ATI, emulating Nvidia, turns its graphics chips into CPUs

ATI Technologies Inc. Wednesday announced the availability of a free download that enables its powerful-but-underused graphics processors (GPUs) to take on the work of a computer’s CPU.

The ATI Catalyst 8.12 software driver lets ATI Radeon HD 4000 series-based cards accelerate tasks, such as converting DVD video into compressed video for smart-phone screens. The drivers would run on the 2 million graphic cards sold to date by vendors using the above Radeon graphics processor from ATI, a subsidiary of AMD Inc.

The cards can perform other tasks normally done by the computer processing unit, such as playing back high-definition video or rendering video game images. This frees up the CPU to do other work.

First announced in November, the technology is dubbed “ATI Stream.”

To show its potential, ATI released free Avivo Video Converter software which takes advantage of the Radeon HD 4000’s graphics processors to let users convert video as much as 17 times faster at up to 720p quality, said Dave Nalasco, a technical expert with ATI, during a webcast today. The entire archived webcast is a subsidiary of available online by clicking on “On Demand” and then “Live Show Wed Dec 10 2008.”

Other software that takes advantage of ATI Stream include Adobe Systems Inc.’s PhotoShop CS4, After Effects CS4, Flash 10 player and Acrobat Reader, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Vista, PowerPoint 2007, Expression Encoder and Silverlight player, and several others. Video-editing applications from CyberLink and ArcSoft are expected by March.

ATI hopes to attract more developers to ATI Stream with its free software development kit (SDK). A beta of version 1.3 of the Stream SDK was also released Wednesday.

“Video cards can do a lot more than just help you play games,” said Rahul Sood, founder of high-performance PC maker VoodooPC and CTO for Hewlett-Packard Co.’s high-end desktop and gaming PC business, in a separate interview. Sood said operating systems, such as Windows 7 and future versions of the Mac OS, are expected to draw upon the untapped power of GPUs. “This is more than a fad, it’s an emerging trend.”

ATI trails rival Nvidia Inc., which has been pushing its own general-purpose GPU technology for more than a year.

Last month, Nvidia released the Tesla Personal Supercomputer, which uses the equivalent of four top-of-the-line Nvidia GPUs to provide 4 teraflops of performance. Four teraflops is fast enough that this US$10,000 PC would have ranked as one of the 500 fastest computers in the world as recently as several years ago.

That underscores how today’s top-of-the-line graphics cards are as expensive as the desktop PCs they are installed in, and, arguably, more powerful. Cards sporting Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 280 cost about US$400, have 240 processor cores operating at 1.3 MHz each, and 1GB of GDDR RAM operating at 1.1 GHz. Meanwhile, ATI’s latest Radeon HD 4870 GPU has almost 1 billion transistors, more than twice as many transistors as its fastest quad-core Phenom CPU.

ATI also plans to release a souped-up processor based on the Radeon HD 4870 that costs US$1,499. As many as eight of the processors can be installed in a single 4U server rack to provide a supercomputer-like 10 teraflops of performance.

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