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Game News March 2nd, 1999

by Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson

Video gaming hardware is subject to more hype than the World Series. It's a good indication of how intensely competitive the market has become, and also how intensely interested gamers are in developments in 3d hardware acceleration.

Metabyte is a software company best known for their software driver implementation. They seem able to work magic with resolutions, speed, and stability - good words in the 3d accelerator business!

In fact these guys are the only ones delivering 1024x1024 resolution on a Voodoo2 board, but they do more magic than that. They also unlock resolution limitations on popular games (their Re2Flex technology) like Longbow II.

In fact Metabyte has designed their driver to unlock the Scan Line Interleave (SLI) capabilities of ANY other Voodoo2 board. You can add a Metabyte Wicked3d-2 to any other Voodoo2 configuration and get full SLI, using two V2 boards in tandem.

Now it turns out that Metabyte has had a deeper reason for their research into SLI abilities. We spoke to Kerry Philpott, National Sales and Marketing Manager for Wicked3D, about recent developments in this hot technology. The news? Metabyte will soon licence their scan line interleave technology to main stream chip makers like Nvidia (TNT) and others.

Two TNT boards have been successfully run in scan line interleave mode. However, instead of rendering each 3D image's odd or even lines in succession the way 3Dfx's SLI system does, Metabyte's process separates the entire 3D image into top and bottom screen halves. Apparently this reduces the CPU overhead while also allowing for on the fly changing of texture load/swapping parameters.

The performance difference? According to Metabyte engineers this means a one hundred percent increase in fill rate. Unfortunately, this doesn't translate into a 100% increase in frame rate. But it does mean a 40% performance gain in Quake II and 70% performance gain in Forsaken. The 3dMark benchmark increases by around 50%, with up to 60% increase in higher resolutions.

Is Nividia's TNT the only chipset involved in their research? No, in fact they have also been working with the Banshee chip, although 3dfx hasn't expressed much interest in an SLI version of their Banshee boards. S3, on the other hand, has expressed interest in an SLI version of the Savage 4. Although nothing is certain at this date, the Savage 4 and TNT2 can both be made SLI capable and are both excellent candidates for SLI configurations.

How long does it take to make a chip SLI capable? Believe it or not, only four to six weeks of development time is necessary.

Both TNT and Savage 4 are great candidates for SLI configurations. Why?

First, because the chips themselves are full featured 3d accelerators and 32 bit capable. Second, price. A dual Savage 4 configuration could run as low as $200 US, with 16 meg of memory on each board. A dual TNT2 configuration would likely be between $250 and $300 US.

Third, raw horsepower. A standard TNT board puts out 200 Mpixels per second, or 4M Triangles per second. Metabyte's TNT in SLI mode is currently generating 400 Mpixels per second, and 8M Triangles per second.

And the Runner-Up Is...

At an estimated release price of $249.99, the Voodoo3 3500 is expected to deliver 8 M Triangles per second and 366 Mpixels per second. This means that TNT SLI may actually surpass the power of V3, and with superior image quality and able to address twice the memory at roughly the same cost.

As I mentioned in a previous article, Voodoo3 gives me that ho-hum feeling. At the low end, in the V3 2000 model, memory speed goes from 125MHz (current Banshee) to 143 MHz. That's a 15% speed increase over Banshee in most applications.

The Voodoo 3 model 3000 will carry 16MB of SGRAM at 166 MHz. This board will be AGP ONLY. The top model Voodoo3, the 3500, will feature 16MB of SGRAM memory clocked at 183MHz. At that clock speed we move 50% beyond the current Banshee, and the fill rate is estimated at 366Mtexels per second.

Click to continue . . .


3dfx vs TNT Evolution. Click for larger.

The graph shows performance in Mpixels per second from 3dfx V1/TNT original on the left to Voodoo3 model 3500/TNT2 SLI on the right. All figures are based on engineering department reports or estimates.

But Voodoo3 is still feature limited. TNT has features like 32 bits per pixel final color rendering and 32bit Z-buffer, as well as full DME texture swapping support for both the AGP and PCI versions. Furthermore, TNT features an 8-bit stencil buffer, allowing the TNT to offer superior visual quality compared to V2 or V3. But for gamers, the clincher may be that Voodoo3 is still limited to texture sizes of 256 x 256, while TNT offers a maximum of 2,048 x 2,048.

But where SLI features become more relevant is with TNT2. If Nvidia only had TNT SLI on the table, some gamers might not notice. But in fact, TNT2 is only a couple of months distant. Currently, TNT2 will show up in three distinct units: 125MHz, 143MHz, and 166MHz. The 166MHz unit may be designated "TNT2 Pro," or something similar.

In fact, Metabyte has already tested an early TNT2 SLI configuration. With the published specifications on even the 125 MHz TNT2 chip at 250 MPixel per second fill rate, adding a tandem board would produce an incredible 500 MPixels per second, far beyond the ability of Voodoo3. And with a 166MHz version of the TNT2 only two months distant, we are that close to a 650+ MPixel per second video accelerator solution; twice the power of Voodoo3.

The first question that came to my mind was this: "Will I be able to add a Metabyte TNT board to my current TNT configuration to take advantage of SLI performance?" Unfortunately, the answer is no. There is special silicon on SLI capable boards to enable them to work in tandem. But then, for many gamers, TNT will not be the SLI solution they prefer, but rather TNT2.


S3 and the Savage4

TNT won't be the only hot new SLI solution this year. Remember, Metabyte is also in conversation with S3 with regard to their new Savage 4 chip. With a feature set nearly identical to TNT2, and at a similar power point but a lower price, Savage 4 may soon be gracing the inside of YOUR PC. After all, you want the most power per dollar, right?

Some gamers are going to reserve their judgment until benchmarks become available, always a wise decision. Last year S3 jumped back into the 3D gaming market with their Savage3D chip, but it was a rough ride. The Savage3 had some nice features, but was plagued by driver problems and limited to a mere 8meg of RAM.

Older but wiser, S3 isn't likely to make the same mistake the second time around, and their Savage4 chip looks hot. In it's 125MHz version the S4 will produce 250 Mtexels per second. There will also be a 143Mhz version which will output 286 Mtexels per second, comparing nicely to TNT2.

The Savage4, however, will be the first video board to include AGP 4x support. This makes the bandwidth potential of AGP requests double that of TNT2. With the same texture size limit as TNT, at 2,048 x 2,048, this board will be a hot AGP item. (The S4 also includes flat-panel support at any resolution and color depth up to 1280 x 1024).

The Savage4 will come in at a lower price point than TNT2. And, as this article suggests, the Savage4 has also been SLI proven by Metabyte. A Savage4 SLI configuration should output almost 600 Mtexels per second, at a lower price and with better image quality than Voodoo3s 366 Mpixels per second!

And for those who care to know, the first Savage4 products are already being announced, with onboard RAM at 32 meg. (Creative Labs was the first on March 1st, with their announcement of their 3d Blaster Savage4 in a 32 meg configuration for MSRP of $129.99).

Confused by all the terms relating to 3d hardware? Try our 3d Primer.

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Last Updated March 2nd, 1999