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Graphics: Not Just for Gamers

The $17,000 nVidia Quadro Plex is an external graphics system that's ten times more powerful than today's high-end internal cards.
The $17,000 nVidia Quadro Plex is an external graphics system that's ten times more powerful than today's high-end internal cards.
There's no end in sight to the PC's increasing hunger for more graphical power. As nVidia chief scientist David Kirk says, "We're years and years away from being able to do everything we'd like to be able to do."

GPU manufacturers are busy preparing for DirectX 10 and its promised 8X performance improvement over DirectX 9. Expect nVidia and ATI to transition to GPUs that use unified shader architectures featuring general-purpose pipelines that can process pixels, geometry, or even physics code. Future GPUs will pile on more and more of these pipelines, enabling some truly amazing effects. Dedicated physics cards (like the Ageia PhysX accelerator), which supplement your regular graphics board, may also become more prevalent. The market will soon decide whether the GPU or a secondary processor is the best way to handle physics processing.

Products like the nVidia Quadro Plex may also be a sign of the way the market is headed: The $17,000-plus device is an external graphics system that can perform up to 80 billion calculations per second, about ten times what today's top high-powered PC graphics cards can manage. Experts believe that the next generation of cards could consume up to a blazing 200 watts of power and require external components.

Another emerging graphics technology, general-purpose GPU, uses the custom computing capabilities of a graphics card in a nongaming environment. Adobe has been using GPGPU for functions such as video transitions in some form since 1995.

Future Tech: The RAM Bottleneck

CPU performance improves by about 50 percent per year on average, but RAM access times haven't kept pace. Magnetoresistive RAM (or MRAM) is one potential solution: The promising nonvolatile form of memory uses magnetic instead of electrical storage components. Research by Freescale, IBM, and NEC is continuing.
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