Key to every high-spec computer and, ultimately, its graphics performance, is the graphics board. We've asked some of the pivotal players to tell us what's happening in the world of graphics board technology, with the view that keeping ahead of the hardware results in better 3D imagery.
Neil McGuinness, spokesperson for Diamond Multimedia in northern Europe, says: 'It's a great industry to be in at the moment. There's lots of exciting things happening - never a dull moment!' He continues: 'Our market is integral to the PC market, because every PC has to have a graphics card. Like everything else, the type of graphics card you have and its performance becomes increasingly significant at the high-end.'
McGuinness refers to a paradigm shift - which has taken place over the last three years - from 2D to 3D cards. 'There's also been a shift from PCI technology to AGP bus technology,'he adds.
Not so long ago the so-called combo cards (2D/3D combined) were proving very popular in the marketplace, but McGuinness reckons there's no longer a need for them. He says: 'They were a good halfway house - a plug-in card - and they did really well, but the market's moved away from that now. Diamond was among the first to push plug-in boards, but we've moved out of that market now. Some companies are still trying to flog dead horses, but now there's a new era of graphics cards that do everything.'
The latest things on the streets are the new video cards, which the likes of Diamond have developed. 'They really are so much better,' says McGuinness, 'plus, we're starting to see new chips come in.'
This latter aspect seems influenced by fashion. One minute one particular technology has precedence and the next minute another. This is particularly noticeable at the lower end of the market, where all sorts of developments are afoot. A while back, Microsoft released its DirectX 6.1, and prior to that Advanced Micro Devices' K6-2 processor was released with more built-in 3D routines (dubbed 3DNow) than any other processor before or since.
Of course, there's also the Pentium II (about to be replaced by the Pentium III), and the Xeon, the most expensive type of Pentium II chip, aimed very squarely at high-end graphics users and large multi-processor computers.
McGuinness says: 'There's been a change in the popularity of certain chips. We - like many companies in this market - are silicon-independent, which means we can choose the cream of the chip technology available to us. There's also been a fall in the popularity of the 3DFX chips - they seem to have lost the plot a bit - so we're looking elsewhere for our next generation of boards.
'There's a new breed of chip becoming available for use - like NVidia's Riva TNT2 and the S3 Savage 4. These are the new built-in chips that also save slots available on the motherboard, so they are more efficient than plug-in alternatives.'
NVidia Corporation particularly, has made inroads into this marketplace. It recently struck a number of deals with PC heavyweight, Compaq Computer Corp, to supply the latter with 3D processors. The Riva TNT 3D graphics processor will now feature in Compaq's Presario 5600 series of computers and also makes an appearance in Compaq's Prosignia desktop series.
McGuinness refers to a culmination of the two key trends in graphics board technology. He says: 'The two shifts are coming together. There are the processors combining with the top-quality AGP architecture - now approaching AGP 4.' According to McGuinness, the latter generates the fastest 2D and 3D graphics you'll ever see.
There's no doubt that pricing for more mainstream products is falling quite dramatically. McGuinness cites the example of Diamond's latest Stealth range of mid-market boards. He says: 'They are the cheapest we've ever released, and yet they have up to 400 per cent better performance than previous boards.'
This is largely due to the price of silicon continuing to fall, plus lots of players entering the market. 'We're having to be very competitive,' admits McGuinness. 'These days you not only have to be flexible, but also must make sure that products don't go to market before they really have achieved the best quality possible.'
Finally, there's customer care. McGuinness says: 'The quality of post- sales support is absolutely crucial. The helpline, the warranty... all these things can mean the difference between you and the next person. When products first come out, the technology will often be identical with competitors' products. What makes the difference is things like the five- year warranty, or the 24-hour helpline. Plus, three months down the line, we upgrade the performance of our drivers - all these things bring added value to the customer.'