October '98 Video Accelerator Comparisonby Anand Lal Shimpi on October 12, 1998 8:42 PM EST
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The reigning 3D champ, 3Dfx is consistently finding themselves trying harder and harder to keep their number one position at the top of the graphics accelerator market among gamers. Times have changed considerably since the days when 3Dfx had the only chipset capable of decent performance at 640 x 480 on the market. The company has grown tremendously, and has ventured into previously sparsely journeyed territories with the advent of a 24MB dedicated 3D-only graphics accelerator running at a higher clock speed ever thought possible from 3Dfx.
With the amount of competition 3Dfx demands as a company leading the pack, it is obvious that 3Dfx cannot rely on a single product alone to bring them the success and recognition they need to stand tall as the number one 3D graphics accelerator manufacturer on the planet. For this reason, 3Dfx's currently living and breathing chipset triumvirate consists of the 3Dfx Banshee for the mid-range PC, the 3Dfx Voodoo for the low end gamer, and the fierce monster, the Voodoo2, for the high end speed daemon. Covering all ends of the spectrum, let's give 3Dfx's top three chipsets a closer look.
The Good, the Bad, and the Banshee?
The best of both worlds, that was 3Dfx's goal with the release of the Banshee; essentially a stripped down, yet overclocked version of the Voodoo2, the 3Dfx Banshee was designed to be the mid-range contender from the formerly 3D-only realm of 3Dfx.
The Banshee acquires its stripped down description from the nature of its processor configuration, unlike the Voodoo2, the Banshee comes equipped with a single processor (versus the Voodoo2's 2 Texture Units & 1 Pixel Unit) which houses a single V2 texture unit and a single V2 pixel unit. These two units are what handle the 3D processing of the Banshee chipset, and as you might be able to tell, the presence of a single texture unit does have its downsides. While the Voodoo2, and other cards with two texture units, can process multi-textured environments in a single pass, the Banshee is forced to make two passes in order to render the same object with multiple textures on it. This gives it a huge disadvantage in comparison to its bigger brother, the Voodoo2, as games such as Unreal as well as upcoming 3D titles make heavy use of multi-textured environments.
If you look at 3D rendering as painting a wall, a single coat of paint can easily be accomplished by virtually any brush, while that same brush will require two strokes to place two separate coats of paint on the wall (1 texture processor). Now imagine a brush capable of placing two coats of paint on a wall in a single pass (2 texture processors). By using the latter type of brush you are essentially doubling your productivity. In 3D gaming and rendering situations the application of such a technique is a bit more complex, yet it follows the same basic principle. If a wall in a game, such as Unreal, happens to have a texture placed on it, such as a brick texture, followed by another layer, say a reflection from a nearby fire, you basically have two textures on that one surface.
An Overclocked Voodoo2
In order to compensate for its single texture unit, 3Dfx placed the recommended clock speed for their Banshee at the 100MHz level rather than have it rated at 90MHz as its Voodoo2 counterparts have been from the start. This 100MHz clock speed does give the Banshee the edge over the Voodoo2 in cases where single textured surfaces are present, games such as Forsaken, and even Quake 2 whose multi-textured effects are barely noticeable in terms of performance, the Banshee performs just as well if not better than the Voodoo2.
This essentially overclocked nature of the Banshee does have its downsides, the primary being that the processor runs extremely hot and can dramatically affect the stability of your system if you do not have a well ventilated case. The cheapest way around this would be to pick up an older clip-on 486 fan from Radio Shack and plop it on the Banshee's heatsink.
The Banshee provides 3D image quality virtually on par with that of the Voodoo2, which can be considered average in the round-up presented before us. Where the Banshee excels in visual quality is in the fact that the Banshee, unlike the Voodoo2, is an all-in-one solution and doesn't require a pass-through cable to connect to your 2D card since the Banshee is a 2D and 3D graphics accelerator. The presence of another filter through which the video signal must pass through degrades the final image quality by, in some cases, a noticeable degree, and the Banshee effectively eliminates that possibility.
While the Banshee does support the AGP specification, its implementation is incredibly poor and only allows for 1X transfers over the AGP bus. At the same time, the Banshee doesn't allow for AGP texture storage, meaning that the textures which would normally be transferred over the AGP bus for storage in system memory must remain in the local memory of the graphics card. This will cause a considerable performance hit once games begin to exceed the available memory for texture storage, however for the present, the Banshee will do just fine.
