The History of the Modern Graphics Processor, Part 1

By Graham Singer on March 27, 2013, 2:53 AM

The evolution of the modern graphics processor begins with the introduction of the first 3D add-in cards in 1995, followed by the widespread adoption of the 32-bit operating systems and the affordable personal computer.

The graphics industry that existed before that largely consisted of a more prosaic 2D, non-PC architecture, with graphics boards better known by their chip’s alphanumeric naming conventions and their huge price tags. 3D gaming and virtualization PC graphics eventually coalesced from sources as diverse as arcade and console gaming, military, robotics and space simulators, as well as medical imaging.

While 3D graphics turned a fairly dull PC industry into a light and magic show, they owe their existence to generations of innovative endeavour. Over the next few weeks (this is the first installment on a series of four articles) we'll be taking an extensive look at the history of the GPU, going from the early days of 3D consumer graphics, to the 3Dfx Voodoo game-changer, the industry's consolidation at the turn of the century, and today's modern GPGPU.

Read the complete article.

Image credit: Abstract graphics background via Shutterstock.




User Comments: 32

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4 people like this | baN893 baN893 said:

Oh man, my two favorite things combined! History and graphics cards!

1 person liked this | VitalyT VitalyT said:

Good article, waiting for the next one

Guest said:

I'm embarrassed by the lack of the pinnacle of GFX development in the 80ies, I.e. Amiga, Atari, SGI and a few others.

This story is all about PCs. I'm baffled that this is the journalistic standard that TechSpot allows here. What were GFX in PCs used for those days? What were the groundbreaking applications? PCs were Office, then some Flight Sims, maybe Lemmings, and only in the early 90ies did tghey *begin* to get on par with the Amiga. *sigh*

With articles like these it is no wonder that my kids might belive that Bill Gates invented the Internet and Steve Jobs invented Laptops, MP3-players and Smartphones.

And with a title like "3Dfx Voodoo: The Game-changer" I am afraid that Matrox will not get the deserved acclaim for cards like the Matrox Mystique...

1 person liked this | cliffordcooley cliffordcooley, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I'm embarrassed by the lack of the pinnacle of GFX development in the 80ies, I.e. Amiga, Atari, SGI and a few others.
Seriously???

C'mon, this is 1 part of 4. You never know what the other 3 parts will contain. Wait for the other 3 parts before you start throwing rocks at the author.

dividebyzero dividebyzero, trainee n00b, said:

And with a title like "3Dfx Voodoo: The Game-changer" I am afraid that Matrox will not get the deserved acclaim for cards like the Matrox Mystique...

I'd suggest that you maybe read the relevant article before bagging it.

Mystique... pretty good 2D performance and middling 3D performance. The articles concern the rise of 3D graphics in general, where the Mystique found a better home as the 2D card companion for a 3D-only card like the Voodoo Graphics.

FWIW, the original Millennium probably deserves more words devoted to it than the Mystique, whose performance dated quite quickly (lack of bilinear filtering, near non-existent OpenGL support, stipple patterning- no alpha blending, standard 2MB framebuffer which basically killed any kind of texture support). Anyhow, here's a blast from the past for you:

Guest said:

Great article.. couldn't have come at a better time!

GPU technology has advanced so rapidly that most people today have no idea what it was like 10-15 years back. Specially PC gaming has certainly came a long way from simple moving sprites to fully immersive virtual environments we're seeing today in games like Crysis 3 or Tomb Raider. And obviously graphics has been one of the major driving forces behind the constant advancements of PC hardware.

Eagerly waiting for the next parts.

Skidmarksdeluxe Skidmarksdeluxe said:

Oh man. I've read some of this stuff before but there's nothing like reading it again. I'd forgotten some of it (99.8% is more like it). Really looking forward to the upcoming articles.

spydercanopus spydercanopus said:

The government had virtual flight simulators in 1951...? What year did pong come out?

Guest said:

No doubt. I almost forgot about the Mystique. Hell I remember playing games on QBasic. in two colors even before that. It wasn't a popular way to game but it was great in its own right.

