The new 3dfx Banshee chip based cards due to arrive soon from Village Tronic are probably the most eagerly awaited graphics cards in Mac history based on my feelings and those of thousands of readers of this site. They promise to cover the entire range of graphics card performance (2D/3D/Games/3Dfx Glide) in an affordable, single card solution without the compromises present in the current crop of offerings.
Previously Mac owners wanting fast 2D for serious applications like Photoshop, good 3D for applications like Lightwave or Ray Dream Studio, and 3Dfx Glide game compatibility had to buy at least two cards, each often costing as much or more than Village Tronic's SRP of $299 for their 16MB Banshee based cards. For instance for good 2D speed many cards I've reviewed cost $299 to $800+ and 3Dfx addon cards (3D only) cost between $99 (Voodoo 1) to $199 (1998 pricing on the 12MB Voodoo 2 Game Wizard). Mac owners have always had to pay a premium for the latest technology and often were years behind the PC state of the art. The VT banshee cards, while more expensive than the PC versions, are a potential breath of fresh air in the stagnant Mac graphics card market.
I for one will gladly pay $299 for a card that delivers the performance in all areas (2D/3D/3Dfx/Games) that the Banshee may offer if it performs as well as it does on the PC. For Mac owners with only 3 PCI slots, the single card solution is very attractive. If the drivers are solid and compatibility is good - this could be the graphics card to satisfy literally all Mac owners, finally combining fast 2D/3D/RAVE/Games/3Dfx functions in one PCI Card. If the card peforms as well as it does on the PC, there will be fewer compromises and perhaps I can simplify my graphics card recommendations. The MacOS 565 pixel format issue noted below is my prime concern performance-wise, as thousands color mode is required for Rave games for instance. If VT has addressed this as well as they say, then the MacMagic Pro/MP850 should be one of the most attractive graphics cards ever for the Mac.
The following are answers to 18 questions I posed to Marc Schmitt, Product Marketing Manager for Village Tronic. I hope they provide you with answers to the questions you have on these exciting new cards.
- What is the hardware differences between the MP 850 and MacMagic Pro card?
They seem very similar in terms of the hardware feature set.
This is an interesting question. There are quite a few people who are knowledgeable about graphic
accelerator hardware that have asked that one.
Yes indeed: MP 850 as well as MacMagic Pro share the same hardware. However the idea of marketing two different products, is a necessity of practical reasons. In fact the feature set of this product is just too big for one.
A hardware setting the bar in the 2D- and 3D-space at the same time has never ever been available in the past. All known products usually do only shine in one segment while they lose more or less ground regarding other requirements of typical users.
Our new high end product however, is solving this dilemma. It offers unparalleled performance for so many different users such as publishing professionals, 3D content designers or even hardcore gamers in an almost ideal way. This is truly a new dawn in graphic card development.
We think that one single packaging or one ad alone is not able to transport all those messages suiting all potential customer groups. Hence we decided to approach this marketing issue by offering:
- different boxes,
- different ads, and
- different software
In order to address those very different qualifying factors of all those very different user segments in the best possible, hopefully a fitting way. This avoids possible distraction for the publishing pro by first person shooter screenshots, while the hardcore gamer is not annoyed by Xpress or Photoshop snapshots.
The price points for both products are identical. The same is true for the feature set. The biggest difference is the accompanying software which is styled according to the targeted user group in an attempt to achieve an appealing visual experience for as many users as possible.
However both installers are shipped on the same installation CD which comes with all our products. So whatever board you are going to choose, there is no penalty to fear. We hope that all our customers support this decision which was taken in order to provide crystal clear product profiles while having the ordinary user in mind.
- Do they both use the Banshee chip for 2D and 3D graphics?
Yes they both do.
- What are the expansion differences in the card?
(optional addon accessories available)
Since the hardware is the same, there are no differences in expandability. There is MacPablo, which enables the S-VHS out port that is already on the back of each card. Furthermore we have MacPaloma which is our TV/video in module. We are also planning on a module that will enable nextGen users to directly connect digital TFT displays. Certain modules though are not going to be marketed for both products. However this does not mean that you could not use them on both cards.
- What sort of 'tweaking' software/utilities will be available (if any)?
