Summary: Matrox re-enters the high end gaming market with its stunning announcement of the Parhelia-512 video card. What new features does this piece of hardware bring to the table? What is "Surround Gaming?" These questions and more, answered in our preview!
Hit and run?
Just when you thought things were getting furious between NVIDIA and ATI, 3DLabs busts back into the scene with its “Visual” processing unit. We knew that 3DLabs had been acquired by Creative Labs, so being suspicious about a new product in the works from them was natural. Meanwhile, NVIDIA and ATI continue to produce more video cards to up the ante.
Two years in the making
Probably just as significant as reaching its 25-year milestone in business is the launch of Parhelia – Matrox’s cutting edge brainchild and secret weapon designed with the latest arsenal of technology available today (and then some). All this time when Matrox was telling everyone that it would concentrate all its resources on developing business solutions was somewhat misleading. We’ve seen a few products emerge from Matrox within the past 2 years that haven’t really pushed the gaming envelop in any groundbreaking direction. Matrox instead, had been constantly improving the products that it already had, using a minimal amount of force, while concentrating all brainpower in a “come-back” chip.
R&D and the competition
By now everyone knows the release schedule that NVIDIA has enforced upon themselves. Releasing a new product every six months is pattern that NVIDIA has been keeping up with very well but unfortunately, most consumers can’t say the same for themselves. It’s definitely exciting to see new things come frequently, but many people are also becoming increasingly frustrated because their investment becomes outdated in a matter of weeks.
A year, or more
With Parhelia, Matrox has told us that it plans to have it be a successful product for at least a year. This probably means that Matrox plans to have a design and produce period of at least a year for new products. As long as each offering is powerful enough to last the entire cycle, it shouldn’t be a problem for Matrox.
Before reading and comparing the specifications like a laundry list, take a minute to digest some of the features – you’ll be glad you did, as the Parhelia-512 is by no means a conventional piece of hardware.
DualHead-HF Display Technology
Quad Vertex Shader Array
36-stage shader array
Hardware Displacement Mapping
16x Fragment Antialiasing (FAA-16x)
SIDEBAR: Did you have a sixth sense that this was bound to happen?
The first 512-bit GPU
We’re now entering a new era where graphics processors are approaching and exceeding the silicon count of high-end processors. Weighing in at a monstrous 80 million transistors, the Parhelia is the most complex GPU to date and is manufactured using a 0.15 micron process.
At the vertex and shading levels, the Parhelia has significantly more processing power than the latest GeForce4 Titanium. Thanks to its obscene shader array that consists of four vertex shaders that can process in parallel, the quad texturing units can process up to 16 vertices in parallel in a single clock cycle. Not to be outdone in any other areas, Matrox has also developed an equally complex pixel shader array, which consists of 4 shaders capable of processing 16 samples in a single clock cycle – again, in parallel. While Matrox hasn’t officially said so, the vertex and pixel shaders in Parhelia should be fully DX9 ready and also highly tuned for OpenGL. It’ll be interesting to see what happens once Parhelia samples are release since Matrox’s OpenGL skills weren’t so refined the last time around.
Matrox has always been secretive about its clock speeds in both memory and core but it was simple to figure out what the clock for its memory was running at. Using a few simple calculations, we were able to deduce the memory to be running at 625MHz/2 since it’s DDR. This is currently comparable to what NVIDIA is clocking its memory on the GeForce4 Ti 4600. Although Matrox hasn’t confirmed the memory architecture being used in Parhelia, we’re assuming it’s a type of cross-bar architecture.
One of the features we’ll be seeing in action immediately is DAT, which is a method of increasing the level of detail of objects as you approach them. The method Matrox uses increases the number or vertices, and consequently the number of triangles in objects the closer you come by using a tessellation method. You can think of this method similar to the pattern of fractals. So while you won’t get extra geometric features in the object, you will get a more refined and smooth looking one.
