Hardware Helper #1: Millennium Voodoo

Flashy 3-D Mac games such as Quake III or Madden 2000 make great gifts -- maybe you got or gave one this holiday season. But most of today's cutting-edge Mac games require more than just a buff processor -- they crave a separate graphics accelerator as well.

One of the most impressive graphics-acceleration technology out there is 3dfx's Voodoo3 -- and it isn't currently made for the Mac. That's the bad news. The good news is that Mac users can still climb aboard the Voodoo3 gravy train.

That Voodoo We Don't Do

If you've got a relatively new Mac, such as the newest batch of iMacs, the blue-and-white Power Mac G3, and the Power Mac G4s, you've got a good accelerator (ATI's Rage 128) built right in. But if you've got an older machine -- or if your built-in accelerator just doesn't work well enough with the games you're playing -- it may be time to shop for a new card.

Over the past few years, Apple has standardized on the 3-D acceleration systems provided by ATI. But in the PC market, ATI has a strong competitor in 3dfx, the makers of the Voodoo-brand graphics accelerators.

Currently there's no bona fide Mac version of their ultra-fast Voodoo3 accelerator card -- but that doesn't mean Mac gamers have to sit by and watch their PC-using neighbors get all the gaming glory. If you want to push the envelope a little bit, you can buy a PCI-based Voodoo3 graphics card intended for a PC and put it in your Mac. Macworld tested two Voodoo3 cards with publicly available pre-release versions of Voodoo3 driver software to see how these PC-oriented cards fare inside a Mac.

What Does Voodoo Do?

3dfx's Voodoo3 2000 and 3000 graphics cards outperform every Mac video accelerator tested by Macworld. The $99 Voodoo3 2000 PCI (888/367-3339, www.3dfx.com ) has a 143MHz processor and 16MB of RAM. The $149 Voodoo3 3000 PCI sports a 166MHz processor and an equal 16MB of RAM.

Both accelerators make what's displayed on your monitor look crisper by allowing your monitor to draw more pixels on the screen at higher refresh rates (the number of times a second that your monitor re-draws the image on its screen). Voodoo3 was developed to be an all-purpose graphics accelerator for everyday use, in addition to offering strong game performance. These cards will let you play your games with larger screen sizes and at higher frame rates than ever before. For gamers, the $100 to $150 investment can be well worth it.

Older G3 Macs absolutely need some 3D acceleration to even play the latest games. As you can see in the benchmark chart " That's Some Powerful Voodoo," our beige G3 and its built-in video components performed abysmally running Quake III. Even though its G3 processor is running at 400MHz, it wasn't able to cram all of those pixels through its video card to deliver playable speeds.

Macworld Lab tested each card at different resolutions on a Power Mac G4/400 with 192MB of RAM and using the latest version of Apple's OpenGL. The test was running the Quake III Demo's Demo 1. Generally, 25 frames per second is the lowest speed gamers consider playable. Thirty frames per second is quite easy on the eye, and 40+ frames per second is fantastic. Turning on or off certain game features can let you tune performance -- the set we chose was a good mix of features for enjoyable play, not a bare-bones set designed to eke out maximum speed.

It's clear from our tests that at low resolutions, the Voodoo3 doesn't really improve much on the G4's included ATI card. However, as resolutions increase, Voodoo3 definitely pulls into the lead. At 1024 by 768 pixels on our Voodoo3 3000, we managed 37.5 frames per second. In comparison, the ATI Rage 128 was only able to produce 23.5 frames per second at this same resolution.

The Voodoo3 cards are not without their limitations, however -- they can't render 32-bit color in 3D. The ATI 128 can, but again it can only provide an acceptable frame rate when the resolution is set to 640 by 480 pixels. Additionally, these are beta drivers running cards designed for use in a PC. You have no support other than what you can drum up yourself. While each new driver release does improve reliability and performance, sometimes things may act up. If you can't cope with the odd crash this may not be a project for you.

Final Voodoo

It's clear from the poky response of the beige G3 that older Mac users will definitely need some form of video acceleration to play, and the Voodoo3 cards are certainly one of the fastest around. If you've already got a built-in ATI 128 card, your system will be plenty fast at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. At larger sizes, however, performance drops markedly. If you want to play at higher resolutions, consider moving to Voodoo3.

Adding a Voodoo3 to your machine is easy, fun, and rewarding. For Mac hobbyists, it's also fun to learn a bit about flashing ROMs and installing PCI cards. (For a complete guide to getting a PC-oriented Voodoo3 card to work on your Mac, see our sidebar "Make Your Mac Do PC Voodoo".) Before you rush out and buy a Voodoo3 card, make sure that you're going to be comfortable with the upgrade process. It's not something for the novice Mac user, but it is something that most Mac users should be able to handle -- and the results are well worth it.

Macworld Editorial Assistant DAVID READ has been known to play a mean game of StarCraft using the high-tech facilities of the Macworld Lab. Send him e-mail -- or suggestions for the next Hardware Helper column -- via david_read@macworld.com.

The Voodoo3 cards we tested (see " That's Some Powerful Voodoo ") are without a doubt designed to run on PCs. They simply won't work on a Mac unless you make some modifications to them.

But don't worry -- I'm not going to ask you to solder anything or anything crazy like that. What I am going to do is walk you though a simple project that shouldn't take more than 15 minutes.

