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Graphic cards to get water cooling

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There are very few components which have seen similar steep price increases as the graphic card space. Admitted, performance of high-end chips has increased dramatically over the past years, but so have price points: Just three years ago, flagship models were typically priced in the $400 range. With gamers demanding more performance and willing to shell out more cash for more pixel power, the list price of top end cards climbed to $500 and $600 and most recently even to $1000 for a 512 MByte model of Nvidia's 6800 Ultra.

One of the companies profiting from this trend is Lake Forest, Ill., based BFG, which is one of the few very visible American graphics cards manufacturers. While the 3-year old company employs a full-time staff of just 16 people, it is the leading supplier of Nvidia cards in US retail - most recently accounting for a market share of about 25 percent. Despite BFG recently launched entry-level products under the "3DFuzion" brand, the company caters mainly to gamers and carries most Nvidia chips in its product line. It was one of the very few suppliers that was able to ship GeForce 6 products into retail stores such as BestBuy or CompUSA before fall of last year.

Given the firm's success and its deep relationship with Nvidia, we were sure we are at the right address to inquire about upcoming trends in this industry. Co-founder and executive vice president of marketing Scott Herkelman and Ric Lewis, executive vice president of operations, heat dissipation is not just a problem of microprocessors. Also graphics card will be affected soon and will have to be equipped with more efficient cooling technologies.

"With form factors of PCs getting smaller we have to come up with new cooling designs to get to the performance level the chip is able to deliver. This is especially the case when people are overclocking their systems," Herkelman said. While he does not believe that mainstream cards will require a cooling method other than a fan, he said that high- end cards may go a different way: "The most promising approach to cool a graphics card is water cooling. There are other forms of cooling concepts we cannot talk about yet, but all of them are part of a non-air cooling approach."

Current grapohic chip generations will continue to work well with traditional fans, Herkelman said: "We are not yet at a point where consumers have to be concerned about buying water cooling systems. But in about two or five years, consumers and even OEMs will have to think about how to cool a whole box to ensure stability and performance."

Just one sign for this trend may be some more or less prototype-cards that were shown at this year's Computex tradeshow. Several Taiwanese card manufacturers showed dual-chip graphic cards with up to 1 GByte of memory and a power consumption of 230 watts when idle. Another indication is Nvidia's SLI technology: Ric Lewis said that many BFG customers are ordering not one, but two SLI-capable graphic cards right away. "We were definitely surprised how many SLI units we can sell overall," indicating that dual graphic cards are quickly going mainstream in the higher-end gaming segment. But two graphic cards of course consume more power and create much more heat than just one device: "It is interesting that a lot of people, who order SLI graphics cards, only have 300 or 250 watt power supplies. But if you run such a system you want to have at least a 500 watt power supply," he said.

Gamers also spend much more money on their graphics system than ever before. Cards that listed for about $600 last year, fetched almost $1000 on eBay due to their short supply. This year, the first appeared that listed for a stunning $1000. Nvidia and ATI already mentioned that $1000 may not be the final word for future cards - and BFG agrees. "We proved that we can sell a $1000 graphics card. We sold out of every one of our $999 512 MByte cards very quickly," Herkelman said. For the next generation, he expects a range of $1000 to $1200 for high-end versions - which will sell "as long as you can show that the hardware is good for something." He declined to comment on where the pricing limit for such cards may be.

Herkelman justified the price for high-end cards and said that such products are not just about bragging rights. "Golf is a great analogy. There are people who buy the latest driver every year to get an extra one or two yards or more consistency. We refer in the same way to this industry: We spend a lot of money on computers ourselves, since we want the extra frame rate or visual clarity in a game to see things a little earlier and better. These cards really bring an advantage, especially in multiplayer gaming."


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