Instead of unleashing a true next-gen product, NVIDIA held back the new pitch and threw a slider. The GeForce2 GTS is born again with the memory bandwidth bottleneck all but removed, and Creative Labs jumped on the SKU like ugly on a gorilla. The Creative Labs Annihilator2 Ultra will hit store shelves in October.
I had a few questions about the Ultra and the state of 3D Creative Labs, so I called on old friend (that means ten minutes ago on the web) Steve Mosher to get to get some dirt. I have to confess that this is one of the most enlightening Q&A sessions I have been involved in. The interview may help you to see things from the other side of the fence a bit more clearly.
nV News: After the GTS release by NVIDIA, ELSA announced that cards would on the shelves later that week, which they were in limited quantities manufactured by VisionTek. How important is it for Creative to be first to market with the Ultra? What issues does that present for the operations side of the house?
Steve: I think you picked an excellent example to illustrate the point. In the case of the GTS some others were able to ship very small quantities to retail and make the claim of being first to market, but if you check the sales data, you will see that they never followed up those early shipments with anything substantial. If you focus on providing a real benefit to end users, then your focus should be supplying enough product for everyone. Nothing is more annoying ( and costly ) than making several trips to the store to find out that the guy who was "first to market" didnt supply enough to last. It also is destructive to the retail outlet as they reserve shelf space for products, empty shelves are like empty apartments! Also, when you rush the product to market just for the marketing effect, you risk quality and you typically spend more to rush it to market. Since Creative cares about its retailers and cares about its end users, we like to launch the product as fast as possible subject to these constraints.
A. Our QA has to approve the product, even though the chip supplier may do
software testing and compatibility testing, we do our own independent test of both of these. We test the boards with a wide variety of systems, beyond what the chip supplier does. This helps our tech support team undersatnd the product and potential problem areas. Other guys can just take the boards and software and ship it without independent testing, but since we stand behind the product and have to support it, we have to do our own independent testing. If this means we have to wait a couple of weeks to ship the product we think that it is worth the wait.
B. We like to build enough product to supply the retail channel before launching. The benefit of beating everybody to market with a small quantity is really only a marketing benifit. The end users are not served and neither are the retail partners.
So it is relatively important to be the first to market, but subject to the
constraints I listed above. Our first focus is our customers. They are not served by rushing a product to market without proper independent testing and they are not served by shipping too little product to market, just to generate marketing claims. Our focus for Ultra will be to supply the highest quality of product to the most people in the shortest time possible. This includes more than the retail channel, I should add, as we are also focused on delivering the product to System builders and OEMs.
|So, You Got some Fast memory. What Else?
nV News: What besides the significantly faster memory does the Ultra offer over standard GeForce2 cards? Were there any board revisions to accommodate the faster memory (traces lengthened or shortened, etc.)?
Steve: The Ultra also has a significantly faster core clock, 250 Mhz which helps in the multitexture cases and helps with T&L. There are significant revisions done to the board to insure signal integrity at these speeds. Basically if you want to insure stability at these speeds you have to redesign the board. There is a huge difference between a board that is overclocked to 250 Mhz versus one that is designed to 250Mhz. If you just try to overclock the board without changing key components and key traces, then you run a big stability risk and you risk having a product that will die in a few days, or be overly sensitive to heat.
Basically, by redesigning the board to handle 250Mhz memory, you also provide the potential for headroom beyond this. The bottom line is there will be NVIDIA approved design for the Ultra board. Designed by the guys who understand the chip and memory and system issues better than anybody else. This design will have the highest performance, most stability, and most margin for overclocking. If you are going to spend $499 on a graphics card, then the thing you have to insure is that you have the board that was designed to go this fast (or faster).
nV News: There seemed to be a tone from NVIDIA that they would not release another "Ultra" styled product at the onset of the GPU. Care to comment on the impact the third product release under the GeForce family has on the OEM's, more specifically Creative?
Steve: The chance to build the Ultra is a great opportunity that NVIDIA pounced on when the memory became available. The beauty of the GTS design is that it is "bandwidth limited."
Early on, a lot of pundits pounced on this like it was a weakness, but in actuality you want a 3D chip to be bandwith limited, you do not want front end limits or pipeline limits. When your performance is limited by memory speed (and not the processor, or bus, or pipleline), you get to create new products when faster memory ships. That's efficient.
