Summary: After nearly a year of speculating, S3's DeltaChrome is nearly here! This DX9 graphics card is aimed squarely at the mainstream market and offers all the right features to compete with the latest parts from ATI and NVIDIA. In this article, we take a prototype DeltaChrome S8 board for a spin through a few of our regular benchmarks. See how it fares right here!
It has nearly been one full year since we first brought you details of S3’s DeltaChrome. First slated for arrival at the end of the 2nd quarter of this year, slowly but surely the release date has been pushed back further and further. Fortunately for S3, that wait is about to come to an end, but not just yet. S3 and its board partners are busy qualifying the final board design, as well as working on the graphics drivers, but S3 recently supplied us with an engineering sample of a prototype S8 board and an early video driver.
Before we get into the image quality analysis and benchmarks though, we’ll quickly recap DeltaChrome’s feature set and variants. For more detailed discussion on both topics, please refer back to our DeltaChrome preview from January 2003, and the DeltaChrome update from last September of this year.
For starters, DeltaChrome is not a RADEON 9800 XT killer. In fact, it would be very hard pressed to keep up with last year’s RADEON 9700 PRO. Since it’s limited to a 128-bit memory interface, it lacks the memory bandwidth to put up a proper fight. DeltaChrome’s micro-architecture is nothing to scoff at however. S3 actually goes beyond DirectX 9’s specs in some areas.
Now that you’re a little more familiar with DeltaChrome’s 3D guts, let’s go over its 2D and video engines. If you’re a multimedia buff, you’re really going to like what S3 is offering here.
Hi-Def HDTV encoder
This is because S3 has integrated an HDTV encoder into DeltaChrome, the first chip to support this feature. Of course, the encoder can also act as a standard video encoder for video editing duties.
Like ATI’s latest chips, DeltaChrome’s pixel shaders can access video streams, where they can apply post-processing effects such as emboss, sharpen, and neon edges. DeltaChrome can also use its pixel shaders to clean up video signals such as Internet webcasts, MPEG-2/4, Windows Media 8/9, and other media standards.
S3 has signed a deal with Intervideo, bringing support for pixel shader effects in its popular WinDVD playback software.
SIDEBAR: S3 recently updated their website with more DeltaChrome details.
S3 has been working on three DeltaChrome variants to service the high-end, mainstream, and value segments of the graphics market: the F1 family, S8 series, and finally, for the value segment, S4.
S3’s F1 family consists of two products, F1, and F1 Pole. Originally these cards were intended to take on the low-end of the high-end segment but recent market pressures have probably ensured that these cards will never likely see the light of day. When you’re competition is selling graphics cards with 256-bit memory interfaces and high-speed DDR memory at the $200 price point (read: RADEON 9800, GeForce FX 5900/GeForce FX 5900 XT) it’s pretty hard to compete with a card that boasts significantly less memory bandwidth.
Unlike F1, S3’s S8 family is very much a viable product thanks to its eight pixel pipes, a feature that is unique to S8 now that the RADEON 9500 PRO is gone. S3 will be producing two S8 cards, the S8 and the S8 Nitro, with the only difference between the two cards being clock speeds. S3 clocks the standard S8 at 300MHz on the core and its memory, while the S8 Nitro checks in at 315/315MHz.
S3 S4: Battling at the low-end
Unlike the cards we’ve mentioned above, S3’s S4 series cut the number of pixel pipelines from eight to four in order to reduce transistor count, and ultimately, manufacturing cost. Likewise, the number of vertex shaders is reduced from four to two.
One aspect where DeltaChrome is a little weaker in comparison to the competition is its anti-aliasing engine. Whereas most of today’s graphics accelerators have implemented multisampling AA, DeltaChrome relies on supersampling. While supersampling does a good job of removing the aliasing (the jagged, broken lines you typically see in sports titles and racing games) present in the final image, it does so at a huge hit to the graphics accelerator's fill rate.
Back in the RADEON 8500/GeForce3/4 days, this really hurt ATI as their RADEON 8500 relied on supersampling while the GeForce cards used multisampling. This gave the GeForce cards a huge performance advantage. In fact, most RADEON 8500 users left AA off. ATI ultimately resolved this problem with the introduction of RADEON 9700 (and all of their follow-up products since its release) by implementing multisampling AA.
Due to S3’s reliance on supersampling, AA is limited to just 2X mode and resolutions up to 1024x768. At least, that’s where S3 plans on going, S3’s current display driver hasn’t implemented AA support yet. Quite frankly, this is probably the highest setting that will result in playable frame rates anyway. We did go ahead and take a few screenshots however in 3DMark 03 and Unreal Tournament 2003 however (all screenshots were taken with basic settings, 0xAA/0xAF):
Overall stability with Direct3D applications was for the most part very good, considering that we’re still dealing with early hardware and drivers. But there were quite a few little snags here and there that need to get fixed however. For instance, we noticed that IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles doesn’t work properly with FRAPS running in the background, but runs fine once FRAPS is left off. Therefore we didn’t run any benchmarks with IL-2. Textures would occasionally flash in Unreal Tournament 2003, while we were unable to benchmark Tomb Raider with depth of field disabled (and some benchmarks wouldn’t complete with DoF in place). S3’s water in Tomb Raider isn’t quite up to snuff either. Halo and 3DMark are the only applications where we’d really give S3 a thumbs-up at this point.
