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3dfx : The Past, Present and Future
By Vijay Anand
Category : Graphics
Published by Jimmy Tang on Thursday, 7th September, 2000

Since the introduction of 3D cards like Diamond Monster 3D or Orchid Righteous 3D, Voodoo has become a familiar name associated with 3D cards and games. These cards were based on 3dfx's original Voodoo chipsets. They were a run-away hit eventhough prices were initially steep simply because they were able to change the gaming world by providing visually enticing 3D effects based on their proprietary Glide API. This brought about a new perspective to games at a time when gamers were glued to 2D games such as Command and Conquer or Warcraft. Prior to Voodoo's release, there were also cards like the Canopus Pure-3D which was based on the Rendition V-1000 chipset. However, it offered only a limited set of 3D effects.

In the past, games did not really use any 3D effects and these chipset vendors had to persuade game developers to rewrite part of their games with 3D enhancements so as to demonstrate the differences when using their 3D-cards. The result was that only a handful of games were able to take advantage of these new 3D-only add-on cards and most of such games were bundled together with the card. This made it easy for buyers to immediately play with their new toys without the need to hunt for appropriate games that utilise 3D effects since such games were scarce.

3dfx developed their own 3D API that was proprietary to their chipset, so that games written around their API would work to their full potential. The Voodoo chipset itself was the only 3D card that supported a full set of 3D instructions that allowed games to be really '3D-like' unlike the previous generations of 3D add-on cards and games. Not only that, 3dfx worked on marketing their new API to game developers even before they had a working prototype to test. As a result, they had a hard time convincing developers. However, they did managed to interest a few to invest in their new product. Finally, 3dfx was able to unveil a prototype and that further helped to gain more support from game developers.

It was clear that cards based on the Voodoo technology were what game developers needed to boost development of 3D games and to break off from the traditional gaming genre. And the rest, as you can say was history. Following the success of Voodoo, 3dfx unveiled the Voodoo2 with SLI technology. SLI allows one to combine two Voodoo2 cards to boost 3D game performance by doubling the processing power. In an SLI setup, one of the cards will render even-frame lines while the other renders odd-frame lines.

Voodoo3 was 3dfx's next offering and it was their first self manufactured video card after acquiring STB. It was also their first real gaming video-card with a built-in 2D-engine. Although the Banshee was really the first, but it was not their mainstream as Voodoo2 was still faster. The Banshee was an intermediate product which led 3dfx to Voodoo3 and was targeted at budget users. The Voodoo3 was an attractive product as it lends support for all the three major 3D APIs (Microsoft Direct3D, OpenGL and 3dfx's proprietary Glide) in the core and drivers.

Up till Voodoo3's release, 3dfx had the upper hand in the gaming video-card market. When Voodoo3 was released, it was a little late and there were supply problems due to chipset shortages, especially for the higher clock speed Voodoo3-3500. That was not the main problem. The chipset features paled in comparison to nVidia's TNT and TNT2 series. It was limited to only 16-bit colour depth and 256 x 256 texture sizes (which was quite small in comparison with the 2048 x 2048 texture support offered by the TNT2 series, though it was somewhat adequate at that time). There were also no support for AGP-texturing with a limited support of up to 16MB of SDRAM graphics memory. On the other hand, nVidia's TNT and TNT2 series offered 32-bit colour and rendering, 2048 x 2048 texture support, memory scaling up to 32MB, AGP 4X support and the ability to render 2 single textured pixels per clock (Voodoo3 could only render 1 single textured pixel per clock cycle).

Having said that, the Voodoo3 series were still pretty fast at that time, with the fastest consumer gaming card being the Voodoo3-3000 (although the 3500 is faster but it comes with a TV-tuner, video capturing and a video hub which made it more suited for multimedia than gaming). The Voodoo3 consistently matched the TNT2-Ultra's performance and was even slightly faster at certain benchmarks. The nVidia TNT2 had both speed and quality but the 3dfx Voodoo3 only delivered raw speed. Although 16 and 32-bit colour rendered games weren't normally noticable, but for games that were optimised for 32-bit colours, the difference was obvious. Even so, the difference wasn't a world apart! However, the sad fact is that although the Voodoo3 ran at its maximum colour depth of 16-bits, in terms of quality, it was poorer than a TNT2.

Less than a year ago, nVidia crushed 3dfx with the GeForce 256 running on SDRAM and shortly after that, they released the faster GeForce version with DDR-SDRAM support. This was due to the fact that memory bandwidth was the limiting factor in its performance. 3dfx was somewhat devastated by these cards as they did not have any product that performed as well as the GeForce. However, they secretly carried on with the 'Napalm' project. Thanks to the high prices of the new GeForce cards, the Voodoo3 series continued to be a popular choice for those who needed an economical upgrade to their video subsystem. The GeForce not only brought a new level of performance, but also a new generation of video-cards based on an integrated Transformation and Lighting (T&L) engine. nVidia, has by now, made a name for itself as a supplier of high-performance graphics processors for the gaming market.

Early last quarter, nVidia again launched a follow up to their successful GeForce, the GeForce2 GTS. This new chipset is based on the same core as the GeForce, but with an increase in core speed as well as a shrink in the die. Sad to say that at this point, 3dfx is already behind nVidia by three product cycles.

The Voodoo2.

The Voodoo3 3500 which is the fastest in the Voodoo3 series.

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