As you might know our MacMagicTweaker software for our consumer product MacMagic was a big success so far. People love the interface with those nifty needles stuck into the voodoo doll that is featured through out the MacMagic experience. Our customers are satisfied knowing that we give them the opportunity to optimize the performance of their Voodoo card out of the box as the first manufacturer ever. Since we have such a great piece of software now for our consumer card, there is no doubt that we will have one for our pro game product too.
- Will the cards be compatible with Rave games like Descent?
(previous 3Dfx cards would not run Descent RAVE)
Since Banshee allows us to have 3D within a window there will be better compatibility with RAVE games in general. There are many RAVE titles that do not run properly on any Voodoo card since they are all full screen solutions. We intend to fix that with our new products and give our customers a more compatible 3Dfx solution catering more RAVE titles than previous cards did.
- Will the cards accelerate 3D applications that support RAVE?
Yes they will. We see three key markets for graphic accelerators on the Macintosh:
- desktop publishing
- 3D content creation
- hardcore gaming
All graphic cards that have been available for the Macintosh customer so far (including the ones from us) do only do one thing very good, while they suffer more or less in the other segments. If you intended to have high end performance in all those fields you needed to buy at least two if not three cards in the past.
With our new MP 850 - or MacMagic Pro if you like - we deliver for the first time in history a graphic accelerator that actually delivers:
- high end 2D for publishers
- high end 3D for 3D content creators
- high end 3D for hardcore gamers
This is what makes these new products so unique, they are no-compromise solutions that cover all the bases.
- Will there be OpenGL drivers for either of the cards?
(Lightwave 5.6 and Hash Animation now offer OpenGL support)
We intend to embrace Conix's OpenGL implementation in the final 3D drivers. At this moment in time we are working on Glide and RAVE first though. Since Conix's implementation of OpenGL sits on top of everything it is a good idea to start to build the house with the basement first in order to finally succeed with a working solution. Let me put it other words: OpenGL support is going to be provided but not at the very beginning.
- What bundled software (if any) will be provided with the cards?
It is likely that the cards won't be shipped with bundled apps or games except for some software from us. Once we decide to ship a certain game or software with a product every customer has to pay for it. No matter if he already owns it or not. In this regard I personally think it is more clever to keep the price lower and let certain dealers bundle software. This way there will be a bigger choice for the customers ranging from the plain hardware to all sorts of bundles. A pretty good example is MacMagic and how it is sold in Germany. As you know the card is shipped without games. However there are dealers letting their customers choose between Tomb Raider2, Unreal or F/A-18 Hornet at a slightly increased price which is a great offer.
- Will the cards be available in time for Christmas delivery?
(Is there a tentative ship date for the first Banshee models)
This is a little difficult to answer. So what is going on: MP 850 is expected to ship by mid December. The product will be delivered with 2D drivers and the QuickTime accelerators first. Hence it won't be marketed as MacMagic Pro in the first place, because the most important driver for our pro game product is of course the 3D part. The 3D drivers will be provided as they become available free of charge and will be posted on our web site.
- So the first product is going to be MP 850 and it will initially ship with all drivers except for 3D then?
Exactly. Our 2D team did a tremendous job and I have to thank all the guys for finishing their work right on time. We decided to ship MP 850 first even without 3D drivers because our potential customers for this product in this specific market place are begging us to get their hands on the fastest 2D accelerator available on this planet for the Macintosh as quickly as possible. Please let me stress this again: all our early adopters are of course getting the 3D drivers free of charge as they become available. This way they can benefit from the outstanding 2D performance right now and get the 3D support supposedly right in time for some hot gaming sessions over the holiday season.
- So what is the 2D performance like of the MP 850?
Well we were pretty stunned ourselves when we saw first results in real life on the Mac this past summer. The 2D performance is - according to our in house testing - faster than anything available on the Macintosh market place today. Yes, you heard right! And this is remarkable since high end products for this specific user group were especially known for being very expensive in the past and even nowadays. With our nextGen products however we are going to offer a performance leap in 2D while cutting those premium prices people had to pay in the past to make high end performance affordable for literally everybody. And by the way this has always been our motivation in the past with whatever product we came out with. Wherever we entered the market place we tried to deliver a product with an outstanding price to performance ratio.
As far as I am concerned we have made it again with those wonderful products. To be more precise: We will offer a better performance than any known product delivers at least in 2D. And as you know those high end cards are up to three times more expensive than our MP 850 is going to be.
- When will MP 850 customers get 3D drivers and when will MacMagic Pro debut then?
