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Hardware Preview - The New 3dfx Voodoo5 5500 PCI Card

by , 8:30 PM EDT, July 26th, 2000

Introduction
After years of hoping and months of actual waiting, 3dfx is about to release their first native Macintosh graphics board, the Voodoo5 5500 PCI. While Mac users have been able to use the Voodoo3 for years, with unsupported "beta" drivers, next week will mark the launch the first true powerhouse graphics board for the Mac.

And what a board it is.

The Mac Observer was offered an advanced version of the board, and based on what we have seen, Mac users of all kinds, especially gamers, are in for a real treat.

History
Since the introduction of the G3, Mac users have had very few choices regarding their graphics acceleration. ATI has been Apple’s exclusive provider of graphics cards since 1996. While ATI makes very good graphics boards, the version currently shipping with the desktop Macs, the RAGE 128 Pro, is long overdue for an overhaul. ATI apparently agrees, as they are preparing to take the wraps off of their own next generation accelerator, the Radeon card. However, the Voodoo5 5500 is available now, or will be shortly, and ATI has a long way to go to match the sheer power and beauty of the Voodoo5.

The Voodoo5 Is Here! The Voodoo5 Is Here!
The Voodoo5 5500 is based on 3dfx’s VSA-100 chip, a graphics powerhouse in its own right. However, the chip, and thus the architecture of the latest Voodoo card, is scalable. Much like Apple’s strategy with the new PowerMac G4 MP, the Voodoo5 5500 sports two VSA-100 chips, and a mind blowing 64MB of video RAM. By using two chips working together, the Voodoo5 achieves levels of graphic output not previously seen in the Macintosh market. Each chip has its own allotment of 32MB, and each chip has a separate fan. The board itself is huge. HUGE. Our guess is that 3dfx is going to use the same mold for the forthcoming Voodoo5 6000, which has four VSA-100 chips, as the two-chip model. This is a cost-effective measure, and would seem to make sense. Due to the power needed to run the card and the fans, the Voodoo5 needs its own power source. Any extra power cord for internal drives will do the job, and if users do not have an extra power cord available, the Voodoo5 comes with a Y adapter allowing the card to suck power from a drive or other internally powered device.

Installing the card was a snap on the Blue & White G3/400 test machine. Power down and unplug everything, pop the door open, take out the one screw holding the ATI Rage 128 in place, pop in the Voodoo5, tighten that one screw back up, and we were good to go. We tested the Voodoo5 in both the 33MHz and 66MHz PCI slots, and found that it ran fine in either. Obviously, the more bandwidth you can give it, the better the performance will be. We eventually left the card in the slot formerly inhabited by the Rage 128.

Full Scene Anti-Aliasing, And Why It Rocks
One of the biggest reasons for the high performance is the ability for one card to Scan Line Interleave, or SLI. SLI allows the chips to literally split the work in half; one of the VSA chips will render one line, the other chip the next, and so on. This allows for few wasted cycles, and incredibly high picture quality output. This kind of horsepower allows for the Voodoo5 card to perform Full Screen Anti-Aliasing, or FSAA. Anti-aliasing is simply the idea of "smoothing out" the jaggies created by pixilated images. Round surfaces are simply illusions created by packing pixels together. Anti-aliasing eliminates the jagged appearance by adding pixels and softening the edges of images. Mac OS 8.5 built anti-aliasing into the system for screen fonts, making words look less pixilized and more natural.

Now apply this to full screen, 3D games. Anti-aliasing has the effect of making surfaces look more natural, pillars to appear truly curved, reflections to match the light source better, and generally give the scene a more realistic aura. This takes an incredible amount of processing power and fill-rate, and the Voodoo5 handles this task marvelously. Some games, like Quake 3 Arena, are designed to have visual artifacts like jaggies already minimized. Others like Episode One: Racer and Unreal Tournament are high contrast games, with apparent edges and textured surfaces at every turn.

Regardless of the type of game, FSAA makes an impact. Quake 3, with its many steps and curved surfaces, appears even more haunting and "dark" (the mood, not color brightness) and Unreal Tournament and Racer jump to life with vibrant images, textures, surfaces, and objects.

FSAA, of course, takes great processing power, and at higher resolutions can cause a performance hit on the game. However, we found that dropping a few frames per second (fps) was worth it for the enhanced visual appearance of the game.