Still, Voodoo/3DFX really did change PC gaming forever. I've been playing PC games since 92 and it is one of the more memorable experiences I had. Getting a Voodoo expansion card to tie into my 2D card to make Quake look unbelievable and run great, among other games too. Quake TF!!!!!! RIP.

mevans336 mevans336 said:

What an awesome trip down nostalgia lane. I still remember buying an nVidia Riva TNT-based card to replace my 3DFX Voodoo 2 (I think?) and being sorely disappointed at the image quality. That sucker went back to Best Buy the same day.

Can't wait for the next 3 parts.

cliffordcooley cliffordcooley, TechSpot Paladin, said:

What an awesome trip down nostalgia lane.
You can say that again. The card with the empty memory housings, reminds me of a card I upgraded memory in. The card came with 1MB memory and had two empty housings for memory upgrade. After finding two 512KB chips for a 1MB upgrade, I was flying high with a graphics card that had 2MB memory. lol

Guest said:

Hi there, sorry I am yet a bit reluctant to sign up...

I am the Guest referring to the 80ies machines like Amiga, etc.

As the titles suggest, the 4-part articles is divided by years. with part two there will be covered a time in the nineties.

What can I expect of an article covering the 90ies with regards to the systems that rocked the 80ies?

I apologize if my tone wasn't o.k., but the title is about "modern graphics processors" when actually it is about "modern graphics processors *in PCs* .

I do think that my comment therefore still holds up.

As for the Mystique, yes, I wasnt explicitely enough pointing at the millenium as well, I said "Cards [...] like the Mystique".

I simply wanted to point out that there was a transistion phase fow which the Matrox Cards were essential, even when quite soon they were blown away.

madboyv1, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I eagerly await the next installment, Great read!

amstech amstech, TechSpot Enthusiast, said:

I got into the game around the time the first Voodoo 2's released, think they were 12MB and you could run them in pairs as well. Since the Voodoo 2 was 3D only I bought a Voodoo Banshee 16MB PCI, it was my first GPU. I bought it specifically for Half Life and I've been hooked since.

The 3Dfx 'Glide' drivers were the best, OpenGL competed but usually got its butt kicked. I remember my PC game boxes when they were the size of cereal boxes AvP, Speedbusters, DethKarz, Drakan : Order of the Flame etc etc. If it didn't have the 3Dfx Glide support, I rarely played it unless it was a game like 'Unreal'.

Great article thanks for sharing.

Guest said:

Old DEC employee here.

The PDP-11 was hardly a mainframe. It was a 16 bit minicomputer that was wildly popular in its time.

Guest said:

I remember the ATI Wonder cards, wow I'm old. I also remember getting my first Voodoo GFX card, that thing was amazing.

Guest said:

Haha, 3dfx cards. Thought I wasn't that old, but I guess I am.

One of my first 'proper' 3d games of Quake or Indy 500 running on a 4.5gb hard drive and Windows 95.

dividebyzero dividebyzero, trainee n00b, said:

I apologize if my tone wasn't o.k., but the title is about "modern graphics processors" when actually it is about "modern graphics processors *in PCs*

More or less correct, but that should have been apparent from the titles applied to at least two of the four articles in the series. It would be near impossible to encompass every facet of 3D graphics development and present them in a linear manner that would engage most readers. With such disparate forms (military simulators, arcade and console gaming, medical imaging, PC gaming) you could comfortably fill a number of articles on each, along with several more showing the interlinking dependencies between developments.

The article series introduction is primarily a very brief overview of 40+ years of early 3D development, with links and references to allow the reader to explore any of the particular avenues in more depth. I wouldn't expect a line such as:

"A similar solution from Commodore's MOS Tech subsidiary, the VIC, provided graphics output for 1980-83 vintage Commodore home computers" to satisfy the curiosity or needs of the Commodore 64 aficionado, but it does provide a useful time related context and sufficient information to cast a net for a more in depth analysis.

The government had virtual flight simulators in 1951...? What year did pong come out?

Some of the early pioneers of 3D development provided truly astounding leaps in the field. Ivan Sutherland deserves a much wider recognition than he currently enjoys. This is the Sketchpad demo developed at the beginning of the 1960's

And part 1 here.

