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Matrox Joins the 3D Wars with Parhelia

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Matrox Joins the 3D Wars with Parhelia

Its been a few years since Quebec-based Matrox Graphics was among the top choices for graphics boards at retail stores and among hardware OEMs such as IBM, Dell, HP, and Compaq. Once the 3D acceleration revelation began with chips such as 3dfxs Voodoo in 1997-98, Matroxs speedy 2D graphics accelerators such as the Millennium II were quickly eclipsed in the marketplace. Matrox didnt vanish, but after the market failure of poorly performing 2D/3D cards such as the Mystique series, it redirected its efforts towards multiple-monitor solutions for business.

Business users of multiple-screen computers have become very familiar with Matroxs more recent products such as the Millennium G400, G450, and G500 series. Their unique dual-head capability allows them to independently drive two monitors with a single graphics card, a powerful feature that is also supported on Windows 98 and later operating systems. However, these products 3D acceleration performance is dismal compared to products from ATI and nVidia, preventing them from making significant inroads in the home user and gamer graphics upgrade business.

Now, Matrox has decided to combine its expertise in multiple-monitor displays with new techniques for achieving high-quality 3D acceleration with its new Parhelia graphics accelerator card, based on the Parhelia-512 graphics accelerator chip. In this article, youll learn what makes Parhelia unique and whether its right for you.

512 More Than a Name

The Parhelia-512 graphics processing unit (GPU) at the heart of the Matrox Parhelia series of graphics cards derives its name from its use of four 128-bit vertex shader engines (128 times 4 equals 512) and a 512-instruction cache. Each of the four vertex shader engines connect to its own four-stage programmable texture unit, enabling Parhelia-512 to add four different textures to an object in a single pass as the Sea Bass demonstration online http://www.matrox.com/mga/products/parhelia512/technology/quad_texture.cfm shows.

Each programmable texture unit is connected to a separate five-stage programmable pixel shader complete with its own fog and alpha blending unit. Essentially, Parhelia-512 is like four powerful graphics processors in one, enabling amazing 3D animations at high speeds.

As a result of this sophisticated graphics pipeline, Parhelia-512 can allocate up to 64 texture samples per operation, and the texture samples can be dynamically allocated for trilinear filtering or anisotropic filtering as required.

Smarter Forms of Antialiasing

Antialiasing, the smoothing of pixels on the edges of on-screen objects, has been a mixed blessing for most gamers. Sure, antialiased objects are smoother and more pleasing to look at, but the antialiasing methods that many 3D accelerators use cause big drops in performance (though newer cards handle AA much better than their predecessors). Parhelia-512 provides a very high-quality fragment antialiasing method, FAA-16x, for intelligently smoothing object edges only, leaving object interiors sharp. It also supports a faster 4x FSAA method. However, test results indicate that enabling FAA-16x creates visual problems in some games such as on-screen artifacts or skipped edges on some objects, while improving the appearance of others. Fortunately, you can enable or disable FAA-16x through Matroxs PowerDesk-HF driver software control panel.

Thanks to ClearType technologies, which Microsoft introduced in Windows 2000 and Windows XP, antialiasing has also become common for on-screen text. The Parhelia-512, however, takes smooth text several steps further by providing for hardware acceleration of antialiased text display and full gamma correction for the most realistic appearance text possible.

More Colors Enhance Realism

Parhelia-512 goes beyond the current 24-bit color standard (8-bits or 256 values each for red, green, and blue) to support 10-bit colors per each component with its 10-bit GigaColor technology. This enables Parhelia to display 1,024 values each for red, green, and blue for a total of one billion on-screen colors, compared to just 16.8 million for 24-bit displays (so-called 32-bit settings used by conventional 3D accelerator cards use the additional 8 bits for 3D graphics, not for colors, so they are also considered 24-bit cards).

Because 10-bit GigaColor can display four times as many values from lightest to darkest shades than 24-bit color can, on-screen color shading can be smoother and more subtle. Another benefit of GigaColor is more accurate gamma corrections for CRT displays. GigaColors 10-bit per color element accuracy is consistent throughout the entire GPU pipeline, and even supports the PC-Theater DVD Playback feature for quality equal to home-theater and high-end DVD set-top box displays.

Some Features Are Already Ready for DirectX 9

Microsofts DirectX 9 3D graphics API wont be available until late in 2002, but Parhelia-512 is already ready to support its new features such as Hardware Displacement Mapping, which enables complex 3D geometry to be stored as simple texture maps and rendered in real time. Parhelia-512s vertex shader array is also DX9-compatible. Once game developers start using the new features in DX9, Parhelia-512 users will be ready to enjoy them. However, Parhelias pixels shaders are only DirectX 8.1-compatible. Such inconsistencies in DirectX support in hardware are the major reason that game developers are slow to adopt all of the features of a particular DirectX release.

