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Review: < $99 2D/3D Accelerators Square Off

by David Yee  [updated 07/25/98]                                                                 
ccrule.gif (1900 bytes)

    In this article we review some of the video cards that are available for less than $99.   Although they are not the most expensive cards out there, some of the boards we review here deliver terrific performance.  Of the 8 boards we look at here, one (the Matrox m3D) is 3D-only, and thus requires an existing 2D video card.  Four of the cards are AGP, while the Viper 330, Stealth II S220, Thriller 3D, and the m3D are PCI.  These days the excitement in the PC world seems to be focused on 3D gaming.  Since the 2D capabilities of many video cards out there are near-equivalent, our focus when evaluating these boards is also on 3D gaming performance.  The system configuration is as follows: 64 Mbyte PC 100 SDRAM, Diamond Fireport 40, Quantum Viking 4.5 NSE Ultra Narrow SCSI Hard Drive, and Wearnes 24X IDE CD-ROM.  The only difference between Socket 7 and Slot 1 systems is the use of motherboard: Soltek SL-54U5 (Via mVP3) was used for Socket 7 CPUs while the Asus P2B was home for the Slot 1 CPUs.  Windows 95, Forsaken 1.0, and Quake II 3.15 were used.

Quick Access

ATI Xpert 98 Eontronics Picasso 740
Diamond Stealth II S220 Hercules Thriller 3D
Diamond Viper 330 Matrox m3D
Eontronics Picasso Matrox Productiva

3D Benchmark Page
Quake II Screen Shot Page
Unreal Screen Shot Page
Forsaken Screen Shot Page
2D Benchmark Page

ATI Xpert 98

The $98 ATI Xpert 98, based on the Rage Pro 2X chip, is an 8-Mbyte AGP card that supports 2X AGP.  ATI also offers the more expensive Xpert 98 @Play, which adds TV-out functionality.  2D performance, although not the fastest, is probably not notably slower than the top 2D performer we tested here.  The Xpert 98 really excels, however, in playing AVI clips.  It outclassed all the other cards by garnering a  75% faster frame rate in the Intel Indeo 4.1 video test.  It also performed the best when playing MPEG-1 clips.  When it comes to 3D, the Xpert 98 (and every card here) trailed the Diamond Viper 330.  Generally, the card performed similarly to the m3D in Quake 2.   In Forsaken the performance was acceptable but not spectacular, gathering about 45 FPS on average at 640x480.  Overall I think this is a good card because it has acceptable performance and decent visual quality. Of the cards reviewed here, the ATI control panel utilities were also the easiest to use and have numerous features such as virtual desktop and incremental adjustments for screen size and refresh rate. Drivers used: ATI Rage Pro 2X Version 5.00; ATI OpenGL Drivers Beta 3

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes)  Fastest for playing video,  terrific control panel utilities
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)   Mediocre 2D and 3D performance

Diamond Stealth II S220

The $70 Diamond Stealth II S220 is a good performer in 3D.  Powered by the Rendition Verite V2100, the 4 Mbyte Stealth II S220 proved to be more than adequate in handling Quake II and Forsaken, especially on Socket 7 CPUs.  When the more powerful Slot 1 CPUs were used, performance did not increase as much as the other cards tested in this review.  For instance, Forsaken performance only increased by about half a frame going from the Pentium 233 MMX to the Celeron 266.  Image quality was sensational- easily the tied for best (along with the Hercules Thriller 3D) in both Forsaken and Quake II.  The Stealth II falters a bit in 2D, however, not being able to keep up with the rest of the pack- especially in Business Winstone 98 tests on PII 300.  This is the card to get value-wise to speed up the 3D performance of your Socket 7 machine if you have one of those first-generation "3D" accelerators.  Drivers used: Windows 95 Drivers v4.10.01.0106e, Rendition Gold miniGL drivers dated 5/23/98

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes)  Good 3D performer, beautiful 3D
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)   Only 4 Mbyte, slow 2D

Diamond Viper 330

The 4 Mbyte Diamond Viper 330 has been out for a while now, but it remains one of the fastest 2D and 3D cards available today.  At the heart of the Viper 330 is the 128-bit NVIDIA Riva 128 chip.  The version we tested is PCI based and can be had for less than $90 OEM.  The Viper 330 performed admirably in 2D, garnering the top Winstone scores in Socket 7 systems and had the highest Business Winmark 98 scores.  When it comes to 3D, the Diamond board was often the fastest performer of the group.  With a PII-300 at 640x480, the Viper 330 garnered over 35 FPS in Quake II and 60 FPS in Forsaken- only the much more expensive 3D-only boards based on the Voodoo 2 are faster right now.  Although the Eontronics Picasso 740 scored better on 3D Winbench, it was only able to edge the Viper 330 in the Nuke demo in Forsaken.  The Viper 330 also has TV out for those of you who want to play games on your set.  This is the video card to get if you want to build a fast but inexpensive game machine. Drivers used: nVidia February Reference Drivers; nVidia OpenGL Beta 2 drivers

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes)  Fastest 3D, very fast 2D
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)   Only 4 Mbyte

Eontronics Picasso

Although cards based on 3DLabs' Permedia 2 are touted as professional video cards, the 8 Mbyte Eontronics Picasso costs only around $99.  The AGP card has middling 3D performance, but surpassed every other card we tested when it came to 2D performance.  The Picasso consistently recorded the top Graphics Winmarks scores in 16 and 32 bit color depths (the drivers did not allow for 24 bit).  There was a strange problem, however- occasionally thin horizontal lines appeared on the screen, which was annoying- this is likely a driver issue.  The card was an above average performer in playing back MPEG and AVI files.  A mature OpenGL ICD also adds to the appeal.   3D gaming seems to be a weakness of the Picasso, however, as it was only capable of below average Forsaken and Quake II frame rates.  On Slot 1 systems, the Picasso was consistently dead last in Quake II.  The card, for instance, only managed 17 fps at 640x480 in Quake II on a Pentium II 300.  Colored lightning is also mysteriously missing in the game.  Performance in the Direct3D game Forsaken was slightly better but still below average.  Overall this is a good card for the business users who have no need for fast gaming.  Drivers used: 3DLabs Permedia 2 Drivers Version; 3DLabs OpenGL Drivers Version

