3dfx launches Voodoo 4 and 5
But graphics cards' new features require multiple 3D chips
3dfx today launched its long-awaited -- and long-delayed -- next generation graphics chip, codenamed Napalm, but now officially dubbed the VSA-100, or Voodoo Scalable Architecture. Of course, with the company's arch-rival, Nvidia, launching its own high end part, the GeForce 256, 3dfx has been dropping plenty of hints about what the VSA-100 will offer for some months now. The key new features the chip offers -- full-scene anti-aliasing, texture compression and its T-buffer special effects technology -- are well known now and came as no surprise. More interesting, then, is the chip's built-in scan-line interleaving (SLI) facility. 3dfx's Voodoo 2 chip could co-operate on the rendering of a scene with a second Voodoo 2 mounted on another graphics card. The VSA-100 puts that right into the heart of the architecture (hence the 'Scalable' tag) allowing multiple VSA-100s to co-operate on a single card. The upshot is a major leap ahead in performance, as measured in polygon fill rates. 3dfx reckons that its top-end board, the Voodoo 5 6000, with four VSAs, can pump out 1.47 billion pixels per second. The company is restricting itself (for now) to no more than four VSAs, but Quantum 3D, a long-time 3dfx partner working in the high-end simulation business, will be offering boards with up to 32 processors. At the bottom end of the line, 3dfx will offer a single VSA chip on a board it's calling the Voodoo 4 4500. Now the curious thing here is that the 5000 won't offer the VSA's key anti-aliasing and T-buffer features (motion blur, depth of field focusing, and smooth shadows and reflections), primarily because they only work well when powered by two chips. Of course, 3dfx never explicitly said, so far as we can recall, that Napalm would be a single chip solution, but that's certainly what it was suggesting. And if that was the original gameplan, then clearly the company has been forced to admit it couldn't develop the silicon to do the job and has had to opt for a multi-chip approach in order to get the part out in a reasonable timeframe. The arrival of high end parts from Nvidia and S3 have already begun hitting 3dfx's bottom line, though such is its marketshare lead it does have some breathing room here. It's hard to see whether the decision to go with a baseline two-chip system was happily made possible by the VSA's multi-processor SLI architecture or whether it was always part of the gameplan. Either way, it shows that now boards rather than chips are what 3dfx is really about. The point is, it makes no real difference whether your $299 Voodoo 5 5500 AGP has two VSAs or one, as long as the resulting graphics look good. There's an issue for 3dfx in that two chips cost more than one, so it's taking a hit on margins, but that's not a problem for the customer. In fact, CTO Scott Sellars claimed the two-chip approach was actually more cost-effective since the processors are smaller therefore yields are higher than they would be if 3dfx had tried to cram two VSA cores on a single piece of silicon. And it's presumably for yield and cost reasons that 3dfx is sticking with an established 0.25-micron process for the VSA, rather than attempt to push the chip down to 0.22 micron or below. What that will do for the board's heat generation remains to be seen. Sellars admitted that 3dfx has yet to sample the VSA-100, which is why the company is still demoing T-buffer using arrays of SLI'd Voodoo 2s. Sellars said he expects first silicon "very soon". The boards themselves are unlikely to ship before the end of Q1 2000. ® 3dfx's next generation boards Voodoo 4 4500 PCI, AGP bus support, one VSA-100, 32MB VRAM, two pixels per clock cycle, 333-367 million pixels per second (MPps), US price $179. Voodoo 5 5000 PCI bus support, two VSA-100s, 64MB VRAM, four pixels per clock cycle, 667-733MPps, US price $229. Voodoo 5 5500 AGP bus support, two VSA-100s, 64MB VRAM, four pixels per clock cycle, 667-733MPps, US price $299. Voodoo 5 6000 AGP bus support, four VSA-100s, 128MB VRAM, eight pixels per clock cycle, 1.33-1.47 billion pixels per second (GPps), US price $599.