There are plenty of 3D video card choices these days - choose wisely
Originally published in March 2000
Historical note: As far as I can tell, this was my first hardware advice column. It is also interesting to note that many of the video card manufacturers in 2000 no longer exist today.
Computer gaming can be an expensive hobby, especially if you are trying to keep up with the Jones next door. Hard core gamers require the latest and greatest in both software and hardware. The more casual computer gamer tends to ride the back end of the technology curve, squeezing out that last bit of hardware life before the inevitable obsolescence becomes overwhelming.
One of the best ways to increase the life of that computer you purchased only 1 year ago is to update the video card. The computer component industry, noticing this market potential and smelling profits, has obliged consumers with a multitude of video cards to choose from.
What to Consider
Before choosing a video card upgrade, players should perform a quick audit of the games they already own. The video card requirements of a flight simulation enthusiast are quite different from those of a turn-based strategy game player. A glance at the games you tend to play most often will determine the 3D features you need in a video card.
Another factor to consider before making a decision concerns the computer system for which the video card is intended. Modern, high-end video cards require AGP ports, which have been available for around two years. If your system is a 4-year old Pentium 133 with PCI slots and no AGP, your choices will be limited.
After considering the games you play and the system you play them on, you will have to consider three primary specifications: 1. Chip set, 2. Memory, and 3. Manufacturer. The ins and outs of chip sets can be very confusing, but it is also very important. Most video card manufacturers do not make the semiconductor chips that populate their cards. They use third-party chip-set makers for those parts and then add features and software bundles to brand those cards for themselves. There are basically four chip set manufacturers contending for “king-of-the-hill” honors in the 3D video card universe. Matrox makes the G400 chip, S3 makes the Savage 2000, 3dfx makes the Voodoo 3, and nVidia makes both the TNT2 and GeForce 256 chips.
Memory specifications have become a major issue in the video card market and should be considered when choosing an upgrade. The tremendous amount of data produced by these new chip sets can overwhelm ordinary RAM and decrease video performance. New memory standards have been developed to overcome this limitation with the most prominent being double data rate (DDR) technology. DDR allows two pieces of data to be transmitted in a single-memory clock cycle.
When it comes to considering a video card manufacturer, the usual suspects will distinguish the winners from the also-rans: reliability, customer support, price, and software bundle. From a gamers perspective, the software bundle may be the deciding factor. Several manufacturers have included complete computer games with their retail video cards. These games are usually enhanced to take advantage of the specific video card they are bundled with and are therefore the best example of the hardware’s capabilities.
One caveat to the intrepid shoppers out there. Buying a video card on the Internet in the OEM market, while less-expensive, incurs more risk. The OEM market is designed for knowledgeable third-parties building custom computer systems. Buying in this market not only means giving up the chance to play games specifically designed with your new video card in mind, it also means little or no customer support from the manufacturer.
The following is a brief discussion of several currently available video cards. By all means, this list is not all-inclusive, and prices are changing all the time, so shop carefully.
Hercules 3D Prophet DDR
After some researching on video cards in preparation for this article, several respected sources were found that proclaimed the Hercules 3D Prophet with DDR and the GeForce 256 chip set to be the fastest video card currently available. Using DDR memory, this card is the current king-of-the-hill in terms of sheer performance and it ships with an excellent set of features. It is manufactured by Guillemot with a suggest retail price of $299 and a street price if $259.
Leadtek WinFast GeForce
The WinFast GeForce from Leadtek is similar to the Hercules 3D Prophet using the same chip set and the performance enhancing DDR memory. However, Leadtek is not exactly a household name. Not that that is bad, but a little investigation is in order. Suggested retail for the WinFast is also $299, but it can be found on Pricewatch for as little as $275.
ELSA Erazor X2
Also sporting the GeForce 256 chip set from nVidia, the ELSA Erazor X2 gets kudos for adding a pair of stereoscopic glasses to its bundle of goodies. While ELSA cannot be considered a household name either, it is a name known to hard core gamers. ELSA has the reputation of adding beyond cutting-edge novelties to its products, which explains the glasses. Although using the same technology as the previous two cards, the Erazor X2 tests to be slightly slower. The card has a suggested price of $299, with a street price of $268.
Creative Labs Annihilator Pro
Of all the games listed in this roundup, the Annihilator Pro from Creative Labs is the one you are most likely to see on the shelf at the computer store. Using the same GeForce technology, the Annihilator Pro has near top of the heap performance numbers, but is much more readily available at the local store. Creative Labs has packaged less features with the card with a suggested price of $299. The street price comes in at a reasonable $245.
ATI Rage Fury Maxx
The Rage Fury Maxx from ATI Technologies is the first card mentioned to not use the nVidia GeForce chip set. ATI uses their own proprietary Rage 128 Pro chips with performance that benchmarks at just below GeForce speeds. Besides the 3D acceleration of this video card, ATI has included DVD hardware playback onto the card, which adds a feature aspect beyond computer gaming. Suggested retail for the Rage Fury Maxx is $269, but with careful shopping it can be had for $249.
S3 Viper II
With the acquisition of Diamond Multimedia by S3, the days of Diamond Monsters using nVidia or 3dfx chip sets is over. The S3 Viper II is built using S3’s Savage 2000 chip set. This video card does not come close to the performance of GeForce boards, but it does give you descent performance for a much lower price. The suggested retail for the S3 Viper II is $199, but you can find it for as little as $130.
Matrox Marvel G400
Whenever someone discusses the Matrox Marvel G400 you hear the same thing over and over – good 3D performance and the prettiest display of any card. The G400 chip set is almost infamous for how beautifully the video card displays colors. This is also another card that caters to the multimedia demands of the market with excellent TV-out and video-editing capabilities. Matrox prices the Marvel G400 at $270, with a street price of $257.
3dfx Voodoo 3
The last video card manufacturer to discuss is 3dfx. When this company introduced its Voodoo add-on 3D acceleration card to the market, it almost single-handedly started the current faster-is-better craze. However, other manufacturers have been able to make a performance jump past 3dfx and its current Voodoo 3 offerings. That being said, 3dfx Voodoo 3 cards can still be found in PCI configurations, which means they can be used in older computers without the AGP slots required by the other cards. These cards offer good performance and rock-bottom prices starting at $115.
There is a tremendous amount of information to sort through when deciding on the appropriate video card. So much information, in fact, that it cannot be adequately covered in this column. All of you pondering the multitude of choices to be made are encouraged to do some research before making a decision. And there is one more aspect to contemplate: Every one of the manufacturers listed above will have new, faster, and more-powerful chip sets and video cards available before the Christmas buying season begins in October. Merry Christmas!