Gaming and 3D Video Cards
Brian Rumsey - 2001.06.01
As some of you may have noticed, I've been writing less frequently over the last few months. This has been due to schoolwork. However, I've now been done with classes for a few weeks - long enough to get back into the flow of the gaming world.
One of the greatest developments over the last few months is Mac OS X. However, I don't have much experience with X yet, so I won't try to write a column about it.
Another area in which the landscape is changing rapidly is in 3D acceleration. There are a lot of different things to know about modern 3D hardware and how it relates to gaming, so I will try to clarify things a bit.
For those of you who aren't really sure what it is, hardware 3D acceleration is a feature found on most newer graphics cards which greatly improves the rendering of 3D objects on your screen. In general it comes in the form of a video card which takes care of running your monitor (although in a few cases, the 3D accelerator only runs the 3D things, leaving the rest to your other graphics support).
One of the most common uses of 3D acceleration is improving the appearance of games. The first games to take advantage of 3D acceleration, around 1996-1997, were mainly first-person action games, but more and more games are using 3D acceleration.
The earliest Mac to ship with built in 3D acceleration was the original Power Macintosh G3, and all Macs since then have included some form of hardware 3D acceleration except for the original PowerBook G3. Several clones also came with hardware 3D acceleration.
3D Video Cards
There are several companies which are or have been involved in the Mac 3D acceleration market. Three of the biggest names are 3Dfx Interactive, ATI Technologies, and NVidia.
3Dfx is generally credited with starting the 3D revolution, with its Voodoo Graphics card (sometimes called Voodoo1 after the release of newer Voodoo cards). All the 3Dfx chipsets have made it to the Mac in some form, but 3Dfx was bought out by NVidia in late 2000 and is no longer making graphics cards.
For a long time ATI was the company which supplied Apple with all of its graphics cards, and it still is Apple's primary suppliers.
NVidia has made 3D accelerators for other platforms for quite a while, but has only lately entered the Mac market. Apple now seems to be favoring NVidia, even though it still uses some ATI products.
There are some other companies in the market as well, such as Formac, but though their cards may support 3D acceleration, they are generally not targeted specifically at gamers.
3D Video Standards
There are three main standards (or APIs) for hardware acceleration: Glide, RAVE, and OpenGL. These are the way the program interfaces with the graphics card. Glide is supported by 3Dfx cards. RAVE was initially the favored standard for use with ATI cards, but it has been less favored lately. At the same time, other cards besides ATI have gained support for RAVE. OpenGL seems to be the standard of the immediate future, at least on the Mac. Any modern 3D card should support it, as do most 3D games.
You may be wondering whether your 3D acceleration is adequate, or, if you do not have a 3D accelerated graphics card, whether you should get one. To start with, any pre-PCI Mac cannot have 3D acceleration. No 3D accelerator cards were ever made to fit the NuBus slot. If this does not eliminate you, read on and see what I have to say.
ATI's cards can basically be grouped into three generations from oldest to newest: Rage Pro, Rage 128, and Radeon. Anything older will not be of much help to modern games.
3Dfx' cards can also be more or less put into three generations: Voodoo1/2, Voodoo3, and Voodoo4/5.
There are two generations of NVidia cards with Mac support: GeForce 2 and GeForce 3.
Currently, many games will still run on Rage Pro or Voodoo1/2 cards, but not optimally. Rage 128 is still widely supported and is, in fact, still used in some Apple products. Voodoo3 was never officially supported by Apple, but 3Dfx unofficially supported it with downloadable drivers. Voodoo3 cards, while no longer superfast, should run most games. Radeon, Voodoo4/5, and all NVidia Mac cards are more than adequate power for current games.
PCI or AGP?
If you have a PCI-only Mac, your options are shrinking unless you are willing to buy a used card. All 3Dfx cards are available in PCI versions, but with 3Dfx' demise, they are no longer being sold new. ATI has produced PCI versions of all their cards, but on May 30 they announced some changes to their business structure. It remains to be seen how this may affect their production of ATI-branded cards. NVidia sells their chips to other companies, none of which produce a PCI card for Macs. Formac does produce PCI versions of their cards. It is doubtful that the PCI market will completely disappear for a while, since there will be some demand from people using dual monitor setups, but the market is shrinking.
So, to upgrade or not to upgrade?
If you have a pre-G3 and no acceleration, you should first make sure you are using a modern Mac OS (8.6 or higher) and have at least 64 MB of RAM. Then you can think about 3D. Any card will help, but the best choice may be a Voodoo3 or Rage 128. More is always better, but a pre-G3 computer is too old to fully utilize more modern cards. The Rage may be the better choice overall because of its better support.
If you have a G3 or higher, you probably have enough power to fully utilize the most powerful cards. The Voodoo5 is a nice card, but don't expect support under OS X. The Radeon is probably your best bet if your system is PCI only.
If you have AGP, the GeForce 3 is the most powerful card available, but it comes at a higher price. Even a Rage 128 or Voodoo3 will provide adequate but not earth-shattering acceleration for a modern system. If choosing between a Radeon and GeForce 2, I'd go with the Radeon.
If your Mac is a laptop, you're stuck with whatever it came with. Ditto for the iMac, except for the first models, which can have a special Voodoo2 card added to them. The G4 Cube has a standard AGP slot, but there is physically not enough space in the Cube for some cards. Check before you buy.
There are other considerations besides just what chip powers the board. The amount of video RAM (VRAM) on the card is also important. Obviously, the more, the better. Unless you are just getting a cheap card, make sure you are getting at least 16 MB.
2D performance is more important to some people than others. Sites such as Accelerate Your Mac have detailed performance analyses of most Mac video cards.
Some cards also have additional features such as video in and/or out, and DVD support.
The best rule in upgrading your 3D acceleration, if you have decided to do so, is to decide how much you think you should spend. Getting an ATI Radeon for that Power Mac 7200 would certainly be cool, but the $175 Radeon might be worth more than the rest of the system combined.
FYI, the system I am writing this on (a PowerBase 180) is driven by a Voodoo3 2000. I also use a Voodoo5 5500 on my other computer (a 7300/G3). I like 3Dfx' products and would recommend them strongly if 3Dfx was still around. That said, I still hope to play with a PCI Radeon sooner or later.
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