One of the first Free-D chips and add-in boards
ATI, founded in 1985 as Array Technology Inc., in Thornhill, Canada just outside of Toronto, was a pioneer in the graphics chip and add-in board market. It was acquired by AMD in 2006 and formed what is now the Radeon Technology Group.
In the fall of 1995, ATI announced its first combination of 2D, 3D, and MPEG-1 accelerator chip under the name 3D Rage. The 3D Xpression add-in board (AIB) was based on the 3D Rage graphics chip and featured elemental 3D acceleration, one year behind the pioneer Matrox Millennium PC 3D chip, and at the same time as the S3 Virge.
In those days most of the companies were using coded numbers to designate a chip because it was just a component and branding wasn’t considered important (Matrox being an exception).
All of ATI’s chips were distributed on ATI boards and ATI was the 2nd largest graphics company in Canada behind Matrox.
Before the 3D Rage, ATI had a chip called the Mach64. It was a 2D GUI, or Windows accelerator and became popular on the Graphics Pro Turbo board. The chip numbers evolved from there: 264CT – 2nd generation Mach64 2D accelerator, 264VT – was the first ATI chip with video acceleration (V), and the 264GT – the first ATI chip with 3D acceleration (G), which was built with the team from Kubota graphics in Boston that ATI acquired.
As the COMDEX 1995 launch approached ATI learned that S3 was planning to release their ViRGE 3D accelerator at the same time. Phil Eisler, the manager of the new chip wasn’t thrilled about launching a product called the ATI 264GT at the same time. So, he started searching for a name with some energy behind it to compete with ViRGE.
Back then ATI did have a small run of a 2D board product called the ATI Arcade Rage. Eisler appropriated the “Rage” part and changed the name of the 264GT and announced it at COMDEX 95 as the ATI 3D Rage—as did S3.
The 3D Rage was a very versatile and scalable controller, and ATI made 7 or 8 versions of it. It was one of the first graphics controllers to integrate the RAMDAC and clock synthesizer. The CT version had an integrated RAMDAC, and all versions had a VGA core.
The controller had support for all the popular busses of the time: ISA, VLB, PCI, and limited VESA VBE support. It had one-pixel shader, no vertex shaders, one texture mapping unit (TMU), and one raster-operations pipeline (ROP). The controller’s clock ran at 44 MHz.
The memory clock could run at 57 MHz and be over-clocked up to 30% until the memory became unreliable. It had a 32/64-bit memory bus and could provide up to 456 MB/s bandwidth. It could support up to 8MB of memory (16 for 3D Rage Pro).
The RAMDAC could generate up to 16.7 million colors (at 1280 ×1024) and 65,000 colors (at 1600 × 1200 resolution).
The chip was made at SGS in a 500nm process, had 5 million transistors, and was supplied in a 90 mm package.
The 3D Rage represented a departure from the mach32/64 in that it was no longer register compatible with previous ATI graphics accelerators or the 8514/A. (VGA register compatibility was retained, however.) This departure was necessary to resolve some design limitations that were a legacy of the older generation chips. Fortunately, almost all the functionality that was in the mach32/64 was preserved in the 3D Rage design, and some useful additions and enhancements were incorporated.
The many variations of the 3D Rage family, the GX (first four columns), and the CT family are shown in the following table.
Table 1: The family of versions of the ATI 3D Rage graphics controller
From a very rough architectural perspective, the 3D Rage family more resembles the mach32 than it does the mach64CT family. However, from a functionality and register level perspective, the 3D Rage GX is almost identical to the 3D Rage CT.
ATI made several versions of the AIB with TV video out and some AIBs had TV tuners on them.
Free-D. The price difference between 2D AIBs and 3D AIBs was so slight that the terms Free-D became popular when describing them.
In late 1996 the company began shipping its second generation 3 3D Xpression PC 2 TV. The 3D Xpression PC 2 TV board featured the company’s new 3D Rage II chip as well as a new home-grown NTSC/PAL encoder chip called ImpacTV. Like its predecessor, the product was targeted at consumer multimedia applications. With the new TV output support the board was suited for deployment in the family room where it could drive a big screen TV for games, record digital video or animation to video tape, or in business settings where it could drive large screen monitors for presentation display.
The company said at the time that the new device provided about 20% better 2D performance, and twice the 3D performance of the original chip. That was accomplished by increasing the memory clock from 63 to 73 MHz, boosting the size of the on-chip texture cache, and making pipeline improvements to increase concurrency. New features of the 3D Rage II were a 16-bit Z-buffer, and support for 4- and 8-bit palletized textures.
ATI supplied the chip with an integrated 170 MHz RAMDAC standard; however, the company was also able to screen for qualification at 200 MHz which they offered to OEM chip customers as an option. The 3D Rage II was fabricated by SGS in a 0.5m, 5V CMOS process, and packaged in a 208‑pin PQFP. The following diagram shows the internal organization of the chip.
Figure 1 : ATI 3D Rage II internal block diagram
The new ATI board also incorporated ATI’s ImpacTV TV encoder with a direct interface to ATI’s 3D Rage II chip. The 28-pin PLCC device communicated with the Rage II through the ATI Multimedia Channel (AMC) interface. The chip included a flicker filter and special circuitry to eliminate dot crawl. Both composite and S-Video output was provided, as well as SCART output for European component video systems.
The chip supported all NTSC and PAL formats and features programmable timing to enable correct NTSC or PAL signals to be generated from a variety of computer display modes, including legacy VGA modes and newer low-resolution DirectX game modes.
Figure 2: ATI’s ImpacTV chip function block diagram
The 3D Xpression PC 2 TV had an estimated street price of $219 (~$377 today) in a 2 Mbyte configuration. The ImpacTV chip was available for about $10 in OEM quantities. The 3D Rage II remained at about $30 (($51 today) in OEM volumes. ATI used a variety of silicon suppliers back then. SGS, NEC, UMC and eventually TSMC.
ATI had great success with the 3D Rage and IBM chose the 3D Rage for implementation on the motherboard of IBM’s Aptiva multimedia home PCs. It was the first announced 3D chip motherboard design win for the home entertainment market. Other companies like Sony and NEC followed suit. At the time the company was shipping an average of a million Rage chips a quarter.
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The saga of ATI
ATI developed plenty of innovative and exciting technology on its own and rose to become the top supplier for a while. However, the market for graphics solutions expanded rapidly into the low-end, the high-end gaming sector as well as the console gaming segment, the professional graphics workstation segment, and the commercial markets. Several companies offered solutions for each one of those segments, but by themselves the segments were not enough to sustain the R&D and manufacturing costs. ATI recognized that the situation called for an economy of scale approach, a strategy similar to what Nvidia has done so successfully.
As a result, ATI acquired several companies over the years and helped write the history of graphics semiconductors.
The first big acquisition of sorts, which surprised a lot of people was in 1994 when ATI picked up the design team from high-end, and high-flying Kubota graphics, a leading edge workstation supplier that had a long history of its own acquisitions. And yes, it was the same Kubota that makes the heavy construction equipment. They ventured into computer graphics as part of a diversification program.
Then, in 1997, ATI picked up the assets of a once leading PC graphics chip and board supplier, Tseng Labs. Tseng, like many other graphics chip suppliers of the time, could not make the transition to 3D. Saying that doesn’t reveal the true nature of the situation. It wasn’t so much that Tseng, or other companies didn’t have engineers who knew what, and how to do it. They did indeed and were quickly hired by the acquiring companies. It was usually the investment cost in dollars and time that prevented the transition. ATI, Matrox, and S3 successfully made the transition, the rest of the 3D chip companies were startups like 3Dfx and Nvidia.
Chromatic Research based in Mountain View, CA was founded in 1993 and announced its first product—the Mpact media engine. Designed as a software-upgradeable multimedia processor, the device combined video, 2-D graphics acceleration, 3-D graphics acceleration, audio, FAX/modem, telephony, and videophone.
