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WinLab Reviews
What's Hot!
Head to Head: 3D Video Cards
3D Cards Take Graphics to New Dimension

-- by James E. Powell

As we head into the third dimension (see Cover Story, May), a host of new video cards aim to take advantage of 3D technology and its support in Windows. The video cards in this group are a mixed lot, but common to all are 2D and 3D support, 4MB of memory and easy installation.

We tested shipping products from all but Matrox; its card was "golden" but not shrink-wrapped. All boasted support for perspective correction, Gouraud shading for realistic shading effects, texture transparency, bilinear or trilinear filtering for smoother-looking images, perspective correction for proper depth perception and Z-buffering for faster performance. Each of those features is critical for good 3D performance. In addition, all of the cards support full-screen multimedia video playback with x and y interpolation. That means you can resize a window in any direction while video is playing and still maintain a good picture.

Many of the cards we tested boast support of 1024x768 resolution and 16.7 million colors. That's fine for running programs like Excel at full screen, but for running animation-intensive games or traveling through VRML worlds on the Web, you'll find the cards get bogged down at those settings. With small windows open (300x200 pixels, for example), test animations we ran were stunningly fast. You'll want to run games at 600x480 and 256 colors. All other tests were run at 800x600 resolution and 65,000 colors, our standard settings. We used a variety of benchmarks and a subjective assessment of their performance (see sidebar "How We Tested the 3D Cards") before picking two cards for our WinList.

All of the cards ran MPEG video clips well (AVI clips were no challenge), and there was little significant difference among them in our Word macro tests. Only the Diamond Stealth 3D 2000 Pro took a significant lead in the Excel test.

The Matrox Mystique 220 and STB Nitro 3D replace the Hercules Terminator 3D Graphics Board on our WinList. The Mystique finished its tests with better times in most categories, placing first in five of eight different tests. Its excellent control panel and high-quality display make it a clear WinList product. While the Diamond card performed marginally better in some categories than the Nitro 3D, the Nitro's ability to handle 1024x768 on our ViewSonic LCD monitor, its better documentation and its superior control utility gave it the edge for our other WinList spot.

Canopus Total3D

When we first opened the Total3D box, we thought we might be working with a novelty board. The box screams out to gamers, but business graphics performance was not significantly compromised. In addition, output was clear and crisp at 1024x768 resolution running 16.7 million colors. The Total3D card can achieve 65,000 colors at 1280x1024 with a refresh rate of 75Hz.

On the spine of the board is a jack for postprocessor Spatializer 3-D Audio-plug your audio card's output into the Total3D board (with the supplied cable) for surround-sound audio.

Canopus includes a pair of NuVision 3D Spex LCD virtual reality glasses and two games (Whiplash and Descent II: Destination Quartzon) designed to take advantage of the 3D features of the Rendition Verite 3D V1000L chip's hardware acceleration. Indeed, objects look like they're flying right at you. This 3D feature (Canopus calls it stereoscopic games) sets the Total3D far apart. One reviewer wasn't a game player-until loading Whiplash. What a kick! Quake and IndyCar Racing II are also included in the package.

The game's image shakes when viewed without the 3D glasses. Likewise, the glasses seem to strobe horizontally-but they're right in sync. Our anticipated headaches never materialized, though the box warns users prone to epileptic seizures and children under 7 to avoid the product. Unlike popular 3D glasses (with a blue and red lens), both lenses are identical.

The card has 4MB EDO DRAM, support for DMA bus mastering, a programmable flash BIOS and chip power management.

Creative Labs Graphics Blaster 3D

The most disappointing board of the bunch was the Creative Labs Graphics Blaster 3D. The card has DirectX support and is bundled with good software: Microsoft's Interactive CD Sampler and Vream's WIRL 3D VRML Web browser. Drivers for Windows 95 (including DirectDraw, DirectVideo and Direct3D) are included. But those features and the card's low price are not enough to make up for its below-average performance-it came in last in four of eight tests.

On the surface, the specs look good. The Graphics Blaster 3D can support 1600x1200 at up to 60Hz and 256 colors, and 1280x1024 at 85Hz and 65,000 colors. Unfortunately, the Graphics Blaster was the blurriest at 1024x768-desktop icons and text looked fuzzy.

Ironically, the board contains a 230MHz RAMDAC, the fastest in the group, and the Cirrus Logic chip's video playback is good.

