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Matrox Millennium G550

August 15, 2001



This card wasn't expected much by enthusiasts who were looking forward to G800, but at that time Matrox was coming out of a bloody 3D race headed by NVIDIA and ATI. That is why the company just tried to do its best to save its niche of high-quality 2D OEM products. But just 2D is not enough today: one can often come across 3D sites and far not flat advertisements... That is why today 3D must be beautiful, high-quality, flawless, inexpensive. A total speed and fps are not of the most interest here, they must be just adequate to tasks implemented (of course, not gaming tasks, but business ones).

So, today we have a business chip G550:

  • 0.18 micron technology, active cooling unrequired
  • 64 bit SDR/DDR interface with memory, 8 - 32 MBytes
  • AGP 1X-4X
  • 2 integrated display controllers
  • 2 integrated RAMDAC's with different characteristics:
    • Primary RAMDAC - 360 MHz (resolution up to 2048x1536 @ 32bpp)
    • Secondary RAMDAC - 230 MHz (resolution up to 1600x1200 @ 32bpp)
  • 2 integrated TDMS transmitters for digital interfaces (resolution up to 1280 x 1024 @ 32bpp)
  • Integrated signal coder for TV-out
  • 126 MHz core clock frequency
  • 166 MHz memory clock frequency (2.5 GBytes/sec for DDR memory)
  • Overlay hardware support for playback of DVD and other video materials
  • Hardware 2D acceleration according to Windows 2000 GDI and DirectDraw 8.0 specifications
  • T&L with Matrix Palette Skinning support
  • Enhanced vertex shaders "HeadCasting(TM) Engine" (DirectX 8.0 shaders, but with the number of constants increased from 96 to 256, which allow using up to 32 matrices for skinning and animation of vertices)
  • Pixel shaders absent
  • Two pixel pipelines with two texture units each
  • Bilinear, trilinear and anisotropic texture filtering
  • AGP texturing
  • EMBM
  • Windows ® XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows 98, Windows 95, Windows NT® 4.0 and Linux support
  • DirectX 8.0 and OpenGL 1.2

It's an excellent product for its niche: all in one. This simple and inexpensive card can boast of increased reliability and lowered prime cost. It works excellently with two monitors and is perfectly supported at the driver level. Besides, we have a good overlay hardware support. It's interesting that the card offers an integrated TV-out support, which won't make the card too complicated, but the cost of assemblage and testing will be reduced. Vertex shaders are improved, while pixel ones are too expensive to be realized in such chip. 2D quality of the primary RAMDAC is excellent.

Now let me clarify the situation with the HeadCasting(TM) Engine. In standard vertex shaders supported by GeForce3 we can use up to 86 constant vectors when processing each vertex. For example, if we just multiply it by the set of matrices, we can use up to 96/4 (4 vectors for matrix), i.e. 24 matrices. It's more than enough for a great deal of game applications, but relatively more complex animations, such as animation of mimicry, may require a larger number of control points, and, therefore, matrices. T&L of the G550 allows making improved vertex shaders, which can use up to 256 constant vectors at the same time, i.e. up to 64 control matrices in the most primitive case. The shader's length was, therefore, increased from 128 to 256 instructions. Such hardware resources in the T&L allow simple programs, which use usual hardware matrix vertex blending, to use sets of matrices up to 64. Probably, G550 drivers just translate this DirectX call into the corresponding vertex shader created on the fly.

Now let's look at this chip from a pessimistic point of view. It is the same G450, but with a T&L unit and two pixel pipelines. The card with 32 MBytes memory costs about $135. The G550's performance is much lower than other popular 3D solutions at the same price. It's lower than MX400 and a cheaper Radeon LE. On the other hand, we have a pressing ATI Radeon VE with two identical RAMDAC's (both working at 350 MHz) and more advanced video features (only $98).

Well, Matrox may rely only on a firm 2D reputation, a doubtful advantage of vertex shaders with 256 constants and existing OEM contacts with powerful customers. That's all. But is it enough - not for taking the leading position, but just for maintaining its own niche generally and the company Matrox Graphics in particular?