As explained above, our experience so far is that those graphic artists and high end publishers don't care that much for the 3D drivers. They want a wicked fast 16 MB 2D grapihc card at $299 right now. This is the reason why we are going to offer the product first in the MP 850 flavor. The 3D drivers will chime in starting in late December. We will post them step by step for download on our web site as they become available.
Our 3D team is behind schedule for those drivers. The reason for this is because we were initially going to offer a Voodoo2 based product this past summer. This project was developed to an almost final stage. But - while almost crossing the finish line - we changed our mind and decided not to follow through with it. This is by the way the reason why you did not hear anything from us on a successor for the interesting technology we used in our 3D Overdrive. So all VillageTronic Voodoo2 products will remain in the drawers of our engineering department and not go to the manufacturing line.
- I have heard the Banshee thousands colors pixel format issue (RGB 565 vs RGB 555) has been solved in RAVE - has it also been solved in 3dfx mode and 2D?
Well to explain this a little bit for the ordinary customer let me put it like that: Banshee, which is the graphic accelerator chip set we chose for our nextGen products, does not support a special color scheme that MacOS needs, to work right while the user is running in 16 Bit color depth. So there is a compatibility issue by nature in thousands of colors in _every_ product that utilizes this chip set or any other of most recent ones.
And this will be the case for more and more chips in the future, because more and more developers for those chips don't care anymore for specialties the MacOS needs. Again this makes it harder and harder for companies developing graphic cards like us to come out with a Macintosh product that features one of those chips. It takes a great deal of knowledge on the OS as well as on the hardware side at all levels to steer around those problems and deliver state of the art cards for this performance lusting crowd among us Macintosh users. Unfortunately the ordinary user does not get to know those problems we have and how much of a great deal it is to deliver a product such as our new ones. They just see the finished product and think: "Hey what is the deal about it? It's just a Banshee card." And might even raise questions why there is a price difference between Banshee cards on the PC and those on the Macintosh.
But as with every issue there are different options for a viable solution and we evaluated a whole bunch of them very thoroughly. Let me put it like that: There are certain options to fix this problem. And please let me emphasize here again that this problem is only present while the system is running in 16 Bit color depth.
Those possible solutions effect speed, compatibility and quality in any thinkable combination in this 16-bit mode. I think that our engineers have opted for the best way possible. We will deliver Banshee with rock solid compatibility at no speed penalty for the user. I am sure that you will like the card when it comes out just as much as we do today.
- Does VillageTronic plan on offering a Voodoo II standalone card?
(if so will it be 8MB or 12MB or both?)
As mentioned above, we were developing a Voodoo2 version of our 3D Overdrive technology. There were also plans for a real high end stand alone game card pushing Voodoo2 to its absolute limits. However we stopped following through with all that for many reasons. Let me emphasize two of them:
- It was foreseeable that there will be reference drivers available for PC Voodoo2 cards. As soon as this happens it destroys every chance for a Mac only company like us to expect a viable business that is worth putting money into.
- We think that Banshee offers a better performance profile while being more versatile and more compatible for the Macintosh than Voodoo2 is. Since RAVE is a big deal on the Mac there will always be games taking advantage of mixed 2D and 3D worlds using this API. As you know all those games do not work right on a Voodoo full screen stand alone card. No matter if it is Voodoo1 or Voodoo2. In fact the only Voodoo card being available right now, offering a working solution is our 3D Overdrive which was truly way ahead of the competition when it came out.
But let me get back to the first point again. As we anticipated before those reference drivers have been published on some pirate web sites. The fact that they are now available might appear as an advantage to some users. In fact it is nothing else but helping to bury the Macintosh as a gaming platform. This is mainly because:
- Every PC card sold is weakening Macintosh oriented and dedicated companies like us to deliver state of the art real Macintosh products in the future.
- Every PC card sold is not counting as a Mac sale! This will not help to stress that Macintosh is a viable and superior games platform. Neither will this message get the attention of software developers or PC card vendors in an attempt to leverage their MacOS support.
Another big issue is that it will most likely take more and more effort to bring future chip sets to the Macintosh. This whole graphic card industry is heavily WinTel oriented. It is important to understand that WinTel developers don't seem to go that way. Letting people provide cheap solutions for a Voodoo2 card for instance won't leverage support from them in the future and only hurt Mac oriented companies. Hence not having Macintosh oriented manufacturers around anymore in the future will most likely result in "no state of the art products" anymore for the Mac. I am not sure if it is a good idea to have a PC product right now at a little discount and therefore risking the support of our most favorite OS in the future.
