Reviews from the Backroom: Backroom Tech #2 (3dfx history and hardware guide)

3dfx

A history and hardware guide

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When it comes to creating a machine for the express purpose of playing games, one of the most critical aspects is the hardware used to render 3D objects and images. Ever since the early 1990's, games have been made with the idea of being the most beautiful and detailed they can possibly be, and this demand lended itself heavily to the increase in processing power that has been seen for the past 20 years. Games have gone from being 2D monstrosities to being life-like 3D experiences, and the ability to run these and future games has weighed itself heavily on the minds of both computer and console manufacturers.

Pioneers are not always sane people.

But, believe it or not, one of the most influential companies to create and implement new graphic-rendering hardware and software is one that died out long ago.

3dfx was the company that was responsible for implementing a few pieces of critical software that most take for granted anymore, such as Real-time Full-screen Anti-aliasing and SLI, but their main focus was always on the hardware end. From their start in home-computer graphics hardware manufacturing in 1996 to their bankruptcy in 2000, 3dfx put out some of the fastest, most feature-packed cards available to the home market. While there were a few cards that fell short due to the implementation of too many features (more on that later), the 3dfx line of cards (Known as the "Voodoo" series) were serious competitors. Had it not been for the prices and limited numbers of cards manufactured, 3dfx may still have been around today, pumping out top-flight graphics hardware.

Unfortunately, in 2000, the were forced to either file bankruptcy or sell the company. While the cause for 3dfx's decline is still debated, the most accepted reason is that 3dfx lacked a good, solid base.

While they did focus on making the fastest cards around and putting the most impressive software into them that they could, for the most part they were just inaccessible to the average user. The first two Voodoo cards, for instance, weren't individual cards that could be used as both the main card and the 3D rendering card in games; they were instead made to be put in-line with the main cared using a patch through cable, with the main video cable coming off of the Voodoo card. This meant that a computer builder would have to pay for both a main video card AND the accelerator card. Other than that, the 3dfx cards that were all-in-one were usually so expensive or difficult to implement in a typical computer system that they were not a good choice for the average user.

Between this fact causing poor sales, the low number of cards available for sale at any given time (due to manufacturing costs), and the lavish spending habits of the 3dfx corporation as a whole, decline was imminent. In 2000, 3dfx was purchased by Nvidia, with the employees spreading between Nvidia and its rival, ATI. The hardware designs and specs followed them, and ATI and Nvidia have continued to make leaps in hardware performance based on the research and development that 3dfx was responsible for back in the late 90's.

The Hardware

While the hardware available from 3dfx has hardly ever been practical for anybody, the cards are available for relatively low prices, and for a person looking to make a computer to run older games, the Voodoo line of cards is one that should definitely be considered. The drivers available may not be supported, but they are all widely available for download and are still very stable.

Voodoo Graphics PCI (Voodoo 1)

The Voodoo PCI, AKA Voodoo1.

The first card in the Voodoo line was a pass-through card, which meant that the main system card still had to be inside the computer, while a short video cable (provided with the Voodoo) would be attached between the cards, with the second output on the Voodoo accelerator card attached to the monitor. Whenever a game was started up, the graphics settings would have to be tweaked into using the "Secondary Graphics Adapter", as the main card and the Voodoo could not be used at the same time.

Sometimes, this caused problems with flaky software or slow computers, as the main card would have to deactivate and the Voodoo would have to take over. Sometimes, the system would hang, the Voodoo would fail to activate, or the drivers would have a conflict with the programming in the game. For the most part, this never happened, and the system worked well enough.

The Voodoo 1 featured 4 Mb of on-board VRAM, with the VRAM and 3D processing cores clocked at 50 MHz.

Voodoo 2

The Voodoo 2.

Not much changed between the Voodoo 1 and the Voodoo 2. The Voodoo 2 was yet another pass-through card, using the same method as the Voodoo 1 for installation.

