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3D Graphic Accelerator Review
I receive a lot of mail nowadays from people who don't
know which graphic accelerator card to get and I can understand that there
are a lot of choices for all kind of different needs. There's a lot of
hype thrown at us from all the different card and chip manufacturers on
the graphic market too and you can easily face a huge disappointment if
you should make the wrong choice.
The difficulty in choosing the right video accelerator
card comes from the different needs we have for this piece of hardware.
As usual we'd prefer getting a card that can do everything at an excellent
level and this if somehow possible for a low price as well. However the
miracolous cheap all-round card isn't out yet and I guess that it will
possibly take forever until all our needs will be pleased. Hence we have
to make our mind up what is most important to us and also how much money
we are willing to spend.
The first question we have to ask ourselves is if
we will use our system mainly for professional work or mainly for games.
Most professional cards are not great at games and vice versa. If you've
already got a video card in your system, ask yourself if you're pleased
with its 2D performance at professional work and if you just want to purchase
an add on card for games. In this case you still have the professional
performance of your current video card and add some real good gaming performance
with the add on 3D card. You will need an additional PCI slot though.
Considerations for Gamers
In case gaming is most that you do on your system and
you couldn't care less for Windows NT, true color and OpenGL, you want
to go for a pure 3D gaming card or get an add on card.
Direct3D or Proprietary 3D Engine?
You'll now have to decide what kind of games are important
to you. Currently the graphically best games are often designed for a special
graphic chip, or at least they look best with this one chip. The number
one supported 3D graphic chip is nowadays the 3Dfx Voodoo, found on add
on cards like the Orchid Righteous3D, Diamond's Monster3D and several others.
It looks as if upcoming games will still support this particular chip and
since the Voodoo 2 is already on the horizon, you can expect 3Dfx's 'Glide'
engine staying supported by many games for a long time. Alternatively to
a special 3D chip support, many new games are using Direct3D's new features
quite heaviliy, so that it depends on how well the 3D card's driver translates
Direct3D to their proprietary engine. PowerVR's PCX1 and PCX2 chips are
quite powerful 3D chips, but the cards that use them are highly incompatible.
I've seen only very few games that run on this chip properly. If the PCX
engine is used directly, the games look awesome though. The only 3D chip
to my knowledge, that doesn't have a dedicated 3D engine, but is using
Direct3D as its API directly, is NVidia's RIVA 128 chip, currently the
fastest Direct3D chip available on the market. The RIVA 128 is wonderful
for Direct3D games, but games that are only supporting a bunch of proprietary
3D engines will not run on the RIVA 128. The future will bring almost any
game in Direct3D, which will help NVidia's RIVA a lot.
It is not easy to measure pure 3D performance, because
there are so many different ways a 3D engine can be used. Most official
benchmarks are using the Direct3D engine of DirectX, like e.g. ZD's 3D
Winbench or VNU's Final Reality. These benchmarks can only show you the
card's Direct3D performance, hence how well the driver translates Direct3D
into the chip's own 3D engine. NVidia's RIVA 128 doesn't need this 'translator',
it uses Direct3D as its own API. This is only one reason why the RIVA scores
by far best in Direct3D benchmarks. However some games written for that
specific 3D engine of a chip can run much faster than the 3D Winbench score
would let you expect them to. VQuake for Rendition's Verite 1000 is one
good old example. The Verite 1000 was never scoring well in 3D Winbench,
but VQuake looked good and ran fast.
3D Quality !
Now 3D performance is only one thing, 3D quality is
another. There are a lot of 3D features used nowadays, most of them supported
and used by DirectX 5, but there will be even more 3D features implemented
in DirectX 6. A 3D chip can only support a special amount of 3D features,
others are either not supported at all, or special drivers are used that
emulate these features. In my latest test I came across only one chip that
supports virtually every current 3D feature properly and this is 3Dfx's
Voodoo chip. The big let down of the Voodoo chip leads to the other aspect
for quality, the 3D screen resolution. The Voodoo chip can only do 640x480
in case of 2 MB frame buffer memory (4 MB cards), as in most of the Voodoo
cards, or maximal 800x600 in case the card comes with 6 MB RAM (e.g. Quantum
3D Obsidian 100SB) , 4MB hereof as frame buffer. NVidia's RIVA 128
chip has got a simular problem, it can't support more than 4 MB onboard
memory, only good for a 3D resolution of maximal 800x600. Now it doesn't
have to be that bad, since we are quite pleased with our good old television
as well, which has a lower resolution than 800x600. The 3D chip and the
system CPU have to be powerful enough for running smoothly at this resolution
as well. However, I've seen 'Forsaken' at 1024x768 on a PII 300 with an
ATI XPERT card and it looks pretty awesome.
