Introducing the 3dfx Voodoo 590

April 1, 2011

By James Wang

For the past ten years, a group of ex-3dfx veterans at NVIDIA have been leading a secret double life. In the day time, they fulfill their duties as NVIDIA employees, designing, building, and marketing GeForce graphics processors. In their spare time, and with the company's tacit consent, they've been working on a revolutionary graphics card based on 3dfx technology. After ten years of secretive development, they are finally ready to show the world what they've created.

"It was never our intention to just give up," says Gary Tarolli, former Chief Scientist of 3dfx, now at NVIDIA. "Voodoo technology had immense potential. The world never really got to see what it was capable of." With that, Gary shows us their latest creation, the 3dfx Voodoo 590.

"We named it the 590 because it matches the GeForce GTX 590 in fillrate--an essential metric in graphics performance. Both cards saturate at 77.7 Gigatexels per second, the only difference being that the Voodoo 590 is built using 3dfx technology from ten years ago."

"That a ten year-old architecture scales to the same heights as NVIDIA's Fermi architecture just goes to show how far ahead of the curve 3dfx was."

The Voodoo 590 is indeed the most remarkable graphics card we have ever seen. While the most powerful graphics cards today use at most two GPUs on a single board, the Voodoo 590 uses a mind boggling two hundred and thirty-three VSA-100 chips.

"The VSA-100 chip was designed first and foremost for scalability," says Tony Tamasi, former Director of Product Marketing at 3dfx, now at NVIDIA. "The idea was we'd built one simple, scalable chip, and scale the whole product line from there. We sort of did that with Voodoo 4 and Voodoo 5, but the Voodoo 590 really takes that to a whole different level."

Sticking to this purist expression Voodoo technology, the VSA-100 chip has not been altered in any way. Like the original chip, it's still clocked at 166 MHz. It has two pixel pipelines. It performs 3dfx' patented single-pass, single-cycle multitexturing. It features the much lauded T-buffer cinematic technology. And of course, it supports Glide.

But what about programmable shaders?

"There's more than one way to do programmable shading," says Tarolli. "With T-buffer technology, you can achieve CGI grade depth of field, motion blur, and antialiasing. You just need enough samples. With 233 VSA-100 chips, we have 466 samples to work with. That gives you higher quality effects than Pixar films."

T-buffer enables high-quality "bokeh" or depth-of-field, as shown in Epic's Samaritan Demo. This special Glide version of the demo uses T-buffer technology for butter-smooth bokeh.

But the Voodoo 590 is more than just a revival of classic 3dfx technology. "Pretty early on, we realized there was no way you could fit 233 VSA-100 chips and their associated memory on a graphics board," says Brian Kelleher, former Vice President of Engineering at 3dfx, now at NVIDIA. So we embedded the memory on the graphics chip. This has a double benefit: it saves space and it provides huge on-chip bandwidth, crucial for T-buffer effects."

The Voodoo 590 also features a new SLI scheme. "Classic SLI uses scan-line interleave. That works fine if you're trying to feed two or four graphics chips, but with 233 chips, it breaks down," says Tamasi. "Instead, we divide the screen into fine pixel tiles and distribute these to each chip. There's some secret mojo in how we split the workload that I can't get into but let's just say that it involves Gigapixel technology."

Gigapixel was a leader in tile based rendering architectures. Tile based architectures allow graphics workload to be easily distributed across a large number of chips. Gigapixel was acquired by 3dfx in 2000.

But the Voodoo 590 is not entirely an ex-3dfx project. According to Tamasi, a few of the NVIDIA founders chipped in on the design. “To cool 233 chips, we borrowed heavily from the fan design for NV30. And scaled it accordingly too of course," he said with a wink.

While the Voodoo 590 is a hugely impressive piece of engineering, will it be competitive?

"This is a one of a kind product. It's got 233 chips. It's got over 7 gigs of memory. The competition has nothing like it," says Brian Burke, former Public Relations Manager at 3dfx, now at NVIDIA.

Burke was reluctant when asked about power requirements.

"Hey, kick ass, old school graphics needs some juice. We are taking a brute force approach to rendering. We have a few power issues to sort out, but it's mostly done."

"In the meantime, if you really need this level of performance, you could always get the GeForce GTX 590," says Burke. "It's not as cool as the Voodoo 590, but hey, it's uses a lot of Voodoo tech in its core."

When asked why they built this card, the answer was unanimous.

"We did this for our fans," says Tarolli. "Even today, people speak of 3dfx with the fondest memories. People still send me emails with pictures of their Voodoo board collections. It's very touching."

"There's something magical about 3dfx," says Burke. "It was more than just a graphics card company. There was an aura, a myth around the company and its name."

"There has never been anything like it, and there never will be again."

What are your thoughts on the new Voodoo card? Post your comments here.