3dfx

From Academic Kids

3dfx Interactive was a company which specialized in the manufacturing of 3D graphics cards and graphics processing units. Initially dominating the field, by late 2000 it underwent one of the most high-profile demises in the history of the PC industry. It was headquartered in San Jose, California until it left the graphics business and its intellectual assets (and many employees) were acquired by its one-time rival, NVIDIA Corporation.

Contents

Early history

Founded in 1994, 3dfx released its famous Voodoo Graphics chipset after two years (1996.) After a fortuitous drop in EDO RAM prices (due to the volatile DRAM market), the Voodoo Graphics became feasible for the consumer PC market. The Voodoo was the first 3D accelerator that actually accelerated graphics performance, most systems of the era performed no better, if not worse, than software rendering engines.

The Voodoo 1, as the Voodoo Graphics would be later known, was notable for its lack of an onboard VGA controller. This meant a Voodoo equipped PC still required a separate VGA graphics card for 2D-display support. The Voodoo 1 occupied a separate PCI-slot and only kicked in when the host-PC ran 3D-applications/games programmed to use the Voodoo. A passthrough VGA-cable daisy-chained the VGA-card to the Voodoo 1, and then to the monitor. Although this is a cumbersome arrangement, hard-core PC gamers were willing to put up with it to gain what was (then) the ultimate in 3D-graphics.

In order to ensure the best performance, 3dfx developed the proprietary Glide API. Glide exposed the Voodoo's internal hardware to application programmers directly. Other 3D/APIs of the era (Direct3D, OpenGL, and QuickDraw 3D) hid low-level hardware behind an "abstraction-layer," with the goal of providing application-developers a standard, hardware-neutral interface.

Much of the Voodoo's popularity was due to the close ties between Glide and OpenGL. In fact, Quake used a cut-down version of OpenGL known as MiniGL that ran quickly on the Voodoo. Quake was a "killer-application", leading to many Voodoo 1 sales.

The Voodoo 1's main competition was PowerVR and Rendition. PowerVR produced a similar 3D add-on card, whereas Rendition offered an integrated (3D+VGA) single-chip solution. Neither competitor achieved the Voodoo 1's popularity among gamers and developers.

In August 1997, 3dfx released Voodoo Rush, combining a Voodoo chipset with a 2D chip from Alliance Semiconductor on the same circuit board. Unfortunately it performed worse than the Voodoo 1 primarily owing to the fact that the 2D and 3D cores shared the same memory interface, incurring a 10% performance hit. Later versions released by Hercules had 8MB of ram and 10% higher clock speed to close the performance gap, but in the marketplace the damage had already been done.

In 1998, 3dfx released Voodoo's successor, the Voodoo 2. The Voodoo 2 was architecturally similar, but the basic board configuration added a second texturing unit, allowing two textures to be drawn in a single pass. The Voodoo 2 also had a faster clock-rate (90MHz), a wider memory bus (192-bit, compared to Voodoo's 128-bit), and a support for larger amounts of memory (up to 8 MB texture / 4 MB frame buffer compared to the Voodoo's 4 MB texture / 2 MB frame buffer.) A single Voodoo 2 board could display a maximum resolution of 800×600 with higher quality textures.

The Voodoo 2 introduced Scan-Line Interleave (SLI) to the gaming market. In SLI-mode, two Voodoo 2 boards were connected together, each drawing half the scanlines of the screen. For the price of a second Voodoo 2 board, users could essentially double their 3D-throughput. A welcome side-effect of SLI-mode was an increase in the highest-supported resolution, up to a then-impressive 1024×768.

A problem with the Voodoo 2 was the fact that it required three chips and a separate VGA graphics-card, whereas competing 3D-products (such as the ATI Rage Pro, NVIDIA Riva 128, and Rendition Verite 2200) were single-chip products. Near the end of the 1998, 3dfx released the Voodoo Banshee to address an emerging mainstream market.

A single-chip solution, the Banshee was basically a legacy VGA-core and part of a Voodoo 2 (one TMU), clocked slightly faster than the Voodoo 2. The Banshee's single-chip formfactor dictated a 128-bit memory bus, like the first Voodoo. Performance-wise, the Banshee was a mixed bag. In scenes which used multiple textures per polygon, the Voodoo 2 was substantially faster (due to the 2nd TMU.) In scenes dominated by single-textured polygons, the Banshee would match (or even slightly exceed) the Voodoo 2. While it was not a hit on the scale of Voodoo 1 or 2, the Banshee sold a respectable number of units (mainly to OEMs.)

Decline

In mid-1999 the Voodoo 3 was released, which was at heart a dual-core Voodoo 2 with Banshee's 2D core. It was a compelling solution, since an SLI-configured Voodoo 2 took up three slots, including the 2D card. However, given its design legacy it lacked support for several technologies that its competitors, ATI Technologies, Matrox and NVIDIA had since integrated, most notably 32-bit color support, followed by textures greater than 256*256 in size. Just prior to the launch of Voodoo 3, 3dfx bought out STB Systems, which was one of the main graphics-cards manufacturers at the time. It's generally thought that this move was one of the main contributors to 3dfx's downfall, since 3dfx did not sell any Voodoo 3, 4, or 5 chips to third party manufacturers, while NVIDIA were selling all of their processors through third-party card makers. The Voodoo 3 sold relatively well, but disappointingly compared to the first two models.

