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By Charles Haddad Macs have rarely been on the bleeding edge, so to speak, of shoot-'em-up gaming. Developers of such digital gorefests as Quake and Doom have preferred to write their games first for the hordes of PC users. Could that be changing, if ever so slightly?
What makes me wonder is this: Nvidia, a small but important maker of graphic chips, has decided to release its powerful new 3-D rendering card first for the Mac. Even more significant, Id Software, the maker of Quake, has embraced this chip, called the GeForce3. Id is already reengineering a new version of the game to incorporate the enhanced real-time graphic rendering offered by Nvidia's chip.
That really is a first. Typically, Mac users wait years to play the latest versions of Quake and its ilk. And the significance of Id's embrace of the GeForce3 extends beyond its signature game. The company has licensed its 3-D software rendering engine to many other developers. And they'll likely follow Id in retooling their games to take advantage of the new power offered by the GeForce3.
PLENTY OF PIXELS. It's not hard to understand the new chip's appeal. Powered by 57 million transistors (compared to the current 33 million that are standard for top of the line graphic chips), the GeForce3 raises the rendering of 3-D images in real time to a new level. Nvidia says a game such as Quake will have more than double the number of pixels in an image. That translates into near photo-realism. Games written for the GeForce3 will look and move like Disney's and Pixar's Toy Story.
Even better, the GeForce3 includes a new technology called nfiniteFX. Don't ask me to explain it, but the bottom line is this: nfiniteFX allows developers individual control over special effects such as shading and texture. That means a developer can create unique characters, with detailed hair, skin, and coloring. That's one of the big reasons this chip is winning an early following among developers. Previous chips forced game programmers to conform to certain standards in how they wrote code, producing characters and scenes that tended to look alike game to game.
The GeForce3 already sounds powerful, but it will get even better as it evolves. Nvidia has said it expects the GeForce3's processing power to double every six months, vs. the 18-month improvement cycle among regular microprocessors. Driving the accelerated development cycle are the algorithms that allow Nvidia to mathematically speed up graphic-rendering calculations.
WAITING GAME. What does all this have to do with the Mac? Well, Apple will be the first computer maker to release machines using the GeForce3, with the initial G4s containing the chip scheduled to come out sometime this month. Other than bragging rights, however, the GeForce3 initially will have little value to Mac users. If fact, it's probably best to wait awhile before adopting the new chip. Though Id is working on Quake, no Mac games are available yet that take advantage of the GeForce3's enhanced graphic powers. So PC users are likely to see new games using GeForce3 before their Mac brethren. That's because Nvidia released the Windows instruction set that software developers need to write games for the GeForce3 first.
Plus, as you might expect, something as powerful as the GeForce3 is going to cost you. Apple will offer it as a built-in option in the new G4s for an additional $350. A stand-alone GeForce3 graphics card, expected to be released in April, will sell for $600. But you won't be able to add the GeForce3 to some Macs at any price. Apple says the chip runs too hot and is too bulky to include in the G4 Cube models.
These are depressing facts for Mac gamers. But take heart. By the time you've scraped together enough money to buy a GeForce3-enhanced Mac, the chip might have doubled in processing power. And who knows? Maybe by then a few Mac games might even be available that can harness the GeForce3's power. So those of you either too broke or too savvy to buy the first version of the GeForce3 could get the last blood-curdling laugh. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online