GeForce 3: What Does It Mean?
10:29 AM | Michael Eilers | Comment on this story
Well, so far this morning, you have been astounded by the news that NVIDIA's new high-end chip will debut on the Mac platform before any other platform. Then you have been assaulted by an avalanche of tech-speak and buzzwords from the NVIDIA press release, as well as a dose of Apple's hype. Makes your head spin, eh?
But what does this NVIDIA chip mean to Mac gamers? And what does it mean for our games that we play right now, every day? It is important to take a step back and examine what impact a $600 card ($350 when ordered with a new Mac) will have on the Macintosh as a gaming platform.
So, what does the GeForce 3 mean for Mac gamers? For those of you with PCI-only machines, nothing; this card will be AGP-only. For those with CPUs at and under 500 MHz, it also means little. Why? Because in our own in-house tests of Mac video cards over the years, it is quite obvious that games on the Mac OS are CPU-bound -- the processor runs out of steam long before the graphics card feels any stress. The ATI Radeon available for AGP Macs currently doesn't even break a sweat until you reach 1280x1024 resolution, even in games with a small CPU burden such as Quake 2. The GeForce 3-based card, with its ostentatious price tag, is a card of the future, not of the now.
As it will take Mac hardware some time to catch up with this powerful GPU, so will it take quite some time for games to take advantage of its power. Games that are deep in the development cycle right now will run full speed on the GeForce 3, but they won't take advantage of the more amazing features such as per-pixel shading, vertex skinning and the like -- these have to be specifically addressed in the game's ground-up design. There is no surprise in all of this, as the exact same was true when 3D cards first appeared on the market. Games with true-3D engines that really took advantage of those first cards lagged almost a year behind their debut.
And what about those buzzwords? Per-pixel shading means that a game designer/programmer will have control over the appearance of every single pixel on the screen, not just polygons and surfaces. Effects such as wood with actual grain, water ripples with real height and depth, dust-size particles and layered textures will become commonplace. Imagine a marble slab that reflects your character's face, the sky and the scene behind you, and which features veins of non-reflective material and bumps and pits in the surface -- this will become standard.
Vertex skinning will allow for realistic portrayals of flapping fabric, skin stretched over muscle and bone and objects that deform and take damage. When a character runs, you might see their clothes bunch up behind their knees and inside their elbows; when their joints flex you won't see the 'collision' effects of one shape intersecting another, but a smooth reshaping of the surface to accommodate the movement. Of course all of this will require a tremendous increase in the workload for the actual model designers for the game itself.
Effects such as these will only happen when there is a large enough installed base of systems that can run them to justify the tremendous development time it will take to achieve these details. As with technologies such as digital cable TV and HDTV, there will be a large 'lag' between the early adopters/pioneers with fat wallets and the 'masses' in terms of technology adoption. The eagerness of those who create content to actually employ the new technology will follow this curve as well; the majority of them will wait until the pioneers prove that there is money to be made.
After all, many of the top-selling PC games don't even require a 3D card at all: The Sims, Livin' Large, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and other such consumer titles dominate the market.
What about today's games -- what if you slap a GeForce 3 in your G4/500 the second they are available from Apple's store? At this point it is tough to say. The impact of NVIDIA's new "Quincunx" anti-aliasing technology has yet to be demonstrated or benchmarked. Judging from our own benchmarking experiences, the advantage you would gain from a faster GPU would be an ability to play at higher resolutions and texture settings, not necessarily an increase in base frame rate. Graphics cards aren't magic -- you can't make a Mac that plays at 50 fps at 640x480 suddenly play at 80 or 120 fps. But of course nothing is stopping you from taking that graphics card investment and moving it to a faster machine in the future...
The most important impact of this announcement may not be game performance at all, but rather the tremendous morale boost it will give Mac gamers to see a PC industry leader such as NVIDIA back the Macintosh as a gaming platform. Game developers and publishers will also be forced to take notice, as the excuse for not developing on the Mac due to substandard hardware will slowly vanish.
Official GeForce 3 PR
In any case, we want to know your thoughts -- are games important enough to you to entice you to spend $600 (or $2800+, if you need a new Mac as well) to make them run faster and look better? Will you upgrade your CPU or your GPU first, in the future? And will games with an exponential increase in the amount of graphic detail really be better games, or just better-looking ones? Share your thoughts with us in our Forums.
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