How Powerful is Your CPU?
Some 3D chips are taking a lot of workload from the
CPU, others want decent CPU performance for its operation. PowerVR's PCX
chips want at least a Pentium MMX 166 for decent quality, 3Dfx's Voodoo
lets games run fast even on systems with weak CPUs and Rendition's new
Verite 2100/2200 chip gives a huge improvement to slow CPUs, but fast CPUs
are reaching its limit and don't really benefit of this chip anymore. NVidia's
RIVA chip seems to scale linearily from 6x86 CPUs up to Pentium II CPUs.
Under Direct3D its always the fastest chip.
Another thing you obviously want to take in consideration
is the price you've got to pay for the card. Many cards that have good
2D performance as well are pretty expensive. This is often due to the more
expensive memory they are using, but it could also be the additional features
like e.g. TV out or video compression. Cards with more memory are also
more expensive, but they offer higher resolutions in 3D, higher color depth
and higher resolutions in 2D. Make sure you don't pay for something you
Considerations for Professionals
If you are working on your computer professionally one
of the most important things is the picture quality. This is achieved by
a high quality and high clocked RAMDAC. Most of the new graphic chips have
included the RAMDAC internally, thus saving cost, but the best picture
quality is still produced by an external RAMDAC. The most popular cards
with external RAMDACs are Matrox Millennium I and II and Number Nine's
Revolution 3D. These cards are still offering you the sharpest and cleanest
picture on the screen. If you have got an expensive monitor, you want to
use the high refresh rates your monitor supports. As a simple rule you
should at least have a refresh rate of 85 Hz available for all the reolutions
you want to use. Refresh rates of 120 and more sound nice, but they won't
give you much of an advantage anymore. Responsible for this is again the
RAMDAC. The higher its clock rate, the higher are possible refresh rates.
The 2D performance was what used to determine the quality
of a graphic card in the past. Now 2D acceleration seems pretty close to
the limit and almost all cards are offering a good 2D performance, at least
at 16 bit color modi. Good 2D performance in true color is a virtue that's
pretty rare still though. Matrox and Number Nine always used to fight about
the 2D performance crown and it hasn't changed much still. If you are working
really professionally at your computer, you can impossibly use Microsoft's
mouse driver collection called Windows 95. Hence you are either using Windows
NT or some really good OS that's not from the monopolist. NT drivers are
very important for professional cards and the NT performance should be
more important than the Windows 95 performance. There is often quite a
bit of a difference between NT and 95 performance.
For people that use a real graphic workstation with
CAD and/or 3D rendering, SGI's OpenGL as well as Heidi are of major importance.
Nowadays if you hear 'PC' and 'OpenGL' one company comes into your minds
... 3DLabs. I will not discuss the real high end chips of 3DLabs, since
this is off topic on this website, but 3DLabs' new Permedia 2 chip is one
of the most impressive graphic chips on the market today in my opinion.
For 3DLabs the Permedia 2 is nothing but a low end chip for the mass market,
but amongst its competitors it's quite a gem in terms of professional work.
In mid to higher prized systems cards with the Permedia 2 will offer you
the best OpenGL performance combined with a good 2D and a fairly impressive
AGP or PCI
Since the new advanced graphics port (AGP) has been
released, you may wonder what interface to go for. I think you should certainly
get a board with Intel's new LX chipset, in case you want to use a Pentium
II system. In this case you won't do much wrong going for an AGP card.
However please be aware that there's currently hardly any performance advantage
of AGP over PCI. In case of Socket 7 there's still the problem that there
aren't many AGP motherboards available yet, but this will hopefully change
soon, now that the PA-2012
- A New Interface for Graphic Accelerators
- The Practice
Comparison PCI vs. AGP