3D Accelerators: what they are and what they do.

The History of 3D Accelerators – In Brief

At Computer Mechanix, games are the best way to figure out what specifications our newest computers need to have. Back when Woody and I started gaming on our computers, video cards weren’t much more than a glimmer in the engineers’ eyes. All video games were efficiently programmed to run on pretty much every available computer system. As long as you had the processor and the memory, you knew you could run any video game out there. Of course, back in those days, the idea of a CD-ROM was years off and it would be even longer still before games stopped coming out on floppy disks (sometimes even those “floppy floppies” that were black and held a whopping 1.2MB).

Those days are long gone. Thanks to a company named Voodoo in the mid-1990s, the world was introduced to the 3D accelerator, a video card that was built with 3D graphics in mind. With the introduction of the 3D accelerator, video game companies started getting lazy and decided that they wouldn’t optimize their programming to run on any computer – only the biggest and baddest gaming rigs need apply.

As the late 1990s came upon us, other video card manufacturers jumped into the fray with a huge number of choices existing as we headed into the new millennium. Fortunately, those days are behind us, too, as the lesser-quality technology fell out of the industry along with the days of pets.com and groceries-delivered-to-your-door.com. Right now, there are only two main video chip manufacturers – ATI and Nvidia. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “If there are only two manufacturers, why do I see so many different brands of video cards?” Simple. Both ATI and Nvidia have licensed their 3D accelerator chips so that other people can make the cards, too. Ever since the advent of the 3D accelerator, computers have evolved to become consistently faster – not to keep up with business applications but to keep up with the more important part of computing – video games and multimedia entertainment.

What exactly are 3D Accelerators?

3D accelerators used to be additional video cards that you would put in your computer so that when you tried to play a game with 3D graphics, the accelerator card would take over video processing duties and run your games. Then, when you quit the game, your main video card (or 2D accelerator) would take over basic operating system duties.

As 3D accelerators evolved, the companies that created them started making cards that could handle both two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphics. All of today’s 3D accelerators are 2D/3D combination cards; the days of separate cards are long gone.

The 3D accelerator is actually a collection of different chips on processors on the video card itself that have been specifically designed to handle the high-end mathematics of calculating three-dimensional objects and tracking their movement through space.

What is the difference between ATI and Nvidia?

Ah. A big question. The difference between ATI and Nvidia changes depending on which generation of video card you’re talking about. ATI’s lineup is usually called Radeon while Nvidia’s is called GeForce. Up until Q1 2004, you could judge which card was best depending on the number after the name. ATI’s leader was called the Radeon 9800 (with cards numbered 9200-9700 as well) while Nvidia’s top contender was called the GeForce 5950XT. Both companies have since released their newest video cards – the ATI Radeon X800 series and the Nvidia GeForce 6800 series. When it comes to the performance differences between the two, you’re going to have to do your research or check out our reviews sections. Both companies have strengths and weaknesses, and depending on your budget, one card will invariably suit your needs better.

Do I really need a 3D accelerator if I don’t have one?

Not yet. However, the next version of Windows, due in Fall 2006, will require a 3D accelerator to see it in all of its gorgeous Microsoft glory. Yes, your operating system will require a 3D accelerator. Right now, if you don’t play games, you don’t really need a 3D accelerator. However, if there’s anyone in your family who wants to play any of the big games like Half-Life 2 or Doom 3, you won’t just need a regular 3D accelerator, you’ll need one of the fastest out there.

Where can I get one?

Glad you asked. At Computer Mechanix, we’re more than happy to help you pick out the best video card for your needs, whether your needs happen to be in video games, computer-aided drafting, or just business applications. Give us a call at 828-281-4379 or email us directly at contact@computermechanix.com.

By Eric Jacobson

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