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A Glimpse Into the 3D Accelerator's Past (Page 1/2)

Posted: November 11, 2000
Written by: Dustin "TimmyC" Jones


If you look back many years to the dawn of 3D acceleration, you can't help but be amazed at how far the technology has progressed. Back in the "Glide-only-days" of NHL 98, Need for Speed 1 & 2 SE, and the plethora of other "3D accelerated" games, the 3dfx Voodoo was king and a user with one was a god.

Now, I could look back really far into the introduction of EGA, CGA, VGA, yada yada yada; but really, that's just boring. Perhaps some of you are interested in how I had an ancient 512kb Trident video card that could only do 16 colours and 640x480, but I'm the one that wrote this, so I get to decide. :-)

3dfx's Voodoo Graphics Chip

At first, 3D acceleration was primarily used in big, symmetric-multiprocessor machines like SGI boxes; i.e. Onyx and Indigo. They were exceedingly expensive and pale in comparison to the raw, unrelenting, polygon crunching power of today's video cards. That in itself is amazing, isn't it?

Loaded with games, this was packed with the Monster 3D.

The first really useful commercial 3D acceleration was from 3dfx -- they virtually started the whole video card race as we know it. Its flagship chip, the Voodoo Graphics Chip, was the king of the hill for a long time. This baby featured a whopping 4mb of on-board memory in most configurations, and had some mind blowing features like bilinear filtering and alpha transparency. I was pretty envious when I first saw one of these things in action.

3dfx didn't produce consumer video boards at first, only chipsets; much like Nvidia does today. Because of this, it was up to manufacturers to make quality cards. The best Voodoo card was the Diamond Monster 3D, at least for single chip boards. There were other boards that were great in comparison, such as the Canopus Pure3D, but these weren't as easy to obtain as the Monster 3D, which was on-shelf in virtually every computer store. The Monster 3D received rave reviews everywhere, and basically brought Diamond back from the dead. (According to some people. :)) Here are a few quotes from the July 1997 issue of PC Gamer:
... In performance terms, this board is really a Monster. Running GLQuake A 3d accelerated version of Quake that's compatible with 3Dfx boards on our reference 200MHz MMX machine, it scored very respectable 31.9 frames per second at 640x480 resolution...

... supporting bilinear filtering; anti-aliasing; Gouraud shading; MIP Mapping (which eliminates that annoying "sparkling" effect you sometimes see on texture-mapped graphics); perspective correction; texture modulation (for smoother lighting effects); per-pixel alpha blending (more realistic fog effects)...

During the time of that review, the Diamond Monster 3D cost $199.95. It was one of the fastest cards around. Today, the fastest cards for gaming are priced upwards of $400. Ouch!

A tiny pic of the Monster 3D box.

The Competition Strikes Back

From 3dfx's success came competition. Nvidia with its popular Riva 128 chip, Rendition, PowerVR, 3DLabs, and others quickly set up shop in the commercial arena. None of them really took off to the extent 3dfx had, however. One of the Power VR offerings was the Apocalypse 5D from VideoLogic. This card had 8mb of ram, and many of the same features that the Voodoo did, which are common place today. Unlike the Monster 3D, this card was 2D and 3D. It was actually quite a fast card for its time. At last, users didn't need to buy a 2D card then add a second card and pass-through cable to get screaming fast 3D.

VideoLogic's PowerVR-powered Apocalypse 5D Sonic.

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