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Does business ever really need photo-realistic, highly compelling 3D graphics? After all, how relevant are the huge advances in graphics technology – aimed at providing an ever-more vivid and realistic computer gaming experience – for the business user?

The question comes up in an insidious fashion when financial directors are faced with a request from IT – usually under pressure from users – for a technology refresh of the company’s desktop and mobile PC assets. It is a safe bet that enhanced graphics, along with more memory, a bigger hard drive and a faster main processor, will be a central part of what the new technology will be offering.

Faster graphics, in general terms, carry a cost premium. For years now, the job of making a computer screen look as if it is a window onto a wholly realistic alternative reality has been the responsibility of special-purpose graphics processors and their hardware. In other words, you need an additional chip and hardware to power this graphics capability, and that carries a price.

Whether the graphics processors are integrated onto the main board, as they are in mobile PCs and budget PCs, or slotted in as add-on cards, they add to the total cost of the unit. As such they are one more item for the FD to ponder or to quiz the IT department about. Should the company buy up or buy down when it comes to graphics?

So far for ordinary users – which is to say, those other than specialist engineering or scientific users, or for companies specialising in film production and animation – business has always bought down. The reason is simple. Unlike computer games enthusiasts who want the most realistic 3D experience they can get, and who are prepared to pay in excess of EUR500 for a top-of-the-range graphics card, business doesn’t use 3D in a big way – yet. It is, however, increasingly using video for business communications.

We are also seeing the huge storage capabilities of DVD disks being used to hold parts and sales catalogues for “road warriors” and field engineers.

Andrew Humber, a spokesperson for Nvidia, one of the world’s two leading graphics card manufacturers, says that at present, even with the growing use of video on desktops and notebook PCs, there is little demand from business for more powerful 3D graphics cards. “The vast majority of our corporate sales are for the low-end budget card that basically comes with the box,” he says. However, Humber says there are a number of factors that could change all this.

One of the most important of these is Microsoft’s new operating system, Longhorn, which will be the replacement for Windows XP when it launches some time in the next 18 months. Longhorn will itself be a 3D operating system. “Basically you are going to need reasonable 3D acceleration in the box to make Longhorn work,” explains Humber.

Another factor – which accounts for the fact that the graphics on notebook PCs are becoming increasingly powerful – is the trend for notebooks to be a complete replacement for desktop PCs. If you are giving an executive a notebook to use outside the office in their private world, it makes sense to spend a little more to give that executive a tool that can also be used for entertainment when on the road, Humber says.

“The notebook market is really interesting right now. You can justify buying a more powerful notebook for an executive for a number of reasons. They might be doing presentations from it, and using it as a mobile presentation machine. You obviously want the results to look as good as they would on a high-end desktop PC. Toshiba now makes media centre notebooks, which have phenomenal sound capabilities as well as great graphics, so this is a trend we expect will increase,” he says.

The real revolution in notebooks is the move to enable notebook graphics to be upgraded, just as one can upgrade a desktop PC. With a PC, you simply unscrew and unplug the existing card and slot in a new, upgraded card. With notebooks this has not been possible because the graphics chip was integrated into the motherboard. However, according to Humber, Nvidia and others are about to offer upgradeable notebook graphics. “This is directly comparable to PC graphics. You will be able to flip open a panel in the notebook, slide in the new module and screw it into place. We anticipate good demand for this add-on, and it is another sign that business users now expect a great deal more from their company notebooks,” he says.

Another business market that Humber says is growing, particularly in the financial services arena, is the multimonitor market. There are many reasons why people want more than one screen up and running on their desktops at the same time. Of course, it is always possible to run a second application in a new window on the same screen. But often, where the two applications are both information rich, it is more convenient and better to send the two information streams to separate monitors.

Both NVIDIA and its biggest rival ATI have multimonitor functionality as standard on their top-line graphics cards. NVIDIA claims that it’s possible to run up to 16 monitors off its NVS workstation graphics card. Even business buyers who opt for the most basic graphics cards benefit from the R&D that goes into developing high-end graphics cards. This is because of a phenomenon known as the downward cascade of technology. The power of the bottom-end cards increases year-on-year as manufacturers add some high-end features into their next generation of budget cards. This year’s high-end gaming graphics cards, which cost upwards of $500, will wind up shaping the capabilities of 2007’s budget cards installed as a matter of routine in huge numbers of desktop PCs.

This means that the present – and certainly the next generation of budget cards – are well able to run video and DVD, though perhaps not to the full, glorious extent of a top-end card. They are sufficiently well suited to the new, more graphically intensive tasks and activities that are now being layered on top of standard business processes.

One thinks here, for example, of an increased use of images, and even video and 3D graphics in sales presentations and so on. Sales staff now have powerful “click-and-build” tools to help them jazz up their sales presentations with video clips and animations. Field engineers can have parts catalogues on DVDs or CD-Roms. Marketing departments have access to the kind of software that three or four years ago was only available to Hollywood special-effects studios.

One of the astonishing facts of the advance in power of standard desktop PCs is that a PC running, say, a 2GHz Intel P4 chip or the AMD equivalent, and a modest graphics card, can now run software that a Hollywood studio would use to create mainstream movie special effects. Of course, the studio would use racks of high-performance workstations to do the job. However, a marketing department that wants to take the trouble to learn some animation and modelling techniques, using software such as Alias System’s Maya suite, can achieve fantastic results.

Business is also encountering graphics from a new direction. We are now in the era of the video message. Soon, all mobile phones will have a built-in megapixel camera. While video mobile messaging is likely to impact the teen market far more than the business market, one can easily see applications for business. The ability to take and send high-quality images on-site will help engineers, manufacturers, the construction industry, and so on. Marketing and sales departments will find their own uses for this technology. And on top of all the video footage and image files, there is also DVD, which can make feature-length film available to mobile users.

Many businesses will want to use the power of DVD editing and content creation to enhance their communications capabilities. In that context, businesses have yet another reason for buying up when it comes to choosing a new generation of notebook PCs.

Rene Froeleke, product manager for ATI, points out that Europe will soon be moving to high-definition TV (HDTV). HDTV is due to hit mainstream Europe next year. Whereas PAL TV, the European and UK standard TV, works off a grid of 520 x 756 pixels, HDTV requires 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. Refreshing that many pixels at 25 frames per second takes a good deal of computing power. The result, of course, is a picture that has much more depth and detail.

As Froeleke puts it, instead of pink blurs in a crowd shot, you can see the individual faces. Businesses will want to take advantage of HDTV to enhance their electronic marketing and product literature. Other uses will doubtless emerge as well.

Another graphics revolution is taking place in the more restricted world of the mobile phone and handheld device. “The new cameras on these mobile phones are high definition and need screens and graphics engines in the mobile device that can do justice to the camera’s capabilities for both video and image,” Froeleke points out.

Both Nvidia and ATI, together with other graphics card specialist manufacturers, are now racing to produce technologies that will enhance the visual experience of small device users. Here, the distinction between business users and casual use is almost nonexistent. Both sets of users are being led to expect a great deal and the graphics card manufacturers will have their work cut out.

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