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REVIEW JULY 26, 2000
First Look: 3dfx Voodoo 5 Raises the Stakes for Mac Display [continued]

"The product introductions here at Macworld are a long way from the end of what we want to see happen," says Speece. "We want to see this drive developers to push harder at the limits of Mac gaming technology, which will drive our development team to introduce new technologies for developers to use, and so on. We really see this as the beginning of a different world for Mac gamers and developers."

One of the most exciting technologies I saw is what 3dfx calls Full Scene Antialiasing (FSA), which does exactly what it suggests: it removes the flickering fine lines and random pixels common in high-resolution computer graphics. Computer artists have known for a long time that the secret to increasing realism for computer graphics is sometimes to increase blur. It seems counterintuitive, but blur is one reason why film images look more "real" to many eyes than video does, even though video can resolve finer details, details that can unfortunately cause visual interference. FSA smoothes out some of those overly sharp details in ways that add not only to the realism of moving scenes, but their enjoyability.

"In aiming for top performance, we used to stress frame rate. That made sense a few years ago when 20 frames per second was a big deal," Speece points out. "But as we all approach 60 frames per second, our competitors are by and large continuing to just increase frame rate. That really doesn't do anything for frame rate, except to increase the rate of the flicker. It actually makes things look worse because the flickering draws more attention to itself.

"When we first started talking about FSA, everybody ignored us. That became impossible as soon as they saw how amazing it looks," laughs Speece. But what they did was try to write hacks into the drivers, which runs the risk of incompatibilities. Sure enough, some computers are crashing when they try to run this kind of add-on code, and others are running so much slower that it's not worth using. Ours is the only full-scene antialiasing built into the chips, and," he adds with a smile, "we hold the patent on it."

As a result of all this processing power built into the chip, those 667,000 megapixels running 60 frames per second are sampled four times, and the antialiasing is calculated from the average of each of the samples. Rather than globally tossing out resolution with a heavy-handed blur, the 5500's silicon allows a highly sophisticated algorithm to take advantage of the unprecedented amount of data passing though its system to create an elegant image of unparalleled realism.

Which is just what gamers want when they blow something into smithereens.

The 4500, by the way, only offers two-time sampling, rather than four, but still looks stunning to me.

Using the sales volume of their PC products to provide economies of scale—their Mac offerings use the same VSA-100 chip as the PC line—the introductory prices for these cards are remarkably low: $199 for the 4500 and only $329 for the 5500.

The eagle-eyed will have noticed that the illustration of the Voodoo 5500 card above is a PCI card. The question immediately becomes, "Are these things worth using up one of the Macs precious PCI slots? The answer is yes—if you have a slot to spare. This is a non-issue for most gamers, of course, and likely for many graphics professionals, almost of all of whom have at least one slot open. For some video professionals, though, a spare PCI slot is out of the question. While this will cost 3dfx relatively few sales, I think it's a shame that it should cost them any. I hope they reconsider their decision not to bring out a Mac AGP card like they have for the peecee users. That high-end video and graphics professionals be among the handful of those shut out from using these miraculous cards is nothing short of tragic. (Did I say pretty please?)

But for anyone else, both of these cards are miraculous indeed. The Voodoo 5 4500 and 5500 cards are the only products I saw at Macworld that took my breath away as much as Apple's own product announcements. Anyone who has room for one of these should buy one. I really think it's just that simple. And most definitely not just gamers, either. Either is an absolute must for graphic artists, compositors, writers, scientists, indeed anyone who spends much time looking at their computer monitor. The Voodoo 5 4500 and 5500 represent the new standard for Mac display technology.


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