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You know all about the never-ending duel Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) are fighting in the general processor arena. Every time AMD comes up with a game-changing new CPU like the old Athlon 64, Intel puts its foot down and jumps ahead again with innovation of its own. Sometimes the roles are reversed. Lather, rinse, repeat ad infinitum.
AMD fights a similar battle against graphics specialist NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA ) to establish supremacy and profitability in the market for computer graphics processors (GPUs). The consumer-centric end of that rivalry is well-documented. But did you ever stop to think about the extreme high-end graphics war? According to NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, that market should quintuple to about $5 billion annually in the next few years.
In that space, AMD's ATI unit just released a matched pair of supercomputers-on-a-card that aim straight at the heart of Hollywood. The ATI FirePro V8750 GPU comes with a hefty $1,800 price tag -- but also with a staggering 800 processing units, or "shaders" in the lingo. The FirePro can feed its display output through the new S400 Synchronization Module to ensure broadcast-quality video signals under any kind of processing duress.
Because GPU chips are more specialized than a plain old CPU, they are capable of staggering feats of high-performance computing under the right circumstances. A single workstation with four of these cards rivals the finest big-iron servers you'll find at IBM (NYSE: IBM ) or Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) when it comes to rendering cinematic special effects or certain scientific computing workloads.
NVIDIA has long been the top dog in this lucrative market, thanks to its top-notch Quadro processors. Today's new releases look like an entirely new direction in AMD's graphics strategy, asking NVIDIA to dance or die. Sure, you could buy workstations from Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) , Lenovo, or HP with older versions of the FirePro card, but the Quadro has been their weapon of choice. This sub-sector is heating up.
And if today's action wasn't hot enough for you, keep an eye out for Intel's Larrabee GPU chips next year. Intel hasn't been a force in high-performance graphics hardware since the early 1990s, but that should change with Larrabee. DreamWorks Animation (Nasdaq: DWA ) CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg waxes poetic over the product, saying that "Larrabee raises the bar of what we can do not just by 2X or 3X but by 20X."
Your move, NVIDIA. Can you match either one of your new and upcoming ultra-exclusive rivals?