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Kickin’ cards

By SoupIsGood Food, (soup@macedition.com), July 25, 2002

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In my last little musing, we went over some the reasons why the Mac makes it as a workstation, but today, we’re gonna cover the one big reason it’s not.

You may be all proud of that Nvidia GeForce Ti card, with its whopping 64 megs and AGP 4x interface ... until you compare it to this bad boy.

That’s three hundred and sixty megabytes of onboard RAM, 72MB just for the frame buffer, the rest for texture mapping. It connects to the CPU with Sun’s UPA high-speed crossbar interconnect, it’s run by a next-generation, no-compromises MAJC processor and can drive two 20" monitors with a 30-bit color depth. In short, this thing kicks much ass, and there’s nothing available on the Mac that can come close, even if you had $3500 for a video card.

Visualization technology is about more than making splashy graphic art for print, Web or broadcast, and encompasses far more than high frame rates for splashy game graphics when playing Unquakethonavanyia III, though heavy muscle could certainly benefit both the graphic artist and the gamer. High-end visualization hardware is used to model complex objects in CAD/CAM, like architectural walk-throughs for huge buildings based on the structural plans, or the design of a complex, mechanical device with all of its hundreds, even thousands of components. It’s used to model the human heart based on CAT scan data in real time for telemedicine, and to perform exhaustive simulations based on scientific data, often in three dimensions with stereoscopic displays. For these kinds of industrial-grade computer graphics applications, a consumer-grade GPU just ain’t gonna cut it. That’s why Sun sells the staggeringly expensive XV-1000 and the merely shockingly expensive XV-500 cards.

Sun doesn’t hold the monoploly on industrial strength GPUs, either. SGI’s bone-stock Fuel workstations almost have as much oomph built right in as Sun’s optional XV-1000. Even Nvidia and ATI offer a line of workstation-quality AGP graphics cards that dwarf the meager performance of the consumer-only GeForce or Radeon. As things stand right now, Apple just can’t play in the visualization big leagues.

If Apple wants to compete – and judging by its recent acquisitions in the high-end 3D software market, it does – then here’s what it needs to do:

Move beyond PCI and AGP. Sun and SGI both have data crossbars for far speedier access than PCI affords. HyperTransport will be a great move in this direction. Apple doesn’t need to design its own pixel-pushing silicon, either; it can spec it out to a third party. Sun’s XV-500 card uses 3Dlabs’ GPU in a proprietary UPA design for lots of performance in a (relatively) cheap package. Perhaps Steve can pound on Nvidia to let Apple use its Quadro GPUs on custom cards and in TiBooks.

Apple’s software advantages in heavy-duty visualization applications are legion ... now it needs heavy-duty hardware to lure customers away from Sun and Windows-based workstations.

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