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-- by James E. Powell
The latest trend in video cards is accelerated 3-D. Two new PCI video cards-the Velocity 3D from STB Systems and the Stealth 3D 3000XL from Diamond Multimedia-prove that 3-D isn't just for games, but is a good choice for 2-D business graphics, too.
Both boards offer 2-D and 3-D hardware acceleration and accelerated full-motion video playback, including an MPEG I video player with x- and y-axis interpolation.
The cards use the S3 ViRGE VX graphics controller ASIC that can deliver up to 16.7 million colors at 1280x1024 and a still-respectable 64,000 colors (high color) at 1600x1200. The latter resolution is useful for CAD/CAM applications. These boards have an internal 220MHz RAMDAC and support both Microsoft's Direct3D and OpenGL (for NT) standards, among others.
The standard Velocity 3D model includes 4MB of EDO VRAM; an optional $100 daughter card supplies an additional 4MB of DRAM. The Stealth 3D 3000XL ships in 2MB and 4MB versions. I tested both companies' 4MB version.
The Velocity 3D includes STB's Vision 95, a display control utility for Windows 95 and 3.x that lets you center an image on screen, change the refresh rate limit, center dialog boxes, create virtual desktops (along with a bird's-eye view), and choose the color palette, resolution and font (for Desktop menu text icon labels). Vision 95 provides an icon toolbar for quick access to these features, as well as the ability to zoom in for a magnified view of any area.
Diamond's InControl Tools also support virtual desktops; you can change video resolution and color on the fly or assign a series of tools to pop up when you click the right mouse button.
I tested the Velocity 3D and Stealth 3D 3000XL with various applications. One was EarthSiege2, a 3-D game included with the Velocity 3D. I was impressed by the realistic perspectives from both cards, thanks to their Z-buffering support, which places objects in their proper relationship to each other. Gouraud shading is supported by both, one reason for the excellent image quality evident when you play back MPEG video in small windows. Even zoomed to full screen, the video files looked good. The Stealth 3D 3000XL fluttered more as I adjusted the window size, but in full-screen mode it dropped hardly a frame; the Velocity 3D dropped only a few frames but produced smoother transitions as I adjusted the window size. At higher resolutions, especially 1024x768, I give the nod to the Stealth 3D 3000XL board for its noticeably sharper display.
To test the speed of both boards, I put them through our Word and Excel macro tests. At 800x600 and 256 colors, a setting that generally doesn't tax a video card, the Velocity 3D finished Word in 12.66 seconds and Excel in 9.66 seconds. The Stealth 3D 3000XL beat both speeds, finishing in 10.66 and 9.33 seconds, respectively. To push the cards, I ran the macros at 1024x768 and switched to high color. Here the boards were neck and neck: Velocity 3D finished Word in 16.66 seconds and Excel in 9.66 seconds, while the Stealth 3D 3000XL took 16 seconds for Word and 9.66 seconds for Excel.
If you've never before installed a video board, STB's printed documentation is more helpful. Diamond's documentation, on CD-ROM in HTML format, explains 3-D concepts. It includes Microsoft Internet Explorer.
The Velocity 3D is Plug-and-Play compatible under Windows 95, and offers drivers for Windows 3.1x through NT, as does the Stealth 3D 3000XL.
The benefits of 3-D are, for now, not found in business applications. The Velocity 3D and the Stealth 3D 3000XL support bilinear texture filtering, perspective correction and alpha blending. While all these 3-D features are lost on word processors and spreadsheets, in the past we've seen features from games eventually migrate into business applications. As 3-D boards catch on, I expect graphics programs, including presentation programs and those with charts and graphs (such as spreadsheets), will quickly incorporate support for 3-D features.
Though their performance at higher resolutions is almost equal, I prefer the Diamond Stealth 3D 3000XL for its faster speed at lower resolutions and color depths, and for its better utility. Its performance for the price leads me to replace the Number Nine Imagine 128 Series 2 board on our Recommended List with the Diamond Stealth 3D 3000XL. If price is a consideration, the Velocity 3D, at $100 less, is a very good buy.
Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.