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3D Or Not 3D. There Is No Question.
November 3rd, 1999 

Randy: Hey, Gary, I just got the coolest 3D accelerator for my Mac. Now my gaming machine is complete.

Gary: Sweet! Which board did you buy?

Randy: It's got the Screaming Raging Banshee Pro IIc chipset and 80 megs of VRAM, a passthrough cable to the 2D accelerator with 1 gig of WRAM that I interleaved for faster bilinear filtering. It speeds up QuickTime, QuickDraw 3D, OpenGL, Glide, Rave, 3Dfx, my coffee maker and my morning shave by two billion triangles!

Gary: What the hell are you talking about?

Randy: I have no idea.

Gary: That makes two of us. You know, I'll bet a lot of gamers out there in the Mac universe are a little confused by all the hubbub swirling around about 3D accelerator boards.

Randy: Boy, I know I am. Like most folks out there who game on their Macs, I am just burning to play some of these 3Dfx enabled games but I only have a limited budget to spend on a board. I'd love to know what the differences are between the accelerators available for the Mac and what's the best value.

Gary: Well, little buddy, this column is for you.

Randy: Alright! Let's go.

Gary: Let's look at what really makes these accelerator boards so cool. The chipset. There are two main contenders out there right now. ATI has the 3D Rage Pro chipset and 3Dfx has the VooDoo series of chips. The 3D Rage Pro is the graphics chip that comes stock on all new Macs today. Including, I might add, the newly revised motherboard in the iMac.

Randy: Hey, wait a minute. Didn't we say that the iMac needed a better graphics chip back in our gMac column? As a matter of fact, we also recommended Apple up the VRAM in the iMac too, and then they added four megs of VRAM to make 6 megs the standard.

Gary: Well, I don't want to toot our own horn too loud, but what can I say? When Idiots talk, people listen.

Randy: I'm sorry. What did you say?

Gary: Nice. As I was saying, the other chipset, the VooDoo series is the new rage (another bad pun) among game developers because it supports so many killer real time effects.

Randy: Alright, VooDoo or Rage Pro. Which is better?

Gary: It's not quite that simple. Each chip has it strong points and weaknesses. And the prices are very different.

Randy: Right. I was looking at VillageTronic's new Mac Magic VooDoo card for $99. But that is only VooDoo 1, and now there are cards that sport the VooDoo 2 chip.

Gary: And now there is a new standard emerging called VooDoo Banshee. What, you may ask, is the difference between these chipsets?

Randy: What is the difference between these chipsets?

Gary: Thanks for playing along. Basically, VooDoo and VooDoo 2 are 3D accelerators only. These are the chips used by the big boys in the coin/op arcade games. They only accelerate full-screen 3D, not 3D in a window (like in a 3D-authoring environment). Also, games that combine 2D and 3D art can't be accelerated by these chipsets.

Randy: VooDoo and VooDoo 2 cards have no 2D-video support, so they must be connected to your existing video card via a passthrough cable. For a novice user, this can be an intimidating procedure. Now that we know what VooDoo and VooDoo 2 are, what are the differences between them?

Gary: Well, as the name might indicate, Voodoo 2 is the successor to VooDoo, and according to 3dfx, the manufacturer of the VooDoo series of chips, VooDoo 2 is about three times as fast as VooDoo. VooDoo2 also has two features that are not supported by any other VooDoo chipset. The first is dual texture buffers. What this means is that the VooDoo 2 chip can apply two textures to a pixel at any given time, resulting in some very advanced special effects.

Randy: And the other is Scan Line Interleaving or SLI. Scan Line Interleaving means that you can put two VooDoo 2 cards in your Mac and they will work together, one card handling the even fields on your monitor, and the other handling the odd fields. This results in almost double the performance of one card. VooDoo 2 is the ultimate 3D gamer's card. But it does have some drawbacks for other applications.

Gary: Which is why I am in the market for a VooDoo Banshee card. The Banshee chipset supports both full screen 3D and 3D in a window, so tasks like modeling in Infini-D are also accelerated. The Banshee also has some killer 2D acceleration onboard as well, so there is no need for a passthrough cable. But, alas, there is no interleaving, and the Banshee has only one texture buffer, so some of those amazing game effects are not available.

