So what is the most scorchingly fast card you can lay your hands on at the moment? Well, to be honest it depends an awful lot on what you want. Before we analyse anything, I recommend that you only purchase anything faster than a Voodoo2, if you either have a Pentium 2 or K6-2 class system, or are going to upgrade to one very shortly. If you have a Pentium level machine, I recommend either a standard 2D/3D card from ATI/S3, or a Voodoo1. If you top 200MHz then it is worth considering a Voodoo2, but you only start to see significant performance gains past 233MHz and more. The reason is that, no matter what speed of card you buy, it is still only as good as the CPU backing it up. A fast card needs a faster processor, faster RAM etc. to get the best performance out of it. It is a common mis-conception, that fast card = fast 3D and one that I'd like to clear up for as many people as possible.
If you are thinking of buying a brand new system, don't forget that 3DNow in the AMD K6-2 upwards, and SIMD streaming instructions in Pentium III can make all the difference to 3D performance if used properly. 3DNow is by far the most widespread and used for the moment, but, SIMD is bound to take off eventually also. Pentium 2's, Celeron's and Pentium 3's all have the same powerful FPU to help things along too. However, if you need the best value for money I'd recommend a K6-III anyday, and if you can wait a bit, the K7 which is going to be much more powerful. Around 50% more powerful than a Pentium III in fact. I thought I'd just stick this in the speed section so people could think about it. So, onto the 3D cards.
The new breed of 3D cards are obviously the fastest ever made. Unfortuanately, there are now more companies making 3D cards than has ever been the case before! Each company claims that they have the fastest card, even though this is often far short of the truth. The latest cards include the NVidia Riva TNT2, the 3dfx Voodoo3, the Matrox G400/G400 MAX the ATI RAGE 128 and the S3 Savage4. All of these cards, require an AGP slot, so once again, go back to the Voodoo2 if you don't have AGP. That aside, which one should you choose?
I'll start with the G400. The MAX is the fast version of this card, so we'll stick with it. An important thing to remember, is that speed, or the lack of it, can often be down to the drivers available at the time of testing. The NVidia Riva TNT is a good example. When it was first released, it was considered extremely fast. As fast and faster than a Voodoo2! With each successive driver update however, the performance edged upwards, and now it is over 30% faster than it originally was. Quite an achievement, but not a unique example. Drivers will be released as time goes on, that will make a card perform much better than it originally did. I think it's only fair to mention this in light of the fact that even though the G400 MAX is second only to the NVidia Riva TNT2 in Direct X performance, it is significantly slower on the Open GL front. This can only be a driver problem and will no doubt be rectified. Open GL isn't a priority anyway.
The Riva TNT2 is the fastest by a small margin in Direct X over the G400 MAX and only a little slower than the Voodoo3 on Open GL. Don't let that fool you. The TNT2's performance exceeds every other cards by a decent margin. The only reason it is slower than the Voodoo3 on Open GL is that 3dfx have a very well optimized mini GL driver and it shows in the test results. Open GL should not be a massive priority anyway. Yes, it is an important part of the 3D industry and is widely used, but, it is less certain than Direct X and therefore less important.
The 3dfx Voodoo3 is also an AGP card. It is a slightly disappointing product, but, not tragically so. The speed is still well up there with the best of them. It is currently the fastest Open GL card available and is only slightly slower than the G400 MAX on Direct X tests. Of course, the added advantage is that it supports 3dfx's proprietry API GLIDE. It's worth a look in any case.
The ATI Rage 128 turned a lot of heads when it was released, but, it is a second generation card and no better than the TNT1, let alone the TNT2! As such, even though it can hold it's head up above the G400 in terms of Open GL, it dies when pitted against the other cards here. Not really worth considering now, unless you want to save a bit of money.
Lastly, the Savage4 chip from S3. Surprisingly, it is actually not that impressive speedwise. Yes, it is quite fast, but nowhere near the mighty TNT2 and a bit behind the Voodoo3. Worth considering for the texture compression, but, not the best choice overall.
I think the TNT2 is the clear speed winner here. It is not that expensive and is the fastest Direct X performer. It's Open GL is excellent, although, it comes just a tiny bit behind the Voodoo3. Now check out the next section, Image Quality, to get a more balanced overall view of these 3D cards.