Of Video Cards and Rust: Remembering Exciting Times
I bought my first grown-up PC in December of 1998, as I started my first graduate degree. I did not need a ton of muscle. My degree was going to be in Finance. But, despite not having had a desktop PC since my sophomore year of undergrad, I was still a gamer at heart, and could not help being attracted by all the shiny boxes of PC parts that lined the shelves of the games aisle at the local Circuit City. I wound up with a Diamond Monster Fusion Voodoo Banshee card with 16GB of memory to throw into the Packard Bell beige-box that I was buying.
That card started me down a path that, 19 years hence, has allowed me to partake in dozens of incredible learning experiences. The card had Unreal packed in, introducing me to the first-person shooter genre. It also had Motocross Madness, which was advertised as working best with a Microsoft Sidewinder game controller with tilt controls, which I, of course, also promptly purchased. Before that, I did not know anything about Glide, or OpenGL, API's or DirectX or why I should care. Tweaking the card to get maximum performance from games made me care about how many icons were on my desktop, what services I had running, and preventing services and apps from launching on startup. Thirteen years later, having been an avid tech enthusiast for over a decade, I selected Software Engineering as my degree for my second tour through grad school, strongly influenced by the experiences that stemmed from picking up that card that day.
Diamond found a way to survive during the great video card manufacturer consolidation and extinction event of the early 2000's. They even recently went back to making video cards, having departed that space largely during the major shakeup. But as far as actual chip designers, it is just nVidia and ATi now, the latter having been purchased by AMD years ago; otherwise ATi would also likely no longer be in business. Gone are S3 with their Savage and Metal technologies; those assets were eventually incorporated as part of the DirectX API spec. Rendition was acquired by Micron. Perhaps the largest giant of the era, 3Dfx, with their unique Glide API, filed for bankruptcy, and were forced to sell much of their IP and most of their patents to nVidia, one of their principle competitors. With the reduction in ODM chip-makers, the need for lots of card makers was also sucked out of the market. Cirrus Logic and Hercules no longer make graphics cards. But the shift has given rise to companies such as Asus, eVGA, Gigabyte, and Zotac. And while much of this space is a barren wasteland littered with the corpses of companies that used to thrive in the pc gaming hardware industry, I still remember that time fondly.
As much fun as it was getting a hold of that Voodoo Banshee card and becoming a card-carrying member of the Voodoo and Glide fanbois nation, things really got interesting in the fall of 1999. That is about when nVidia, a company I had not heard of because they had been running far behind in the graphics chip race, released the nVidia 256. I first saw it on store shelves as the Creative Labs GeForce Annihilator. In the early months of 2000, the Annihilator Pro would come out, and I did my first “less than 6-months hardware upgrade”. A pattern that I fell victim to and would have to train myself out of over the next few years. But back then, jumping to a new video card, even with less than six months time in-between, could bring significant improvements. Things were simpler, too; some of those cards were produced in both AGP and PCI variants, and did not require an additional power line of their own from the main PSU. They were just powered from the card slot and its associated bus. I started building my own PCs, so that I could maximize my flexibility and onboard the newest technology as it hit.
In those times, I definitely set my allegiance to a specific manufacturer or technology, so it was weird shiftingfrom 3Dfx to nVidia. I went on to buy my next several cards based on the GeForce technology, and I stuck with Creative Labs because I came to trust the Annihilator line of products. Eventually, for cost reasons, I started building AMD boxes, having previously always stuck with Intel, and that led me down a path of researching and buying the best part I could afford rather than only trusting one part over another. And so I departed the Creative Labs / GeForce / Annihilator-only pattern and explored other options. Then I got out.
Through a sine wave of changes in my technology hobby, I really have not been much focused on GPUs since that time. I did several PC builds of my own. I took a break, bought some retail or pre-configured PCs, and then just moved their GPU’s into new cases when I started building again. Then I built my last custom boxes in 2008 and got rid of them in 2010. For six years, I just gamed on laptops until I finally felt my kids were old enough to not destroy an ATX tower if I built one. Or three as has been the case. Of course, these days you order everything online, and it’s a much more sterile experience than going into Electronics Boutique or Fry's and looking at an entire wall or row of video cards from a dozen or more different manufacturers and making your selection. Thinking about it, my heart wells with a certain sorrow for a time gone by, and memories of taking off from class or work, mounting up in my SUV with my buds for a Friday morning geek-trek to the nearest Fry's, which was two hours away. We would spend the whole day on the road, in the store, making selections, and chumming it up on the drive back.
Well, things will obviously never be that way again. Technology, PCs, gaming, the world…they all move on. But it was a wondrous time to be a part of something burgeoning and new, and to participate in the dialogue amongst enthusiasts who were all atwitter about the emergence we were all witnessing, learning, and becoming a part of. As much as I love the Beast of 5-Fans which sits next to me now blasting away, I know its DNA descends from this much simpler time. On most things like this, I say I would not want to go back to any given topical time for all the tea in China; I am almost always focused on the future and remember all of the things of the past that were bad, and how much better they are now. But in the realm of video cards and the evolution of 3d acceleration, and the excitement that that era packed in…I might just be inclined to think that maybe things were better.