Keep in mind that S3 is by no means finished optimizing the D3D portion of their driver, only they’re a little further along in D3D than they are with OGL.
SIDEBAR: I still haven’t had a chance to try DeltaChrome out with Max Payne 2. S3 has worked hard to get this game running well also.
The board is sprinkled with capacitors and voltage regulator modules, which reiterates the low power requirements of the DeltaChrome graphics core. Remember that this is board that shares a common ancestry with the mobile market.
Like NVIDIA, Silicon Image’s Sil 164CT64 DVI transmitter is used for the DVI connection while the output on the card’s backplate can be used to hook the card up to an HDTV, or your regular television.
S3 is playing a pretty active role in the board design, just like ATI and NVIDIA with their high-end boards. In particular we hope that they set some type of standard on the board’s output circuitry. The DeltaChrome chip includes dual 400MHz 10-bit DACs, so that should help somewhat, but we’d hate to see the sharp 2D visuals present on our reference board degenerate into an atrocious display output on a $70 S4 card.
Two board designs are available for DeltaChrome, a six-layer 8”x4” BGA PCB (the one pictured here) and a four-layer 8”x4” TSOP design.
SIDEBAR: I told myself I wouldn’t take as many pictures for this article, but I just kept snapping away (as you can see)!
3DMark 03 Ver. 340
3DMark 03: DirectX
3DMark 03: DirectX
Nascar 2003: OpenGL
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
For instance, S8 sports an eight pixel pipeline architecture, just like the RADEON 9500 PRO. The chip is clocked at an even 300MHz, which goes beyond RADEON 9500 PRO’s specs, and is paired with a 128-bit 300MHz memory interface (600MHz effective) that yields up to 9.6GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth, a figure that also surpasses the RADEON 9500 PRO. Likewise, S8 supports 96-bit pixel precision (128-bit vertex) and S3’s own occlusion culling techniques, although they’re not quite as robust.
S3’s 2D/video engine is also capable of performing many of the same functions as ATI’s, thanks to its Chromotion programmable video engine, which can apply pixel shader effects to video as well as handle fixed function processing such as IDCT.
What really separates S8 and DeltaChrome in general from the other graphics players however is its integrated HDTV/video encoder. Typically this functionality is provided by an external chip, with DeltaChrome it’s now integrated on the graphics core. This should bring video encoding functionality to all new price points, assuming S3’s board partners provide the proper cables. We wouldn’t be surprised if some skimped here.
This is where S3 runs into another potential snag with DeltaChrome – finding board partners. So far, the only company that has announced an official agreement with S3 is Club3D. While Club3D is a big player in Europe, their presence in USA and Asia is much smaller. These are two important markets that S3 must penetrate in order to achieve sales success. In our opinion, CP Technology seems like a perfect fit – the company has a large presence in Asia and the US through its Powercolor brand, as well as extensive distribution channels in both markets. CP has also demonstrated a willingness to adopt multiple graphics manufacturers, having built products on SiS and NVIDIA GPUs in the past. Of course, the fact that they have a DeltaChrome page up on their site is also a strong indication that they will be jumping onboard.
But other than these two companies, who else will adopt S3’s DeltaChrome technology? It will be interesting to see how this story develops.
Editor's Note: It has come to our attention that Club3D is owned by CP Technology. So technically, S3 has one board partner up to this point. (Thanks Stefan Bassing!)
The S8 board we tested with today is aimed to compete at the low-end of the mainstream segment, think RADEON 9500/RADEON 9600 and GeForce FX 5600/GeForce FX 5700. This card will not be competing with RADEON 9600 PRO/XT or GeForce FX 5700 Ultra. We only included scores with the RADEON 9600 XT and GeForce4 as a point of reference. When you keep that in mind, the S8 isn’t too bad, but performance does need to improve. Fortunately S3 still has a little more time to polish its drivers, but already we can’t help but wonder what if this board would’ve been delivered on time. S3 would’ve had an instant contender on their hands! We’ll have to wait and see how things pan out with final drivers and a final board, but even in today’s market S8 still has the basic specs to compete well in its intended market.
In light of all this, it’s too early to come to any conclusions on DeltaChrome. Obviously, it’s too bad this technology won’t see retail until 2004, but at the same time it’s good to see that S3 isn’t rushing this product to market. S3 is spending the next few weeks polishing up its display driver and finalizing the retail board design. As it stands now, the driver shows promise in games such as Unreal Tournament 2003 and Halo, but still needs work in OpenGL as well as titles like Tomb Raider, NASCAR Racing 2003, and Splinter Cell. Having a solid display driver that performs well, and, just as importantly, offers excellent stability and compatibility with a wide range of software applications is critical for S3’s reemergence in the desktop graphics market.
If S3 can get this formula down with DeltaChrome, and then build on it with follow-up versions like DeltaChrome 2, S3 could be well on its way to sales success.
SIDEBAR: What do you think of S3’s DeltaChrome so far? Was it worth the wait, or were you hoping for more? Speak!
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