The sweet spot for the Banshee is, naturally, the 800 x 600 resolution setting since it offers virtually no performance degradation in comparison to running it at 640 x 480. Unfortunately, the jump to 1024 x 768 may bring performance down to a level below that of 30 frames per second making the gaming experience seem much more of a stop-and-go driving style rather than fluid motion. The current drivers for the Banshee chipset are still being tweaked, with the MiniGL drivers just recently released. The driver support as of now is average, however with the backing of 3Dfx you can expect that support to change quickly. The Banshee does support a technology known as color expansion, which essentially allows for improved image quality through the usage of a somewhat speculative calculation of "in-between" colors, however enabling this feature will most likely result in a performance drop of 50% or more and therefore not too practical.
3Dfx Voodoo - Still a Player
It seems that almost yesterday we were rushing to our doorsteps to greet the delivery man who carefully carried our brand new Monster 3D's in his arms. The rush to the 3D gaming scene was thrust into full speed with the introduction of 3Dfx's Voodoo chipset, truly the first of its kind, the Voodoo was a 3D-only add-on giving users the ability to fine tune their system down to a level of having the best 2D performance and the best 3D performance at the same time.
The Voodoo brings below average gaming performance to the table when dealing with today's advanced titles, however it still has the ability to make its presence known as a player in the 3D gaming realm. The original beauty of the Voodoo was its relatively weak dependence on the speed of your processor in deriving its own performance. This means that owners of slower processors will experience decent performance from the Voodoo while higher end systems will be cheated out of a considerable amount as the Voodoo was never designed to take full advantage of the power of a Pentium II 450 or an overclocked Celeron A.
With below average image quality, and no 2D support out of the box, you can consider the 3Dfx Voodoo, more or less, an entry level 3D accelerator. Its 640 x 480 resolution limitation (Pure3D excluded) and its relatively weak performance in most complex games will keep it from becoming a major contender in the 3D race, it looks like it's time to finally put the good ol' Voodoo into retirement. One benefit of having a chipset that has been around for so long is the incredible driver support and its well established presence in the gaming industry, however support can only take you so far, as performance quickly becomes an important issue.
Powerful or Powerless? The 3Dfx Voodoo2
At the time of its release, the Voodoo2 managed to set a new standard for gaming. Virtually abolishing the 640 x 480 resolution and replacing with its high performance at 800 x 600, the Voodoo2 made it to the top of the market by its sheer power. Again, a 3D-only solution from 3Dfx, the Voodoo2 boasts 2 texture units and a single pixel processing unit. The two texture units allow for multi-texture rendering in a single pass which give it the edge over the competition in games such as Unreal in which multi-textured environments are more common than one could possibly imagine.
The Voodoo2 offers the standard for multi-textured gaming performance, and will continue to be a high performer from now until the day its fate repeats that of the original Voodoo. The beauty of the Voodoo2 is that it picks up where the Voodoo left off, its performance remains completely independent of the presence (or lack thereof) of L2 cache and as long as you have a mid-range to high-end processor, it'll give you its all.
The Voodoo2 comes upgradable friendly, if you, one day, find that you crave even more performance out of your system you can go out and purchase a second Voodoo2 and enable what 3Dfx calls Scan Line Interleave (SLI) Mode. With two Voodoo2's running in conjunction with each other, taking advantage of SLI (each card handles a separate scan line, theoretically doubling performance), you can breathe new life into your system at just about any time. This extends the longevity of the Voodoo2 beyond that of most other graphics accelerators, especially when you consider that the Voodoo2's performance scales quite well with the performance of your CPU.
Unfortunately, the 3D-only design of the Voodoo2 and its ability to be run in pairs (SLI) quickly eats up your PCI slots, which can be a major problem for users with only a few slots available. In lieu of this, 3Dfx will be providing the specifications for a single board SLI Voodoo2 to remain competitive with the rest of the market as well as extend 3Dfx's reign over the market for at least a few more months.
The 0.35 micron design of the Voodoo2 keep it running nice and warm, and if you do decide to overclock it you may want to work some cooling enhancements to your current system, but for the most part, as long as you have a well ventilated case, the Voodoo2 shouldn't be too much of a hassle.
The image quality of the Voodoo2 can be considered average by today's standards, it isn't the best, and at the same time it isn't the worst. It is an unfortunate truth that the Voodoo2 has no single card 1024 x 768 support until the single card SLI boards become more readily available, however the excellent driver support that the Voodoo2 has acquired in the time that it has been present in the 3D accelerator market, and the support 3Dfx backs it with almost make up for this fact. Supporting Direct3D, OpenGL, and Glide, as do all 3Dfx chipsets, the Voodoo2 has made its presence well known among developers and gamers alike in the entertainment community.