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Editor's Note: This is the executive summary version of a more in-depth interview here.

As it turns out, ATI's Mac graphics division was never really that far from Architosh's publication studio. In hindsight it was somewhat shameful that we didn't discover this before. It was at SIGGRAPH 2006 Boston that Chris Bentley and I got to talking about a visit, and it was at that show that I was first introduced to the latest ATi Radeon X1900 series cards -- showing off Luxology's modo 202.

Today of course Chris Bentley and I were meeting to discuss AMD's business of creating bleeding edge graphics chips for Apple. And after a quick bagel on the house and a tour of the large ATi/AMD facility, we sat down to discuss AMD's relationship with Apple and how Apple was advancing OpenGL, an industry standard technology the company's OS X user interface depends on.


Apple and AMD - The Relationship

Before we dug into some of the key details behind ATi's (AMD's) new Radeon X1900 series graphics cards for the Mac Pro and Power Mac G5, I asked Chris Bentley about the nature of AMD's relationship with Apple. Many in the media had been speculating that Apple's new cozy relationship with Intel might spell some form of trouble for AMD's future in graphics on the Mac. However, Chris assured me that this just isn't so.

"There is absolutely no change in our relationship with Apple," said Chris. "We offer the same level of support, from the same people, with the same engagement with Apple and the Mac software companies. In fact, we may be able to offer more solutions to Mac users because we have more resources now."

AMD obviously hopes to sell more products to Apple in the future, their acquisition last year of Canada's ATi gained them a legacy relationship with the storied Mac maker. And it shows. Chris Bentley himself has been with ATi since the mid-90's working on Mac 3D graphics technology. And their offices are literally filled with every vintage of Macintosh going back to the 80's.

What about main processors -- I asked?

Chris could only smile at the question. Obviously there is nothing to say about that today. But the question did bring up a very good point. Isn't there an issue there.... "We are very close to Apple. We have early access to hardware," remarked Chris.

This access of course means that AMD -- an Intel rival -- gets to peak at and work with Apple's secret machines long before Steve Jobs unveils Apple's new Macs. "Arrangements have been made with Intel to allow the Mac 3D driver group to work on pre-release Apple hardware," says Chris. This means that nothing about Intel's chips inside un-announced Mac machines gets spilled over to AMD's CPU departments.

ATi (AMD's) Mac 3D group has a lab full of several dozen late-model Apple Macs, configured and scripted to run automated 2D/3D tests 24x7x365. Four technicians work in this room (partial view) testing the latest driver code on literally just about every OpenGL-based pro app and all the games. In fact, visiting ATi (AMD) was like walking through a museum of Mac games -- they literally have them all (for testing!).

Trust is a key imperative in all relationships of this sort with Apple. And the two companies work together very closely. Chris says that ATi sees about 50% of their source code and Apple sees about 80% of theirs. "There are probably about 50 conversations a week with Apple engineers," says Chris, "Working with Apple is different than working with any other computer manufacturer. Basically we function as an extended part of their team."


Apple and OpenGL

AMD's relationship with Apple is very engaging for several reasons, one of which is that Apple's entire windowing system depends on OpenGL -- the industry standard 3D technology behind professional CAD and 3D applications. And ATi (AMD) is a key player in the past, present and future of OpenGL. Any leading graphics card maker would be.

"For example," Chris says, "at AMD we have an entire group dedicated to writing a really good compiler for vertex and pixel shaders. That same compiler that is used for the PC graphics card development is used for the Mac cards."

Chris said that Apple's adoption of OpenGL was a brilliant move. By adopting an "industry standard" it made it one step easier for graphics card makers -- and software programmers -- to support the Macintosh market. And when GPU cards become fully programmable it became even easier for companies like ATi (AMD) and Nvidia to bring their best products to the Mac. The new Radeon X1900 GT card is one such great product.

ATi (AMD's) new Radeon X1900 series cards for Mac Pro and Power Mac G5 (last generation). The GT/XT cards have an ATi "state-of-the-Art" processing engine. The ASIC is identical on both the PC and Mac versions of the card. To understand how PC and Mac cards are technically different/same and why please read the full discussion here.

However, as Chris tells it there are several reasons why Apple's adoption of OpenGL has been brilliant. When the Mac maker was developing its brand new operating system in the late 90's they knew they needed to radically transform the way the interface in OS X would be constructed in code. Rather than think in traditional terms of "bit map" imagery, Apple moved the entire interface to a similar PostScript-Display model -- something Steve Jobs' other computer company, NeXT had invented some years earlier.

OS X's interface became more streamlined -- and when combined with the growing power of GPU's (graphic processing units) Mac OS X leapfrogged the entire industry with its Aqua interface.

"Apple's Mac OS X has been doing Vista-like features since version 10.1," says Chris. "Mac OS X virtualizes VRAM. Windows XP does not. This has given Mac applications unique advantages."

Apple's use of OpenGL in the user-interface has been groundbreaking and only with Vista in 2007 has Microsoft begun to catch up. "Even though Quartz Extreme was not present in the first release of OS X, Apple was laying the groundwork for it," says Chris.

While OpenGL has been a key technology for Apple in its OS X operating system, the company has been equally good for OpenGL in the overall computer industry.

Chris says that games and Pro apps have been concerned with pushing the development of OpenGL in very different ways from each other. When Apple based its interface system on OpenGL it added another dimension to the equation. "Quartz Extreme put pressure on the OpenGL drivers to optimize code paths that games and Pro apps had never cared about," says Chris.

But it is the Apple Pro apps (like Motion and Final Cut Pro) that have really pushed the extremes of OpenGL driver development at ATi. "Apple's Pro apps stand apart because those things are pushing the envelope of OpenGL features. They are pushing the envelope and they are also a window into OpenGL's future." ---- Anthony Frausto-Robledo, Editor-in-Chief.


the full in-depth interview: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |



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