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What I would have like for the Holidays: It's the silly season this month, and I look at 3 companies that are no more, and wonder how great it would have been to get something from Aureal, 3dfx and Karna.
 
 
Date: December 21, 2002
Catagory: Articles
Manufacturer: N/A
Written By:
 

I first got into PC gaming way back in 1987. I forget now what game got me started, but games such as Karateka and Prince of Persia were personal favorites. However, I discovered the need to upgrade and overclock when Wing Commander was released, as it required serious hardware to run the game. As PC gaming grew in popularity, I also gained interest in PC hardware. I eventually got into designing my own PCs, with the sole purpose of improving my gaming experience.

Today, there are more than enough choices for whatever computer part or peripheral you wish to replace. Given the amount of selection, there are a few that are missing from my "gaming" past, and it's a shame they are not around today. These companies, in my opinion, pioneered the markets they targeted. They dared to be different, and innovated areas of PC hardware that other manufacturers either ignored or imitated. No doubt, there are more companies missing than those I'm talking about today, but it was these three that made the most lasting impression on me...

Aureal

For the longest time, Creative Labs, and their Sound Blaster line of ISA cards ruled the roost. There was pretty much no competition in the mainstream market. In September, 1996, Aureal Semiconductors broke into the scene with its 3D-positional sound technology for PCs called A3D.

What they did, that Creative Labs did not, was to provide a working 3D sound algorithm to the mainstram PC market, long before anyone else did. Sound cards based on their technology were PCI based, another first, and with the added bandwidth PCI provided over ISA, more complex sound schemes were now possible, providing a richer experience for the user.

Originally, they did not manufacturer their own cards, but rather, they supplied their chips to 3rd parties such as Diamond Multimedia and Turtle Beach. The Turtle Beach Montego I (Vortex Au8820) proved to be very popular, and even major OEMs as Dell picked up these cards to package in their top of the line Dimension PCs. The Diamond MX300 (Vortex2 Au8830) was a popular card in retail, and things were looking very good for Aureal as the A3D 2.0 API was gaining a lot of popularity among developers. Eventually, Aureal began marketing their own branded cards in 1999.

Sound quality was excellent, though CPU usage was a little higher than Creative's Live! card. Debates raged over the A3D and the Creative EAX sound APIs, and unfortunently, consumers were caught in the middle. Aureal was going to have a fight on its hands.

Things got worse, as Creative sued Aureal over a patent infringment. Compound the multi-million dollar losses in 1998 and 1999, things were looking bleak indeed. Finally, in late 2000, Aureal closed shop, and were bought out by their arch rivals, Creative.

Considering what Aureal brought to the industry, it was a shame to see them go. If they didn't run out of money, who knows? You may have an Aureal A3D 4.0 card in your system now. They had a good product, but they fumbled the ball somewhere, and the sharks with the deeper pockets eventually got the better of them.

Karna

Mice technology was pretty much a stagnant industry. Up until the introduction of the scroll wheel, as long as it had a ball, and two buttons, that was about as exciting as it got. As first person shooter action games gained in popularity, a problem arose. Given the framerates of newer video cards, it seemed the reliable PS/2 interface was simply not updating mouse movements quickly enough. There was a lag, and it often spelled death to gamers, but then there was a migration to USB, which remedied that problem. Optical mice soon broke on to the scene, eliminating the problem of dirty mice, as an optical mouse required almost no cleaning. Problem was, tracking was not always reliable, and I recall getting fragged on many occasions because my MS Explorer lost tracking, and I ended up staring at the floor.

In mid-1999, a company called Karna broke into the scene. No, they did not introduce a newer optical mouse, but instead, they went backwards and used a traditional ball instead. This was a new mouse developed by Karna that was made specifically for gamers. The mouse worked by placing high resolution sensors in the ball chamber, and it simply tracked faster than anything on the market. With up to 2000dpi precision (most mice at this time tracked at 120 - 400) for the BS2000, it brought a whole new level of accuracy for the hardcore gaming market. The mouse was endorsed heavily by pro gamers, and I myself can attest for the remarkable accuracy of the Boomslang series. As I got a feel for the mouse, it became child's play to put an online opponent out of their misery.

As good as the mouse was, it was plagued by a couple of issues. It was uncomfortable to use, when compared to a standard mouse. I often ached after a few hours of gaming because the mouse was so big and heavy. Another issue was that it was prone to breaking. A lot of users it seems had issues as stuck buttons, or in my case, one of the sensors in the ball chamber broke. I was able to replace mine, but many sent their mice back and never heard from them again.

It's still a bit of a mystery why they've essentially went belly up. One thing we know is they also ran out of money. Their lease on life was extended somewhat by additional investments, but they are essentially dead in the water.

What would they have had if they were still active in the market? There were rumors of a project called "Mamba", which would probably be something like a BS3000. They probably would have also have had an optical product, but alas, we'll never know.

