|STB Velocity 4400 AGP
By Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson
A couple of weeks back we put up our first review of the STB V4400. The board on which we based the review was in fact a reference board, running a bit faster than the production version. Now we have in hand the production board and this review will update you based on results with the same board you would buy.
The STB V4400 is already proving to be one of the muscle cars of D3d this year. The new Riva TNT chip has TWIN texel units (texture processing) and will produce up to 250 million pixels/sec fill rate by the time it reaches maturity. Design specs for the TNT are similar to the No.9 Revolution IV except that the floating point processor on the TNT is almost twice as powerful as that on the Revolution IV.
Unlike my original installation of the board, this one went smoothly. (The first time around I had some kind of hardware conflict, likely related to the number of video boards that I had installed and uninstalled on my system). The driver version is currently at 1.31 and both 2d and 3d are extremely fast.
My initial tests three weeks ago placed the STB 4400 at 25% faster than the Matrox MGA G200, and about equivalent in D3d to a single V2 board. However, with later drivers and the earlier conflict eliminated, my frame rate in EAW DOUBLED over the MGA G200, and my frame rate in MS CFS and Falcon 4 beta was 50% higher than the same resolution with the Mystique, and approximately 20% higher than my Wicked 3d-2 Voodoo 2 based 12 meg board.
Stop and consider that data for a moment. The STB compared the to new Mystique G200 was minimum 50% faster under D3d. This means that it is equivalent to taking your CPU and increasing the clock rating by 50% at a much lower cost. This board is hot, especially at the street price of 169 US!
Image quality is comparable to the new Mystique, and with none of the artifacts associated with the original Riva chip. In fact, recent press releases have pointed out that nVidia actually assisted Microsoft with the DX6 specification, so obviously compatability will not be an issue this time around.
The TNT pipeline is a full 32 bits color so that image quality where supported by software will be better than 3dfx V2 (although current drivers are slow at that color depth). Furthermore, the STB V4400 is a true AGP 2x part, so as a single board solution is a better option for D3d than Voodoo Banshee, unless you prefer to run Glide, the 3dfx specific interface. (Its true that the later Banshee will be a 2x AGP part, but not until early in 1999, and the V4400 also does OpenGL with great speed).
By the way, STBs tweak control panel is a utility up there with the best of them. Modeled after the RIVA Tweak utility that was released by nVidia last year, this control panel lets you customize a variety of settings for both OpenGL and Direct3D. For example, changing from "Enable Optimal DX6 Functionality" to "Disable DX6 functionality" will increase the frame rate in some games, and eliminate problems with others.
Not only this, but you can save individual configurations for specific games. This has become necessary because some DX5 games don't like DX6, and will actually run slower. No problem. You simply create a configuration with "Disable DX6 functionality" and maybe "Disable Auto Mip-Mapping" and save it with the name of the game for quick selection prior to launching your sim of choice.
The biggest surprise for me was that 3dfx Voodoo2 is no longer in the lead. Running EAW or running the Falcon 4.0 alpha, I was getting an improved frame rate on the V4400. Equally important, image quality and color depth was superior.
HUH? Pardon me? Did you hear that right?
Take off that helmet and listen up troops! I've been playing with STBs V4400 for well over a month now, and the most recent driver release of 1.31 allowed me to get a fix on a comparison to my Wicked3d-2, running Metabytes latest driver revision of 2.6.
To my delight, the STBV4400 with Riva TNT was now 20% faster than V2 in F4. However, it was 20% faster at higher resolution! I ran my V2 (12 meg) board at 800x600, the highest currently allowed for a single V2 board in Falcon 4. I ran the TNT (16 meg) at 1024x768 which looks FANTASTIC in Falcon 4.
What about Banshee, which is about 20% stronger than V2 in some applications? Results coming in now place TNT even stronger than Banshee. Is there a place for 3dfx Banshee in the 3d gaming scene? Yes! If you have anything less than a PII system you will benefit more from Banshee than those running PII 266 and up. On a Pentium 233 MMX system TNT will score the same or less than 3dfx Banshee.
Now what about the image itself? What is going on here? Colors are richer and textures seem clearer. The terrain somehow appears more solid. Initially I thought this might have to do with the way textures are swapped to RAM via AGP. But now I suspect the reason has to do with a new filtering technique called "anisotropic filtering."
Lest you think I just make this stuff up as I go =8^), let me explain. Keep in mind that I am a layman in these things!
Image filtering has become increasingly sophisticated with each generation of 3d hardware. At first we had Bilinear filtering: interpolating colors from 4 neighboring texels. Bilinear filtering gave a smoothing (though somewhat blurry) effect and made the scene look more natural. The main goal was to prevent abrupt transitions between neighboring texels. (A texel is a pixel with texture applied).
Then along came Trilinear filtering. This involved the interpolation of bilinearly filtered samples from two mip-maps. Trilinear mip-mapping prevents moving objects from displaying a distracting "sparkle" caused by abrupt transitions between mip-maps.
The STB V4400, as a result of technology in the Riva TNT chip, supports Anisotropic filtering. This method interpolates and filters multiple samples from one or more mip-maps to better approximate very distorted textures. It gives a sharper effect when severe perspective correction is used. Trilinear filtering blurs textures more.
And that, as they say.. is that! F4 at 800x600 on V2 compared to F4 at 800x600 on TNT looks quite different. On V2 there is a sparkly effect that at the same time lacks the sharpness and solidity of appearance under the STB V4400. And neither does the image have the same color depth. In spite of being selected at 16 bit color, the image looks a bit washed out. I suspect Banshee will improve this situation since it has a 24 bit color pipeline compared to V2's 16 bit pipeline. But Banshee completely lacks AGP features, in spite of its ability to sit in the AGP slot.
As for general features, the STB V4400 has a TV out that works fine. I tried it on my 29" set and it was comparable to the TV output of the Matrox MGA G200. The RAMDAC on the V4400 is 250MHz, so you can run your refresh rate to the roof without any difficulty. I run Microsoft CFS beta at 1024x768 and 100Mhz.. a solid and gorgeous image!
Its simply unbelievable how quickly 3d hardware has matured. If you want to run at high resolutions with stunning image quality, you don't have many choices: Matrox or STB can meet your needs. If you have an older machine, Voodoo Banshee is the way to go. Metabyte should have their Banshee Vengeance board on the streets in a week or two, rumor has it that Guillemot (Ubisoft) will release a 16 meg board UNDER $100!. But if you also need solid AGP performance, Matrox MGA G200 or STBs V4400 are the cards of choice.
What? You don't have an AGP slot but you want the fastest D3d board on the market? Watch this weekend for our review of the PCI version of the STB V4400. Onward and upward!
This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted in any form without permission of the publisher.
Last Updated September 24th, 1998