Saving the honor of the G400/G450

Author’s note: My actual first-hand experiences are based upon a Matrox G400 Max and a GeForce 2 GTS. Although they are not the G450 and the GeForce 2 MX, according to the specifications the scales are even more in favor of the G450 against the MX as in the case of the G400 and the GF2 GTS. That means, if anything, the situation is even more extreme than sketched here.

You can see the Matrox G450 specs here and the nVidia GeForce 2 MX specs here.

 

Matrox dead?

Back in July, when I first saw the technical specifications of the new GeForce 2 MX chip on nVidia’s website, I said to myself: “Matrox is dead. The TwinView of the GF2 MX can do something the G400’s DualHead can’t, namely sending digital output to 2 LCD monitors at the same time. And the nVidia chip’s 3D is way more powerful as well”.

After this first reaction, sobering came quickly. I guess there’s simply no limit as to how many times someone can fall to hype – even in the case of a seasoned unbeliever like me. The amount of false info in the case of the MX chip was amazing. Within two months, it became clear for me that taking away the hype, the MX is no match for the G400/450 if you’re after something more than raw fps in Q3A.

 

TvinView better than DualHead? Not exactly.

Let’s begin with the fact that the card has been shipping for many weeks with drivers where TwinView didn’t function at all. Reminds me of the S3/Diamond Viper II which was also hyped as a 3D card with integrated GPU (T&L) but from release on, for several months all drivers had the T&L disabled… sounds to me like buying a 2 MB version of the Xeon CPU for an insane price tag and the L2 cache is disabled.

Even with the new drivers where TwinView is enabled, it’s still a long shot from DualHead. While the DualHead of the G450 offers you a full-featured secondary display, the TvinView of the GeForce 2 MX limits the secondary monitor output to 85 Hz, thus a) crippling the possibilities of high-end monitors, b) limiting the resolution choices on older/cheaper monitors severely and c) making the whole hype about double LCD monitors questionable, as there is maybe 1 in 10 LCD monitors capable of 85 Hz.

And not enough with that: when you use TV out on the secondary connector, your primary VGA output is limited to a mere 800×600 – whereas in the case of the Matrox G400/450 DVD Max, you can use up to 2048×1536 on the primary monitor and watch the DVD movie fullscreen on the secondary output (be it a monitor or a TV).

Another thing that might sound unimportant at first is that the TvinView of the MX works only with the newest Detonator 3 drivers (see further below for what that really means).

Update November 2000: For a couple of weeks now, there’ve been GeForce drivers out that solve most of the probs you can read about on this page. But that doesn’t change the fact that these problems existed for nearly 2 months, which is a pretty long time in the world of 3D graphics.

 

3D performance crown? The Detonator 3 fiasco.

According to marketing hype, the GeForce 2 MX should sweep the floor with all low-end and middle-range 3D competition, including the whole Matrox product range. Real-world experiences show something else however.

The Detonator 3 drivers came out around mid-August and promised a 50% performance increase. While in games like Q3A and Unreal Tournament there was indeed a 25%-30% (certainly not 50%) performance increase, a lot of other games experienced much higher percentages of performance decrease. Games like Outlaws (which already ran fine on a 3Dfx Voodoo1) started to get choppy, Unreal lost about 15% of its speed and Requiem: Avenging Angel was now unplayably choppy in 1024×768 without FSAA whereas with previous drivers it was perfectly fluent in 1024×768 with FSAA (which requires more than 2x more 3D power). Not to mention severe visual errors in Q3A itself (see next chapter).

I can’t help but ask: what kind of drivers did they give us? Just checked today and the Detonator 3 v. 6.18 drivers are still the latest ones since mid-August. And that means these drivers that are uncapable of running a lot of games out there are the only ones you can use for your GeForce 2 MX unless you are ready to ditch all the TwinView capabilities… here’s your 2 MB Xeon with the disabled L2 cache.

And in case you didn’t realize, that means that a big chunk of the 3D games out there currently runs better on a G400/450 than on a member of the GeForce family (provided you use the latest drivers). I can’t believe nVidia seems to get away with it.

 

Reviewers seem to be playing the same two games all the time

But they do. Haven’t seen a 3D card review where they’d have put more than 2-3 games on test. And that’s misleading. While the Detonator 3 drivers run Q3A just fine (except for those visual defects) and they are superb for playing Unreal Tournament as well, Drakan will get choppy already at low resolutions (whereas a G400 gets it up to 1280×960 just fine), and when using FSAA, I can’t save Half-Life without the game crashing. Add the games mentioned in the previous chapter and you have a large percentage of the bestseller games from these last couple of years – and it looks pretty obvious the list could be longer, would someone take the time and methodically stress-test dozens of games for basic functionality.