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes) Fastest 2D, mature OpenGL drivers
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)  middle of the road 3D performance, occasional screen artifacts

Eontronics Picasso 740

Also being sold as the Van Gogh and the DA011, the Eontronics Picasso 740 is based upon the Intel i740.  This is one of the least expensive 8 Mbyte AGP cards out there today, costing as little as $75.  The drivers is the main complaint I have with the card.   Although the card has a 230 MHz RAMDAC, the drivers were only able to support a maximum of 85 hertz even at 640x480, which unfortunately means that games will top out at 85 frames/sec, and users who prefer those super-stable 100+ hertz refresh rate will be disappointed.  The Picasso 740's 2D performance was average.  32-bit color was not supported, which is again a driver issue.  In Quake II, using Real3D's Direct3D OpenGL wrapper, it performed extremely poorly in Socket 7 systems.  It was no speed demon either with Slot 1 CPUs, getting a below average score of 22.0 FPS in Demo 1 of Quake II at 640x480 with a PII-300.  The performance should be much improved with the release of a true OpenGL driver from Eontronics.  The Picasso 740 performed much better, however, in Forsaken, gathering scores that were similar to that of the Viper 330 at 640x480.  The visual quality was quite good, although Quake II was a bit dark.  Overall this is a good card that can potentially be a better performer with the release of improved drivers. Drivers used: Eontronics Picasso 740 Drivers Version 1.6; Real3D OpenGL Direct3D Wrapper (01/27/98)

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes) Inexpensive, good visual quality
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)  Better drivers needed for higher refresh rate and performance

Hercules Thriller 3D

The Hercules Thriller 3D, powered by the Rendition Verite V2200, is the most expensive card of the bunch.  Although we've seen the 8 Mbyte PCI card selling for $99 or less, most stores are still offering it for around $130.  But the numerous features of the card along with all the extras that Hercules included in the package (which contained a full-version of Incoming and a pair of ferrite chokes), the Thriller is definitely worth the money.  There is support for video out and video in, along with a connector for stereo glasses.  The Thriller 3D performed admirably in Quake II and Forsaken.  It often topped the scores of the Viper 330 in Socket 7 systems.  In Slot 1 systems it was second to the Viper, but not by much.  Visual quality, like the Stealth II, was very beautiful.  The Thriller 3D was an average 2D performer in the Business Winstone and Graphics Winmark tests.  Performance in video playback was also average.  The control panel utilities are well implemented like the Xpert 98.   Refresh rates can be easily changed.  Overall this is a terrific video card with many nice extras.  People with Slot 1 computers should probably buy the AGP version- although the power users may like the PCI version for a multi-monitor setup under Windows 98.  A beta version of the OpenGL ICD is also available from Rendition for accelerating those high-end 3D applications.  Drivers used: Hercules Thriller 3D Drivers Version 0.81.3539

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes)  Fast, beautiful 3D, stereographic glasses connector
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)   Average 2D performer

Matrox m3D

The m3D is a dedicated 3D accelerator based on NEC/Videologic's PowerVR PCX2 chip.  The 3D-only card is very inexpensive these days, costing as little as $40 to 50 after rebate.  You get what you pay for, however, as performance is quite poor, especially when it comes to Direct 3D games such as Forsaken, where the m3D was only able to pump out 27 fps on a Pentium II 300.  Visual quality was definitely not cool in Forsaken.  The m3D did much better in Quake II, but the average performance was still nothing to write home about.  In addition, colored-lighting is not supported under the game.  One major plus the m3D does has going for it is that Unreal has built-in hardware support for the card by utilizing the PVRSGL APIs.  Unreal looks decent under the m3D, although not nearly as nice as the Voodoo 2 cards.  Even the software mode looks somewhat better.  But if you want to play hardware-accelerated Unreal for way cheap, this is your #1 choice until Epic releases OpenGL or Direct3D drivers for the other cards out there.  Drivers used: NEC/Videologic PowerVR PCX2 Reference Drivers Version

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes)  Least expensive, hardware support for Unreal
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)   Lacks color lighting in Quake II, poor performance and visuals in Direct3D

Matrox Productiva

The Productiva is based on the new MGA-G100 chip, and is intended for the business users who demand quick 2D graphics and some 3D capabilities.  2D-wise, the card really excels, garnering a second-best Winstone 98 score on our PII-300 system and is consistently one of the top performers in the High-end Graphics Winmark tests.  When it comes to 3D, however, the lack of support for many features such as mip-mapping means that 3D games will not look well.  In fact, Forsaken looked quite ugly indeed.  It did, however, perform decently in Forsaken in the Socket 7 systems, getting 29 fps on the 6X86MXPR200.  But as faster CPUs were used, the frame rate did not increase much- it only scored 33 fps in Forsaken on a Pentium II-300.  Quake II is not currently supported due to the lack of an OpenGL driver.  Matrox has recently slashed the price of the Productiva to a dirt-cheap $88 suggested retail.  Get this card for its 2D performance and not 3D quality or speed.  Drivers used: Matrox Productiva Drivers Version 1.0

What's Cool, What's Not

cclogo2.gif (1616 bytes)  Fast 2D
cclogo2b.GIF (1198 bytes)   Poor Direct3D performance and visuals

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