the graphics, the frame rates will be poor and undesirable when the graphics quality is turned up. It simply does not have enough power, memory, or stream processors to cope. The final table below (NVIDIA, 2007, GeForce 8 Series) shows how the 8600GT compares to the high end DX10 models.

Geforce 8

The comparison between the 8800GTX and the 8600GT in terms of stream processors, memory bandwidth and fill rate is truly amazing. It is unlikely that the 8800GTX will be able to render the higher quality visuals in products due late 2007 at maximum quality without stuttering at times. This means that the 8600GT will become a low end DX10 card by the end of the year.


Reference List

Wikipedia. (n. d.). GeForce 256, Retrieved April 25th, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GeForce_256

Overclockers. (2007). BFG GeForce 8800GTX Extreme Watercooled, Retrieved April 25th, 2007, from
http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=GX-040-BG&groupid=701&catid=56&subcat=877

Wikipedia. (2007). Radeon R600, Retrieved April 25th, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radeon_R600

NVIDIA. (2007). GeForce 8 Series, Retrieved April 25th, 2007, from http://www.nvidia.com/page/geforce8.html

Wikipedia. (2007). DirectX. Retrieved April 25th, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_x

Toms Hardware. (2006). What Direct3D 10 Is All About. Retrieved April 26th, 2007, from, http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/2006/11/08/what_direct3d_10_is_all_about_uk/index.html

Wikipedia. (n. d.). Shader. Retrieved April 25th, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shader

Toms Hardware. (2007). GeForce 8600: DirectX 10 For The Masses. Retrieved April 26th, 2007, from, http://tomshardware.co.uk/2007/04/17/geforce_8600_uk/

Wikipedia. (2007). List of games with DirectX 10 support. Retrieved April 25th, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_games_with_DirectX_10_support

BeHardware. (2007). 2006 GPU Sales, Retrieved April 26th 2007, from, http://www.behardware.com/news/8591/2006-gpu-sales.html

Wikipedia. (2007). GeForce 8 Series. Retrieved April 25th, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GeForce_8

Guru 3D. (2007). GeForce 8600 GT and GTS review and Shootout, Retrieved April 26th, 2007, from, http://www.guru3d.com/article/Videocards/426/1/

AnandTech. (2007). 8600 GT/GTS Follow-up Performance, Retrieved April 26th, 2007, from, http://www.anandtech.com/video/showdoc.aspx?i=2975&p=1

The Registry. (2007). NVIDIA readies 8800 Ultra, Retrieved April 27th, 2007, from, http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2007/03/19/nvidia_readies_8800_ultra/