This is how the visual defects with the new nVidia drivers look like in Q3A. Those artifacts are moving and flickering as well.
This is how the visual defects with the new nVidia drivers look like in Q3A.
Those artifacts are moving and flickering as well.

 

2D image quality: no surprises here

I’ve been using Matrox cards exclusively on my PCs for the last 4 years and so I didn’t realize until a short time ago when I bought my Elsa Gladiac (GeForce 2 GTS), how strong 2D image quality of different cards can vary. For your information, I’ve used for all tests the same 21″ SONY F500R monitor with the highest quality cables. I used the same resolutions and color depth for comparisons, with refresh rates between 100 and 160 Hz.

When I first installed the Gladiac, my very first impresson was how impossibly blurry the image was. Indeed, it didn’t reach the sharpness of my 3-years-old Matrox Mystique 220 – which is not even directly connected to the monitor but to an Orchid Righteous (3Dfx Voodoo) with a loopthrough cable. And the G400 (already the G200) is a long way over that quality level. It might not be of concern when playing Q3A, but it’s certainly one when surfing the web or typing a letter (or doing something even more productive like DTP or imaging). If I had to limit myself to one PC with one graphics card, I’d choose the poorer 3D speed because the other alternative is to damage my eyesight.

 

3D image quality: now there’s a surprise

And that’s not all. While most reviewers seem to assume that e.g. 640x480x32 is just the same-looking on any and all 3D cards and thus the one delivering the highest frame rates at this setting is necessarily the best, I happened to play Q3A for weeks on a Matrox G400 before acquiring a GeForce 2 GTS to get higher frame rates. At the very first moment when starting up the game with the GeForce 2 GTS, I was stunned by how ugly the game suddenly looked – with the same settings as before.

The main reason for this is the faulty S3TC implementation of nVidia in the GeForce drivers which makes the game a lot less fun to play. As you can see here, using S3TC doesn’t necessarily lower quality on a remarkable scale (it’s quite good-looking on an S3 Savage card). But nVidia took a “shortcut” (most probably to increase the frame rate and thus be able to claim to have the fastest 3D card out there). Indeed, the 3D image quality of a GeForce 2 with all quality settings of Q3A set to maximum and S3TC enabled is worse than that of a G400 with 16bit rendering, 16bit textures and bilinear filtering (instead of trilinear). Click on these 4 thumbnails to see what I mean.

thumb_Q3A_NVIDIA_S3TC_640
640x480x32 highest quality settings, GeForce 2 with S3TC enabled
thumb_Q3A_MATROX_640
640x480x16 bilinear filtering and 16bit textures, G400
1024x768x32 highest quality settings, GeForce 2 with S3TC enabled
1024x768x16 bilinear filtering and 16bit textures, G400
1024x768x16 bilinear filtering and 16bit textures, G400

Performance comparison – this time take your eyes instead of the specs on paper

As most (maybe all) benchmarkers leave S3TC enabled when benchmarking GeForce family cards, indeed some of them openly stated they find it worth the lower image quality (S3TC gives you some 20% performance boost already at 1024×768), I decided that I’ll take the same freedom and compare the G400 using a similarly reduced image quality – hence the 16bit rendering and texture quality, as well as the bilinear filtering (see screenshots in previous paragraph).

As I had no GeForce MX at hand, I benchmarked a GeForce 2 GTS and then reduced the fps results by the same percent rate with which the MX against a GeForce DDR scored in an MX review posted on Tom’s Hardware Guide. As the GeForce 2 GTS is somewhat faster than the GeForce DDR, and the G400 is at a similar percentage faster than the G450 (because of the different memory interface), I’m convinced these results are basically true for any G450/MX comparison.

3D performance comparison chartAs you see, by comparing different cards at the same 3D image quality level, the GeForce 2 MX doesn’t look that cool any more. By 69:68 and 44:46 fps, I’d call it even. and at that, already for this equality of relative performance the MX needed specialized drivers that won’t work with a lot of games out there. Go back to the Detonator 2 drivers to be able to play all games on the market and you’ll lose the TwinView capabilities and get some 20% lower fps results, putting the GeForce 2 MX behind the G450 in 3D speed – provided you benchmark the cards head-to-head with setting the graphics quality and not the paper specs equal as comparison base.

