Is 3dfx's New 3D Board a GeForce Killer?

SAN FRANCISCO (07/04/2000) - Shattering records in 3D frame rates last year, the Voodoo3 2000 and 3000 AGP boards from 3dfx Interactive Inc. were at the top of their game.

But while those Voodoo3 boards may have once been the undisputed kings of graphics performance, three generations of newer NVidia boards have long since kicked 3dfx off the top of the heap. Finally, with NVidia GeForce2 GTS-based boards taking over the top spots on our Top 10 Graphics Boards for Gamers, 3dfx has brought a new board to market.

The company's new Voodoo5 5500 graphics board is loaded with two graphics chips and an amazing 64MB of video memory--and in our tests it set a new performance record with Unreal Tournament. Overall, however, this new offering could not overcome the generally faster NVidia GeForce2 GTS boards we've tested.

With this introduction, 3dfx has addressed one of the most notable deficiencies of this board's predecessors: the lack of support for 32-bit color in 3D gaming. And there's plenty of processing power, with twin VSA-100 graphics chips and a quick 350-MHz RAMDAC. Similar to the high-powered NVidia GeForce2 GTS boards we've seen, the Voodoo5 5500 is pricey, costing $300.

Installation involves an extra step beyond that required for the average card, because this board requires more power than the AGP slot can give it. You'll need to plug one of your PC's internal power leads into the board. (If yours are already used up by drives, 3dfx supplies a Y-cable that you can use to provide an extra connector.) You'll also want to make sure your existing power supply is up to the task if you're adding a Voodoo5 to an already loaded system.

Bring On the Games

The Voodoo5 5500 earned the fastest 16-bit and 32-bit color frame rates we've seen in Unreal Tournament, scoring 51 frames per second and 48 fps, respectively--slightly higher than any of the GeForce 256 or GeForce2 GTS boards we've tested. But the frame rates in Quake III Arena were substantially lower than those of the GeForce2 GTS boards, the fastest of which are up to 90 fps using 16-bit color: The Voodoo5 5500 managed only 69 fps in 16-bit color and 1 fps lower in 32-bit color.

The new board produced good-looking images. Weapon effects and background objects in Quake III were sharp, thanks to the card's full-screen antialiasing capabilities (although the "jaggies" this technology removes aren't as noticeable at higher resolutions). Ambient lighting, however, appeared overly contrasted in light areas and a bit murky in darker areas.

The Voodoo5 uses T-Buffer Cinematic Effects, which improves motion effects and shadowing for a more realistic 3D display. However, its lack of hardware transform-and-lighting support (which the GeForce2 GTS boards have) again puts the Voodoo5 behind in the 3D technology curve, just as the lack of 32-bit color support did for the Voodoo3 line.

While the Voodoo5's high frame rates made game play smooth in Unreal Tournament, the overall quality of the graphics in that game wasn't as sharp as it is with a GeForce-based board. Wall textures appeared fuzzy, water looked blotchy, and the overall game was dark. For better aesthetics in Unreal Tournament, we recommend a GeForce2 board.

We also wonder whether shelling out for the 64MB of memory might be overkill.

That amount of memory only helps games in which huge textures would fill up the memory of a 32MB card, and no current games do that. Unlike the new NVidia boards, which use Double Data Rate memory, the new Voodoo5 5500 uses slower Single Data Rate SDRAM.

Overall, we were impressed with the Voodoo5 compared to 3dfx's previous offerings. The graphics looked great, and the frame rates were speedy in most games. But the frame rates and superior graphics quality of the GeForce2 GTS boards makes NVidia still the one to beat.

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