Computers tap into the power of graphics cards

— -- Graphics cards aren't just for games anymore.

Long a tool for faster and more intense video game play, computer processors now harness the power of graphics cards for many new applications. Consumers tap graphics-card power for crisper video and faster photo processing. Scientific researchers use it to find oil, simulate brain waves and forecast weather.

Nvidia, which competes with ATI in the sale of graphics cards, recently cut high-profile deals with computer manufacturers Apple and Toshiba, offering its higher-performing graphics processor — known as a GPU (graphics processing unit) — in new notebooks.

Software powerhouse Adobe just introduced a version of Photoshop that runs smoother and faster by taking advantage of such power.

"A good graphics card will now blow away other computers that don't have them," says John Nack, Adobe senior vice president.

The GPU works in tandem with the computer's CPU (central processing unit) to ease the load, resulting in faster overall speed.

"Now the GPU can be programmed to take advantage of parallel processing," says Dan Vivoli, Nvidia senior vice president. "It's akin to reading a book a page at a time, or reading all the pages at once."

With the new Photoshop, simple tasks such as rotating an image don't take as long. On its newest line of MacBook notebooks, Apple says overall performance is five times faster.

The Adobe and Apple deals foreshadow what consumers will see in 2009, Vivoli says:

•Software maker MotionDSP will introduce a program, code-named Carmel, that dramatically improves the quality of cellphone video.

•ArcSoft, whose programs are often bundled with sales of still and video cameras, has a pending application that increases the resolution of a standard DVD to "near-Blu-ray" quality for PC playback.

•Toshiba's new $1,999 Qosmio X305-Q708 laptop is the company's first to have 3 GPUs, for superfast gaming.

"It uses one GPU for normal things like word processing and e-mail, then kicks in with the double GPU for gaming and video, which allows you to maximize your battery," Vivoli says.

The added computing power from graphics cards wasn't initially developed by Nvidia, but by Stanford University researchers who stumbled onto it, says independent analyst Jon Peddie, who runs Jon Peddie Research.

Nvidia saw the potential and began offering developers the ability to program GPUs to their specific needs.

"This is a real revolution," Peddie says. "It's like driving a car and suddenly you start getting better gas mileage. Computers will just start to get faster and faster."

ATI, owned by chipmaker AMD, makes similar cards, but Nvidia has had more success in snagging big new partnerships.

Both companies sell a variety of graphics cards that can be installed in PCs to improve performance, at prices ranging from $100 to $400. They're targeted mostly at video gamers because their most dramatic effect is on image rendering.

Despite the advancements in technology, Nvidia isn't seeing profits yet.

Nvidia's revenue fell to $898 million in the third quarter, from $1.2 billion in the first fiscal quarter, and the company announced a $120 million loss in the third quarter.

"Like everyone else, we've been hit by the economic downturn," Vivoli says.

But not to worry, Peddie says. "Nvidia will make a lot of money, it just won't happen overnight. The payoff is in the next few years."