 

Conclusion: nothing is black & white

These results don’t mean however that the G400/G450 is a good 3D gaming solution at all. I just wanted to show you that a cheapo card from nVidia isn’t necessarily better in any way, just because it carries the word “GeForce” in its name. While a GeForce 2 GTS is definitely one of the very fastest 3D cards on the market now, the GeForce 2 MX is a severely crippled version. It’s limited by its way lower memory bandwidth – just like the G400/G450. I have the feeling would Matrox equip a model of the G400 series with 128bit 150 or 166 MHz DDR SDRAM (like in the case of the GeForce DDR and the GeForce 2 GTS), it would score if not right up with the DDR-equipped GeForce cards, at least high enough to be able to beat a GeForce SDR or a GeForce 2 MX any time.

Of course this is only speculation. What’s fact however is that the G400/G450 can stand its own against the only dual-output competition, the GeForce 2 MX. While not even the 3D speed of the MX is convincing enough, its image quality, partial game incompatibility (or no dual output at all) and only half-baked TwinView features make it no real choice for anything else than pure 3D gaming. And in that case, I’d rather opt for a TNT2 Pro for less money and more balanced fps across the games, or for a GeForce 2 GTS (Ultra) with its insane 3D power.

No more math in the IT business?

Has someone ever offered you a computer for sale with 192 MB RAM? And with 196? Yes, I’m talking about the same computer. Back in late 1998, one day I got a laugh fit when I saw a guy writing in a tech support newsgroup and stating his computer’s specs, among them the main memory size: 196 MB SDRAM. Considering that the smallest SDRAM module ever produced is 8 MB, this sounds like a real wonder – but in reality, it’s just lack of knowledge. He forgot (or didn’t know) the difference between 1000 and 1024, the first used in our everyday society, the second being the standard in the hardware world.

 

Why that strange 1024?

Computers (like all electronics) are based upon a binary system. A binary system has only 0 and 1 which correspond to eletrical current flowing or not flowing. That’s all the information that the smallest unit, called “bit”, can hold. There have been several different bit combinations throughout the early years, but the one surviving into today is the one called “byte” or “long word”, consisting of 8 bits. While a bit can hold only 2 different kinds of information, a byte offers 256 distinct possibilities.

(As a side note, the 7bit combination called “half word”, with a max number of 128 different kinds of informaton, survived in one IT-related branche, MIDI programming.)

OK so what does it have to do with your kilo- and megabytes? The computer is “thinking” in the binary system. On the other hand, this system is rather difficult to use for human beings. A “near-overlapping” of the two systems occur at around 1000: in the human-used decimal system, 10 raised to the power of 3 is 1000, a number we’re all familiar with. In the binary system, 2 raised to the power of 10 is 1024, which is fairly close to the easily understandable 1000. To make it clear why they chose this specific exponent of 2, the scientists even called it “kilo” (after the Latin word for thousand).

To come back to my first example, that guy had 192 MB RAM which is 192×1024 = 196’608 KB. That’s the number he could see when switching on his computer. Without the knowledge  tought in high school (in some countries, elementary school) and explained in detail in the previous paragraph, he could only figure out that he had 196-and-something-thousand KB, which should be 196-and-something MB. The something didn’t make sense to him, so he decided he simply had 196 MB. Crazy, isn’t it? Happens every day. And not only to computer illiterates…

 

Nothing new

My first personal encounter with this trend was using 100 MB ZIP disks (but I assume it started far earlier). I was in for a big surprise about three years ago when I wanted to push 98 MB to a 100 MB ZIP disk and after a quarter hour of bitshoveling Windows told me there isn’t enough space on the target drive. Guess why? Iomega was one of the first companies to “introduce the new counting method” of 1000 KB being a MB.

Hard drive manufacturers quickly followed suit, introducing the new conversion rate of 1000 MB being a GB. You could “enjoy” the “advantages” when buying a shiny new 10.1 GB hard drive and getting up to half a giga less for real.

 

Don’t expect too much brains from the “suits”

In some branches of the computer industry, the binary system still holds its own: we’re speaking about 64 and 128 bit memory buses instead of 50, 100 and 150 bit; you can also buy only 32, 64, 128 or 256 MB memory modules but not 50, 150 and 250 MB ones. Furthermore, 128 MB means 131’072 KB and not 128’000 KB.