The current standard for color representation on the desktop is 24-bit color - 8 bits for each color component. With 8 bits you can represent 256 distinct values of green—with 0 being black and 255 the full intensity of green. Although 24-bit color is an improvement over the previous 16-bit color quality, 256 values per component are not enough to precisely represent all the visible color values within the RGB color space. Even John Carmack has stated that the ideal conditions that he would like to be working in are something higher than 24-bit color.
However, what it has pictured in the above diagram is a bit unfair to the existing 24-bit color spectrum. Study the gradient demo we’ve created below:
Notice that the shorter the gradient distance is, the greater the color banding? It would have been more consistent and fair if Matrox had demonstrated a significant difference with between gradient bands of the same length. Shorter gradients naturally have less color room than longer gradients. Taking a look at the longer gradient line, we hardly notice any color banding at all even at a magnified level of over 500%. With the short band, we immediately see banding even at low magnification levels.
So are billions of colors really needed? In some situations, perhaps, but not to the significant extent that is depicted in Matrox’s demonstration. While having more information bits per color is great, there’s also an issue that arises concerning alpha bits. The data bits that are reserved for alpha levels (they play a large role in transparencies, etc.) have been reduced to only 2-bits alpha information. Those in the know will immediately gag at the low headroom (in turn, images with a lot of alpha levels like those with a lot of fog, will look banded) so it will be interesting to see what Matrox can pull off with its 4 texture pipelines.
SIDEBAR: Matrox is older than both NVIDIA and ATI combined.
Doing things the hard way
One of the most difficult things to do in 3D is making models with complex geometry that render in real time at a satisfying speed. A lot of the high geometry models you see in 3D movies are painstakingly modeled by hand most of the time, and in the game development world, there is almost no such free time. Matrox is now presenting an much easier method of achieving the same results with minimal efforts and existing tools.
The above three pictures clearly demonstrate the power of displacement maps compared to conventional bump mapping. While bump mapping still has a very strong purpose in that it can articulate minute details on object surfaces such as skin, the overall structure of the object is better handled using DM’s. Use DM hand-in-hand with Adaptive Tessellation and you can see why the Parhelia can render unprecedented images with more details than we have seen before. How is this being used today?
The above screenshots demonstrate how effective Displacement Mapping can be. The level of geometry detail is only limited to how imaginative an artist is on a flat canvas. The more details that are painted onto the displacement map, the more geometrically detailed the actual terrain will be. Not only is DM effective on rough terrain but it also shows its strength on moving figures and objects.
The following diagrams demonstrate just how effective Adaptive Tessellation and Displacement Mapping is when used together:
SIDEBAR: Matrox’s headquarters are in the province of Quebec in Canada, far in the east coast. At many points in Canada’s history, Quebec showed that it wanted to be a sovereign nation.
Anti-aliasing with 16x anisotropic filtering
Aliasing - often referred to as "stair casing" or "jaggies" - is the jagged-edge effect that occurs along the edges of lines and polygons. This undesirable effect happens because there are not enough pixels available on a typical monitor to properly display mathematically smooth lines and polygon edges. When a 3D scene is transposed onto a monitor's pixel grid, or raster, each pixel is colored according to whether or not it is covered by an object in the scene. Aliasing occurs because the raster system does not properly handle the case in which a pixel is only partially covered. Partially covered pixels occur along the edges of objects and are referred to as edge pixels or fragment pixels. The mishandling of fragment pixels results in harsh, jagged color transitions between an object’s edge and the background. Antialiasing techniques attempt to smooth jagged edges by properly handling fragment pixels (i.e. adjusting the pixel color according to the amount of pixel coverage).
The above scene in 3DMark2001 demonstrates how the FAA-16 (Fragment Anti-Aliasing-16X) system works. Notice the second picture only displays those pixels that belong to object edges. Matrox’s FAA-16x identifies fragments by inspecting triangle edge pixels with 16x sub-pixel accuracy to determine their pixel coverage: a pixel is either: not covered, fully covered, or partially covered (i.e. a fragment). This information is then used to determine whether or not the pixel should be discarded, placed in the frame buffer, or sent to the FAA-16x unit.