Cleaning Up Analog Image Quality

Matrox Graphics display cards have always been known for high-quality display output, and Parhelia-512 continues the tradition with its UltraSharp Display Technology. By using high-precision RAMDAC chips and fifth-order filters which retain high-frequency visual data to provide consistent frequency response, Parhelia-512 is able to produce a high-quality display at any refresh rate and resolution without the need to adjust color or brightness settings at different resolutions and refresh rates.

Three-Head Displays

Dual-display support has become commonplace since ATIs Radeon VE 3D and nVidias GeForce2 MX series combined dual displays with 3D graphics in mass-market 3D graphics cards. Parhelia-512 raises the ante with support for not two, but three simultaneous displays, including up to two DVI digital displays. This enables Parhelia-512 to support Surround Gaming when three monitors are used with popular games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002, Jedi Knight II, Quake III Arena, and many more. Keep in mind that in many cases, you will need to manually adjust game parameters and the system Registry to enable support.

When two monitors are used, Parhelia-512 can support dual 2048 by 1536 32-bit analog displays or dual 1600 by 1200 32-bit digital displays, enabling you to use large monitors complete with gamma correction, hardware cursors, and hardware overlay support.

Comparing Parhelia to Its Rivals

Parhelia is aimed at buyers who prize visual quality above frame rates. Thats a good thing, because early test results from Toms Hardware, Anandtech, and Sharky Extreme show that Parhelias 3D performance falls way behind nVidias GeForce4 Ti 4600 and is similar to or slightly lower than ATIs Radeon 8500. (The performance of ATI's newer Radeon 9700 is beyond any of these cards.) This is due in large part to the slow clock speed used by the Parhelia-512 GPU chip. Running at only 220MHz, versus speeds of 275MHz (Radeon 8500) and 300MHz (GeForce4 Ti 4600) puts the Parhelia-512 behind from the start. Another problem noted in particular by Anandtech is that the Parhelia-512 GPU doesnt know how to discard occluded pixels (pixels which will not be visible in the final-rendered scene). While both nVidia and ATI GPUs wont bother to render occluded pixels, Parhelia-512 wastes time rendering them, which drops its 3D performance in most tests by a significant factor.

What about display quality? Not surprisingly, in game demos where the Parhelias unique features such as fragment anti-aliasing were supported, the card held its own, and even occasionally passed, its rivals from nVidia and ATI in both quality and performance. However, when lower-quality settings were used, or in games which placed fewer demands upon the sophisticated Parhelia graphics-rendering pipeline, it lost again to ATI and nVidia.

As with other new products, you will probably want to keep an eye on the Matrox Graphics website for updated drivers. Most review sources suggest that Parhelias initial graphics drivers need optimization to improve performance.

Buying Parhelia

The first Parhelia video cards are now available direct from Matrox Graphics online store at the official retail of $399 or from Computer Discount Warehouse (CDW) for a bit less. The initial cards have 128MB of RAM onboard; other models with 256MB (the maximum supported by the Parhelia-512 GPU) or 64MB are also planned. Bulk-pack cards with slower memory and GPU speeds will be available for system builders and others in the near future as well.

Is Parhelia Right for You?

Parhelia may be a good choice for you if you prize 2D display quality, three-head gaming or productivity options, and support for very sophisticated antialiasing effects in 3D. However, youll pay much more for Parhelia than for faster 3D cards using nVidia or ATI graphics chips. As with other Matrox Graphics products of the last few years, Parhelia in its current form and price level is essentially a niche product with the greatest appeal to office-suite and 3D graphics professionals rather than a mass-market 3D gaming graphics product.

For Further Research

Matrox Website

Start your tour of the Parhelia-512 GPUs feature set at
http://www.matrox.com/mga/products/parhelia512/

The Parhelia graphics card overview starts at
http://www.matrox.com/mga/products/parhelia/home.cfm

Wondering if your game supports Parhelias Surround Gaming Feature? Look it up at
http://www.matrox.com/mga/3d_gaming/surrgame.cfm

Third-party Reviews

Toms Hardwares review of the Parhelia-512 GPUs 3D performance includes a detailed explanation of how to adjust Jedi Knight II for Surround Gaming support and extensive 3D benchmarks.
http://www.tomshardware.com/graphic/02q2/020625/index.html

Anandtech provides a hard look at the promise and limitations of the Parhelia in its review:
http://www.anandtech.com/showdoc.html?i=1645&p=1

See what computer magazines and websites are saying about the Parhelia technology:
http://www.matrox.com/mga/news/reviews/parhelia_intl.cfm

Sharky Extremes review includes an excellent discussion of the pros and cons of the different methods of providing anti-aliasing:
http://www.sharkyextreme.com/hardware/videocards/article.php/3211_1376851__1

Copyright©2002 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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