Marius on Video Cards

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By Marius Gleeson

It's been almost 2 years since OS/2 Zone did a review on video cards. There has been a few finds since Derek cursed while watching his system fall over again after installing another test card. One of the main differences has been the introduction of PCI to PC's which really helps when punching Megs of data around.

This is not so much a review of video cards, but a run down on the new features offered by companies like Diamond and #9 in their latest creations. But I would be happy to do a review of the latest cards if the distributors were willing to let me try before I buy ... err ... I mean test out the cards for a hardware review and then kindly return them.

There is still a large monetary difference between the different cards that are available at the moment. This is mainly caused by the price of memory. The cheaper cards still use DRAM, while the better ones use VRAM or one of the newer types of memory. The price of VRAM is about 2 to 3 times that of DRAM, but it offers that extra speed increase that allows the better video cards to perform their accelerated features that much faster.

One of the new types of memory is WRAM or Windows RAM. This RAM offers the same features as VRAM as well as several other abilities for 3D animation and faster windows operations. It is also supposed to be comparable in price to VRAM.

One of the new features offered by most new cards is that of video scaling and acceleration. With all the new multimedia software popping up at the moment, most video chip manufactures have incorporated hardware acceleration for these applications in their latest designs. This includes special scaling techniques for standards like MPEG, and dithering algorithms to give the best image on lower colour systems.

Some of the most popular chips used by video card manufactures are those from S3. They make the chips that are in the most of the high end Diamond video cards, and the more mainstream cards from #9 also use their accelerator chips. The latest design from them is the S3 Vision 968, which replaces their older 964 model. The new chip offers more acceleration features, especially for video scaling, and is already incorporated into the new line of Stealth and Number 9 cards.

Matrox have released their latest screamer the MGA Millennium, using their own inhouse chip the MGA-2064W. This is arguably one of the best accelerators about at the moment. It is the only one to use WRAM and can have up to 8Meg on the card. What sets it apart from other chips is that it comes with 3-D acceleration including Z-Buffer support and Garound shading. And if you know these terms, then the drool will be hitting the paper by now.

Number 9 released the Imagine 128 bit video card quite a few months ago, but it is still the only design with an internal bus larger than 64 bits on one chip. This chip offers excellent performance in almost every application and is easily up with the highest 3 or 4 cards on the shelf. With the new version being able to support up to 8Meg of VRAM it is defiantly a must have for your computer junkie.

Two new cards for the graphically aware are the FireStorm 192 from Radius and the Maxmedia CX/pro from UMAX. Both of these cards use three of the S3 vision 864 chips! Each chip is dedicated to either red, green or blue allowing a total bus width of 192 bits. These cards are obviously not intended for standard users, but for high end graphics performance, they can really deliver. They both have 2 Meg of DRAM connected to each chip allowing resolutions of 1600x1200 with 16.7million colours. Once S3 release their 868 chip (The DRAM equivalent of the 968 chip) these cards will convert to these, giving them better performance with video acceleration. Despite only using DRAM their performance is quite spectacular at resolutions up to 1280x1024 but it can be a problem at maximum resolutions.

Another major part of video cards other than the accelerator chip is the RAMDAC. This converts the digital data held in the video cards memory into analogue signals for the monitor. The speed of the RAMDAC plays a significant part in the maximum refresh rate that it can pump out. Considering the FireStorm and MaxMedia will be mainly used for high end graphics at high resolutions, a slower RAMDAC can be a real draw back. These two cards both have RAMDAC's that run at 175mhz, compared to 220Mhz for most of the other power cards available at the moment. This means that at their maximum resolution of 1600x1200x16.7million colours they manage a refresh rate of 66Hz. Well below the VESA standard of 75Hz and not really good enough for large monitors.

All these cards are quite expensive when compared to the standard Cirrus Logic that comes default with most systems. But if you do a lot of graphics work or (like me) run a customised OS/2 desktop with bitmaps behind each window you don't want to have anything less than 64k colours and optimally true colour. This means a bit of extra grunt in your graphics card is a real bonus, and massive amounts of grunting is very well received.

New video card listing:

Stealth 64 Video MGA Millenium #9FX Motion 771 #9 Imagine 128/1600 #9 Imagine 128 Pro 8M FireStorm 192 Maxmedia CX/Pro
ChipSet S3 Vision 968 MGA-2064W S3Vision 968 Imagine 128 Imagine 128 (3x) S3 Vision 864 (3x) S3 Vision 864
Maximum refresh at 1024x768 with maximum colours 120Hz 120Hz 93Hz 185Hz 156Hz 120Hz 120Hz
Maximum Colours at 1024x768 16.7Million 16.7Million 16.7Million 16.7Million 16.7Million 16.7Million 16.7Million
Maximum refresh at 1600x1200 with maximum colours 76Hz 72Hz 75Hz 76Hz 72Hz 66Hz 66Hz
Maximum Colours at 1600x1200 64k 16.7Million 64k 64k 16.7Million 16.7Million 16.7Million
Maximum RAM 4Meg VRAM 8Meg WRAM 4Meg VRAM 4Meg VRAM 8Meg VRAM 6Meg DRAM 6Meg VRAM
OS/2 Warp drivers Yes No Yes Yes No No on the Internet
  • Some of the bigger cards have lower refreshes at the highest resolutions, but this is because they are displaying true colour which is an extra 50% more data to move than 64k colour mode. The Firestorm and Maxmedia will always operate like they are in true colour mode even if they are set to a lower colour settings. So reducing the number of colours for these cards will not improve the refresh rate as it would for the other video cards.