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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC Focus

Gentlemen--and Boys--Start Your 3-D Accelerator Cards!

May 17, 1999|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Just about any PC on the market is good enough for what I do. My routine PC use is pretty mundane. I surf the Web, send e-mail, process words, crunch a few numbers and occasionally edit photos from my digital camera. As a reviewer, I test all sorts of software, but most of it places very few demands on the hardware.

My 12-year-old son, Will, on the other hand, is a far more demanding user. He's constantly pushing the envelope with his 3-D computer games with ear-splitting music and audio effects. Will is the power user in the family.

And Will is the inspiration for this column. A few weeks ago he asked me to write an article about 3-D graphics accelerator cards so that he--not I--could try some. ATI sent over the ATI Rage Fury card ($140), and the day it arrived Will took apart his PC and installed the card and drivers. I used the machine to do what I always do with PCs and, from my perspective, nothing changed. Word, Excel, Netscape and Quicken looked pretty much as they always had.

But why should a 12-year-old care about those boring programs? Will grabbed the mouse, loaded up "Quake II," "Thief" and "Star Wars: Rogue Squadron" and the PC started to dance, sing and shout. Will was in his element and the 3-D graphics card was strutting its stuff.

It didn't take long to see what all the excitement was about. With the 3-D acceleration turned on, the images were far smoother, more vibrant and less choppy than they looked with a standard graphics card. As he engaged in air-to-air dogfights against alien spacecraft, his ship responded immediately. Gone were the usual pixilated borders between objects on the screen. It may not have been quite as vivid as the upcoming "Star Wars" movie, but it was nonetheless impressive.

A 3-D graphics board doesn't really display three-dimensional images that seem to jump out of the screen as they do when you put on special glasses to watch a 3-D movie, but they do help bring images to life by giving them more depth and perspective.

Unlike 2-D graphics, in which the pixels on the screen define the shape, position and color of an object, 3-D graphics add depth by creating a virtual surface called a "texture" that adds shadows and shading. It's hard to define but it's easy to tell the difference between 2-D and 3-D when you see them side by side.

Most 3-D graphics accelerators improve the look of 3-D graphics and speed up both 2-D and 3-D images by doing some of the processing tasks that would otherwise be relegated to the machine's central processing unit. Besides being more suitable for graphics rendering than the CPU, they help free up the CPU for other tasks.

Graphics cards have their own memory, which helps determine the level of resolution they can display. Eight megabytes of RAM is sufficient for 2-D applications while 16 megabytes or more is recommended for gamers or anyone else who cares about 3-D graphics.

One of the most important criteria for a graphics card is how it connects to your computer. If you have a relatively new Pentium PC you probably have a special slot, called an AGP (accelerated graphics port) on your machine's motherboard. If so, get an AGP card because it has a faster and more direct connection to your PC's memory and CPU. AGP boards, according to tests conducted by PC magazine labs, are about 10% faster than cards that plug into the standard PCI slots that are on virtually all modern PCs.

There are lots of companies that make 3-D cards but there are only a few that make the chips that determine how the cards process graphics. The most common chips used in these cards include the ATI Rage 128GL, Nvidia RIVA TNT and 3Dfx Voodoo Banshee. Cards based on any of these chips will produce stunning graphics, but there are subtle differences that are meaningful to serious gamers.

While the vast majority of games will run on cards with any of these chips, some are optimized to run better with one over another. So if you or someone you know is addicted to a certain game, it might make sense to check with the game publisher or game enthusiasts to see which card they recommend.

I don't have a sophisticated lab for testing hardware but I do have Will and his friend Asher. They're seventh-graders who seem to know more about video cards than I would ever care to learn. We installed the ATI Rage Fury in one machine, a card based on the 3Dfx Voodoo Banshee in another and an STB Velocity 4400 with the Nvidia RIVA TNT chip in a third and cranked up some games. They all looked great to me, and even the more discerning kids agreed that they all did the job nicely. The kids showed me how certain games looked better on one card while others had cleaner graphics on another, which only served to confuse me even more.

At the end of the day, my two young testers and I did agree on some conclusions. If you're really a serious gamer, spend some time reading reviews at GameSpot.com, PCMag.com and CNet.com to get a feel for the subtle differences among these cards. Otherwise, get any brand-name card that supports 2-D and 3-D and be sure you have enough video memory (16 or 32 megabytes is recommended for 3-D).

And, whatever you buy, make sure the company behind the product has a Web site that provides up-to-date software drivers that, ultimately, have a great deal of impact on the quality of the image and the card's ease of use.

The rest of us--boring old folks who run business applications--can probably limp along just fine with the graphics card that came with our PC.

*

Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 1:48 p.m. weekdays on KNX-AM (1070). He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."

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