But as computer business got more and more of a money affair instead of a scientific one, IT has been overflown with managers who know how to dress after the latest fashion and how to talk smoothly but couldn’t add 2 and 2 without a calculator – and it seems there are some things they can’t figure out, not even with the help of the latest microelectronics…

A quick example: Maybe you’ve also seen somewhere an offer with a 56’000 bps modem. Most probably, you automatically recognized it’s a 56K modem. But now with the fresh (or freshened up) knowledge of not 1000 but 1024 bit being a kilobit, you should wonder how it adds up. The truth is, those modems have a max data rate of 57’600 bps, which is exactly 56.25K.

 

It’s all in the changing of times

While a decade ago, computer business was more about geniuses developing new technologies no one would’ve thought of before, nowadays it’s rather who’s selling more of a new product and it doesn’t really matter any more whether a product is good (or working at all, how many Windows crashes did you have this week?), but who has the better marketing campaign. What do you think why are there so many “Ultra” products again and again?

These folks pushing the products in your face nowadays have most of the time less idea about computing than the average customer. They didn’t get the job to understand what they’re selling in the highest possible numbers, but to know how to promote something and are feeling themselves at home in the sharky waters of hardcore business (where most of the time there is no place for scientists any more).

No wonder you see daily product offerings like a 128bit sound card (too bad the SoundBlaster PCI 128 got its name from the max number of MIDI tones it can produce simultaneously, it’s still a standard 32bit PCI card), a 350 MHz graphics card (don’t try to tell them the important things about a 3D card are chip and memory clock, RAMDAC doesn’t matter much), or a 700 MHz Pentium processor (I’ve encountered several high-standing product managers in the computer business for whom there were two CPUs: the Pentium and the Celeron. That architecturally seen, the PII stood nearer to the Celeron than to the PIII, is wasted info on them).

 

Marketing guys aren’t the only ones unable to count

But there are some similarly horrible calculations I’ve seen from all kinds of tech geeks as well… like the Pentium II 330 MHz. Intel announced a 333 MHz part but while this time their marketing dept did the homework, the resellers “new it better” and decided that a CPU with a 66 MHz FSB and a 5x multiplier is 66×5=330 MHz.

What’s wrong with that? There are no 33 and 66 MHz buses. They are 33 1/3 (33.33) and 66 2/3 (66.66) MHz. And if you take 33 1/3 x 5, you get 333 1/3 (333.33) MHz, which rounded after mathematical rules is exactly the 333 MHz Intel announced. Actually, using the same rules they should’ve been calling their 166, 266 etc. CPUs 167, 267 etc. but that was somehow already too complicated for them, I guess. Or maybe the word “rounding” meant to them cutting away everything after the decimal point. Or maybe they thought people can recognize and remember 266 better than 267.

They got it right first with the 667 MHz PIII, although I’m pretty convinced they didn’t do it on behalf of mathematics but rather because it was considered to be too risky to release a 666 MHz CPU in a post-Christian Western society…

 

Will it never end?

I wonder when they will start selling the 128 MB RAM stick as a 131 MB memory module. Or maybe we are not yet stupid enough for that? You can do your part for a less idiotic IT world yourself by developing some criticism towards those mindless ads and their even more mindless creators.

Dissecting the worm

Sneaking in

On Thursday, May 4, 2000, a new worm has hit the net. It arrived in an e-mail with the subject “ILOVEYOU”. Within hours, mail servers were paralyzed, whole networks of PCs crashed (including those of many an administrative authority or bank).

The mail itself told you to open the attachment containing a love letter. The attachment’s name was “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs”. Once opened, the mayhem started by changing your system settings, then sending the worm to new victims and finally killing off your most beloved image and music files.

Read moreDissecting the worm

The best products

Winblows

bestproducts_ms_windowsThe name is not quite spot on, as what this product actually does is suck. Still, it’s an important part of our monopoly so you better buy it. We’ve been even kind enough to include the expiry date in the name. Currently you can get the 1998 version (which truth to be told expired 5 rather than 2 years ago) and the newer, even better one, Winblows 1900. The name says it all.

 

Suffice

bestproducts_ms_office Another widely spread product. It spreads out on your hard drive like a lazy dinosaur and works in much the same way. This is another product with the expiry date generously included. Currently available in three expired versions: expiry date 97 for you, 98 for the enemy and 1900 for the bravest of heart.

 

Weird

bestproducts_ms_wordAn essential part of the Suffice package (and of its success as well). If you’re ready to pay more for a word processor than people with brains do for a full office package, go for this baby. Its popularity couldn’t be reduced in the last couple of years, not even through the fact that nowadays the highest percentage of all viruses on desktop systems originate from Weird “.dog” files sent as an e-mail attachment (for total coverage, check out Watchout Mistress below).