Their next (and as it would turn out, final) product was code-named Napalm. Originally, this was just a Voodoo 3 modified to support newer technologies and higher clock speeds, with performance estimated to be around the level of the NVIDIA TNT2. However, Napalm was delayed, and in the meantime NVIDIA brought out their GeForce chip, which shifted most of the computational work from the CPU to the graphics chip. Napalm would have been unable to compete with GeForce, so it was redesigned to support multiple chip configurations, like the Voodoo 2 had. The end-product was named VSA-100, which stood for Voodoo Scalable Architecture.

The two initial products were the Voodoo 4 4500 (single chip) and the Voodoo 5 5500 (dual chip), with a further two parts, the Voodoo 5 5000 (dual chip, but with a smaller frame buffer) and the Voodoo 5 6000 (quad chip) due to be launched later. But by the time the VSA-100 based cards made it to the market, the second-generation GeForce cards had arrived, which offered substantially better performance. By this point ATI had also released their Radeon line, which performed competitively with the GeForce 2 line. The only real advantage the Voodoo 5 5500 had over the GeForce 2 GTS or Radeon was that it had a better anti-aliasing implementation, and didn't lose as much performance when AA was enabled. Voodoo 4 4500 was beaten in almost all areas by the Geforce 2 MX and Radeon VE.

The Voodoo 5 6000 never got to the market, due to a severe bug resulting in data corruption on the AGP bus on certain boards, and was limited to AGP 2*, which would have prevented its use on the then-new Pentium 4 motherboards. Later tests proved that while the Voodoo 5 6000 would have been able to outperform the Geforce 2 GTS, it would've been outperformed by the Geforce 2 Ultra and the Geforce 3. The Voodoo 5 5000 never got launched either, as the smaller framebuffer didn't significantly reduce cost over the Voodoo 5 5500.

Voodoo 4 was as much of a disaster as Voodoo Rush, and while Voodoo 5's sales were respectable, they were nowhere near as good as 3dfx needed. In late 2000, several of 3dfx's creditors decided to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. 3dfx would have had virtually no chance of winning these proceedings, and instead opted to be bought by NVIDIA, ceasing to exist as a company. Most of the design team that were working on Rampage (the successor to the VSA-100 line) were transferred to the team working on what has since become the GeForce FX series.

3dfx's decline is a matter of debate, but it is most often attributed to managerial prioritizing of research and development. Voodoo cards were typically highly expensive, and left the mid and low end of the market to ATI and NVIDIA. NVIDIA chose short development cycles whereas 3dfx pursued lengthy development cycles, and NVIDIA and ATI cards had better overall performance, with Matrox holding the edge in image quality. The Rampage card, which 3dfx put much effort into but never was able to bring to market, is said to have been technologically several years ahead of the competition.

While some have theorized shipping the Rampage might have saved 3dfx, the fact remains the company never mastered designing cheap, high performance dies, with integrated high quality 2D acceleration, of the type NVIDIA pioneered. The success of Rampage world have depended not simply upon raw performance, but also upon costs of manufacturing. It is open to question, as to whether Rampage would have been a practical product, and whether it would have enabled 3dfx to retain a dominant high volume position in the graphics industry.

Chipset table

ChipsetComponentsCore Speed
(MHz)
Memory Speed
(MHz)
MemoryBus
Voodoo 11 Geometry Unit, 1 Texturing unit (no VGA)75754MB or 6MBPCI
Voodoo Rush v11 Geometry Unit, 1 Texturing Unit, 1 Alliance Semiconductor 2D processor75754MB or 6MBPCI
Voodoo Rush v21 Geometry Unit, 1 Texturing Unit, 1 Cirrus Logic 2D processor80806MBPCI
Voodoo 2 10001 Geometry Unit, 2 Texturing Units90908MB or 12MBPCI
BansheeSingle-Chip (3D+VGA)10010016MBAGP 1x
Voodoo 3 1000Single-Chip1251258MBAGP 2x/PCI
Voodoo 3 2000Single-Chip14314316MBAGP 2x/PCI
Voodoo 3 3000Single-Chip16616616MBAGP 2x/PCI
Voodoo 3 3500Graphics processor, A/V processor18318316MBAGP 2x
Voodoo 4 4500Single-Chip16616632MBAGP 4x/PCI
Voodoo 5 5000Two Graphics processors16616632MB*PCI
Voodoo 5 5500Two Graphics processors16616664MB*AGP 4x/PCI
Voodoo 5 6000Four Graphics processors166†166†128MB**AGP 4x
  • 3D+VGA - products before the Banshee contain only a 3D core (no legacy/VGA)
  • †The VooDoo5 6000 was originally intended to have a core and memory clock of 183MHz, but all of the prototypes running at 183MHz stopped working after a short while. The only still-working VooDoo5 6000s all run at 166MHz, and 3dfx had decided to drop the 183/183MHz idea anyway.
  • *Shared by two processors; effectively 32MB VRAM.
  • **Shared by four processors; effectively 32MB VRAM.

</table>

External links

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