3dfx

3dfx shouldn't need any introduction. When 3D graphics hit the scene, your only options were cards such as the S3 Virge, which was more of a 3D-deccelerator than it was an accelerator. In October 1996, the 3dfx Voodoo shook up the industry with the first true accelerator, and although a few challenges arose (such as the Rendition Verité), the Voodoo was top dog. Direct 3D was still a joke in these days, and OpenGL was difficult to work with. Glide was a proprietary 3dfx API that was well received by developers when initially released.

The Voodoo was not a regular video card as we're accustomed to today (and before the Voodoo was originally released). It was a PCI card, and it was unable to function as a standalone video card and it required a "2D" card to work with it. The The Voodoo Rush was to follow, which was a 2D/3D card, but performance wasn't in the Voodoo range.

In March 1998, 3dfx dropped the 2nd bomb with their Voodoo 2. Like the Voodoo, a primary 2D video card was required. Not only was this card a lot faster than anyone elses at the time, it could be even faster in SLI mode. By purchasing two Voodoo 2s, which could be connected by an internal SLI cable, you would effectively have two cards processing the same scene. Speeds were not doubled, but a 50% improvement was a reasonable gain in performance. The Voodoo Banshee followed, which was much like the Rush, but with a Voodoo 2 core. Unfortunently, it was handicapped, as to not cut into Voodoo 2 sales, and like the Rush, many shoppers skipped on the Banshee.

There was some heat at this time though, as nVidia, small fry back then, released their TNT card. Unlike the Voodoo 2, it provided 2D duties, and unlike the Banshee, had close to Voodoo 2 3D performance. Another thing to note: The Voodoo cards were only capable of 16Bit colour, whereas the TNT could do 32Bit, albeit with a serious performance loss.

This battle of the titans contiunued with the TNT2 vs the Voodoo 3. The Voodoo 3 was a 2D/3D part, and gone was the 3dfx add-in card philosophy. Also gone was the licensing to 3rd party manufacturers. Companies such as Diamond multimedia and Creative Labs were producing Voodoo cards, but with the aquisition of S3, 3dfx deicided it'd be better and faster to make their own cards. During this time, 3dfx were still pushing speed and 16Bit colour, while nVidia was pushing 32Bit image quality.

In late 1998/early 1999, things got grimmer though as nVidia was now catching up to 3dfx in speed, while maintaining image quality with their TNT2 Ultra, and passing 3dfx entirely with thier GeForce cards. 3dfx's Voodoo 4/5 were promising great speed and Full Screen Anti Aliasing and motion blur, but they were late. In fact, they were very late. By the time they came out, the GeForce DDR was the top dog, and adding salt to the wounds, the GeForce 2 was about ready for primetime. The Voodoo 5500 was a competitive product, but it was almost double the price of nVidia's top part, for only a marginal improvement in performance. The Voodoo 5 6000 would probably keep things close, but it was too expensive, and plagued by production problems. No, things would have to wait until Rampage, their next gen product.

Unfortunently, Rampage never happened, as 3dfx ended up being another company that simply ran out of money. nVidia snatched up the remains, and no doubt, I'm sure we're seeing some of 3dfx's research in some of nVidia's cards today.

Luckily for consumers, ATi has picked up some of the performance market slack, as this should keep driving innovation in the video card market for some time to come. It's hard to imagine what 3dfx would be doing now if they were still around. I would have liked to have seen a SLI DX9 part, with 32x Anisotropic Filtering, 16x AntiAliasing, and no framerate loss, but like Aureal and Karna, I can only dream about what could have been.

Final Words

As I look back the the past several years, I can't help but miss 3dfx, Aureal and Karna a little. Although today, we have companies such as ATi, nVidia, Creative Labs, Logitech and Microsoft, a little more choice is never bad for anyone. The three companies profiled today dared to be different in a time when their specific markets were fairly stagnant.

I am not trying to imply a company such as nVidia never would have created the GeForce, but would we have seen the innovation as quickly as we have without 3dfx as competition? Certainly, games have pushed the PC enthusiast market, but it's the hardware manufacturers that need to come up with the hardware to make the software developer's killer app shine.

The same goes for sound. You'll have to remember that the Aureal PCI DSPs also helped framerates somewhat by off loading a lot of the processing time your CPU would have had to have taken to create that immersive sound environment. Other manufacturers have picked up where Aureal left off, and do offer you a choice when shopping for a sound card. In all honesty now, the majority of the market will pick up a Sound Blaster, which is a great piece of hardware, but the debate over sound APIs is gone.

Karna, though probably making the least impact on the consumer market, left a lasting impression on the gaming market. What you use for gaming can mean a lot between getting fragged and getting the frag. That being said, they are probably missed the least out of the three today, but I still keep my Boomslang 2000 handy, in case I need it.

Looking inside your box, it's a safe bet that your gaming rig is about as good as you can make it. You'll likely have a GeForce or Radeon, a Sound Blaster Live! or Audigy, and a Logitech or MS mouse. It could have easily been one of the ather three above, and a year or two from now, I could be writing a similar retrospect on any of the latter companies who've replaced 3dfx, Aureal or Karna. Life is fast in the technology world, and it's a fine line between being top dog, to being a has-been.

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