Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/524



It has been 6 months since we last wrote about 3dfx, and that before 3dfx had even seen their own next-generation part in action.  3dfx’s Voodoo Scalable Architecture (VSA) was supposed to have debuted around the time of NVIDIA’s GeForce, which has been effectively dominating the high end gaming market ever since its release last October. 

The first generation VSA part, the VSA-100 based Voodoo 4 and Voodoo5 products, would have completely dominated the market had they been released on the day they were announced at last year’s Fall Comdex in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately for 3dfx but fortunately for their competitors (particularly NVIDIA), because of unnamed delays the first VSA-100 products were delayed until sometime in 2000.  Whether this was a signal that 3dfx could not keep up with NVIDIA’s very aggressive and somewhat silly 6-month product cycles or simply just an unpredictable, unavoidable problem 3dfx ran into during the development of their complex product isn’t really our major concern --then, what is our major concern? 

The Voodoo 4 and Voodoo5 cards are almost upon us and it won’t be much longer until they are available for purchase in the retail channels.  Just as it was with the Voodoo3 launch, it seems as if 3dfx will be the first out the door with their new product for this year.  The V4/V5 are still very new parts; if you recall, it wasn’t until early this year that 3dfx actually had a working revision of the VSA-100 silicon to begin to play with. 

3dfx began showing off that they actually had VSA-100 silicon at a number of tradeshows, including at this year’s CeBIT in Hannover, Germany.  Unfortunately, these demonstrations, in spite of being run just about two months ago, were run on pre-production Voodoo4/5 boards that ran at a core clock speed of around 100MHz, which obviously didn’t portray the best performance.  Then again, from 3dfx’s standpoint, all they really wanted to do was show off their major features, Motion Blur and Full Scene Spatial Anti-Aliasing (or just Full Scene Anti-Aliasing for short - FSAA), both made possible courtesy of 3dfx’s T-Buffer. 

In a recent visit to AnandTech, 3dfx brought with them a pre-production Voodoo 5 5500 (AGP), clocked very close to the final shipping clock speed of the product.  While we weren’t told the exact clock speed of the sample they brought with them, it can be estimated to be around 160MHz, and since the core/memory clock on all Voodoo boards is synchronous, we can conclude that the memory was running at that speed as well.

This brief preview is not designed to be an overview of 3dfx’s T-Buffer technology; if you are unfamiliar with T-Buffer or want to know more about how it works then check out our T-Buffer Technology Overview. Also be sure to look at our Voodoo 4/5 Preview from last year's Fall Comdex 99.



The Boards

For a quick refresher, here are the boards that are based on 3dfx’s first generation VSA chip, the VSA-100:


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Voodoo4 4500 AGP & PCI

  • Single 3dfx VSA-100
  • 32MB memory
  • 2 pixels per clock rendered
  • 333-367 megapixels/s
  • $179 US

The Voodoo4 4500 is targeted at "mainstream consumers" and is thus the more cost effective single VSA-100 product. The Voodoo4 4500 will be available in both PCI and AGP versions at $179. Once again, note that T-buffer effects are not enabled on single chip products. Think of the Voodoo4 4500 as the Voodoo3 3000 with 32-bit rendering, large texture support, and 32MB of memory. Expect performance similar to the Voodoo3 3000, but with greatly enhanced image quality thanks to these new features.

Voodoo5 5000 PCI

  • Dual 3dfx VSA-100 SLI
  • 32MB memory
  • 4 pixels per clock rendered
  • 667-733 megapixels/s
  • Real-time full-scene anti-aliasing
  • T-Buffer digital cinematic effects
  • $229 US

The entry level for the Voodoo5 line, the 5000 PCI, is actually just $50 more than the Voodoo4 4500. You get quite a lot for that $50 though, including double the fillrate and T-Buffer effects thanks to a second VSA-100 chip. However, the 32MB of memory is slightly less effective here since texture data will be duplicated in memory thanks to the dual chip configuration. Also note that the Voodoo5 5000 is PCI only at this point. Performance is theoretically double the Voodoo4 4500 without full scene anti-aliasing enabled, or approximately the same as the 4500 with it enabled.


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Voodoo5 5500 AGP

  • Dual 3dfx VSA-100 SLI
  • 64MB memory
  • 4 pixels per clock rendered
  • 667-733 megapixels/s
  • Real-time full-scene anti-aliasing
  • T-Buffer digital cinematic effects
  • $299 US

The first AGP card in the Voodoo5 line up is the 5500, which is much like the 5000 PCI with an additional 32MB of memory and an AGP interface. The increased bus transfer rate and onboard RAM serve to enhance performance as game complexity increases.

All this will cost you $50 more than the 5000 PCI, primarily to pay for the additional RAM. If RAM prices drop, expect the cost difference between the boards to also drop.


