Although most gamers do not have an exact idea regarding how much gaming hardware has changed over the years, they are aware that the changes have been tremendous. After all, the IBM EGA was no NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3090, although there is a 36-year gap between the two!
Since the history of gaming technology is too vast to include everything, we are going to focus on five of the most profoundly impactful GPUs which paved the way. Note that this list will only include GPUs or graphics cards. Therefore, no SoC will be mentioned on this list as they belong to a time when the GPU was still not separate from the CPU.
Voodoo 1 (1996) by 3dfx Interactive
After watching a PC gaming market which has been divided and contested between just two companies for decades at this point, the name 3dfx Interactive might sound almost alien. After all, the company went out of business two decades ago in 2002! Nevertheless, they were pioneers and for a very brief period, industry leaders as well.
Their Voodoo 1 (1996) was the very first dedicated, add-on video card for running 3D tasks (3D games, 3D rendering & modelling software). The company never really managed to gain much ground after that. Voodoo 2 was a better product in every way, but the 3dfx Voodoo 1 remains one of the most profoundly impactful graphics cards of all time, simply because it was the first hardware of its kind.
NVIDIA GeForce 256 DDR (1999) by NVIDIA
It’s a misconception that the GeForce 256 is the world’s first dedicated GPU, as that honour goes to the 3dfx Voodoo 1. Nevertheless, the GeForce 256 was the first dedicated graphics card to support Microsoft’s DirectX 7 API in its entirety. It was also the first graphics card to be termed as a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU).
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX (2006)
Anyone who was gaming in 2006 wanted an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX, but very few could afford to pay the $600 asking price. Pricey and power hungry as the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX was, it was a revolutionary graphics card. The DirectX10 GPU was monstrous in size and power (for its time) with 128 dynamic stream processors (36.8 billion/second texture-fill rate), a 90nm chip with 681 million transistors, and 768 MB DDR3 VRAM. The new dynamic stream processors changed a lot of things for NIVIDIA’s future cards for years to come.
ATI Radeon HD 5970 (2009)
AMD acquired ATI in 2006 and killed off the brand name completely by 2010. The ATI Radeon 5970 was Array Technology Incorporated’s last graphics card. However, the GPU made it onto our list because it was a revolutionary goodbye from ATI in every conceivable way! Powered by 2,154 million transistors and 1600 shaders on just a 40nm chip, the twin-GPU card was an unbeaten gaming powerhouse at the time.
It is to be noted that the Hemlock architecture allowed the 2GB HD 5970 to provide better graphical prowess at a significantly lower energy cost than its contemporaries. Considering that the ATI Radeon was 1.5” thick, measured a whole foot in length, and weighed almost 1.6 kgs, that was indeed, quite an achievement.
NVIDIA RTX 3000 Series (2020)
The RTX 3000 series of GPUs changed 4K gaming forever in 2020. The RTX 3080 and RTX 3090 series of graphics cards are more than capable of handling even the likes of Far Cry 6 and Red Dead Redemption 2 at ultra-settings in 4K, without losing the 60FPS average mark. That had never happened before or since.
On the other hand, AMD did gain the upper hand with their Ryzen CPUs. Threadripper continues to obliterate all competition from Intel in multithread task load handling and completion rates. If you want the absolute best PCs for gaming and streaming, you will want to opt for something like the Lenovo Legion T5. They combine AMD’s CPU might with NVIDIA’s graphical prowess to create the ultimate gaming machines at a relatively affordable price.
Honourable mention must be given to the first graphics card with 7 billion transistors, aka the NVIDIA GeForce GTX Titan. The truly merciless market domination of NVIDIA started with the GeForce Titan in 2013 and the Titan X later in 2015. The Titan series were so overpowered for their time that they manage to produce playable FPS even in some of today’s AAA titles at medium settings.