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Thursday, June 29, 2000
NVIDIA GeForce 2 MX In-Depth
5:18 PM | Michael Eilers | Comment on this story

Earlier today we brought you the news that NVIDIA is indeed entering the Mac market for 3D video hardware, with their GeForce 2 MX series of chips. But what exactly are these chips, and what will they do for Mac users? And when can you get them?

Well, we can't answer the 'when' question just yet - but the 'what' is interesting enough to hold you for a while, we think. In a nutshell the MX series is a low-power, low-cost version of NVIDIA's cutting-edge GeForce 2 chipset, a 3D "graphics processing unit" that blows even 3dfx's fastest available card right out of the water in almost all benchmarking tests. While the MX may not share this speed capability, it will have its own superset of amazing features which will more than make up for any deficit.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the MX chip is its ability to drive two monitors with a single card simultaneously, a fantastic feature for Mac G3 and G4 users who are limited to just three PCI slots and only one AGP slot. Not only can the chip drive two monitors, it can send independent video streams to each of them - say, DVD to one and 3D graphics to the other, at the same time. The chip supports both DVD and HDTV video streams in hardware, making them ideal for total multimedia machines. Ahem - which computing platform is most closely associated with the term 'multimedia?'

This chip also features some unique NVIDIA special effects which are only now being used in cutting-edge game titles - Hardware Transform and Lighting, which allows many operations which previously tied up your CPU to be handled by the graphics card, and the NVIDIA Shading Rasterizer, a fancy name for an on-chip special effects processor. The NSR allows such effects as bump-mapping (simulated textured surfaces) and cube environment mapping (simulated chrome/reflective surfaces) to be handled 'in hardware' rather than by your CPU, allowing you to add these effects to your game without a speed hit. Hardware Transform and Lighting allows such operations as dynamic color lighting, shape and character morphing/distortion, and 'clipping' (realistic intersection of 3D objects) to take place on the card rather than in software via your Mac's CPU.

It is important to note that these special features must be explicitly used by a game in order to provide a benefit; the number of games using these features is small right now, but is sure to grow. It is also possible that Apple might update their OpenGL drivers to use some of these features automatically, giving all OpenGL applications a boost.

Indeed, the GeForce2 MX is optimized to support OpenGL instructions specifically; as this is likely to remain the 3D API of choice on the Mac platform, all future games may benefit from this feature of the MX GPU.

Our EOC Tuncer Deniz learned several things on his trip to NVIDIA of specific interest to Mac users. First of all the MX chip is so small and uses so little power that it requires no fan or heat sink - a tremendous contrast to the Voodoo5 5500 card from 3dfx, which uses so much power that it must plug directly into your system's power supply.

Of course, the lack of a fan or heatsink would make these chips a perfect fit for Apple's fan-less iMac, iBook and Powerbook series, although we know of no firm plans in that department. We also learned that the chips meet Apple's specifications for low-power usage, making them a possible challenger to ATI's Rage Mobility 128 chipset.

What kind of speed can we expect from an MX chipset on a Mac? Well, it is currently impossible to say, exactly - after all, no one has seen them run on a Mac yet. However, the specs on this tiny, low-power and low-cost chip aren't the least bit humble; on paper, it easily rivals 3dfx's cards costing over twice as much. The dual rendering pipelines of this chip crank out over 20 million polygons per second, with a 700 megatextels (textured triangles) fill rate. Translation? Well, how does 101.5 frames per second in Quake 3 Arena at 640x480 grab you? Or 73 frames per second at 1024x768?

We thought that would get your attention. Thanks to Sharky Extreme for those numbers.

We can't tell you exactly when or how NVIDIA's GeForce 2 MX chip will be coming to the Mac platform, but we can definitely say that it will - and that it will be available as a card for AGP and PCI Macs, for a cost of less that $170. Speculations as to whom might be making the boards themselves are rampant, but we won't participate in that discussion - yet.

Despite earlier reports, NVIDIA will not be exhibiting at Macworld Expo New York, nor are they expected to make any announcements. However, with a possible appearance by ATI and their Radeon cards, and the definite presence of 3dfx and their Voodoo5 5500 cards, we're sure NVIDIA will send someone along to talk to the press.

Overall, it is shaping up to be the best damn year ever for Mac game graphics - and for general multimedia as well, as NVIDIA stresses repeatedly; after all, this card will be aimed at general and casual users, not hard-core gamers. From the specs and benchmarks we have seen this card should satisfy all but the most serious game players as well.

For more information and coverage of this exciting development, make sure you check out Peter Cohen's coverage at MacGaming and Gamers.com's coverage as well. We recommend the Sharky Extreme coverage as well, but only if you have a stomach for endless reams of totally arcane tech-speak. And don't forget to leave your thoughts on our Forum thread.

Gamers.com on the GeForce 2 MX
MacGaming on NVIDIA's Mac Plans
Sharky Extreme GeForce 2 MX Preview
NVIDIA on the Mac - Your Comments

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