3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 33: 3D Hardware Update
Lesson 33 - 3D Hardware Update - Part 2
Today's no-compromise dream machine features dual 333 MHz Pentium 2's, the latest version of these processors. System RAM jumps to an astounding 512 MB. The high-speed Cheetah drive is 9 GB. Just these features alone make me stop to catch my breath. The monitor is still at 21 inches, but uses Trinitron technology. And the graphics display is a 32 MB AccelEclipse card from AccelGraphics. Whoa!
The major upgrade applicable to all of these systems is the addition of the Perception PVR card and dedicated drive. The PVR has become pretty much of a standard for digital video recording. This technology creates highly compressed digital video files that can be played at a full 30 frames per second on your system monitor, or dumped directly to VHS tape. The PVR requires a dedicated hard drive to store its video files, and the reason these can be displayed at high speed is precisely because the PVR has its own, on-board SCSI controller. If a PVR is added to a system, a high speed drive makes sense for the dedicated drive, and the basic system hard disk can be something less expensive. Between the PVR and its dedicated drive, this upgrade brings the system price up about $2,000. But for those who need digital video capabilities on their workstation, the price is very attractive. In my opinion, many people will be better off with a mid-level system that includes the PVR than with a high-end system that does not include it.
The biggest issue in configuring a 3D system is undoubtedly the choice of the graphics display card. For convenience, we will call this an OpenGL card. OpenGL is the standard library of procedures for 3D graphics display, and OpenGL cards are specialized processors (with memory) designed to execute OpenGL functions at lightning speed. All three major professional packages for Windows (Lightwave 3D, Softimage, and 3D Studio MAX) use OpenGL for previewing 3D models and animation. MAX formerly used the HEIDI standard, rather than OpenGL, but MAX 2 moved to OpenGL. All of the OpenGL cards support HEIDI as well, so MAX 1 users have nothing to worry about.
Eric looks at the graphics card landscape in terms of three lines.
The first line includes those cards that use processors manufactured by 3D Labs. At the bottom of this list are those cards based on the new Permedia 2 processor. This is a revolutionary development--a OpenGL card that costs around $200. At this price, there's simply no reason not to get one. The intended market is clearly users of consumer software, and particularly games. But it does work, though not spectacularly, for 3D development. Eric suggests that the Permedia 2 works best with Lightwave and MAX 1, but struggles with the more demanding OpenGL implementation in MAX 2, and is completely inadequate for use with Softimage. In fact, Eric cautions that the Permedia should not be considered a "full" OpenGL card because the processor is only partially OpenGL compliant. Permedia cards come with 4 or 8 MB of memory. Unlike other 3D Labs solutions, the Permedia has only a single processor to support both display and geometry processing. This integration is apparently the reason for the breakthrough price.
At around $600-$700 (down from the $1,300 I paid last year) are cards based on the 3D Labs' best known processor--the 500TX. Like all 3D labs products above the Permedia, the display is handled by one processor (here the TX) and the geometry by another (the Delta). A typical 500TX-based card includes 16 to 24 MB RAM, mostly DRAM for storing texture maps (bitmaps). VRAM (video RAM) is the more expensive dual-ported RAM used to store the frame buffer--the actual screen display. Above the 500TX is the new 500MX-based card at about $1,400, also with a Delta geometry processor. Eric says that 3D Labs is moving toward a geometry processor called the Gamma, ten times more powerful than the Delta. When the Gamma is released, 3D Labs-based boards will be divided into DMX and GMX classes. The DMX will be an MX with a Delta (just as now), and the GMX will be a very powerful combination of two MX processors and a Gamma geometry processor.
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Created: February 2, 1998
Revised: February 2, 1998