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Interview: John David of S3 Graphcis
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: August 17th 2004

One of the rare instances in the gaming world is to see an old friend rejuvenated; very few companies, having gotten out of a niche, will try to come back in.

With that in mind, it's a pleasure to see S3 Graphics, under the management of VIA, coming back out of hibernation and into the consumer graphics market with their DeltaChrome line of boards. Back in July, TechReport did an analysis of their value-level S4 Pro line, which sparked me to send a few questions their way. John David, their ISV Evangelist/Developer Relations man, was kind enough to send back responses. As usual, our questions are in blue, responses in tan.

Close-up of the heatsink from an S3 reference board


A few years ago, it seemed on the hardware side that the Savage2000 chipset would be a way for S3 to stay well positioned in
the market. Unfortunately, the card was hamstrung by lower clock speeds than had first been promised, and by a lack of
driver support for the features that were there. What are the strongest regrets from that period and that chipset?

S3Graphics: Now that’s an interesting question – I always believe life is way too short to think about regrets – but I will try to answer in the spirit of the question. The Savage2000 was actually a pretty good part which had basically two draw backs – the poor clock rates and incorrectly specified T&L engine. When we had done performance tests of this part against the leading parts at the time of launch it out performed everything clock for clock. Its media playback and texture blending was also industry leading. How ever due to a changing company focus – away from desktop discrete graphics the immediate follow-on chip project was completed – the public did not get to enjoy the full benefit of this architecture.  I personally would have liked S3 to have continued to remain an active player in the desktop discrete graphics processor market place.

What's your plan for drivers? NVidia has a reputation for frequent driver updates; ATi has promised, and held
to, a once-a-month driver update schedule. Is there something similar and concrete that you can offer to possible S3 users
who are leery of getting stuck with a board that's got less than adequate drivers?

S3Graphics: From one point of view frequent driver updates may seem good – from another angle one should question why are they needed? Driver updates are for primarily to fix bugs and occasionally for performance/functionality improvements! So it would seem that our competitors need to fix bugs?

S3 Graphics has taken a different approach than we have used in past product cycles. We understand how important the need to constantly improve and fix issues that are found especially in light of the hundreds of PC game titles currently available and those anticipated - not to mention those bugs reported by our OEM customers. As such, S3 has over 300 software programmers and engineers located in 3 locations [US, Taiwan and Shanghai] whose primary responsibility it is to fix bugs and improve performance. While we currently do not have a once-a-month driver update schedule, you’ll note that in last 6 months S3 has delivered no less than 5 driver updates - 2 WHQL and 3 engineering drivers for our DeltaChrome family of GPUs.

The only boards currently doing HDTV on the market besides yours are ATi's All-in-Wonder line, which included it because of
the possibility of the card being used for homemade PVR's. What drove the decision to put that capability in your boards,
the value line included?


S3Graphics: We at S3G feel that all our customers deserve to have the option to connect their cards to their HDTV is the best way possible - so you will see HDTV featured in all our product range. The quality of composite or even S-Video is such that standard desktop applications are difficult to use on TVs even at low resolutions such at 800x600, and 1024x768 . The native component output of our Deltachrome approaches the visual quality previously possible with VGA input only. The sharp – computer monitor like quality that our HDTV support enables , opens up a world of possibilities that includes playing games on your family room big screen to surfing the net together with your family. There are lots of really cool opportunities that open up having HDTV - even for our value line.

Following up, how many users do you actually think will have an HDTV nearby enough to their computer to use this feature, or
are you counting on its placement in PVR systems? Perhaps shooting for placement in some of the new PC/Console crossover
products?


S3Graphics:  I think if you look at the statistics alone, you'll find that quite a few households already have HDTV-capable displays or sets. Taking a reference from an article written by Steve Kindig for the 2004 HDTV Summit entitled "Partnership, Policy and Profits," he cites the following statistic:

"...Statistics included surpassing the 9 million mark in DTV sets sold to date, of which over 87% were HDTV-capable ....The CEA's Director of Industry Analysis, Sean Wargo, presented DTV sales figures and forecasts, along with an overview of the CEA's latest consumer research...over 60 million DTV sets are projected to be in the hands of consumers by 2007."

For users who do hook up their HDTV sets to a new S3 board, what's the "ideal" resolution for them to run in. 1080i, or 720p?

Also, are there any special sizing controls for the HDTV output, to avoid some sets which wind up putting a bit of the picture outside the visible edges?

S3 Graphics:  We recommend choosing the resolution which is the native format of the display device - often this is 720p but can be 1080i - this reduces the amount to scaling the TV tries to do.

And yes we have some control - but it's not the same as analogue contraction controls we have for NTSC - since the HDTV standards require us to output a fixed number of pixels.

That's a pretty solid number of HDTV-capable sets just for 2004. And what about the projected 60 million DTV sets by 2007? I think you can see that HDTV is a fast and growing market. It's only natural (and logical) that we would like to see DeltaChrome become the bridge between running HDTV content on their PC to their HDTV-capable sets. Of course if you add to that the PVR market, you have a pretty large install base that DeltaChrome could find a comfortable niche in. =)

DeltaChrome product family is also well known for having one the best performance per watt rating of any graphics processor – most DeltaChrome cards feature small –quiet fan sinks – and some are even passively cooled. This makes DeltaChrome cards very living room friendly – enabling placement next to HDTV – perfect for those HDTV family gaming sessions J

You've opted to go with implementing the DirectX 9.0 spec, which means 16-bit and 24-bit precision options. NVidia's been
running with 32-bit and 16-bit in their cards instead. Is there a gain to staying strictly on-spec?