The Blastercontrol utility is a definite plus. It's integrated into the Display Properties dialog box-the one Windows 95 uses for all video settings-using two additional tabs (Monitor and Hotkey). Blastercontrol lets you align the screen position (or reset it to the factory default) and set hotkeys to change between predefined settings. For example, you can jump between 800x600 resolution at 24-bit color and 1152x864 at 16-bit color. Printed documentation is good, and setup is simple.

Diamond Stealth 3D 2000 Pro

The Stealth 3D 2000 Pro is based on the S3 ViRGE-DX graphics controller. With 4MB of EDO DRAM, the board supports Microsoft's DirectX APIs, MPEG-I video playback, MIP-mapping for better resolutions of texture maps and depth cueing-all the 3D features you'd expect.

What we also expected was support for our ViewSonic LCD monitor at 1024x768 at 75Hz, the setting ViewSonic recommends and which the card's documentation says it can support. While the InControl Tools dialog box lets you change just about every setting (and its first-time-through wizard is excellent), we were unable to set the board to match the ViewSonic's requirements. Call Diamond to check on compatibility with any out-of-the-ordinary monitor before you consider this card.

Double-buffering and color space conversions help provide very good digital video playback in full-screen mode, and Mediamatics' software MPEG-I drivers are included.

The Stealth 3D 2000 Pro includes an installation CD-ROM with minimal installation instructions; text-only documentation is on the CD-ROM, using Internet Explorer (included) as the reader. Also included are MGI's PhotoSuite SE, Sega Rally Championship, the Microsoft Game Sampler 2 and Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia (with 3D animations)

The card offers TV output at 640x480 and 800x600 resolutions with plugs for both Composite and S-video cables. TV output quality is suitable for presentations in a boardroom, but not for daily use or games.

Matrox Mystique 220

The Matrox Mystique 220 is the successor to the popular Mystique board. It's also popular with us-its excellent performance (both from five first-place benchmark tests and from subjective judgments) brings it straight to the top of our WinList.

The board is powered by the company's own MGA-1164SG chip. It uses a 220MHz RAMDAC (most boards use 170MHz RAMDACs, and only the Graphics Blaster is faster at 230MHz) for flicker-free display. The chip's single-ported SGRAM memory is responsible for its speed. The Matrox was the only card that could achieve 30 frames per second in our Independence Day test (though partly because the board doesn't support texture filtering, as its competitors do), and its quality was judged the best in the group. The board can be upgraded to 8MB of video RAM, but performance at 4MB was terrific.

You have outstanding control of the board's performance and behavior from the Display Properties dialog box. You can use or edit seven predefined settings (combining screen size, color depth and font size) or add your own; settings appear in the menu when you click on an icon in the system tray. You can set a hotkey for any of these definitions, plus any of six display settings.

For maximum performance, you can select from the Mystique's own monitor definitions for hundreds of popular models, though we found the Plug-and-Play setting from Windows 95 worked fine. For fine tuning, you can adjust the red, green and blue components and set the image from "warm" to "cool." PowerDesk, an additional utility, lets you turn 3D features-such as rectangle acceleration and polygon acceleration-on and off. You can also set the DirectDraw scaling quality from low to high. DeskNav, another applet, lets you move around, or zoom in on, a virtual desktop.

Installation is easy, and the installation program takes you through selecting options that you can also choose from the Properties tabs. Its printed documentation is also very good.

STB Nitro 3D

STB's Nitro 3D board uses S3's ViRGE GX controller with integrated Digital Video Engine. The board supports any SVGA multiple-frequency monitor and provides VESA DDC-2B support for Plug-and-Play monitors. It worked well with our ViewSonic ViewPanel. Overall its quality was very good, with excellent shading, perspective correction and alpha blending. Text looked good even at high resolutions.

Included in the box are 3D Activision games, including MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, Interstate '76, SpyCraft and HyperBlade-the best software gaming bundle of the cards in this group. Also included are Micrografx's Simply 3D and Vream's 3D VRML Web browser, WIRL, plus MPEG-I video playback software.

