3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 33: VRML 97--3D Hardware Update
Lesson 33 - 3D Hardware Update - Part 3
The first line we've considered was composed of cards by different manufacturers, but all based on 3D Labs processors. By contrast, the famous Oxygen processor produced by Dynamic Pictures is available only on that company's own cards--the Oxygen 102, 202 and 402. Last year, the 202 was pretty much the gold standard on high-end systems, particularly those used to run Softimage. But Dynamic Pictures has so drastically lowered prices recently, that even the mighty 402 now costs about the same as I paid for a Glint 500TX card last year.
The Oxygen line is easy to understand. An Oxygen 102 features a single Oxygen processor and 8 MB of SDRAM. The price is now an unbelievable $350. At this price, even an inexpensive system can have a respectable Open GL card. The 202 has two processors and 16 MB of SDRAM for around $700 and the 402 has four processors and 32 MB of SDRAM for $1,500. Dynamic Pictures has been promising a major breakthrough with its "power threads" drivers, currently in beta. The Oxygen chip sends geometry calculations to the main system microprocessor, and the new drivers will be able to split these tasks between multiple processors. Geometry calculations are a major bottleneck when working with large models, and there should be a considerable improvement if they can be divided between two Pentiums.
The new star on the scene is in the third line of OpenGL cards we will consider. Evans and Sutherland (using technology from Mitsubishi) developed the 3D Pro. Although it is also featured in the Diamond Fire GL 4000, 3D Pro is best known in the AccelEclipse cards manufactured by AccelGraphics. Only a few months ago, these cards were fabulously expensive, but they are now right in line with the competition. An Eclipse with 15 MB of frame buffer memory and a total of 20 MB of onboard memory sells for around $1,400. With 32 MB of total memory, the card runs around $2,400. I have tested these cards on my own system and can verify that their performance is striking.
Purchasers of the Eclipse cards must choose between the PCI and the new AGP options. AGP stands for "accelerated graphics port" and is a double speed, double wide PCI bus with dedicated memory access. Eric says not to expect anything from AGP right away because existing drivers are unsophisticated and not exploiting it. But he says to get it anyway because it doesn't cost any more. When Windows 98 and Windows NT 5.0 are released, users with AGP will see a real difference.
If last year was characterized by crashing prices, this year will see major technological advancements. In particular, says Eric, system bus speed will increase from 66 MHz to 100 MHz. The current generation of fast Pentiums is being hobbled by the speed of the system bus, holding up access to memory. And Pentium clock speeds will increase significantly due to the new smaller die now being used to manufacture the 333 MHz version. Eric says to expect Pentium 2 clock speeds to jump to 366, then to 400, and then to 450 MHz this year. Think about it. It was just a few months ago that a Pentium 2 running at 233 MHz was considered a screamer. And by 1999, the P7 64 bit microprocessor should come on line. Eric wonders how backward-compatible this marvel can be, as it will be a RISC processor. But with the blending of Hewlett Packard, Digital and Intel's technology, the promise of this new generation of processor is enormous.
For those in 3D graphics, the hardware picture is brighter than most of us have even dreamed of. In only another year or two, the individual artist will be able to harness (and afford) the kind of processing power that exists today only in the big production houses. With that power, we are limited only by our imaginations.
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Created: February 2, 1998
Revised: February 2, 1998