3D Chips and Cards


We could again see it at CeBIT as well as WinHec, there's a massive amount of commotion going on about upcoming 3D chips and cards. Lots of different chips and boards were shown or at least announced, of course months before the actual shipping date. The times in the 3D-chip arena are getting tougher, 1998 was far from enjoyable for most of the 3D-chip makers and many card makers got even into real trouble. Canopus and Miro left the 3D-card scene completely, 3Dfx swallowed STB and Diamond produced heavy losses, barely covered by the success of RIO. If you compare the 3D-chip with the CPU market, you can see that the competition as well as the ability to make money is a whole lot harder in the 3D arena than in the CPU section. Intel is still taking huge amounts of money for the majority of its CPUs, whilst even the suppliers of the fastest 3D chips are selling their 3D accelerators at less than a tenth of the price of a microprocessor with comparable complexity and die-size. This is indeed surprising if we consider that the mainstream 3D-card market is only a mere 3 years old.

A Short Look Back

The introduction of real 3D-accelerators started with the 3Dfx Voodoo chip, and that was the time when the first hard core 3D gamers started to evolve, producing high expectations as well as crazy hypes and some pathological fanaticism too. Voodoo (1) and 3Dfx remained at the top of the 3D graphics scene for more than a year, completely underestimated by the big players in the graphics scene at this time, S3 and Matrox. 3Dfx won the second round also, the Voodoo2 was a worthy successor of Voodoo (1). The idea of Voodoo2 was the same as for Voodoo (1), offer an add-on 3D-card to the normal 2D card, use a pass-through cable and offer a lot more power than Voodoo1. Voodoo2 was using two parallel texture units, a lot more graphics memory and the user had the chance to run two of those cards in parallel, called 'SLI'-mode, offering at that time mind blowing 3D performance. This was certainly no cheap solution, but the hard core gamers jumped on this bandwagon right away, making Voodoo2 another huge success. It took six more months until the first decent 2D/3D-cards became available, NVIDIA shipped RIVA TNT and 3Dfx tried their slightly castrated version called 'Voodoo Banshee'. People who believed in the marketing hype, saying that those two chips were a really new generation of 3D chips, were disappointed, since Voodoo2 SLI was still offering the best performance, Banshee and TNT had only the chance to come close in some areas.

Voodoo3, TNT2, Permedia3 and what not are the first 3D-chips that show a real further development of the technologies implemented into Voodoo2. What took no less than six chips in the days of Voodoo2 SLI is now condensed into a TNT2-chip, beefed up with a faster RAMDAC, good AGP-support, support of larger texture-sizes and several other goodies, running at a much higher clock speed than Voodoo2 as well. Really new concepts are still not to be found though and can also not be expected before the second half of 1999. We are still working with the second generation of 3D-chips, but even this generation has still got a lot to offer and you can be sure that it will be a hot summer in the 3D-arena this year.

We can expect the first announcements of third-generation 3D-chips within the next couple of months and there's supposed to be a new quantum leap in 3D-performance and quality. Fill rates of 500-600 Mpixel/s, triangle rates of 20 million/s and more as well as the support of new quality enhancements will ask a lot more from game developers, CPU, memory, RAMDAC and even display technologies than we can imagine right now.