3dfx has had a difficult time of it recently, losing their frame rate crown to arch-rival NVIDIA last year, and then facing a series of costly delays to their VSA-100 chip (formerly known as Napalm), which resulted in NVIDIA having a six month reign as undisputed speed kings with their GeForce graphics card while 3dfx couldn't release any new products...
The first of 3dfx's new generation of graphics cards finally appeared just a few months ago in the form of the Voodoo 5 5500. 3dfx had decided to ignore transform & lighting acceleration, which NVIDIA were championing, and instead concentrated on image quality with the "T-Buffer" effects.
Their main selling point for the new range of Voodoo cards was "full scene anti-aliasing", which reduces the visibility of jagged edges and other visual artifacts in games. The result is certainly beautiful, but it comes at a cost - you are rendering more information when using FSAA, whichever graphics card you are using, and the performance hit can be very severe in graphically intense games like first person shooters. At the end of the day, the Voodoo 5 5500 just can't provide FSAA and the kind of frame rates that hardcore action fans demand from their games at higher resolutions, although it certainly works a treat for things like flight sims and 3D role-playing games.
Luckily 3dfx have an answer though, and the clue is in the name of the chip which powers the Voodoo 5. That VSA stands for "Voodoo Scaleable Architecture", and it means that 3dfx can cram more than one chip on to a single graphics card. The still unreleased budget card in the range, the Voodoo 4 4500, has just a single VSA-100 chip. The Voodoo 5 5500, on the other hand, uses two chips, and the resulting card is about twice as powerful as a result.
But the real beast in 3dfx's family is the Voodoo 5 6000, which features four VSA-100 processors working together to provide approximately twice the performance of the Voodoo 5 5500. It's certainly impressive enough on paper, but until now that was all that we knew...
This week at the ECTS computer games trade show in London 3dfx were showing the card behind closed doors for the first time, and we were lucky enough to get a hands-on demonstration.
The first thing to note about the card is that it is big. Very big. In fact it's about a foot long, carries four processors (each with its own fan), and features 128Mb of memory to support them. Not only that, but it needs its own external power supply to feed it the electricity that all those chips need. Called "Voodoo Volts", the adapter is itself an impressively chunky piece of hardware, pumping out 50W. It's really a ridiculous card, but no doubt the sheer size and brute force of it will win it fans in the hardcore community.
Amazingly 3dfx had managed to fit one of these cards into a standard sized mini-tower case, although it was certainly a tight fit. Smaller cases might have problems with it, but then if you are the kind of person who feels the need to buy the most expensive and overpowered piece of consumer graphics hardware currently available, the chances are that you will have a decent sized case to put it in, or would be willing to shell out a few dollars more to buy one if necessary.
Make no mistake, this is a serious piece of hardware, and it has all the firepower it needs to back up its over-ample size. The Voodoo 5 5500 is not quite as fast as the NVIDIA GeForce 2 or ATI's Radeon 256, but it is certainly no sluggard. And the Voodoo 5 6000 theoretically has double the fill rate of that.
To show the sheer power of the card, 3dfx set up Quake 3 Arena running at 1600x1200 with 32 bit colour, maximum texture detail and trilinear filtering - all the bells and whistles. The game was also running with four sample anti-aliasing enabled, meaning that the card was effectively rendering four times as much information and then combining it to create the final image.
The result was, as you can imagine, a rather jittery game with severe slowdowns during large battles, but the fact that it was playable at all with that kind of gratuitous graphical detail was impressive. Reducing the resolution to a more sensible 1024x768 made the game silky smooth, although sadly 3dfx wouldn't allow us to run a timedemo, and had strategically placed a sticker over the top right corner of the monitor so that we couldn't see the game's frame rate counter. Spoilsports.
Still, given that this was a pre-production board, the performance spoke for itself even without benchmarking. And thanks to the mixture of high resolutions and FSAA, the visual quality was simply stunning. Wanting to see more, we fired up Unreal Tournament at 1024x768 with 16 bit colour in Glide mode. Again, even with four sample FSAA enabled the game was perfectly smooth.
The Voodoo 5 6000 is really aimed at the hardcore enthusiast market - people who play fast paced graphically intensive action games and expect great visuals and fast frame rates.
And it has a price tag to match - the expected US launch price is $600, which is likely to equate to somewhere around the £500 mark in the UK. Which begs the question, who on earth would spend that much money on a graphics card? Well, it's actually much the same price as a pair of Voodoo 2 graphics cards "back in the day", and yet many hardcore gamers bought two of the cards to use in tandem. It's something of a niche market, but it is there.
The Voodoo 5 6000 should also reclaim the speed crown for 3dfx after what has been a rather terrible year for the company. Even NVIDIA's recently announced GeForce 2 Ultra (itself expected to cost about $500) is unlikely to offer the sheer grunt of the Voodoo 5 6000, although it will probably come close.
The bad news for those of you chomping at the bit to get hold of one of these monstrous cards is that they still aren't available. 3dfx are promising them for this "autumn" though, and unofficially we were assured that they would be out in time for the Comdex trade show, which means they should start appearing towards the end of October hopefully.
At £500 the Voodoo 5 6000 is an expensive purchase, and one which will have a very short shelf-life. 3dfx will no doubt have another generation of cards out next year based on their "Rampage" chip, which will include support for T&L acceleration as well as all the features of the current range. Meanwhile NVIDIA will have their own NV20 card next spring, with an even faster version this time next year.
But if you absolutely must have the best silicon that money can buy, for the moment this is it. It looks ridiculous, and will suck enough power out of your mains to black out the entire neighbourhood, but it does provide great image quality and the fastest frame rates on the planet.