NVidia's hot new GeForce3 graphics chip marches in the vanguard of a revolution in PC 3D. Based on our tests and on demos, the GeForce3 – the first of a coming wave of chips that are designed for DirectX 8 – adds a new level of realism to 3D games. You can purchase the card now, and it will work with existing games – but unleashing all of its power requires games and applications that take full advantage of DirectX 8's capabilities, or which use customized OpenGL extensions. Most such games won't be available for a few months (out now is a special edition of Interplay's Giants), and with GeForce3 prices hovering around US$400, most mainstream users will probably stay away.
The GeForce3 pioneers a set of features (dubbed the NfiniteFX engine) that pulls more of 3D's complex calculations onto the graphics chip and away from your CPU. Two such features – vertex shaders and pixel shaders – let game developers program much more realistic and customized special effects (such as characters that breathe convincingly, and bumpy surfaces with correct reflections) that weren't possible on earlier graphics cards. NVidia's Lightspeed Memory Architecture speeds 3D rendering, and its high-resolution anti-aliasing smooths the jagged edges often found in PC 3D.
The chip boasts 57 million transistors – more than either the Pentium 4 or the Athlon. Our reference board carried 64MB of DDR SDRAM running at an effective 460 MHz. This power shows in games like AquaNox AquaMark that partially exploit DirectX 8, but the chip has far less impact on older 3D games and applications.
In tests involving current 3D games such as MDK2, Quake III, and Unreal Tournament at low resolutions, GeForce3 performance was good but unimpressive, lagging a bit behind that of a GeForce2 Ultra-based card. When we cranked the resolution up to 1,024-x-768 at 32-bit colour, however, the GeForce3 pulled nearly even. At 1,600-x-1,200 and 32-bit colour in Quake III and MDK2, the GeForce3 hit about 74 and 82 fps, respectively – a snappy 20 fps better than the older Ultra in both cases.
Results were even more dramatic with AquaNox AquaMark. Here, the GeForce3's frame rates almost doubled the Ultra's. At 1,024-x-768 in 32-bit colour, the chip cranked out 27 fps to the Ultra's 14. This pattern remained constant at other resolutions, too.