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Voodoo5 6000 AGP

  • Quad 3dfx VSA-100 SLI
  • 128MB memory
  • 8 pixels per clock rendered
  • 1.33 - 1.47 gigapixels/s
  • Real-time full-scene anti-aliasing
  • T-Buffer digital cinematic effects
  • $599 US

The Voodoo5 6000 is definitely the mother of all graphics cards with easily the highest fillrate of anything available at its launch. With 128MB of RAM, texture space should not be a problem as this card will have more RAM than many systems have. 3dfx is shooting for 85 fps at 1024x768x32 in Quake 3 with full scene anti-aliasing enabled - not too shabby.

The price is quite high at $599 and is clearly targeted at the hardcore gamer. We know some people will buy it because quite a few people paid about $600 for a Voodoo2 SLI setup when it was released. The 6000 AGP will feature an external 100W power supply that hooks up to the board via a connector on the cards back plate.



The Board – Pictures

Although the board 3dfx demonstrated for us was a Voodoo5 5500 AGP (dual VSA-100, 64MB RAM), they allowed us to get a picture of a Voodoo5 5000 PCI so that you all could at least see what the boards will end up looking like.


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The Voodoo5 5000 PCI is a full length PCI card, and according to 3dfx, the Voodoo5 AGP cards should be about 3/4 length AGP cards, so they won’t be quite as long as the professional Oxygen GVX1 solutions from 3DLabs.

If you are planning on going with a PCI Voodoo5, then you may want to make sure that your motherboard is capable of accepting a full length PCI card.  We do list the number of PCI slots capable of accepting full length cards in all of our motherboard reviews, so in the unlikely event that you have a few full length PCI cards, you can always consult our motherboard reviews to see if a particular board will be all right. 

The Voodoo5 5000 PCI board featured a 4-pin power connector for the board, which was a decision made in order to remain on the safe side since the board was apparently borderline in terms of being able to get all of its power off of the PCI bus.  The main problem 3dfx wanted to avoid was the possibility of a motherboard manufacturer skimping on their motherboard, resulting in not enough power being supplied to the power hungry Voodoo5. 



FSAA

The biggest effect 3dfx was boasting as they showed us countless demos of their 5500 was the use of the T-Buffer in order to achieve Full Scene Anti-Aliasing.  The main reason for this is because FSAA is automatically implemented in any available Direct3D or OpenGL game as long as the feature is turned on in the drivers.

The way the VSA-100 does FSAA is that it renders either 2 or 4 frames at once and blends the pixels together in essence forming a smoother picture with virtually no jagged lines and no pixel popping.  You’ve probably heard the terms 2 sample FSAA and 4 sample FSAA from 3dfx in the recent past: those two terms are just referring to the number of frames rendered at once (or sampled).  As you can guess, the more samples taken, the better the image will end up looking, which makes the VSA-100’s 4 sample FSAA the most desirable from an image quality standpoint.

The biggest problem for 3dfx is convincing people that FSAA, regardless of whether it is 2 sample or 4 sample, is more than just a little feature that you’ll never notice.  If anything, that was the main purpose for their visit to us, to essentially show us the light.  And it is the same reason that they have been touring the country visiting various online publications in order to get the word out that FSAA is more than just smoothing out a few lines.

The biggest problem for us is convincing you all, the readers, that there is indeed a noticeable difference between a Voodoo 4/5 with FSAA and your current GeForce cards.  Since we only had a limited time with 3dfx, we are only able to provide you with the screen shots that 3dfx themselves supplied that demonstrate the benefits of FSAA.  While these screen shots aren’t exactly the most descriptive, they function as a basic indicator of what FSAA does on a frame by frame basis.  But believe us when we tell you that this isn’t an accurate depiction of the difference in actual gameplay between a setup with FSAA enabled and FSAA disabled. 

Descent 3 Screen Shots - 1.4MB Zip

Shogo Screen Shots - 686KB Zip

For starters, if you’re the type of gamer that plays first person shooters exclusively, then FSAA as well as the rest of the T-Buffer features aren’t exactly geared towards your gaming genre.  While FSAA can definitely make a difference in something like Quake III Arena or UnrealTournament, those two games aren’t examples of the technology at its best.

If you’re a fan of flight simulators and racing games (Need for Speed 5: Porsche Unleashed comes to mind), to name a few types, then FSAA will definitely have a much greater impact on your overall gaming experience.  One of the biggest complaints we’ve always had and we’ve always heard about games like Need for Speed or MS Flight Simulator was that the jagged lines and pixel popping that occurred during gameplay were simply very distracting.  If the game was good enough, you could usually ignore those two nuisances, but with FSAA, especially 4 sample FSAA, you won’t have to any longer. 

The analogy we used to describe FSAA in games is that it is like the age old 32-bit vs. 16-bit color debate with a twist.  Once games started taking advantage of 32-bit color depths/textures, there didn’t seem to be a need for it from those users that had never played a game in 32-bit color, but those that had the opportunity to run at 32-bit color never went back.  It is our opinion that, for most users, once they experience FSAA in real world gameplay, they’ll never want to go back.



