Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 11 (November 2000)

Next-Generation Graphics Cards

Trends this fall-besides the inevitable-though-always-welcome specter of more power for less money-include the ability to run two monitors with one accelerator, a trait shared by several of the newcomers. Also on the horizon-at last-are some professional-level choices for 3D Macintosh users.

The following cards represent the bulk of what's to come, with a new technology (not yet a product) at the high end, and several new boards for the mid-range and entry-level categories. We also look at some of those new choices for the Macintosh. All these boards are scheduled to ship by the end of this year.

The Wildcat 4210 is the board to which other graphics vendors compare their products. They may disparage its price (about $3000), its girth (a piggybacked daughterboard and two fans take up the space of two slots), and its hardware requirements (you need a machine that is AGP Pro 110-compliant to run a 4210). But it remains, at least for the time being, the commercial standard for pure performance.

Change is in the wind for the Wildcat, however. 3Dlabs has announced a new graphics technology that outperforms even that of the 4210. Interestingly, the first product to come out based on Wildcat II will replace the company's 4110 board, currently one step down from the 4210. According to a company spokesperson, the 4210 will continue to represent the top of the line, as it will still carry more texture memory and the Wildcat SuperScene anti-aliasing at up to HDTV resolutions, and will thus continue to appeal to users with heavy-duty requirements. 3Dlabs expects to announce the first Wildcat II product by the end of this year.

As is the case in so many areas of computer technology, the mid-range is catching up to the high end. Also nipping at the Wildcat's heels with some strong preliminary performance ratings are the Fire GL2 and Fire GL3 cards from FGL Graphics. Both incorporate the IBM RC 1000 256-bit graphics rasterizer and a 256-bit DDR memory interface that doubles usable bandwidth, providing faster frame rates at high resolutions. The higher end GL3, targeted at 3D animators and game developers, comes with 128mb of onboard memory and dual-monitor capability. The GL2, still marketed at 3D graphics professionals, and in particular, CAD users, supports AGP 2X/4X and comes with 64mb of onboard memory. The GL3 will sell for $1999 and the GL2 for $1199.

Also straddling the invisible divider between high end and mid-range is 3Dlabs' Oxygen GVX420, an accelerator the company has earmarked for demanding CAD and DCC applications. The GVX420 features two of 3Dlabs' new Glint R4 rasterization processors and one Glint Gamma G2 geometry processor. It has 128mb of on board memory and can be installed in a standard AGP as well as an AGP Pro system. The dual-screen-capable GVX420 can be used in single-screen mode, in which case both processors work in one frame buffer for maximum performance, or in dual-screen mode, with each processor driving a separate monitor. The price of the card is $2499.

An offering from 3Dlabs that falls more solidly into the mid-range than the company's GVX420 is the Oxygen GVX1 Pro, which comes with one Glint R4 processor and the Glint Gamma G2 geometry processor, and sells for $1199.

At Siggraph Elsa unveiled the latest in its mid-range Gloria line, the Elsa Gloria III AGP 64mb. Priced in the neighborhood of $1000 (price to be announced), the Gloria III will offer texture fill rates of one gigapixel per second, based on Nvidia's new Quadro2 Pro graphics processing unit. The card includes 64mb of DDR SDRAM and supports AGP 2X/4X. The Gloria III's counterpart, the Quadro2 Pro, is one of two initial offerings from 3D graphics semiconductor manufacturer Nvidia. The Quadro2 Pro is based on Nvidia' graphics processing unit of the same name, and is aimed at advanced professional 3D graphics users.

Elsa's new entry-level board, the Synergy III, is built on the Nvidia Quadro2 MXR processor. This sub-$500 accelerator comes with 32mb of SDRAM and supports AGP 2X/4X. The target user base for the Synergy III includes power 2D users and entry-level professional 3D users. Its OEM counterpart, Nvidia's Quadro2 MXR, is designed for mainstream professional users, with an emphasis on multidisplay configurations.

As it has for previous Apple systems, ATI Technologies will provide the official Apple graphics upgrade options for the latest Power Mac G4 and G4 Cube systems. The ATI Radeon Mac Edition is built on ATI's Radeon graphics processing unit and comes with 32mb of DDR SDRAM.

For the first time in a while, however, Mac users seeking professional-level 3D will have a wider range of choices. In conjunction with 3Dlabs, Macintosh accelerator manufacturer Formac has developed the Proformance 4, a Macintosh version of a board that uses 3Dlabs' Glint Gamma G2 and dual Glint R3 silicon to offer GVX210-like performance for Apple systems. And though vendor 3Dfx seems to be targeting its Voodoo5 product primarily at gamers, the card should provide respectable performance for professional 3D applications as well (for more about the Voodoo5, see pg. 12 in the October 2000 Spotlight). -Jenny Donelan

(ATI Technologies; Thornhill, Canada;
(Elsa; San Jose, CA;
(FGL Graphics; San Jose, CA;
(Formac; Pleasanton, CA;
(Nvidia; Santa Clara, CA;
(3dlabs; Sunnyvale, CA;