In October 1998 ATI acquired Chromatics Research. ATI had long wanted a Silicon Valley design center, and Chromatic had been looking for a big brother. Chromatics was one of the first highly integrated single-chip SoC suppliers.
In 1999 ATI again surprised the industry by acquiring part of Lockheed Martin’s Real3D team, Intel acquired the other part. Real 3D made very high-end graphics for simulators and tried to parlay that into the consumer market, but again management’s patience and checkbook was insufficient.
The big haul for ATI was when it acquired ArtX in February 2000, the ex-SGI developers of the Nintendo 64 and subsequent suppliers of Nintendo graphics chips. This now propelled ATI into the console business. They almost had all segments covered by now.
And if all that wasn’t enough in March 2001, ATI acquired Fire GL (FGL) formerly a division of S3, which became Sonicblue not to be confused with S3 Graphics, a division of VIA. FGL had been competing in the workstation market against 3Dlabs, Intense 3D (which was later acquired by 3Dlabs), HP and E&S. How did S3 get into the high-end workstation business? By acquiring a string of graphics companies.
By 1996 multi-monitors were become practical and affordable, and considered essential by CAD engineers and Wall Street traders. But they were complicated to set up. A former graphics board company, Appian Graphics, had distinguished itself by developing a robust and easy to use software driver that would make multi-monitors less complicated. That was a feature ATI thought it should have so in August 2001, ATI acquired Appian’s HydraVision desktop management software. ATI, and subsequently AMD went on to be the leader in multi-display.
Next ATI went after the integrated graphics market. The company already had a pretty good integrated graphics controller (IGP) but novel and interesting things were being done in Taiwan, and rather than take the time it would need to duplicate that work, in a market that was rapidly moving, ATI chose to acquire it.
TV was yet another platform and ATI had been developing TV capability for some time. To speed up the company’s capabilities and presence in what was seen at the time as a new multimedia system, in February 2002, ATI acquired NxtWave which was producing TV demodulators.
The headline in March 2006 read, “ATI acquires Macrosynergy. Macrosynergy was a division of the chipset firm XGI Technology, and ATI wanted it to expand its presence in China. As part of the deal, ATI picked up 100 employees of Shanghai-based Macrosynergy, as well as an undisclosed number of design engineers based in XGI’s Silicon Valley office. However, ATI did not buy XGI outright, as had been rumored. In 2003 XGI was formed from the graphics division of SIS, the inventor of the IGC. ATI saw Macrosynergy’s presence in China as a gateway into the burgeoning Chinese market. Trident was another one of the successful 2D graphics chip companies that couldn’t make the transition to 3D. XGI acquired Trident and UMC (a semiconductor fab in Taiwan) re-acquired SIS a company it originally helped start.
Around 2002 mobile phones were starting to take off and several startups emerged with graphics co-processors for them, PDA, and other battery-powered personal devices.
Bitboys Oy was a hardware development graphics company based in Finland, founded in 1991. The company began with a revolutionary high-end graphics chip that became the TriTech’s Pyramid3D. It was difficult to fabricate and Pyramid3D quickly disappeared. However, the Bitboys were clever enough to adopt some of their concepts into a portable device and sold the concept to NEC who was a big player in the emerging phone market of the time.
Portable devices were one more platform ATI felt it had to conquer and in May 2006 ATI acquired Bitboys.
And then, in August 2006, AMD acquired ATI, and we end the story there. AMD picked up a company that had a graphics solution for every platform imaginable, from handhelds, to TVs, workstations to consoles and all in between.
Jon Peddie, is a recognized pioneer in the graphics industry, president of Jon Peddie Research and named one of the most influential analysts in the world. He lectures at numerous conferences and universities on topics pertaining to graphics technology and the emerging trends in digital media technology. Former president of Siggraph Pioneers, he serves on advisory boards of several conferences, organizations, and companies, and contributes articles to numerous publications. In 2015, he was given the Life Time Achievement award from the CAAD society. Peddie has published hundreds of papers, to date; and authored and contributed to 11 books, His most recent, Ray Tracing: A tool for all.