Mbloof said:

Not bad, jumped around quite a bit but missed some of the important milestones. The 'main stream' standard(s) followed the IBM-PC - CGA (4 color), EGA (16 color) and the introduction of VGA gave us (for the 1st time) 'photo realistic' 320x200x256 colors. While IBM never actually released anything better than 'VGA' just about everybody attempted to improve on it.

The PC-AT buss became a 'bottle neck' for three reasons, byte width, address space and speed. While one industry group came out with the EISA (extended industry standard architecture) the graphics manufacturers made up 'VESA' to address the problem. (Intel would later introduce PCI) One little company revolutionized the industry with a PALLET chip that gave us 24 and 32bit color.

With each graphics OEM having its own API and costs rising out of control Intel bought out Cirrus Logic and embedded the basic functions of a 2D graphic card into their chipset making the cost of a 'basic pc' drop as most business customers had no use for the 'high end' miss match of products.

DirectX was really a love/hate solution. Users did not wish to be forced to use Windows to play games but having one universally available API offered the promise that any PC with a graphics card that supported it could play any game that used it. However DX was its own 'train wreck' until DX9C. Stupidly even todays games will attempt to install DX on Vista W7 and W8 systems that come with DX already installed.

dividebyzero dividebyzero, trainee n00b, said:

Intel bought out Cirrus Logic...

Cirrus Logic still exist as an independent company. They were still making graphics up until 1997 (Laguna3D discrete desktop, CL-GD7665 display controller)

Guest said:

I was going to say the same thing. The PDP-11 was a series of minicomputer models. Also, I think its odd that the pre-PC history of computer graphics jumps back and forth in time, not completely in chronological order, which is a bit odd for something titled as a "history."

Guest said:

The prior comment about the PDP-11 was supposed to have been a reply to the old DEC employee... apparently when you hit "reply" it doesn't mark it as a reply to the comment, just a reply to the article. Sorry for the minor distraction.

yukka, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Lovely trip down memory lane. My first pc was a p200 (non-mmx). I can't remember how much ram was in it, that's pretty bad it had a matrix mystique then as soon as I ran quake I bought a 4mb voodoo 1. Happy days

fimbles fimbles said:

Great article!

2 people like this | Scalibq Scalibq said:

Not bad, jumped around quite a bit but missed some of the important milestones. The 'main stream' standard(s) followed the IBM-PC - CGA (4 color), EGA (16 color) and the introduction of VGA gave us (for the 1st time) 'photo realistic' 320x200x256 colors. While IBM never actually released anything better than 'VGA' just about everybody attempted to improve on it.

IBM did go better than VGA actually, they had the 8514/A adapter and XGA. It's just that neither achieved the standard status of the MDA/CGA/EGA/VGA, mainly because third-party SVGA solutions were much cheaper (and not compatible with 8514/A or XGA), so that's what went into most clones.

Speaking of CGA, there seems to be an error in the article:

"This became the basis for the IBM PC's Monochrome and Color Display Adapter (MDA/CDA) cards of 1981"

It's Color Graphics Adapter: CGA. Not CDA.

However DX was its own 'train wreck' until DX9C.

Not at all. Not sure why people see it that way. I think it is severely skewed by the fact that early GeForce/Radeon cards benefited from their T&L only in OpenGL, because of D3D being lower-level, and T&L acceleration could not be integrated without an API overhaul.

Microsoft already fixed that in DX7 though. And DX8/9 were mostly evolutionary updates from DX7 (DX8 adding programmable shaders and making windowed rendering easier to do, DX9 mainly updating shaders to SM2.0 and later 3.0).

Stupidly even todays games will attempt to install DX on Vista W7 and W8 systems that come with DX already installed.

That is not stupid at all. What they update is the DirectX runtime. Microsoft updates these runtimes from time to time to fix some bugs, improve the compiler, things like that.

Games have to make sure that the runtime on the system is at least as new as the one that the game is compiled against. The easiest way to do that is to run Microsoft's DirectX runtime installer, which will automatically update any components if necessary:

[link]

Mbloof said:

Not bad, jumped around quite a bit but missed some of the important milestones. The 'main stream' standard(s) followed the IBM-PC - CGA (4 color), EGA (16 color) and the introduction of VGA gave us (for the 1st time) 'photo realistic' 320x200x256 colors. While IBM never actually released anything better than 'VGA' just about everybody attempted to improve on it.