For those that are performance hungry, 3dfx has provided a control panel offering precise control over the Voodoo5’s settings. In 3D mode, users are given the option of turning anti-aliasing on or off, and selecting from 2x and 4x sampling. With two VSA chips on the Voodoo5, we found that 4x anti-aliasing provided little improvement, and a significant performance hit on the card. 3dfx plans on releasing a high-end board for the PC that will include four VSA-100 chips, allowing for 4x anti-aliasing in even the most demanding of applications and games.

The Voodoo5 5500 card has other neat features, like depth-of-field blur, and motion blur. That is, things that are farther away, or zipping by at high speeds, will not appear as sharp and clear as something that is stationary, or right in front of you.

While all this is neat, who can take advantage of it? Well, everybody. Or, every game, rather. The Voodoo5 supports 3dfx’s proprietary, high quality API called Glide, as well as Apple’s own QuickDraw 3D based RAVE and the industry standard OpenGL. Even more impressively, users will notice a difference not only in frame rate performance, but also in visual appeal with the installation of the Voodoo5. 3dfx designed the card to work at a hardware, rather than a software level. This means that no special programming is required to take advantage of FSAA. This stands in contrast to the forthcoming ATI Radeon card on the Mac side, and the critically acclaimed NVIDIA GeForce 256 on the PC side. Take it home, plug it in, and be blown away.

Performance
How is performance really effected, though? We ran some benchmarks comparing the ATI Rage 128, the de facto standard for all modern desktop Macs, and the new Voodoo5 5500 from 3dfx. The results are about what one might expect.


Unreal Tournament- Settings:

  • 16-bit
  • Textures High
  • Details High
  • Decals On
  • Dynamic Lighting On

Voodoo5 5500 - FSAA 2x ON

Resolution
Maximum fps
Minimum fps
1024 x 768
31
22
800 x 600
53
37

 

Voodoo5 5500 - FSAA 2x OFF

Resolution
Maximum fps
Minimum fps
1024 x 768
45
35
800 x 600
59
43

 

ATI RAGE 128

Resolution
Maximum fps
Minimum fps
1024 x 768
31
18
800 x 600
41
22


Quake 3 Arena - Settings:

  • Lightmap High
  • Geo Details High
  • Texture Details High
  • Texture Quality 32-Bit
  • Bi-linear

Voodoo5 5500 - FSAA 2x ON

Resolution
Maximum fps
Minimum fps
1024 x 768
26
5
800 x 600
38
17

 

Voodoo5 5500 - FSAA 2x OFF

Resolution
Maximum fps
Minimum fps
1024 x 768
32
18
800 x 600
38
21

 

ATI RAGE 128

Resolution
Maximum fps
Minimum fps
1024 x 768
1
1
800 x 600
7
1


As you can see, there is a moderate difference in performance between having FSAA turned on and off, but there is a monumental difference in performance between the Voodoo5 5500 and the Rage 128. On one of our favorite Quake 3 Arena servers, ZooFootball Excessive, the Rage 128 card is totally unplayable at either 1024 x 768 or 800x 600 resolution. This server is particularly challenging for graphics cards due to the generally large number of players and the steroid contained weapons (everybody starts with a rocket launcher that fires like a machine gun). Only with multiple people opening fire in a small area does the Voodoo5 choke down to 5-7 fps. Otherwise, it is eminently playable and wildly enjoyable.

Other games, such as Episode One: Racer, in which fps are not as important as overall feel and playability, the Voodoo5 5500 plays as smoothly as the ATI Rage 128. However, disabling FSAA makes it appear as if you were playing the old Atari 2600 version of a game meant for Sega Dreamcast. It is that stunning.

Conclusion
While this is only a preview of the card, with preview drivers, the results are amazing. In the next couple weeks, until the shrink-wrapped product hits store shelves, expect 3dfx to continue to tweak and modify the drivers. Many on the PC side have argued that the NVIDIA cards have been offering superior performance for some time now. While that may be the case, NVIDIA has also had time to tweak their drivers and eek every last bit of performance out of their cards. On the Mac side, there has never been a comparable card. Comparing the Voodoo5 to the RAGE 128 is unfair, and ATI agrees as they are readying their Radeon card. However, the Radeon is just rumor, and the Voodoo5 5500 about to find its way into tens of thousands of Mac users’ machines.

The future is bright, and we welcome 3dfx to the Macintosh universe.

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