I did also read your article upon the arrival of the reference driver and I can only support the points that were stressed there again.
- There has been a problem with supplies of 3Dfx cards from other vendors. Is VillageTronic confident they can supply the cards in large volume?
According to the initial feedback the demand is going to be outstanding. We do our best in forecasting. However there are two factors which are difficult to measure: Firstly we are adding more countries to our distribution scheme, for which we do not know yet how many cards those places will absorb.
The other major factor that could lead to a constraint situation in the first place is that our initial production plans will mirror the initial demand we are reported by our dealers and distributors to some degree. If they don't do a good job in their forecast, there might be a constraint situation in some countries in the beginning. To help them do a better job and make sure to get the card asap, people should place an order with them early if they would really like to have one of the first production slot.
- Will there be any upgrades, rebates or discount/trade-in program for existing MacPicasso 540/3D Overdrive owners?
Not this time Mike. We tried to deliver the Banshee in a high end flavor to all Macintosh customers at the lowest possible price point. You can clearly see how serious we are about that when you compare our card with the current performance leaders in 2D. Those boards of the competition are up to three times more expensive than our new one. I think that the current price point offers even customers using competing products an upgrade path to our Banshee implementation :-)
- Are there any plans for a replacement card for the 3D Overdrive that would use the Voodoo II and mate to existing MacPicasso 540 cards?
We are not planning to release this product anymore. For one reason we think that even though a Voodoo2 based 3D Overdrive2 would offer a state of the art 3D performance, the underlying 2D card is simply not powerful enough anymore to meet the demand and expectations we think our customers have in the 2D space. We are convinced that offering the new product line is a much more intrigueing upgrade path for our current customer base. Indeed we even think that this is smoother and offering a top of the line performance through out all specs and not only 3D.
Besides that a Voodoo2 equipped 3D Overdrive would have cost about the same as our new MP 850 accelerator. While considering the much better overall performance and feature set of the latter we think that this is the best possible deal for our customers.
- Is the $99 8MB MacMagic Voodoo 1 card shipping in volume now?
MacMagic started shipping November 6.
- Will the MacMagic (Voodoo1) work with Virtual PC 2.x and RealPC ?
MacMagic offers some unique features in the actual hardware that have previously been unknown to the usual Voodoo cards we all know. For instance we have made it possible for the user to connect the pass through cable and the monitor plug to any of MacMagic's connectors. The hardware automatically detects which one needs to act as the input and which one needs to act as the output port. This makes sure that there are no additional adapters needed no matter what combination is needed. We also have an optional video out module that we support as well. Besides that MacMagic is the first 3Dfx equipped Macintosh product ever to support fixed frequency monitors. All those features make the card pretty unique and this is the direction we are always trying to go because we would like to deliver a Macintosh product that is actually better than a comparable PC counter part. I think that we clearly achieved this goal with MacMagic.
And back to your question you might see that an unaltered PC reference Voodoo1 driver is of course going to have problems managing such a special Macintosh product. Hence the ones distributed by those PC emulation softwares won't run our card. From our side there won't be WinTel drivers available for MacMagic. This has mainly two reasons:
Firstly according to our testing, even very fast Macintosh computers do not crank out enough frames for high end WinTel games to run at an acceptable speed. With some games even very fast WinTel computers seem to get to their knees.
Secondly we actively try to support the idea that the Macintosh is a great gaming platform. The prove, that software developers think like that as well is the fact that more and more titles are getting out lately. However scaring potential game developers away with the idea that every avid Mac gamer is buying their PC titles anyway does maybe not really motivate them to come up with Macintosh versions of their products.
- How about the MacMagic Pro (Banshee)?
Same is true for the Pro card. We are going to try to make this Banshee product stick out as much as we possible can and we want our customers to run Macintosh titles on it. However it might be actually an interesting idea to do a poll and see what your readers think about this point. I am very much open for feedback and would really appreciate it. What is your opinion?
Product Marketing Manager
VillageTronic Marketing GmbH
For US Sales and inquires - email: salesUS@villagetronic.com
I hope this interview has answered your questions on these new cards. As soon as they are available I plan on providing a review of the card and also plan to give away a new MP850 card in a site contest. Stay tuned to the daily news page for further details and developments. Things could get very interesting.
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