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xNick Cross

3dfx

the end of a legend ?

 

In 1996, a new breed of graphics cards had evolved. 3D graphics cards such as the Matrox Mystique were beginning to appear as people were realising that games needed dedicated graphics acceleration. The Matrox cards were a good start but didn't have a wide enough range of 3D features to grab the attention of the public.

In 1997, 3dfx entered the market with the Voodoo. Voodoo graphics came in two flavours - Voodoo Rush and as a dedicated 3D board. In particular, the dedicated board revolutionised the computer market. Power gamers used a combination of the Voodoo and a fast 2D card such as the Matrox Millenium for top performance. Games such as GL Quake were showing the true potential of the PC, and the graphics market had come alive with new cards and technologies, all trying to compete with 3dfx with cards such as S3. However, very few succeeded.

Then, as the market was expanding rapidly, a small company known as nVidia appeared. nVidia weren't new to the market; their first attempt - not so well known - produced a pitiful chip, and when the Riva 128 was announced, it wasn't a surprise that no one really got worried about it. But when the Riva hit the market, the graphics industry was shocked - how could a company with such little experience make such an influential graphics chip.
The Riva was fast in direct 3D, and had a nice set of 3D features which stood up to the might of 3dfx. 3dfx quickly retaliated with the Voodoo 2. The Voodoo 2 was untouchable; nothing in the current generation came close. The new nVidia TNT and Matrox G100/200 series were showing how serious the market was getting, and how the graphics market couldn't afford to be just for dedicated cards. The Voodoo 2 held the fort with SLI (two cards could be used together for ultimate performance) as the fastest combination for gamers . 'The Voodoo 2 was untouchable; nothing in the current generation came close.'
The Voodoo Banshee was 3dfx's first answer to a 2D/3D card, like the Voodoo Rush, 2D performance was an issue. However by this time, 2D performance was not a problem with the CPU speed wars between AMD and Intel. With the release of the Voodoo 3 2000, 3000 (and less common 1000), 3dfx had a good hold of their competitors at the current generation of cards.

The next incarnations of nVidia's TNT, the TNT2 and Ultra, had 3dfx worried. However, the new 'NV10' was in the pipeline, and for the moment, Matrox ruled the performance graphs briefly with the G400 max. The G400 cards were not always bought for their 3D performance, but for other features such as crystal clear 2D quality, hardware bump mapping, and dual monitor capabilities on some cards, which made the Matrox more resilient to 3D speed based competition. S3 were also busy with the Savage 4 - a card which never lived up to its hype, but sold at a price to tempt gamers on a small budget. Determined to lead the market, 3dfx soldiered on with the Voodoo 3 range, with other manufacturers such as Matrox and S3 shying away from the oncoming NV10, which was surrounded in hype - boasting its speed in particular.


The Voodoo 3 range had a number of flaws, which had been picked up on by nVidia. Firstly, no V3 has higher than 16Mb of video RAM, so high resolutions and 32-bit colour were not possible. Not only the RAM let the card down; the V3 CPU was incapable of rendering 3D in 32-bit colour, and many people have complained about this suggesting that the image quality of the V3 is poor. Finally, the card is based around the PCI architecture, this is fine for PCI-based systems, but the AGP version is essentially a PCI card with AGP pin outs - this held back the card's AGP performance.


By late 1999, the nVidia NV10 had been officially named the GeForce, and 3dfx's demise had truly begun. Like the Voodoo 3 series, the Geforce came in two different models, the SDR and DDR. There was a significant boost in the DDR version, which happened to top every 3D benchmark possible, with the SDR version still capable of pushing off the opposition. The GeForce DDR had restructured the 3D graphics market, pushing 3dfx backwards. With 32-bit colour 3D acceleration, Texture & Lighting, DDR RAM, 32 megs of RAM and 3D performance which wiped the board, the GeForce softened 3dfx's' stake in the market. Even the SDR GeForce, at more affordable prices, couldn't be reached in performance by 3dfx. The Voodoo 3500 TV was an attempt to regain lost market share, by touching on a niche market with unique features, but even the increased speed and features did not fix the V3.

By now, S3 had bailed out of the market, unable to keep up with the fierce fighting between 3dfx and nVidia. Matrox, now lagging behind, had no real cause for concern, and continued to produce the G400 series. However, only the Voodoo 5 could repair the wrongs of the V3.

The Voodoo 5 was originally planned as a 3 board family, the V5 4500 as a budget card, V5 5000 as a midrange card, and the V5 5500 as the flagship model. However, only the 4500 and 5500 were released, catering for the budget and high-end market, but not the vital mid-range market. The 4500 therefore, had to be marketed as a mid-range and budget card, though could not keep up with the GeForce. The 5500 on the other hand, with two CPUs and 64megs of ram managed to top the GeForce DDR - just.
Looming around the corner was the GeForce 2 series, with more arsenal than ever before. The GeForce 2 came in the form of several boards: the GeForce 2 MX, the GeForce 2 GTS and the GeForce 2 Ultra. The budget MX thrashed the V5 4500, the GTS caused problems for even the V5 5500, and the Ultra took nVidia to the top spot once more. '3dfx were beginning to sweat. They had never been in so much trouble before'

By now, 3dfx were beginning to sweat. They had never been in so much trouble before, rapidly losing market share to nVidia. Then came the ATi Radeon. ATi always had a good share of the graphics market, being a key OEM supplier, but it never really competed with true high-end graphics, and were not always high performance cards. Nevertheless, the Radeon blasted this fact into oblivion, hitting out directly at the GeForce 2. The Radeon could perform, the GeForce 2 could perform, the V5 5500 was also a strong performance card but could not keep up with the competition. With two CPUs and an oversized card to hold them, production costs were high, and 3dfx could not afford to keep on manufacturing expensive cards to keep up with the competition. Now, 3dfx are looking to follow in S3's footsteps, and bail out of the market, leaving the war to continue between the two big players, ATi and nVidia.

3dfx revolutionised the graphics market with its gaming cards in 1997, creating a new market from nothing. It allowed nVidia to rise later with the Riva 128, and nVidia and 3dfx have battled viciously from then to now, with nVidia boasting of a near perfect track record constantly becoming more powerful. 3dfx's future is now uncertain with a possible takeover by nVidia, and it is unknown if the company will still produce graphics chips for sale to third parties (as nVidia do). Whatever happens though, 3dfx will not be forgotten. Nearly all 3D gamers would have owned a 3dfx card at one point in their lives during the company's short life, be it the Voodoo 1, 2, 3 or 5, with 3dfx being the King of 3D for so long. However nVidia has taken the position of 3dfx and is now the leader of the game in an aggressive market which causes firms to pay the ultimate price for failure.



Nick Cross

20/11/2000
 

 

 

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