Revolutionary graphics board lets PC owners outrace the upgrade curve
December 6, 1999
By D. Ian Hopper
(CNN) -- Any honest PC owner, under the right circumstances, will admit that being a PC owner is a huge pain in the neck. No matter how much we love our PCs, they're exasperating to own.
Programs crash with little explanation, incompatibilities and system conflicts reign, and, worst of all, PC hardware is obsolete by the time it leaves the store.
Despite the hype about NVIDIA's new GeForce 256 graphics technology, this chip isn't "future-proof." Nothing is. But it's as close as you can get for now.
The Creative 3D Blaster Annihilator is based on the GeForce 256 chip, and is an exact copy of the NVIDIA reference board. (Some card-makers make variations on the "suggested" design of the graphics card, Creative didn't.) What's so special about the GeForce 256 is that it's billed as a "GPU," or Graphics Processing Unit. In 3D games, there are four steps that must be taken in order to create a polygon on the monitor. Two are traditionally handled by the graphics card, and two -- transform and lighting -- are handled by the computer's processor. The GeForce 256 is the first technology to take all four tasks and do them without the assistance of the CPU -- hence, it's called a GPU.
If you're still awake, this means the GeForce 256 can pump out 15 million triangles to the screen, or 480 million pixels, per second. This is, simply, a heck of a lot. With two geometry units and four rendering engines, it's the most advanced consumer graphics board currently in stores. It has 32 megabytes of memory, although there is another version -- the Annihilator Pro -- that used 32 megabytes of a new "double data-rate memory." Like its name implies, that's even faster memory for better performance that comes at a price: $349, $100 more than the standard Annihilator.
Now, wake up again. Congratulations for getting this far, and be assured the hard core techie talk is done. What all this means to you is that ideally, the frame rate in your games shouldn't depend on your processor anymore. Since the GeForce handles all the chores, the CPU is left to do the part that makes the games fun: physics, artificial intelligence and the like. No matter whether you have a Celeron 300 Mhz or a Pentium III-550, your frame rate should be the same.
Note that those promises started with the word "ideally." That's important because there are certain factors that have to occur before the full potential of the GeForce can be realized. Most importantly, the game developer has to enable the game to use the GeForce to its fullest. The first games that fulfill that criterion are just trickling to stores now, but should come in full force by the first half of 2000. In the interim, you'll see a performance increase in games that use Microsoft's DirectX 7.0.
In practice, the difference is obvious between games that take advantage of the GeForce. "NBA Live 2000" from EA Sports doesn't use DirectX 7.0, and it showed in its choppiness at higher resolutions on a Celeron processor. But LucasArts' "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine" and Sierra's "SWAT 3" do, and it showed as well. Both of those games could run on the same processor at 1024x768 and 32-bit "true" color, and not break a sweat pumping out silky smooth gameplay.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the Annihilator, however. The GeForce 256 technology is new, and as such the software drivers are immature. Be sure to download the latest drivers from Creative's Web site, or get NVIDIA's reference drivers off their site. Also, the board is a major RAM hog. While 64MB of system RAM is usually fine for gamers, the board was extremely sluggish on all games on a machine with this much RAM. Once it had 128MB to play with, all was well.
The Annihilator's software bundle is very lean, with only some utilities, game demos, and WinDVD, a software DVD player.
The Creative 3D Blaster Annihilator is a great buy despite the fact that its full potential won't be tapped by all games until sometime next year. For once, PC owners have a chance to get a little bit ahead of the curve and concentrate on upgrading something else -- like that processor. It's getting pretty old, right?
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