The installation program includes STB Vision 95, a set of utilities with which you can change settings, create a virtual desktop, zoom out for a bird's eye view of your virtual desktop, zoom in up to 32 levels, change font size and change resolution on the fly. You can save up to 10 different setting combinations and recall them quickly. STB puts a small icon for Vision 95 in your system tray-we found it a reliable and well-designed utility, and we especially liked the ability to nudge the screen image just a bit so it's centered on your monitor.

Video playback was very good, thanks to the Nitro's support of x and y interpolation for full-screen, full-motion playback. While all the boards tested support this feature, the Nitro and Mystique gave the least amount of flicker as we resized video windows.

STB's Nitro 3D offers the very best documentation of the group, with an illustration of the board, troubleshooting tips and detailed installation directions. Installation is simple-we like how STB plays it safe with its step-by-step approach.

The board's overall solid performance, useful documentation and Vision 95 utility all add up to great graphics punch for the price.

Canopus Total3D
Bottom Line: Good card for realistic 3D games without penalizing business apps
Price: $279
Platforms: 95
Pros: Excellent 3D realism for compliant games
Cons: Premium price for gaming
Strongest Rival: Matrox Mystique 220, STB Nitro 3D

Canopus Corp., 888-TOTAL-3D, 408-954-4502. Winfo #831

Creative Labs Graphics Blaster 3D
Bottom Line: Good specs but mediocre performance
Price: $99.99
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Low price
Cons: Poor performance
Strongest Rival: Matrox Mystique 220, STB Nitro 3D

Creative Labs, 800-998-5227, 408-428-6600. Winfo #832

Matrox Mystique 220
Bottom Line: Value-priced board offers very good all-around performance
Price: $179 (4MB version)
Platforms: 95
Pros: Performance in business applications and games
Cons: No significant cons
Strongest Rival: Hercules Terminator 3D Graphics Board, STB Nitro 3D

Matrox Graphics, 800-361-1408, 514-969-6320. Winfo #743

Diamond Stealth 3D 2000 Pro
Bottom Line: Good performance overall, but the Mystique and Nitro are better values
Price: $149.95
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Performance
Cons: May not work with your non-multiscan monitor at high resolutions
Strongest Rival: Matrox Mystique 220, STB Nitro 3D

Diamond Multimedia Systems, 800-468-5846, 408-325-7000. Winfo #833

STB Nitro 3D
Bottom Line: Combines a good games bundle with performance and price
Price: $149
Platforms: 3x, 95, NT
Pros: Documentation; easy setup
Cons: Less control over features than the Mystique 220
Strongest Rival: Matrox Mystique 220

STB Systems, 888-234-8750, 972-234-8750. Winfo #744

SIDEBAR: How We Tested the 3D Cards

We tested all five graphics cards on an AST Bravo MS 5200 with 32MB of RAM. The Intel Pentium 200 with MMX support was reset to factory settings using AST software, assuring us that the 3D drivers supplied by the graphics card were used.

We ran our Excel and Word macros and Wintune 97 video tests to try out 2D performance. We used a 3D benchmark from Microsoft's DirectX 3D SDK to measure fill rate, polygon drawing and polygon intersections, turning up the heat by choosing any stress-inducing option. We tested at 800x600 resolution and 65,000 colors.

Graphics cards can almost always work with multiscan monitors without incident. To really put the cards to the test, we used a ViewSonic ViewPanel 140 LCD Plug-and-Play monitor, which looks best at 1024x768 but is more demanding of video cards. The Diamond Stealth 3D 2000 Pro couldn't handle it-nor could the Canopus Total3D when playing a game-so we substituted a conventional 15-inch multiscan monitor in these two circumstances. As a result, the video cards were penalized in our ratings.

For now, 3D is found only in games and some high-end graphics applications. We chose Fox Interactive's Independence Day (see chart) because it's heavy on colorful polygons (extremely taxing on a card) and can show the frames per second achieved. We ran the game in its demo mode for the frames-per-second measurement and played a game to judge a card's ability to render complex landscapes.

We tested MPEG and AVI playback using VidTach 1.50 from TestaCD Labs and Microsoft's Active Movie player. To do so, we ran video clips from InterActual Technologies' Star Trek: First Contact screen saver program, whose high quality at 24 frames per second used extensive motion and color. The dropped frame rates during MPEG playback are a result of VidTach's complex processing and weren't significant or noticeable to the naked eye. Using the popular Active Movie, no frames were dropped with any board.

Windows Magazine, August 1997, page 112.

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