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 demonstration?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 spreadsheet might be related to CPU power, or a math co-processor?who would have thought 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 difference.

Video cards have come a long way from 1990, when a typical computer sported a VGA card with 256 kb of dedicated video ram?not enough to display 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 depth that are more than most users will ever use. And remember, in most cases, 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 gamers. 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. Gamers were demanding an increase in the frame-rate, in order to provide an increased 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?3D Graphics 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 slot, then plugged a short cable from their original video card into the 3D card?s 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 card?s 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 card available.

Perhaps the biggest name from that era was 3DFx. While initially not producing cards of their own, this company?s chipset appeared in cards from Diamond and Creative Labs and other brands. And the 3DFx Glide programming standard was perhaps the most widely supported in games software. As a result, the company pretty much set the standard for both programmers and gamers.

Since that era (perhaps two years ago?a couple of generations, with 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 from writing for DOS to writing for Windows 9x? programmers liked the way DOS allowed them to write directly to the hardware and avoid the overhead of the Windows 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 programmers from having to write their own. And new generations of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) like DirectX and Direct3D have made it easier to create 3D games without having to write for specific 3D chipsets. Initially, programmers were resistant?early versions of these APIs were buggy and poor performers. But Microsoft is persistent, and has steadily improved performance (though there remains a lot of support for alternative standards, such as OpenGL). Recent tests by GameSpot and others suggest that Microsoft has virtually closed the performance gap between Direct3D and 3DFx?s proprietary Glide API.

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 3D functions on a single card. And where as recently as a year ago, such cards offered sub-standard performance, today?s cards are hot. In fact, the market for 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 chips.

But 3DFx is no longer the one to beat. There are a number of competing technologies, including the proprietary chipsets used by Canadian Matrox and ATI, S3, and 3D Labs. Each has its share of fans?ATI?s Rage 128 cards, for example, were considered hot performers around the beginning of the year. A company?s driver update can result in a big improvement in performance. 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 offering VooDoo to TNT2 in their cards. (And Creative Labs is developing a technology to allow games written to 3DFx Glide standard to run on the company?s new products).

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 different. 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, they 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/

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan