Matrox updates graphics processor

Targeting graphics professionals who prefer quality to raw performance, Matrox Graphics Inc. is unveiling its new Parhelia-512 graphics processing unit, sporting 80 million transistors. The chip, Matrox's first major GPU overhaul in three years, is expected to be available in Matrox graphics cards by the northern summer.

"We're not looking to compete with Nvidia and ATI directly," says Liv Stewart, a Matrox spokesperson. Nvidia Corp.'s GeForce4 and ATI Technologies Inc.'s Radeon 8500 probably offer more sheer performance, but the Parhelia-512 will offer the best overall quality of graphics, she says.

Color Burst

The Parhelia-512 will offer top-notch quality through new technologies as well as improvements to existing ones, Stewart says. For example, the chip supports what Matrox claims is the first true 10-bit-per-color channel support. That means it can display over 1 billion colors, compared with the current high of 16.7 million colors. Improved color channel support will create more variation in shadows and dark colors, and text will be more readable, says Dan Wood, Matrox vice president of technical marketing.

Another new technology is the chip's 16X Fragment Antialiasing (FAA-16x). Antialiasing removes jagged edges from an image to make it look smoother. However, it's an intensive process that can slow performance. Typical antialiasing technology works on an entire image, but FAA-16x technology concentrates on the pixels on the edges of an object, to improve images without adversely affecting performance, Stewart says.

Improvements to existing technologies include Matrox's move from DualHead--which lets you connect your PC to two displays or a TV--to DualHead-HighFidelity. This technology improves the chip's multi-display support, providing up to 2048-by-1536 display resolution in analog or 1920-by-1200 in digital, she says.

The chip also offers TripleHead desktop technology that lets you stretch your Windows desktop over three displays. Financial users tracking large amounts of data, and gamers playing supported titles, should appreciate the additional screen real estate the technology can provide, Stewart says. Many current games will work with three monitors "out of the box" in a technology Matrox calls surround gaming, Wood adds. The company demonstrated Quake III and Microsoft Flight Simulator, which are among the titles Matrox says support this function of the Parhelia-512 right out of the box. Making other games work is a matter of a minor tweak to the code, according to Matrox.

Thinking Business

Matrox has loyal business users who buy the company's graphics cards because they offer quality and features needed for some graphics-intensive work. However, it's unlikely the company will draw many PC gamers away from NVidia and ATI with Parhelia-512-based cards, says Peter N. Glaskowsky, editor-in-chief of Microprocessor Report.

"Matrox says they want to attract more gaming attention. But in practice they can't afford to market their chip that way," Glaskowsky says. ATI and NVidia have spent a lot of money to get to where they are, and Matrox will have a hard time reaching them in terms of sales, he adds.

Plus, only NVidia and ATI are ready to support some technologies in Microsoft's DirectX 9, so that could scare some gamers away from Matrox, he says. In fact, Matrox representatives say the Parhelia-512 provides some DX9 support for a feature called displacement mapping, which essentially provides more-sophisticated fine-graphics rendering. That said, most gamers who try out Matrox's forthcoming cards probably won't be disappointed, at least until NVidia and ATI ship their next-generation chips, Glaskowsky says.

Price Estimates

Also in Matrox's favor is price. Matrox graphics cards using the new GPU will likely sell for less than cards that use NVidia's or ATI's top-of-the-line chips, Glaskowsky says. High-end graphics cards with ATI or NVidia chips typically sell in the US$500 range.

Matrox is still finalizing prices and clock rates, but plans to produce two versions of cards bearing the new chip: a high-end card with a faster clock speed and more RAM, and a lower-end consumer version that will probably have 128MB and be priced at less than $400. Wood says this card will sustain high performance with all of the DX8 features turned on. The high-end workstation version will likely feature up to 256MB of unified DDR memory.

Glaskowsky estimates Matrox consumer cards featuring the Parhelia-512 will sell in the $150 to $250 range, where ATI and NVidia's more mainstream-priced cards reside, he says. Matrox will also see competition in the form of an upcoming graphics card from 3DLabs, a company that Creative Technology purchased in March.

Alexandra Krasne of PCWorld.com contributed to this report.

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