 

XXL

bestproducts_ms_excelAnother member of the Suffice clan. If you thought you knew what the word “overblown” meant, you should see this one and you’ll realize you didn’t even come close to the truth. Oversized like a sightseeing bus for your garage, the best CPU for this application is the one that will come out next year. But as people obviously dislike software that works with last year’s computer models, this beauty is holding its own rather well.

 

Watchout Mistress

bestproducts_ms_outlookThe perfect arsenal to harass, embarrass, blast and vaporize your cyber-enemies. Including all kind of long-range weapons like iHTML that’s only readable with WOE 5+ (and its big brothers Watchout and Exploder) and easy management of various viruses disguised as attachments (to achieve best results, use in combination with Weird). There is one slight problem though: Watchout (Express) has no defensive mechanisms, so if your enemy is reckless enough to deploy the same product, you become about as defenseless as the average BIOS against CIH…

 

Give us all you have

bestproducts_ms_moneyWe can surely make better use of it than you could ever dream of, like wasting it on building more secure technologies into our CDs and authenticity certificates than any currency of the world has ever had. And of course we need it for producing other versions of the Big Brother software we give away free (Exploder, Watchout Mistress, BackSide Mistress). Or would you like to have to pay for Big Brother supervising you? No, I guess not.

 

Waste of Resources

bestproducts_ms_ageofempiresIf you get tired of the (with our products very) hard work, time to enjoy yourself with this relaxing game of wasting resources on military units wasted in battles not getting you ahead. To take your enjoyment to a higher level, we decided to make the game feel more realistic than any of its kind before, by letting it waste your resources in ways you can’t imagine. By following the standard tactics of doubling the system requirements printed on the box (in this case, Pentium 90, 32 MB RAM), you won’t be anywhere near the real figures. On a PII-400 you will be able to see choppy frame rates in certain scenarios, thus making it more hardware-intensive than any current 3D shooter title. And as for memory, try running the game on a mere 256 MB without having another 100 MB on your hard drive for a nice juicy swapfile!

Join the club

I got this pretty yellow invitation to join the big club the very first time back in 1994 with my copy of Windows 3.1. At that time, I was a fairly average user (or maybe even more inexperienced) and so I missed the chance to become a part of something this big and famous.

The next time I got the very same card was two years later with my copy of Windows 95. This time, I was already on my way to become an advanced user, but not yet advanced enough to be sceptical – so I signed up for the great advantages of being a club member (the results of which will be mentioned later on).

The third time I got the card (with zero changes) was in 1999 with a copy of Windows 98 SE. This time I was already beyond the level of knowledge companies living from hype find healthy – thus I not only never used the card to register but even decided to make fun of it publicly.

mscard1
Translation from German:
Microsoft Registration Card
IMPORTANT! Fill in this card and send it back to us today.
mscard2
Translation from German:
1. What kind of computer do you own? (Please tick only one box) A. 286 / B. 368 / C. 486 / D. Pentium CPU / E. Alpha AXP / F. MIPS / G. Other / H. I don’t know
4. How much RAM does your PC have? (Please tick only one box) A. 2-4 MB / B. 5-6 MB / C. 7-8 MB / D. 9-12 MB / E. 13-16 MB / F. More than 16 MB / G. I don’t know

1. What kind of computer do you own? (Please tick only one box)

G. Other

H. I don’t know

There are four possible CPU choices here on which Windows 98 simply won’t start at all (286, 386, Alpha AXP, MIPS) and there are half a dozen or more CPU types in the meantime on which it would run (or at least creep) – that means around 90% of all users are bound to tick either G or H, thus giving away virtually zero information.

 

4. How much RAM does your PC have? (Please tick only one box)

F. More than 16 MB

G. I don’t know

Too bad Windows 98 needs a minimum of 24 MB of RAM. As for the “tick only one box”, it’d be fun to tick several, like C + E, the sum resulting in a total RAM size of 20-24 MB, which would pose the interesting question of whether your system is now capable of running Windows 98 or not.

As an aside, on the next page the card goes on about promising me all kinds of cool information, offers and support when I register… well, I registered my Windows 95 and all I ever got in half a decade was an appeal to upgrade to Office 97. Yes, I know what you’re going to say: “you can’t use the Office 97 upgrade without a previous version”. Why did I get the upgrade offer then? Because, among many “important” questions, MS forgot to ask me something rather relevant – namely what product I was registering…