Graphics: Pick a Card...Any Card

With graphics capabilities being so important and new cards appearing all the time, you need a score card to pick the right one. Here it is...

The winter of 1999 was a turning point for 3-D games on Linux. Two of the highest profile first-person shooters, Epic's Unreal Tournament and id Software's Quake III Arena, were released nearly simultaneously for Windows and Linux. As little as a year earlier, the state of 3-D graphics acceleration on Linux would have prevented the platform from reaching such parity with the Windows world. Now, nearly all major video card makers are working to ensure that their cards provide some level of 3-D graphics support on Linux. With that hardware support, Linux gamers are presented with a choice hitherto unheard of: picking the perfect 3-D video card from over a dozen choices.

The Players

In the beginning, Linux users had only one choice in hardware acceleration: 3dfx. Through the work of Daryll Strauss, the line of Voodoo cards have been well supported for quite a while, providing both Glide and OpenGL (via Mesa) acceleration. Currently, 3dfx has contracted Precision Insight to complete XFree86 4.0 drivers that use their Direct Rendering Infrastructure (DRI) for 3-D hardware acceleration.

With the release of hardware specifications for their G200 and G400 cards, Matrox has recently shown strong support for the Linux sector. Not only are their cards well supported for 2-D acceleration, but the work of the Utah-GLX team has provided robust 3-D acceleration of OpenGL (again via Mesa) in XFree86 3.3.x. For the new XFree86 4.0, Precision Insight has been contracted to maintain 3-D acceleration for the Matrox G400 via the DRI.

ATI, the biggest supplier of graphics cards worldwide, has also shown support for Linux recently. Besides assisting the Utah-GLX project to support the 3-D portion of the older Rage Pro cards, they are also relying on Precision Insight to provide acceleration for their Rage 128/Rage 128 Pro cards in XFree86 4.0 via the DRI. Further, ATI has promised Linux drivers for boards based on their brand new Radeon chip.

Finally, NVIDIA has made a big splash in recent months with their release of XFree86 4.0 drivers supporting a wide array of cards, from the TNT all the way up to the newest GeForce 2. Their OpenGL support and speed, all developed in-house, is unrivaled in the Linux world and is currently setting the standard for speed and OpenGL conformance.

Together, these companies provide a selection of about a dozen cards that support 3-D acceleration in Linux. We'll take a quick look at each card and point out its strengths and weaknesses.

The Cards, Company by Company

Now, let us take a look at some of the most popular 3-D cards supported under Linux. We've grouped them by manufacturer so that we can make general comments about the company and their hardware.


The 3dfx line of cards starts with the low-end Voodoo1 and stretches up to the very newest Voodoo4 and Voodoo5 cards. Along the way, you can see the evolution from the limited add-on 3-D-only cards like the Voodoo Graphics and Voodoo2 cards to the fully-featured 2-D/3-D of the Voodoo5.

All 3dfx cards natively support a 3-D graphics API, developed by 3dfx, called Glide. Glide is used in a handful of Linux games like Loki's Myth II and Epic's Unreal Tournament. For such games, 3dfx cards are often the best (and sometimes the only) choice for hardware acceleration. Unfortunately, most 3dfx cards also lack crucial features that some gamers want, like full support for 32-bit color and a stencil buffer. The newest Voodoo4 and Voodoo5 cards have finally added these features, as well as others.

Finally, for OpenGL support, the 3dfx drivers depend on Mesa, an open-source implementation of the OpenGL API. This means that the OpenGL performance and conformance of the 3dfx cards is dependent to a great degree upon the development of Mesa.

Voodoo Graphics (a.k.a. Voodoo1)

Price: Around $30 or less used (not available in retail any longer)

Benefits: The relatively low price and native support for Glide are the primary advantages of the Voodoo Graphics board.

Disadvantages: The Voodoo Graphics board is not an all-in-one graphics board; it provides only 3-D acceleration while letting your main 2-D board take care of normal operation. Further, it provides acceleration up to a resolution of only 640x480 due to limited RAM.

Voodoo2 and Voodoo2 SLI

Price: Around $80 for a new Voodoo2-1000 from 3dfx

Benefits: Still a reasonable budget accelerator, the Voodoo2's real power comes when working in pairs to provide Scan Line Interleave (SLI) functionality. In this configuration, each card renders half of the scan lines on the screen, increasing performance and the maximum resolution possible in 3-D from 800x600 for a single card to 1024x768. Glide support is also a bonus.

Disadvantages: Like the Voodoo Graphics, the Voodoo2 is an add-on card to supplement your 2-D card. That means that for SLI you could be using as many as 3 PCI card slots just for video cards. Coupled with the relatively high price and aging technology, even the Voodoo2 SLI setup looks less than appealing.


Price: Around $70

Benefits: The Banshee is a 2-D and 3-D card in one, making it a step better than the Voodoo2 and Voodoo Graphics cards. The low price and the native Glide support make the Banshee a reasonable, cheap, low-end card.

Disadvantages: The Banshee, while clocked higher than the Voodoo2, has only one texture processor. So it is faster than a single Voodoo2 in some games, but can be slower in those that require multi-texturing (which means just about every newer game).

Figure 1. Voodoo3-3000

Voodoo3-2000, 3000, 3500TV

Price: From $90 for the Voodoo3-2000 to $200 for the Voodoo3-3500TV

Benefits: The Voodoo3 provides more 3-D power than the Voodoo2 SLI along with a 2-D core similar to the Banshee for a reasonable price. Additionally, with several models and PCI options, there is a card to fit almost every need and budget. Further, the 3500TV has a TV tuner that is supported under Linux.

Disadvantages: For the best performance, you'll need to get a 3500TV and that is a bit pricey. Further, the lack of modern features that the Voodoo4/5 and competition offer is disappointing.

Figure 2. Voodoo5-5500

Voodoo4 and Voodoo5

Price: From $179 for the low-end Voodoo4 to $600 for the Voodoo5-6000

Benefits: All the advantages of the Voodoo3 with more 3-D performance and features like 32-bit color, large texture support, and stencil buffers. Based on a scalable architecture around the VSA-100 chip, 3dfx is again offering a range of cards, in both PCI and AGP, to appeal to all customers. 3dfx is also pushing the ability to do full-scene anti-aliasing (FSAA) with hardware support in the V4/5 cards. This would improve the visual quality of all games (OpenGL and Glide) without the performance hit normally associated with FSAA.

Disadvantages: The price for FSAA is tremendous amounts of RAM, like the 64MB on the Voodoo5-5500, and that may cost a pretty penny. The best V5 card, the Voodoo5-6000, will probably be out of the reach of most gamers.