And now we will draw your attention right to the video card in question.

Card

The Matrox Millennium G550 has AGP x2/x4 interface, 32 MBytes DDR SGRAM located in 2 chips on the right side of the PCB.

Samsung produces memory chips with 6 ns access time which corresponds to 166 (333) MHz. The memory works exactly at this frequency. But why there are only 2 chips? The reason is that today there are a lot of 32-bit high-volume modules (16 MBytes), and 2 such chips are enough for a 64-bit bus.

A small-sized dark green PCB has a traditional black pinned heatsink without a cooler.

The most interesting peculiarity of the card is the way of mounting of the VGA connector for displaying a main signal on a primary monitor.

You may see that the connector is located on a daughter card which connects the main PCB. It resembles SIF from SUMA with its soapy images...

Matrox has turned to the typical of modern business cards form of providing a video card with an output for two receivers: the first output is standard VGA, the second is DVI, but together with the DVI-to-VGA adapter (on the right).

Since the whole support of a digital interface is integrated into the main chip, it simplifies layout, making it cheaper.

So, we can get an image on two receivers (for instance, two monitors) using the DualHead technology which came from G400:

  • DualHead Monitor - desktop extends twice lengthwise (this mode is very popular among such cards, NVIDIA GeForce2 MX TwinView has it as well);
  • DVD Max - full-screen playback of DVD movies on the second monitor (with the help of some soft DVD player);
  • DualHead Clone - copying of the desktop of the first monitor onto the second one (this mode was described in the review of Matrox G400MAX and of NVIDIA GeForce2 MX TwinView);
  • DualHead Zoom - an enlarged part of the desktop displayed on the second monitor.

The 2 year old DualHead differs from the today's one in everything being integrated into one chip and in an increased frequency of the secondary RAMDAC. The TV-out is the same as of the G400.

The card is supplied with a traditional VGA-to-TV adapter so that we can display an image on a TV screen with the DVI-out.

All above mentioned possibilities of the Matrox G550 are available not only in the Windows 9x line but also in the Windows 2000.

Now some unique possibilities of the G550. First of all, it is Matrox Digimask. First you are to make two photos en face and half face:

With the special Digimask software

we get a 3D animated image which can be viewed with a special program.

This generated 3D image is very close to the original. Now comes the question whether all this is included into the hardware possibilities of the Matrox G550?

The Matrox G550 serves only as a viewer. In order to get a final 3D image we need to convert the photos into a special format with the Digimask program, and the utility will send it to the Matrox's site. Some time later you will get a generated 3D image by e-mail. The Matrox G550 will help you improve the image with the HeadCasting making it smoother.

So, we now understand that the G550 is just a redesigned G550 with the added Hardware TCL just for outward appearances; the product has become a bit cheaper because everything is integrated into the chip. The unique software can at the same time work on any other card (except HeadCasting). All those new things concerning 3D graphics make no sense to speak about as far as 3D games are concerned.

However, this video card is aimed not at 3D games but at the business sector. Professionals who work much with 2D graphics in high resolutions like such cards very much.

The card ships both in a Retail-package and in an OEM one.

The box contains:

  • User Manual;
  • CD with drivers and utilities;
  • DVI-to-VGA adapter;
  • VGA-to-TV adapter.

Overclocking

At present only the latest version of the PowerStrip 3.0 is able to define correctly an operating frequency of the G550. But even the PowerStrip sometimes displays 63 MHz of the core frequency :-)

But when I tried to change the frequency figures jumped without any sense. That is why I couldn't understand how strong the card was overclocked. The performance has increased but it difficult to say what frequencies were set: the PowerStrip showed 166 MHz of the memory and 178 MHz of the core, but I don't believe the G550 can easily jump from 126 to 178 MHz. But the insignificant performance boost we obtained indicates that the memory's frequency dominates, like in case of the NVIDIA GeForce2 MX. And it was impossible to set other values.