Randy: But before we declare the VooDoo chip series King Circuit of Chipset Hill, lets look at what the 3D Rage Pro chipset has to offer. Before 3Dfx was even dreaming of getting 2D acceleration going on the VooDoo chip, ATI's Rage family of chips was handling accelerated 2D, 3D and video. The 3D Rage Pro chip has some cool moves like smooth scaling and playback of QuickTime movies with almost no distortion. VooDoo chips can't touch that. Even when scaled to three times the original movies size the Rage Pro provides smooth playback on those tiny web QuickTimes. The 3D Rage Pro also accelerates 3D in a window as well as full screen. Remember only the newest and considerably more expensive VooDoo Banshee chip can match that. The 3D Rage Pro is also faster than the VooDoo2 chip, according to technical specs but actual results are some what subjective.

Gary: As we mentioned earlier, the ATI 3D Rage Pro is the standard chipset for all current Macintosh models. While that is extremely cool, you would naturally ask yourself, "Why buy a graphics card if I already have the chip in my Mac?" Even though the chip is the same, you don't necessarily get all the subsystems and controls that an accelerator card would give you. The software that comes along with the 3D Rage Pro accelerator cards allows the user to adjust the texture memory usage and the ability to sync the 3D redraw with your monitors vertical refresh rate to increase performance. Certain vendors are including tweaking software with VooDoo cards, too.

Randy: OK, now for the big question! What APIs (Application Programmer Interface) do each of these chips support? Games like Quake support OpenGL and Rave as well as the good old fashion software only mode. Some games use QuickDraw 3D and still others use 3Dfx enhanced graphics. Which card supports what?

Gary: In brief, the VooDoo series supports Glide, Direct 3D, Direct X (for all the good these two do Mac users), OpenGL and 3Dfx enhanced games.

The Rage Pro chipset supports Rave, QuickDraw3D, and OpenGL, which runs right on top of the Rave API.

So, you should check out the titles you want to play and what hardware acceleration they support before you make your choice of 3D accelerator cards.

Randy: And keep in mind the kinds of things you use your Mac for before investing in a card.

Remember, VooDoo 1 and 2 only support full screen 3D acceleration and no 2D, so it's a games only accelerator. The new VooDoo Banshee chip does support 2D acceleration and 3D in a window, but it doesn't support interleaving or dual buffer texturing like it's older brethren. (Alas, poor Pixel, he had but one texture, not two.)

The 3D Rage Pro handles both full screen 3D as well as in a window and supports 2D acceleration. It also supports alpha blending to smooth out QuickTime movies at any size. While it doesn't support interleaving and it doesn't handle as many APIs and the VooDoo family it does provide a broad spectrum of graphics enhancements beside games.

Gary: Well I think we've spilled all the beans we know about 3D accelerator chips. Why are you smiling like that?

Randy: You know, along with our forecast of a better graphics chip in the iMac, another one of our predictions has come to fruition.

Gary: Oh, boy. You have been waiting all article long to say this. Go ahead.

Randy: The good kids over at the All Games Network just told me that Activision has just released three Atari Action Packs. Each collection is jam packed with more than fifty or so classic Atari 2600 games for the Mac. Only the Action Pack 1&2 are currently available for the Mac platform, so you may have to play these oldies from the Atari Action Pack 3 on Virtual PC for now. But at $8.95 a volume who cares?

Did we not just suggest something like this in our "Gimme Another Quarter" column? Did we not? We are like the friggin' Nostrodamus of the web!

Gary: Good work there, oh, amazing one. Can you predict how much email that last comment will generate?

Gary Randazzo and Randy Soare are the co-founders of IWS Interactive, a New York based game developer for Macintosh. The IWS in IWS Interactive stands for Idiots With Sticks. How that came about is a long and boring story, but suffice it to say that at four in the morning, it seemed like a good idea.

The demo for IWS Interactive's upcoming mystery-adventure game, Manhattan Apartment Hunter, has recently been released to rave reviews. The Idiots have been into gaming on Apple computers even before the Mac was around. Does anyone remember Choplifter on the Apple IIe? (Boy, we know we do.) Now, they are committed to help ensure that the Mac remains the premiere gaming platform on the planet.

You can email your comment and suggestions to Randy at , and Gary at .


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