FSAA – The Performance Hit

From a feature perspective, FSAA is just as easy to enable as 32-bit color in a game, and the difference in image quality can be quite noticeable, but what kind of performance hit are we talking about when it is enabled?

Unfortunately, basic mathematics applies to the performance hit you can expect from enabling FSAA.  Let’s take the Voodoo5 5500 AGP that was demonstrated for us as an example. 

According to 3dfx, depending on the final clock speed of the VSA-100 chip itself, the Voodoo5 5500 AGP will feature a fill rate of anywhere between 667 – 733 Megapixels/s.  For the sake of comparison, a Voodoo3 3500 (the fastest Voodoo3 available) has a fill rate of 183 Megapixels/s and a GeForce 256 SDR/DDR has a 480 Megapixels/s fill rate.  So right out of the box, the Voodoo5 5500 should be faster than any currently available card, but that’s without FSAA enabled.

Enabling 2 sample FSAA forces the VSA-100 to render each frame twice thus taking two samples, effectively cutting the fill rate in half.  So the 667 – 733 MP/s range has now been reduced to 333 – 366 MP/s.  Even at 2 sample FSAA, there are still some “jaggies,” which are noticeable but there is a definite improvement over having no FSAA at all. 

Can you guess what happens when you enable 4 sample FSAA?

Enabling 4 sample FSAA forces the VSA-100 to render each frame four times, thus taking four samples, which effectively reduces the fill rate to 25%.  That impressive 667 – 733 MP/s range is now at 166 – 183 MP/s, about the speed of a Voodoo3 3000 – 3500. 

For you Voodoo3 owners, you should be able to run at your current performance level but with 4 sample FSAA enabled.  Or if you want more performance, you could always shift down to 2 sample FSAA and get a nice performance boost over the Voodoo3 3500 while improving on the image quality, although not getting rid of all of the “jaggies.” 

Even the Voodoo5 6000 outfitted with four VSA-100 chips is reduced from its 1.33 – 1.47 Gigapixels/s fill rate down to a 333 – 366 Megapixels/s fill rate when using 4 sample FSAA.  There is no real way around this performance hit, but it’s something you should definitely be aware of when you look at the incredible fill rates boasted by the Voodoo5 line.

There is a definite difference between 2 and 4 sample FSAA, but it isn’t as big as the difference that exists between no FSAA and enabling the feature. 

Because of this performance hit, 3dfx isn’t enabling FSAA (or any T-Buffer effects for that matter) on the Voodoo4.  With the fill rate on the Voodoo4 4500 at 333 – 367 MP/s, 2 or 4 sample FSAA would degrade performance to the point where 3dfx would be going against their “fill rate is king” policy of the past. 

Note: The leaked NVIDIA Detonator 5.xx drivers do allow for FSAA to be enabled on GeForce cards. This is not done in the same way as 3dfx's FSAA, NVIDIA's drivers most likely use a form of FSAA called super sampling where the scene is rendered at a higher resolution then reduced to the actual resolution that was set. For example, enabling FSAA would cause (hypothetically) a scene to be rendered at 1600 x 1200 then scaled down to 1024 x 768 in order to smooth out the jagged lines.

Motion Blur

3dfx also showed off their modified version of Quake III Arena with motion blur support.  While no Quake III player on Earth would want to enable motion blur during gameplay, the feature could definitely come in handy in situations that don’t depend on fast moving action or precise aiming such as most first person shooters like Quake III.

Click Here for more information on Motion Blur

Depth of Field & Soft Shadows

3dfx had no game implementations of Depth of Field & Soft Shadows to demonstrate for us, which can be expected since the developers have to actually take those features into account when developing a game in order for them to be used. 

FSAA is the only feature that can be enabled in all games without a developer specifically writing code for it.

Click Here for more information on Depth of Field & Soft Shadows effects

Drivers

3dfx told us that the shipping card would not feature Windows 2000 drivers out of the box, but Win2K drivers will follow shortly after the release of the card (most likely 4 – 6 weeks). 

Final Words

With the recent announcement that NVIDIA would be unveiling the NV15 on April 25th, this month is definitely going to see some heated competition between 3dfx and NVIDIA. 

We still think 3dfx will be the first out the door, and according to them, boards will be available shortly after the launch, but unlike the Voodoo3 vs. TNT2 release, both 3dfx’s and NVIDIA’s products should be out within a couple of weeks of each other, making it much easier to compare and decide which one you’re going to go with rather than taking a risk on the first product out and regretting the decision just 1 – 2 months down the line.

The graphics industry has been pretty quiet in terms of competition, with most of the past few months being dominated by the GeForce.  It will definitely be interesting to see who comes out on top this time around, and remember, just 6 months from now, we’ll get to start this cycle all over again.

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