Installation and drivers

Test system configuration:

  • Pentium4 get-up:
    • CPU Intel Pentium4 1500;
    • MB ASUS P4T (i850);
    • RAM 256 MBytes RDRAM PC800;
    • HDD Quantum FB AS 20 GBytes;
    • OS Windows 98 SE;
    • ViewSonic P810 (21") and ViewSonic P817 (21") monitors.

For tests we used drivers from Matrox Graphics v. 6.70, VSync was switched off (via the PowerStrip).

For comparison analyses we used the following cards:

  • SUMA Platinum GeForce2 MX200 (32 MBytes 64bit SDRAM, 175/166 MHz);
  • Matrox Millennium G400 (32 MBytes 128bit SGRAM, 126/162 MHz, DualHead);
  • Matrox Millennium G450 (16 MBytes 64bit DDR SGRAM, 120/160 MHz, DualHead).

The drivers from Matrox include a proprietary program PowerDesk.

All settings are intended for controlling the card in 2D modes, the interface for activation of different DualHead modes is very convenient. 3D settings are just few, among which are Bus-Mastering and 32-bit Z-buffer. Well, it's all the same as in the G400.

The PowerDesk utility has a pleasant design. Its icon is located in the task bar on the right:

As you can see, the PowerDesk serves also for organization of virtual desktops.

At present it's impossible to check functioning of the T&L unit of the card! The current drivers lack for even basic T&L possibilities not mentioning advanced vertex shaders and a record matrix blending and model skinning. The unit is locked either because of its incorrect functioning in this revision of the chip or because of unfinished drivers.

Test results

Well, installation of the VGA connector onto the daughter card is harmful for 2D quality. If earlier I always used Matrox G400 and G400 MAX as reference cards, the G550 performs worse. In 1600X1200 at 85 Hz the image is more soapy as compared with those cards. Of course, 2D may depend on a definite sample, but earlier I have never come across such cases.

For estimation of 3D quality we used the following programs:

  • id Software Quake3 v.1.17 - a game-test which demonstrates the card's operation in OpenGL with usage of a standard benchmark demo002;
  • MadOnion 3DMark2001 Pro - a synthetic test showing how the card operates in DirectX 8.0 with gaming tests Game1, Game2, Game3 at a low-detail level.

Quake3 Arena

demo002, standard modes

The tests were carried out in two modes: Fast (16-bit color) and High Quality (32-bit color).

Well, the performance level in 3D is quite low. The G550 has an architecture close to the GeForce2 MX: 2 pipelines with 2 texture units each. The memory interface is 64bit but it's DDR! It's a bit worse than 128bit SDR, but is very close to the latter. So, why then the performance is identical to the GeForce2 MX200 which has a 64bit SDR memory bus? Maybe required caches are not enough or they are too small, or operation with memory is too bad.

3DMark2001

Game1, Low details

Game2, Low details

Game3, Low details

The situation is a bit better than in the Quake3; the Matrox Millennium G550 sometimes outscores the GeForce2 MX200 in 32-bit color. Nevertheless, the superiority is minimal, and the G550 can be referred to the MX200/TNT2Pro/G400 class. The Hardware T&L unit is so well hidden that no one program can see it.

Conclusion

The Matrox Millennium G550 has a lot of advantages, but the number of drawbacks is much more. The card is not meant for the market of 3D accelerators, that's why it is useless for fans of 3D games.

The goal of the release of the G550 is just to remind the users that Matrox still exists. The card is equipped with unique software which includes attractive but useless at such 3D speed functions.

The only significant difference from the G400/G450 is presence of digital monitors support: the G550 has got DVI. The current drivers do not allow using any possibilities of the T&L unit, including vertex shaders.

The complete characteristics of video cards of this and other classes can be find in our 3Digest (the Matrox Millennium G550 will appear in our August review).

Highs:

  • Excellent 2D quality as compared with the majority of modern cards;
  • Very good implementation of the product;
  • DualHead with a complete set of services, including TV-out;
  • DVI.

Lows:

  • 2D quality worse as compared with Matrox G400/G450;
  • Digimask technology support is just a marketing step;
  • Hardware possibilities of T&L unsupported in drivers.

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