All non-fragment pixels are immediately written to the frame buffer, while all fragment data is collected and stored in a fragment buffer. The fragment buffer maintains fragment lists, which contain information about a particular fragment pixel. Specifically, the fragment list stores sub-pixel coverage and color information for each of the edges that intersect the pixel.
The FAA-16x unit continuously updates the fragment buffer to determine the final representation of true scene fragments. The fragments are then combined and the final pixels are written to the frame buffer to complete the frame. While the fragment pixels are in the FAA-16x buffer, it goes through the AA process, and the final smoothed pixels are re-applied to the image, resulting in an astonishingly sharp image that produces no blurs in important areas.
While NVIDIA’s Accuview and 16x anisotropic filtering is excellent, it still ends up slightly blurring areas that aren’t edges, and so the resulting image isn’t as sharp where it needs to be. Note that Matrox’s FAA-16 system isn’t perfect itself as there will naturally be texture pixels that are the same as fragmented pixels. For this, the FAA-16 doesn’t work as well. But in most cases, as demonstrated in the 3DMark scene, only about 3.2% of the pixels were fragmented. The end result is that all fragmented pixels are anti-aliased, and those that weren’t meant to be, do not make up a large percentage of the image enough to make a noticeable difference in image quality.
SIDEBAR: To this day, there are many things are OK outside of Quebec but aren’t accepted inside of the province. Having an English sign outside your store for example is considered illegal.
Much more than DualHead
Matrox originally broke the door down on mainstream multi-monitor graphics with its G400 line of graphics products and ever since then, everyone else has followed suit. Interestingly enough, neither ATI nor NVIDIA have been able to develop a multi-monitor solution that fully stands up to Matrox’s DualHead.
Parhelia's DualHead-HF is completely unique in that it enables the use of a third CRT or flat panel display for those that desire maximum desktop real estate. Parhelia uses a third RAMDAC to support a stretched Windows desktop up to a maximum resolution of 3840 x 1024 @ 32bpp. This ultra wide desktop is the ultimate productivity solution for both professionals and enthusiasts. We’ve used dual displays before and you can take our word for it when we say going back to a single display is a pain in the bunghole.
Parhelia delivers the “IMAX” experience of 3D gaming by stretching supported 3D games across three displays, and providing up to three times the regular field of view (FOV). This isn’t simply a horizontal skew of the game image though and really does display three fully discrete images on three discrete displays. A lot of games that are on store shelves (some have been out for a long time already) currently do support more than one display. Even the venerable Quake 3 supports up to 3 displays.
More things than you can shake a stick at
Matrox is known for implementing never-before-seen features but it’s also well known for bringing those features through an evolution process that constantly improves and adds new options. The Parhelia is a testimony to Matrox’s dedication and the rest of its features show it. Here are some of the other significant features:
Made for DVD and HDTV, the Parhelia is designed to fully stretch these standards to their limits. A common problem with displays these days is what’s known as blanking. Blanking refers to the amount of time for the electron beam to return from right to left, and from top to bottom in a CRT monitor. Reduced blanking enables higher resolution DVI outputs by increasing the efficiency of the timing signals sent to the panels. The typical loss due to blanking is in the order of 30 percent. Parhelia supports a horizontal blanking size of ten pixels and a vertical blanking of one line. At 1920 x 1200 the loss is lower than one percent. Next generation panels supporting reduced blanking will benefit from higher resolutions and refresh rates.
Those who are fed up with the video quality of their NVIDIA cards can rejoice, as Matrox has integrated a portion of the Parhelia’s silicon solely dedicated to video processing. Not only does it do high definition video overlay, but it also supports overlay mixing and manipulation.
Dual independent video overlay controllers
DualHead-HF's symmetric architecture includes dual independent overlay controllers and programmable mixing engines. Each overlay controller is equipped with a scaler unit and a look-up table (LUT) for gamma corrected overlays. Video has a different gamma curve than RGB data found on the desktop. It therefore needs to be corrected independently of the primary display to produce an accurate color and rich color output. Conventional color correction schemes have been based on the RGB desktop values – this is typical of video cards on the market today. Think your GeForce’s video overlay zoom is nifty? Think again.
