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On The Ropes?

Have 3dfx lost the plot? EuroGamer examines the latest announcements from Comdex...

A week ago 3dfx revealed that they were to be the first company to break the GigaPixel barrier.

With a fill rate in excess of one billion texels a second, their card would (theoretically, at least) be three or four times faster than their previous high end card, the Voodoo 3 3500.

Their competitors were beginning to look a bit silly - frontrunners NVIDIA had only just reached 480 MegaTexels a second, less than half the rate 3dfx's next card would offer. It was crushing.

Today though things look very different. Why? Because 3dfx have just announced that their top of the range "Voodoo 5 6000 AGP" graphics card, with the stunning fill rate of over 1300MT/s, will cost you $600.

Why does a mainstream user need to pay $180 for a graphics card? Answers on the back of a postcard to 3dfx...

Voodoo 4

The reason for the high cost becomes clear when you read the announcement - the card will use four processors and 128Mb of memory!

In fact, all of the Voodoo 4 and Voodoo 5 graphics cards will share the same VSA-100 graphics processor, they just vary in how many chips and how much memory they have on the card.

The cheapest card (at $180) will be the Voodoo 4 4500, with a single VSA-100 chip and 32Mb of memory, giving it a fill rate of between 333 and 367MT/s. Which (on paper) is no better than the current Voodoo 3 3500!

To be fair, 3dfx have also added support for 32 bit colour and large textures, but most of their competitors have had that for a year or more now. There is also support for S3TC texture compression (as used by S3's Savage cards and NVIDIA's GeForce 256), as well as 3dfx's own FXT1 texture compression system.

Interestingly though, the Voodoo 4 cards don't have the T-Buffer effects that 3dfx have been hyping for the last six months, and which seemed to be the only real feature that would make the card stand out from its competitors. Only the more powerful (and therefore more expensive) Voodoo 5 cards will support the T-Buffer, which makes the Voodoo 4 look even less attractive.

In fact, the Voodoo 4 seems to be a Voodoo 3 with all the features that 3dfx have been telling us we didn't want. All the features that their main rivals, S3 and NVIDIA, have already implemented.

Voodoo 5

What about the Voodoo 5?

Well, the cheapest one (at $230) is the Voodoo 5 5000 PCI, which has 2 VSA-100 processors, a T-Buffer, and 32Mb of memory, giving you a fill rate of around 700MT/s. But then who the hell still uses PCI graphics cards these days anyway?

The Voodoo 5 5500 AGP has the same fill rate as the 5000 PCI (are we confusing you yet?), but costs $300 and carries 64Mb of memory. That might sound like a lot of memory, but it isn't really.

Why not? Well, those of you who have been around for a while might remember that you could plug two of 3dfx's Voodoo 2 graphics card into your computer in tandem, effectively doubling the performance. The way it worked was by making each card draw alternate lines on your monitor. 3dfx call it Scan Line Interleaving, or SLI for short.

And that's how the Voodoo 5 works - it is really just two or more Voodoo 4s on a single card! Just as each Voodoo 2 in a SLI setup needed its own memory, so the two processors on the Voodoo 5 5500 will each need their own memory, meaning that in reality you are getting 32Mb for each, not 64Mb.

Which brings us back to the Voodoo 5 6000 AGP. This brute has four processors on the card, so to give each of them 32Mb it needs a massive 128Mb memory in total.

The performance is certainly impressive enough - 3dfx are promising between 1330 and 1470MT/s, which is three times more than any card currently on the market. But because you are effectively buying four Voodoo 4 cards in one, the price is suitably high.

The question is, will anybody pay $600 for a graphics card?

Is The Price Right?

And the answer is .. probably not.

3dfx's biggest problem is that their VSA-100 based cards don't have onboard Transform And Lighting (T&L) acceleration, unlike NVIDIA's GeForce 256 and S3's Savage 2000.

T&L acceleration takes some of the load off your CPU by handling more of the setting up and moving of the polygons that make up each scene in a 3D game.

Because cards like the GeForce 256 are specifically designed for this, they can do it much faster than your CPU, allowing game developers to use far more polygons in their games. What this means is more detailed scenery and characters.

3dfx are claiming that no games actually use T&L yet, and to some extent they are right. But by this time next year games specifically optimised for T&L acceleration should be appearing in large numbers.

We can also expect a new, even faster version of the GeForce 256 from NVIDIA about the same time the Voodoo 4 and Voodoo 5 cards start to appear, which could rain on 3dfx's parade. Although the next GeForce card is unlikely to reach the kind of fill rates promised for the Voodoo 5 6000, it will probably weigh in at about half the price, and have on board T&L support.

In fact, 3dfx themselves should be releasing a card with onboard T&L acceleration later next year, and no doubt it will have the same high fill rates as the Voodoo 5 cards.

In other words, the cards 3dfx announced today will be bargain bin fodder six months after they are released.

Break Out The Duct Tape

3dfx started the whole 3D graphics revolution back in 1995 with the original Voodoo Graphics chipset, but they seem to have lost the plot somewhere along the line.

Their new graphics cards were supposed to have been available in the autumn, but having been pushed back almost six months they are now revealed to be yet another rehash of the same four year old Voodoo design.

As one poster over at Voodoo Extreme commented, "this thing sounds like a Voodoo 3 SLI held together with a bunch of duct tape and bandaids".

From the evidence so far he seems to be right.