S3Graphics: There is basically only one major gain – transistor count. The user benefit of 32bit is very minimal – and every buyer of a product with this feature is paying for the gates used for this feature.

Likewise, does this help or hurt when you shoot for a DirectX 10 speced board rumored to be coming in late 2005?

S3Graphics: We will have a DirectX 10 product in 2005 which naturally support 32bit operations, and our choice of 24bit support in our DirectX9 did not have any negative impact in anyway.  The 24/16 ALU that we have today would be considered a very sophisticated design. The DeltaChrome family of GPU’s based on DX 9 spec are targeted for games that can be played today and those DX9 titles which are planned to be released in the next 6-9 months. These include titles such as Doom 3, Half-life 2, F.E.A.R. and too many more that can’t be listed here. However most of these titles have been or are currently architecture'd using DirectX 9, i.e. they will not take advantage of some of the new features that will be available in DirectX 10.

In terms of markets, you're splitting things up into four; Enthusiast, Performance, Mainstream, and Value. Your S8 chipset
is going after the Mainstreams, S4 after the Values, and the F1 series is going after the Performance users. Back in the day, of course, the Savage2000 had been aimed to take on the taller offerings from 3dfx and NVidia. Are you planning to go after the Enthusiast market at any point, or are you currently ceding that to ATi and NVidia?


S3Graphics: For the record, our original strategy (which has not changed) for returning to the discrete, desktop market was to target the mainstream and value.  The intent is not to take on our competitors’ in the high end or enthusiast but instead to re-establish S3 Graphics name in the market that would have the highest impact with those customers who would appreciate the unique features of our GPU. Features like HDTV, rotation, Chromotion and 10-10-10-2 color depth. This does not mutually exclude your hard core gamers but does encompass demographics such as digital image photo users, videophiles, web designers, etc.

Despite showing reference to anti-aliasing on your website, most value and mainstream boards aren't known for being able to
push that feature on newer games, and some even have trouble with it on older titles. Some of the early previews have
commented on the board's not having great edge antialiasing, either. Are you expecting this feature to be usable in the new
generation of games like Thief: Deadly Shadows and Doom 3, or is it something users will have to skip over?


S3Graphics: The relative impact of anti-aliasing on the performance or usability of an application greatly depends on the balance between CPU, Vertex Processing and Back End Fill Rate. If these new games are totally bottlenecked by fill rate then the use of AA may have large performance impact – but if the frame rate remains above 24 fps the game would remain quite playable.  So basically our users would need to try on their own systems and see.

You mentioned a "target" frame rate for a game to be playable at 24 frames/second. I'm assuming you picked that frame rate because that's what modern movie film runs at. A long while back, the performance targets were 15, then 30. Nowadays, the higher end players expect their benchmarks to exceed 60 frames/second. Which do you think really benefits gamers more? Is the target every frame they can get, or is it better to have a basic minimum to maintain the illusion of motion, with the graphics quality pumped as high as possible?

S3 Graphics: The question of minimum frame rate is an interesting one.

24fps will result in smooth motion, and for motion 60 fps is overkill - but what gamers want is two things: smooth visuals and low latency between action and visual on the screen. So the extreme gamer should prefer CRT based display with fast phosphor and display set to a refresh of 60Hz, and games which reach 60fps so that every frame is as "fresh" possible.

This requirement is really only relevant in first person shooter games in which the world is synchronized with all the players and their actions at least 60 fps - which may not always be the case. For the rest of us 24fps is pretty fine.

So when action and response time is critical - go for simple settings and get the higher frame rate - for other applications enjoy the view and go for the best visual quality.

One of the more interesting items in the chipset is the "Chromotion" engine for applying filters, which I understand will be
available even with DVD playback using an included version of the WinDVD player. That's great in general, but some users
prefer other players; any chances they'll see Chromotion or your iDCT processing available in any other DVD players?


S3Graphics: Yes. The Chromotion engine filter effects are not limited by the video player (i.e. WinDVD) but can be set in the utilities to run on any media file on most players (MediaPlayer 8/9, WinDVD, etc.)

Likewise, regarding the Video Scaling options, how far can that be taken? Is there a maximum size of a video stream after
which this feature just won't operate? I ask because it would be quite nice to be able to make this operate on, for example,
a 640x480 DivX-encoded video file to make it look even nicer fullscreened on a 1280x1024 monitor.


S3Graphics:  DeltaChrome is be able to scale video to the a maximum resolution of your desktop (up to 2048x1536 QXGA)

What are your current favorite games to run on these boards around the office?

S3Graphics: Well I can’t speak for everyone at the office but I can mention the games I’ve played on my DeltaChrome card in the last 6 months. Being an RTS and FPS player, I’ve played the following titles - Age of Mythology: Titans, Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots, Halo, Unreal Tournament 2004. I’ve also had a chance to run Final Fantasy Online and World of Warcraft. I’ve gotta say that the image quality of these last 2 titles are stunning. As one of the companies that design the hardware to make these game visuals more realistic, you can only imagine how much better PC games will get!

John also provided us some graphics of what a reference S3 board, and the chips, look like - your actual board may (and will probably) vary, as S3's a chip vendor again and not a board maker.

Two of S3's DeltaChrome S8 chips. This is all most users will ever see of them, unless you're adventurous enough to take your board apart.

A full-size reference board; note the connectors for DVI, VGA, and standard/HD video connectors.

Again, thanks to John David of the rejuvenated S3 Graphics for taking the time to answer our questions, and good luck in the future with that. As soon as S3's got a sample around to us, we'll be trying it out and putting up some analysis.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

S3Graphics Interview Aug '04


Added:  Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

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