3D Video Sizzles!
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1999. First
published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, September 1999
Way back, in the dawn of the Windows-PC era, I saw a
pair of Compaq PCs, identical, except for video cards, running a long,
complex Excel macro. One computer finished the task in 2/3 the time of
the other. I might have thought that the speed of working with a
might be related to CPU power, or a math co-processor?who would have
there?d be such a dramatic difference due to video cards.
In fact, even with plain-Jane business applications
like a spreadsheet,
the time it takes to redraw the screen could make a noticeable
Video cards have come a long way from 1990, when a
sported a VGA card with 256 kb of dedicated video ram?not enough to
Windows in 256 colours, in a humble 640x480 screen resolution.
Now, many computers are coming standard with video
cards with 8 megs
or more ram, and in many cases sport processors that are as complex as
the Pentium cpu that was ran entire computers not long ago. The result,
for most users, is video card overkill?screen resolutions and colour
that are more than most users will ever use. And remember, in most
more video ram doesn?t equal faster performance?just the ability to run
at ever-higher resolutions.
For business computer users, in fact, recent
improvements in video cards
haven?t produced much in the way of noticeable differences, despite my
Excel example. The video demands of typical business applications have
been long met.
Instead, like much of the recent technological
improvements in personal
computing, the evolution of video cards has been pushed primarily by
In fact, they are more than anything, due to a single game: Doom.
The 3D action in that popular game of a couple of
years ago, made demands
that the typical video card of that era couldn?t begin to handle.
were demanding an increase in the frame-rate, in order to provide an
sense of realism. Along with that were demands to process a variety of
graphics effects that were bogging down the main CPU.
For a couple of years, these were dealt with add-on
cards. These cards, from a range of companies, were built using one of
a handful of chipsets. Typically, a user plugged one into a spare PCI
then plugged a short cable from their original video card into the 3D
input, plugging the monitor into that card?s output.
Normal 2D video output passed through the 3D card
untouched. Games or
other 3D data was processed by the 3D card?if the game supported the
chipset and driver. A big if. Without a standard, it was difficult and
time consuming for game programmers to write to every variation of 3D
Perhaps the biggest name from that era was 3DFx. While
producing cards of their own, this company?s chipset appeared in cards
from Diamond and Creative Labs and other brands. And the 3DFx Glide
standard was perhaps the most widely supported in games software. As a
result, the company pretty much set the standard for both programmers
Since that era (perhaps two years ago?a couple of
video card time running at about the same rate as Internet time), there
have been two big changes, one involving software, the other, hardware.
Microsoft has been pushing to move the gaming industry
for DOS to writing for Windows 9x? programmers liked the way DOS
them to write directly to the hardware and avoid the overhead of the
interface?letting them get the best possible performance. The downside,
as mentioned, was the need, in many cases, to write custom drivers for
each variety of sound and video hardware on the market.
Windows provided a layer of driver support, freeing
having to write their own. And new generations of APIs (Application
Interfaces) like DirectX and Direct3D have made it easier to create 3D
games without having to write for specific 3D chipsets. Initially,
were resistant?early versions of these APIs were buggy and poor
But Microsoft is persistent, and has steadily improved performance
there remains a lot of support for alternative standards, such as
Recent tests by GameSpot and others suggest that Microsoft has
closed the performance gap between Direct3D and 3DFx?s proprietary
As well, 3D graphics has become mainstream?mostly by
the merger of the
standard 2D video card and the add-on 3D card.
Today, most name brand video cards include both 2D and
on a single card. And where as recently as a year ago, such cards
sub-standard performance, today?s cards are hot. In fact, the market
add-on 3D cards has pretty much disappeared.
Where last year a gamer?s lust item might be a 3D
add-on card based
on 3DFx?s VooDoo 2 chipset, this year 3DFx is marketing its own PCI and
AGP cards, combining 2D and 3D video, and based on their new VooDoo 3
But 3DFx is no longer the one to beat. There are a
number of competing
technologies, including the proprietary chipsets used by Canadian
and ATI, S3, and 3D Labs. Each has its share of fans?ATI?s Rage 128
for example, were considered hot performers around the beginning of the
year. A company?s driver update can result in a big improvement in
Right now, perhaps the most desired is Nvidia?s TNT 2, used by a number
of companies, including Hercules and Creative Labs, who switched from
VooDoo to TNT2 in their cards. (And Creative Labs is developing a
to allow games written to 3DFx Glide standard to run on the company?s
Of course, that?s the state of graphics as of when I
write?this is one
of the more dynamic areas of personal computing?the only prediction I?m
prepared to stand by is that in six months or so, everything will be
Wholesalers and vendors need to be aware that there are a wide range of
products offering acceptable performance combining 2D and 3D video, but
if they are aiming to sell to the volatile trend-setting game market,
will need to stay aware of this rapidly changing market.
For more information on specific 3D products and
chipset, check out
GameSpot?s review at: www.gamespot.com/features/builtforspeed/