The most notable difference was the addition of the Scan-Line Interleave feature. This allowed for two Voodoo 2's, both installed with the outside patch-cables and another special cable installed on the cards themselves. When attached properly, each of the cards would render half of the scan-lines on-screen. While it didn't come close to achieving the doubled speed that many PC builders expected, it was still an impressive setup for the time. While it was neither cheap nor easy to set up two Voodoo 2's to run together without a fuss, the results were huge, and often blew the latest and greatest competitors hardware out of the water.

The last truly impressive bit of tweaking to be done with the Voodoo 2 setup involved using 3rd party drivers to run DOOM 3 on a pair of SLI'd cards.

The Voodoo 2 featured 8 - 12 Mb of on-board VRAM, with the cores and VRAM clocked at 90 MHz.

Voodoo 3

The Voodoo 3 3000 variant.

The Voodoo 3 is often considered the card that started 3dfx's decline as a company. They decided that, rather than sell chip-sets to others as a way of producing their cards, to start manufacture of their own private line of graphics cards. They purchased the card manufacturer STB Technologies, and started to manufacture their own cards, which were used as singular cards rather than pass-through 3D accelerators.

While it did make the graphics cards easier and cheaper to use in a home system, the Voodoo 3 featured hardware that was so underpowered that its rendering power was limited to 22-bit. This limited compatibility, and made many games look ugly. Besides that, the raw 3D performance of the previous cards available from 3dfx wasn't present, and the Voodoo 3 ranked much lower in the hardware performance race than before.

The Voodoo 3 featured 16 Mb of on-board VRAM, and the Core was clocked between 143-183 MHz, depending on the model.

Voodoo 4 and 5

The Voodoo 4...
and the Voodoo 5.

The reason that the Voodoo 4 and 5 series cards are so often grouped together is that the Voodoo 4 is considered to be the budget version of the same product, featuring the same VRAM and core as the Voodoo 5 line.

These were among the last cards available from 3dfx. This particular line of cards featured a processor core that was manufactured in a particular way (Using certain materials and transistor types) that made it one of the fastest cores of the time when it was released. Rather than being limited to 22 or 16-bit rendering, the cores on the Voodoo 4 and 5 featured full 32-bit rendering and color. But that's just one of the many features these cards had.

They also featured a previously unheard of "T-buffer", which allowed the Voodoo 4 & 5 to render things such as dynamic lighting and motion blur with unprecedented speed. It also allowed for an incredibly fast ability to render images with Full-screen anti-aliasing, which was considered to be one of the largest drains on any graphics card at the time.

Unfortunately, this all came at a hefty price. At $300-$400 for one of these cards, they were once again a commodity for the wealthy end of the computer spectrum, and sold terribly. Besides this, implementing a Voodoo 5 (the only non-budget card available from 3dfx) into a computer was an incredible hassle. The card featured two VSA-100 cores, each with its own VRAM bank, and running them required loads of power. While some Voodoo5 cards featured an internal power connector, most of them required the use of an outside DC power adapter, which was large, costly, and very unappealing.

For the most part, they sold badly when there were even any cards TO sell. They weren't compatible with the latest Pentium 4 machines (due to the slot connector used), they were difficult to use, ate power, and were very unstable. While 3dfx had planned on releasing a Voodoo 5 6000 variant (Pictured at the beginning of the article), it was never released publicly. The card that was to come after the Voodoo 5, nicknamed "Napalm", was scrapped entirely.

The Voodoo 4 featured a single 166 MHz core, with 32 Mb of on-board VRAM. The Voodoo 5 featured the same core/memory setup SLI'd on a single board.

Overall

3dfx had an incredible line of cards for the few years they were in existence as a company. They pioneered much of the hardware that is still used today, and also developed much of the software that is used to create some of the most beautiful games around.

If you're looking to build a machine for retro-gaming, this is the graphics hardware company to look towards.

 

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