IBM did go better than VGA actually, they had the 8514/A adapter and XGA. It's just that neither achieved the standard status of the MDA/CGA/EGA/VGA, mainly because third-party SVGA solutions were much cheaper (and not compatible with 8514/A or XGA), so that's what went into most clones.

Speaking of CGA, there seems to be an error in the article:

"This became the basis for the IBM PC?s Monochrome and Color Display Adapter (MDA/CDA) cards of 1981"

It's Color Graphics Adapter: CGA. Not CDA.

However DX was its own 'train wreck' until DX9C.

Not at all. Not sure why people see it that way. I think it is severely skewed by the fact that early GeForce/Radeon cards benefited from their T&L only in OpenGL, because of D3D being lower-level, and T&L acceleration could not be integrated without an API overhaul.

Microsoft already fixed that in DX7 though. And DX8/9 were mostly evolutionary updates from DX7 (DX8 adding programmable shaders and making windowed rendering easier to do, DX9 mainly updating shaders to SM2.0 and later 3.0).

Stupidly even todays games will attempt to install DX on Vista W7 and W8 systems that come with DX already installed.

That is not stupid at all. What they update is the DirectX runtime. Microsoft updates these runtimes from time to time to fix some bugs, improve the compiler, things like that.

Games have to make sure that the runtime on the system is at least as new as the one that the game is compiled against. The easiest way to do that is to run Microsoft's DirectX runtime installer, which will automatically update any components if necessary:

[link]

I call it a 'train wreck' as it kept changing. Users would have to match card+driver+DX version on every new game release. Oddly we are still stuck with games attempting to install DX.

Scalibq Scalibq said:

I call it a 'train wreck' as it kept changing. Users would have to match card+driver+DX version on every new game release. Oddly we are still stuck with games attempting to install DX.

That doesn't make sense.

Firstly, you did NOT have to match card, driver and DX version. Up to and including DX7, all lower driver versions were supported (and obviously also video cards which didn't support all the latest features). After that, a minimum driver version was imposed, but aside from DX10, this version was always lower than the latest API version (eg DDI6 driver for DX8, DDI7 driver for DX9, and DDI9 driver for DX11).

Secondly, change is not necessarily a bad thing. Video cards evolved at an alarming rate. Microsoft kept updating their API to incorporate the latest features. OpenGL also received tons of API updates, and things spun out of control with vendor-specific extension hell in an attempt to keep up. Which is why OpenGL was abandoned in favour of D3D. If anything, OpenGL was the trainwreck.

And I already explained why games install the DX runtime. Next time, bother to read my WHOLE post. I even linked to the DX runtime so you can read in Microsoft's own words why it should be installed:

"The DirectX redist installation includes all the latest and previous released DirectX runtime. This includes D3DX, XInput, and Managed DirectX components."

Note: latest AND previous versions. For certain parts of the runtime, several versions are installed side-by-side. Not having the latest version installed will mean the game cannot start because it cannot resolve a dependency on certain DLLs. So, they HAVE to install it.

Justin Powell Justin Powell said:

Im sure your going to mention the N64 sometime b/c 3dfx wasnt the game-changer. N64 came out in japan in june/july of 1996 a full six months before 3dfx came around. It was the first main stream product that the avagage joe could afford, so I believe it desevers more credit than the 3dfx.

Guest said:

ATI's mach series was awesome. I had a mach32 vlb card in my 486. Along with a vlb IO board too.

I still have a Mach 64 PCI card. It's still in active use too. Only as a graphics card for an esxi vmware box that rarely sees a monitor, but for access to the text console, it's a great card. Doesn't use hardly any power, only uses a pci slot, leaving pci-e slots free for other cards, etc.

It's dated 1995/96. Not bad for a graphics card to be in active service 17/18 years later.

Guest said:

Awesome article, waiting for part two.:)

digitalsyrup digitalsyrup said:

OMFG. I really feel old now. I've seen and had pretty much all of the cards in this article in the PC's I've owned growing up. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane!

Guest said:

Nice article

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