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Next-gen GPUs: simply fast forward

Next-gen GPUs: simply fast forward
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First Published: Wed, Jul 08 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Jul 08 2009. 10 22 AM IST
Everybody I know crunches graphics and video more than anything else on their computers or other digital devices. Take the ordinary mobile phone. Everyone wants one for voice calls and text messaging, but it must come with eye candy: a full-colour display and lots of fancy graphics.
Check out the stunning realism and detailed textures in the latest gaming consoles from Sony’s PlayStation to Microsoft’s Xbox. Well-heeled executives want to buy sleek laptops with Blu-ray optical drives to “catch up with some movies at airports and hotel lounges”. Expansive and full-colour LCD monitors running at unbelievably high resolutions now adorn computer systems. Meanwhile, the Internet is evolving slowly from the “literate Web” where people surfed to read, to the “non-literate Web” which people today surf to view videos, pictures and satellite maps.
More power to the brain
ATI Radeon HD 3870 Graphics Card
All this places huge demands on the computer. Processing graphics can be so daunting a task for a computer’s brain, the CPU, that it can actually slow the system to a crawl, generate a lot of heat and compromise graphics, with pixelated images and skipping videos.
To speed things up, computer designers added a second chip in the system, dedicated to offloading graphics-intensive tasks from the CPU. About 25 years ago, the graphics processor unit (GPU) was a relatively modest chip, assisting its big brother, the CPU.
Once the love child of serious computer graphics and gaming enthusiasts, the GPU today is the new disruptive force in mainstream computing that will forever transform everyone’s experience with digital devices.
For example, Apple’s new line of Macbook Pro laptops augment the CPU with not one, but two GPUs on-board: the Nvidia GeForce 9400M, and the Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT discrete graphics processor.
Easy interface
For all its sophistication, the advantages of a GPU are easy to understand for the ordinary user. Microsoft’s Windows Vista ripples with an impressive user interface called Aero, with semi-transparent panes, 3-D desktop effects, and detailed textures and shades. Plug in a powerful graphics card from ATI or Nvidia, and watch some of those user interface woes melt away. Windows 7, the next version from Microsoft, relies on the GPU for large chunks of general-purpose computing. This new trend is called GPGPU, or general purpose GPU. “Windows 7 users now have the absolute latest in performance and support for features, including SLI, PhysX, 3-D Vision, and DirectX Compute,” says Dwight Diercks, vice-president of software engineering at Nvidia. You can analyse and test your current PC’s readiness for Vista and Windows 7 with the following step: http://www.Nvidia.com/page/technology_vista_gpu.html
Apple’s next release of its legendary MacOSX, code named Snow Leopard, also marks this dramatic shift in computing to the GPU. The Linux OS deserves special mention. Always at the bleeding edge, its community pioneered some of the early work in 3-D visual user interfaces and today has one of the most sophisticated eye candy on the desktop. Discover its Compiz 3-D desktop effects using Ubuntu Linux from Ubuntu.com, or from Debian.org. All completely free and with freedom, as usual.
Asus processor
The basics of GPGPU
So what does GPGPU mean for you? Adobe is speeding up and optimizing videos, graphics and playback on Flash using a GPU-accelerator. Similarly, special GPU plug-ins for photo-editing software such as Photoshop bump up image and video editing and encoding by as much as 11 times. Transcoding a high-resolution video to play on an iPod or a cellphone can be sped up by up to 20 times. The movie Spider-Man used thousands of GPUs plugged together in a “GPU-farm” to render sophisticated textures, lights, shades and reflections to create scenes never seen before in a movie. Every major animation studio, both in Hollywood and India, has tremendous resources invested in GPU technologies.
Games people play
Finally, all work and no play makes Jaikishan a dull boy. We’re talking about gaming—that’s where the raw horsepower of the GPU truly dwells.
ATI Radeon HD 3850 Graphics processor
The algorithms of game physics are brutally optimized in GPUs, along with a lot of mathematically complex processing for light effects, shadows, moving large chunks of images, multiple views, smooth-motion videos, overlays of moving background and foreground objects and sprites, hyperrealism, and much more. Some dedicated graphics cards from ATI and Nvidia can cost more than the entire motherboard. Realizing the serious threat from the gaming chip of yore, Intel is prototyping its Larrabee GPGPU to compete head-on with Nvidia’s GeForce and ATI’s Radeon platforms.
Expect more action in 2010 on this front. Until then, startle yourself. Take what you think is your slow-pokey desktop or laptop, plug in a high-end 3-D graphics card, upgrade your software, and watch it sizzle and surge beyond your wildest imagination. Don’t blame me if you get real serious about gaming.
Get Personal with a GPU
Lost a password? Using GPU-accelerated software from Elcomsoft, you can recover your password 50 times faster than with conventional software. Called the Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery, prices start at $599. http://www.elcomsoft.com/edpr.html
To discover how computing with GPU is affecting finance, life sciences, digital content creation, entertainment and more, head to http://www.nvidia.com/object/cuda_home. html
If you’ve got an existing graphics card and want to further accelerate the gaming engine, get this free download for the PhysX engine. http://www.softpedia.com/downloadTag/GPU+Acceleration
Claimed to be “the most powerful graphics processor in the world”, the ATI Radeon HD 4890 is blindingly fast, at 1.36 teraflops of raw computing power, and available for $189-249, while its nearest competitor, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 280, delivers 1.06 teraflops, starting from $349-546. Check out the online stores on their respective sites, Amd.com and Nvidia.com. Such impressive speeds were unheard of in the GPU segment, demonstrating why the GPU may just disrupt the CPU industry.
For finest prints
The new Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart Premium with TouchSmart Web printer ($400) has a Web user interface that connects to your PC and the Web via built-in Wi-Fi and can print photos, coupons, maps, event tickets and more. It is an all-in-one device that prints, faxes, copies and scans. You navigate the TouchSmart Web feature via a 4.33-inch touch-screen control panel that has an intuitive interface. You can connect directly to Snapfish (HP’s online photo-sharing site) to print photos.
Must get
Asus’ Disney NetPal ($350) is a beefed-up Eee PC Netbook with thicker hinges, a spill-proof keyboard and parental controls, and no shortage of Disney-themed frosting. It is really just a typical Intel Atom-powered Windows XP netbook. There are three USB ports and an SD slot, a VGA graphics port and a headphone jack. The case comes in pink (aka Princess Pink) or blue, and there are two hard-drive options, either the 160GB model or a more shock-resistant 16GB solid-state drive model.
Do you like to click?
Pentax’s new Optio W80 can shoot underwater photos and high-definition video for up to 2 hours, according to its maker. The $300 Optio W80 is also built ruggedly enough to handle dust, temperatures down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius) and drops of up to 3ft. Pentax has been poolside since 2003, when it introduced its first waterproof camera (the Optio W80 is an update of last year’s Optio W60). The 12.1-megapixel W80 has some nice specs, including a 5X lens, the ability to capture high-definition video, image-stabilization as well as face-recognition technology.
Must do
Here’s an app that can make you feel better about yourself and the world around you. Called DoGood, the free app challenges users to do a different good deed each day, mostly a small kindness, such as “Make someone laugh today”, or “Start reading a good book today”, or make a contribution to collective welfare. It may sound hokey, but it also does a statistical tracking of the number of good deeds so it can provide concrete evidence that at least a couple of thousand people did something nice for someone else on any given day.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jul 08 2009. 12 30 AM IST