I can't recommend this project unless you have the skills necessary to install and remove a PCI card and update software drivers. If you're squeamish about opening up your Mac, then this project isn't for you. If you can push in and pull out a PCI card, then read on to accelerate your video beyond what is currently available for the Mac.

Installing Voodoo

After you've bought a Voodoo card, your first stop should be 3dfx's www.3dfxgamers.com site. Click on Drivers and select the beta Macintosh drivers. They always have the most recent beta available. As of this writing, the latest release is beta 10. be sure to check back periodically for a new beta release.

As long as the drivers are in beta, 3dfx is definitely not supporting them -- you're on your own when it comes to installing and using them. However, the drivers are stable and shouldn't conflict with your system software or applications.

Unstuff the drivers and read the Read Me files, noting what's been fixed in this revision. Then shut down your Mac and insert the card into a PCI slot. That done, start up your Mac with your monitor still connected to your usual video-out plug. Do not attach your monitor to the new card yet!

Once you're in the Finder, open the ROM folder in the Voodoo3Drivers folder, and double-click the FlashROMVoodoo3 application. This is a simple, text-based application that walks you through the flashing process. First, it should detect the Voodoo3 card and assign it a "board number." Type that number (usually one, unless you have more than one Voodoo in your machine) and hit return. Continue by typing the full ROM image filename from the ROM folder of the ROM image for your Voodoo card.

ROM image filenames begin with V3P143 for the Voodoo3 2000 and V3P166 for the Voodoo3 3000. They're long and complicated names, but don't worry -- the files are there in the ROM folder, so you can click on them in the Finder, copy the names to the clipboard, and then paste them into the FlashROM application.

Once the FlashROM application knows which ROM file to use, it will warn you that you'll be making your card Mac-friendly. (Some warning!) When asked if you want to use the image file, type y and the program will go ahead and update your ROM for use in a Mac. The old PC ROM image will be saved in that folder as PC-SAVE.ROM. Do not throw this away. If you ever want to restore the Voodoo3 card to a PC version, you will need this file.

The FlashROM application will explain that you need to restart your Mac in order to get started, but there are a few other items you should take care of before then. Take the contents of the "-->into Extensions Folder folder" (found in the Voodoo3Drivers folder) and drag them into your Extensions folder. Remove your old video card's extensions from the Extensions folder and save them. Then take the contents of the "-->into Extensions Folder folder" (found in the Voodoo3Drivers folder) and drag them into your Extensions folder. Go to your Monitors or Monitors and Sound control panel and set it to a fairly timid screen resolution, like 800 x 600 at Thousands of colors. Finally, put the contents of the "-->into Preferences Folder" folder into your Preferences folder, and then shut down your Mac.

The very last part of this process is to connect your monitor's video cable to your Voodoo3 card's video port. This may require a VGA-to-DB15 video adapter if you have an older Apple monitor. Additionally, if you have a machine where the video card is a PCI card, remove the older card and store it appropriately. Finally, If you have a Blue and White G3 or a G4, you will want to move the card over to the fastest PCI slot -- the one occupied by the ATI video card (except in G4 models with an AGP slot).

When you restart, you should see a crisp new screen coming from your Voodoo card, and the 3dfx extensions should load first. Once you get to the system, you can choose the resolution and bit depth that you like best. There should be plenty of resolution and refresh rate choices in your Monitors window now! However, not all of these settings may work with your monitor -- if you select a setting that results in a black screen, wait a second and your Mac should revert to the older setting.

If it still doesn't revert, you can slightly move your mouse up and click hoping to hit a viable resolution in the Monitors control panel in the dark. If you get stuck in the black, restart with your monitor re-connected to your old video out and select a resolution that does work. Then shut down and start up using the Voodoo card again -- keeping in mind that you should avoid that resolution until you download a new version of the Voodoo3 driver software.

Sadly, you still can't play Quake III just yet. You need to download OpenGL 1.1.2 from Apple and install it. This is a set of extensions that allows your Mac to rapidly render 3D images. Once you've installed OpenGL, go and fish out OpenGLRendererATI from your Extensions folder. While ATI cards need this file, it gets in the way of Voodoo. All of Macworld's testing was done under OpenGL version 1.1.2, but, of course, newer versions will become available.

Once you've finished all of this you should be able to load up Quake III, Descent 3, or any other game that uses OpenGL and play. Play around with the video settings in your favorite game to get just the features you want at the speeds you want. Then sit back and play for a while -- you've earned it.

Advanced Voodoo

There are a few more things that you can do with the Voodoo3. The AGP version of the card can be flashed with the Voodoo3 ROMs and used in a Power Mac G4, replacing the built-in AGP graphics card. Macworld Lab did not test this configuration, but the faster speed of the AGP slot may produce significantly faster results than any card attached to a PCI slot. One major caveat: if you pull out the AGP graphics card, you'll lose the ability to decode DVD movies.

Another thing that you can do with your Voodoo3 2000 is to flash it with the faster Voodoo3 3000 ROM image. The Voodoo3 3000 only differs from the Voodoo3 2000 in processor speed and in the way it cools the card's processor. Flashing the 2000 with a 3000 ROM image will force the 2000's chip to run at the 3000's 166MHz speed. This generates a great deal of heat on the video processor and will void your warranty! Don't do this unless you know how to attach a fan to the heat sink of the Voodoo3 -- and even then, you should probably just ante up the extra fifty bucks and buy the legitimate 3000. Our " That's Some Powerful Voodoo " benchmark lists scores for the overclocked 2000 card for completeness' sake.

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