Voodoo3 2000 PCI Review
Or, adding a fast 3D acclerator to an older computer
by Blake Linton Wilfong -- The Wondersmith!

"Buying a sub-$100 3D accelerator sounds good, but would it really make those fancy games playable on my aging computer, or should I stick with DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D?" If you've been wondering this, you've come to the right place!

I'll assume you have a Pentium-class computer with a PCI or AGP graphics card that you could replace with one of those nice 3D accelerator boards based on the Voodoo3, Savage4, etc. Problem is, the graphics card can't do all of the work; the computer still has to keep track of everything that's happening in the game, tell the graphics card what needs to be drawn, mix and play sounds, etc. If your computer can't perform these tasks fast enough, no graphics card will help. Strangely, I've never seen anyone explain the obvious way to find out without buying both the games and the hardware, going through the time-consuming installation of both, and--if it doesn't work--removing them again. Not to mention returning the hardware to the store, and not being able to return the opened software. Yuck!

Here's the solution: download the shareware version of Quake and the freeware game Half-Life: Uplink. Install them and configure them to perform software rendering at their lowest resolutions. (By "software rendering" I mean the software rendering built into the games, not Microsoft's horribly slow opengl32.dll software-based OpenGL implementation.) Now try playing. Yes, these games look awful when run this way, but do they run fast enough to be at least marginally playable? If not, you're out of luck; no graphics card will speed things up enough to play modern First Person Shooters on your computer. But if Quake and Half-Life: Uplink run satisfactorily with low resolution software rendering, they'll probably also run even better with high resolution hardware rendering.

My own computer is getting old; I bought it back in April 1998. Its stats: Cyrix 6x86MX PR-233, 64MB RAM, 2.1GB hard disk, Windows 95, and (until recently) a generic 2MB PCI SVGA card. This may not sound so bad, but the Cyrix 6x86 line is infamous for lethargic floating point and MMX performance. Even so, Quake runs quite smoothly--about 26 frames per second--with software rendering at 320x200 resolution on this machine. Half-Life: Uplink clearly runs slower but is also playable. I also tested Quake II, which averages around 13 frames per second in 320x240 resolution with software rendering on this machine. These results indicated that a 3D graphics accelerator would benefit this computer.

Some industry pundits have already proclaimed that 3dfx's Voodoo3 cards are obsolete--but that didn't stop me from buying one. A big reason for my choice was that 3dfx is the only company I found that comes right out and says their drivers work with Cyrix processors. Its Glide and MiniGL ensure maximum compatibility with games, and it's one of the few boards that put a latest-generation chipset on the PCI bus. Plus, it's very strong in terms of raw speed. As for the controversy over the visual quality of its 16-bit rendering...well, let's just say I think that issue has been blown way out of proportion. (I may address this in detail another time.) I found an "open box" Voodoo3 2000 PCI in perfect condition at Best Buy for $117.60. That, plus the $30 rebate in effect from 7/18/99 through 9/18/99 brought the total price with sales tax below the magic $100 mark. You can do even better on the Web with a little comparison shopping at the Pricewatch or Computer Shopper websites, but be sure to buy from a reputable source.

Installation was like a stint in Purgatory. Twice, I almost decided to return the card for a refund. When I first installed the Voodoo3 and attempted to boot up, my computer only made beeps. No video at all, no boot-up. I tried moving the Voodoo3 to a different PCI slot and presto! my computer booted. Next it was supposed to automatically run the driver installation software, but nooooo, the Voodoo3 set the video mode to some strange refresh rate or resolution incompatible with my monitor. After hours of booting and rebooting in and out of Safe Mode and tinkering with various adjustments, I finally discovered the culprit: my Windows 95 monitor settings were somehow set to "Plug and Play" even though my monitor isn't a Plug and Play monitor. Changing the setting to "Super VGA 1024x768" fixed everything and the software installed. I proceeded to also download and install the latest drivers from the 3dfx website. Another pain was reinstalling my sound drivers; I had to move the PCI sound card so I could change the Voodoo3's slot, and when I did so the computer no longer recognized it. It would have helped if 3dfx had included warnings about these kinds of problems in their documentation.

My results? GLQuake (the 3D accelerated version of Quake) zips along at about 35 frames per second regardless of the resultion I run it in, from 320x240 up to 640x480. (GLQuake doesn't run at resolutions higher than 640x480.) Very nice! Quake II operates at about 17 frames per second no matter what resolution I use, 320x240 all the way up to my monitor's maximum 1024x768. I obtained these numbers using the "timedemo" feature on the built-in demos--without turning off the vertical refresh delay because I wanted real-world results. Half-Life Uplink runs OK in 512x384 (and higher) resolution, but does appear to be slower than Quake II, especially in complex combat sequences or when displaying detailed scenery with bodies lying around, like in the image shown below. Ditto for Unreal Special Edition, which came bundled with my Sound Blaster Live! card. Still, Unreal is such a beautiful game, such a magnificent work of art--that I'll probably spring for the full version next time it goes on sale.

Why doesn't the resolution affect the frame rate? Because the Voodoo3 isn't the bottleneck. It can render scenes at any resolution faster than my computer can supply them, and ends up twiddling its thumbs waiting for more. In other words it's overpowered, which is fine.

Conclusion: As a casual gamer who doesn't demand ultra-fast frame rates or super-high resolutions, I'm more than pleased. The Voodoo3 2000 PCI gives new life to older computers. (But don't delete DOOM until you read my rave about ZDOOM!)

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