And the list goes on
The mammoth list of features that the Parhelia contains is simply overwhelming. While we’ve covered all the major features of the card, the more subtle specs can have a great impact on your graphics experience as well. Here are the rest of the features for Parhelia-512:
Support for all texture formats including:
High fidelity 2D engine
Fastest and highest quality 2D display engine ever built
All drawing operations at extended 30-bit color (10:10:10)
Hardware accelerated text anti-aliasing
High fidelity video engine
PC Theater DVD Playback
Programmable overlay processor
Video overlay with programmable proc-amp and independent gamma correction
X86, X86-64 and IA-64 compatible
PCI 2.2, AGP 2.0 and AGP 3.0
All the standard features and then some, have been designed into the Parhelia. Matrox’s goal with Parhelia was to design something that would surprise even the most hardware graphics enthusiast and gamer. An impressive card with an impressive list of features – this isn’t your daddy’s VGA card.
The name Parhelia comes from a natural phenomenon in the sky, an astonishing sight to witness. Likewise, the announcement of Parhelia-512, is an astonishing feat in itself from Matrox. The GPU boasts some of today’s standard and high-end 3D features and then leapfrogs ahead of what the competition has to offer with an extensive array of advanced features previously only available to high-end 3D modelers in the movie industry.
With revolutionary features such as Adaptive Tessellation and Displacement Mapping, one can only begin to imagine what sort of games are coming out the door. We briefly talked to John Carmack and while he can’t comment on his thoughts about the Parhelia just yet, he did say that Doom was already running on it. This can only mean that there are games and applications already in the works that support the lavish features of the Parhelia-512 GPU.
There are many firsts with Parhelia. The first 512-bit GPU, the first to use AT and DM features. The first consumer level graphics device to support more than two displays on the same board. The first to integrate a 650MHz UltraSharp RAMDAC – a record previously held by Matrox’s own G400 MAX with a 360MHz UltraSharp RAMDAC. The list goes on and Parhelia-512 is the first of many.
Will you be more productive and will you be able to frag faster when the time comes? This all depends on developer support for Parhelia. Fortunately, Matrox has made sure that many of its advanced features are supported out of the box and that developers are working closely with it to produce more titles that utilize the features of the Parhelia.
Many have complained that NVIDIA and ATI have been at the evolutionary game more than they’ve been at producing revolutionary products but now they have a reason to stop and gaze. It was only a few short months ago that we previewed the first GeForce4 Titanium GPU and even then we were impressed. With Parhelia-512, we truly think we’re dealing with something “over the top”. Is Parhelia-512 a “GeForce5” killer? Jen-Hsun Huang, NVIDIA’s CEO has stated that NV30 will be as significant as NVIDIA entering the graphics market. That’s a mouthful to swallow, and something that people will measure NVIDIA up against when the time comes.
At the time of this writing, Parhelia-512 boards aren’t yet on store shelves and won’t be for a few more weeks. From what we’ve heard, there will be two initial board skus using the Parhelia-512 GPU. One will be aimed at the gamer and the other will be aimed at the professional level. We’re not quite sure if both will have 256MB of memory but we do know that the starting price will be steep (around the $500 mark).
The Parhelia is one insane product, and it is priced as such. This is not a product that Matrox is necessarily marketing to the mainstream gamer. The Parhelia, with its feature set and price point, is aimed more squarely at the high end gaming enthusiast, and the graphics professionals. It remains to be seen whether new skus at a lower pricepoint will be released. No doubt there will probably be a “Marvel” version out with TV and video in support but with the current price points, but we can only imagine how the prices on such a sku will be.
Are you just deciding whether or not to plunk down the money for a GeForce4 or Radeon 8500? Were you eagerly waiting NV30 and R300? For the past two years, there were only two real choices. But now, the grand-daddy of graphics is back in the ring, and it’s going to be a no-holds barred, steel-cage, no mercy match until the bitter end.
SIDEBAR: Comment about Parhelia-512 in our comment section
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