Lets take another example, ATI's new chip. If you overclock that chip and memory the performance plateaus! Why? Because the performance is limited at an earlier stage of the pipeline. If you put 250Mhz memory on that chip, it wont go any faster. So in reality, being bandwidth limited is the right approach, assuming of course you can meet the timing of faster memory.
How does the introduction of Ultra impact us? Well, I think it vindicates our choice to not do a 64MB product earlier. I have always been of the opinion that bigger should be faster. The current 64MB SKu of GTS2 is not substantially faster than the 32MB SKU, so guys are paying $100 more for 64MB than 32, and the 64 is not substantially faster In my mind the current 64MB SKU is not a good buy. The Ultra SKU on the other hand is bigger and Faster, substantially faster! So, I think we waited to build the right 64MB SKU.
|What Makes You So Special?
nV News: What will Creative be able to offer gamers the other manufacturers can not? I.e. driver support, game bundles, etc.? Will you continue the Fast Trax releases with the Det3's?
Steve: We offer the end users the following values:
- You can actually buy our product, it is availble through a wide variety of channels, on line in store. Right around the corner. This is a huge advantage when you actually think about it. If your going to spend a lot on a graphics card we want the purchasing experience to be as pleasant as possible.
- Blaster Control. We take a little extra time to test the product and we also take some extra time to incorporate Blaster Control. BC has garnered some very good reviews and its an interface that we support on all our graphics products.
- On line support. Everybody loves Bill Ball. [Newsgroup graphics guru] The guy is absolutely tireless and absolutely dedicated to "his" end users. Day in and Day out Bill is there on the net doing his utmost to support the end users. I know they appreciate it.
- Fast Trak. We will continue fast trak with Det3's. With the first
release of Det3 the fast trak drivers may lag a little more than usual because we have to rebuild a good portion of software, but once the fast trak software is hooked into the new release the updates (minor revs) should come very fast.
- Tech Support second to none, world wide!
nV News: Does Creative already have available 4ns DDR memory available in quantities to meet projected demand albeit for a somewhat limited scope
product? Is NVIDIA helping to supply that memory?
Steve: Memory will not be a gating item for this product to ship.
nV News: NV20, What can you share about the chip? How accurate would you say Dr. Abrash's description was of the next-gen from NVIDIA (derived from X-Box specs)?
Steve: I am under NDA on Nv20, so I cannot really comment on Mike's article to either confirm or deny anything.
nV News: Voodoo5 6000. Mistake or pivotal performance flagship for 3dfx? How do you believe it will stack up to the Ultra as Creative will probably have the most shelf presence next to the 6000 (if it hits the market) at the major outlets.
Steve: To some extent I believe that the fans are pretty set in their ways. If I look at the sales figures, I see that. At the high end, 3dfx based product and NVIDIA based product tend to divide the market pretty evenly between each other. I think the Ultra will stack up pretty well against the 6000 on the performance side of things, plus Ultra will fit in a standard case and it doesnt require any external power.
nV News: Do you thrive on new release stress or does it turn your stomach?
Steve: I thrive on it.
HalcYoN: Yeah, right...
nV News: Aside from just plain faster memory, what is YOUR preferred method to alleviate bottlenecks? EDRAM, Hidden Surface Removal, Z-Buffer compression? Which do you think is most viable or would return the greatest amount of performance?
Steve: This is a particularly vexing question. On one hand we have the forces of brute force who contend that more transistors and faster memory will always win. On the other hand we have the forces who contend a more intelligent rendering process will win.
Intellectually, I would like the latter to be true, practically brute force has always won. As it relates to my job I really don't care, because my job is to compare solutions and pick the best. I think everybody in this field wishes bandwidth was not an issue, but in the end you have to build something that works and that you can ship. At that point philosophy takes a back seat to practicality and you have to be brutally pragmatic.
HalcYoN: Original answer - cold beer and bottle opener.
nV News: Now that 1600x1200x32 at 60 frames per second is a reality for most games, do you feel that FSAA will begin to take on more importance with the limits of current mainstream monitors?
Steve: That's a really smart question. Lets see what your readers think since this is really a personal issue. How many guys own monitors that can go 16x12, what kind of setting do people use today? Generally, I would expect people to pick settings that gave them the most eye candy at 60FPS.
nV News: Any other comments on Creative's Ultra offering you have for the readers?
Steve: Ultra is definitely the 64MB card worth waiting for.
nV News: I would like to thank Steve for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. If you have any comments, feel free to send them my way or post them in the forum.
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