It could be a merry holiday season for the chipmakers at ATI Technologies Inc., who have beaten their rivals at Nvidia Corp. to the Christmas market with their latest line of video cards.

While Nvidia announced its new high-end GeForce FX chip at last month’s Comdex Fall event in Las Vegas,

graphics cards with it won’t appear on retailers’ shelves until February. That means ATI’s top Radeon 9700 Pro and its recently released mid-market derivatives – the 9700, the 9500 Pro and the 9500 – could be in the shopping carts of PC users who can’t wait for the fastest in graphics performance.

However, a month or two may not mean much to Nvidia. According to Mercury Research of Cave Creek, Ariz., in the third quarter it held 65 per cent of the worldwide market for desktop graphic cards, with Markham, Ont.-based ATI trailing in second place by 37 points.

The 9700, 9500 Pro and 9500 have similar features to the 9700 Pro but are aggressively priced as low as US$199, said Eric Lundgren, ATI’s product manager for its high-end line.

At that price, he said, sales volumes go up eight times compared to a high-end product like the 9700 Pro.

“”ATI has been doing fairly well in getting some new design wins with their mid-range products, so we might see some change in Q4 (market share),”” says Mercury Research principal Dean McCarron.

“”But until the dust settles we really won’t know.””

When the air will clear isn’t clear. Lundgren said ATI will bring out a new product around the time Nvidia launches the FX.

What makes these new graphic chips interesting is that they can take advantage of fully programmable graphics, such as in animated feature movies some users play on their PCs. “”We’re getting to the point where the graphics chip is becoming more powerful that the CPU (central processing unit),”” said Lundgren.

In announcing the GeForce FX, Nvidia said the chip delivers “”cinematic-quality graphics and special effects in real time,”” with its 500 MHz processor and 128-bit colour processing engine, giving game developers “”the power to create awe-inspiring visuals.””

To do all that the new ATI and Nvidia chips are designed to take advantage of Microsoft Corp.’s upcoming DirectX 9 multimedia programming interfaces, which is expected to be finalized early next year.

“”When they’re paired with software that’s designed to make use of DirectX 9, the new chips (will) offer a much higher degree of realism than you see with previous generations of technology,”” agrees McCarron. “”And that is probably what will be driving a lot of sales and upgrades, because it’s a very noticeable difference.””

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