Matrox's Parhelia - A Performance Paradoxby Anand Lal Shimpi on June 25, 2002 11:02 AM EST
- Posted in
Image Quality & Multimonitor Support
There's no doubt that the analog output quality of Parhelia is excellent, it's definitely the best we've seen to date. We are still working on the image quality tests we alluded to in our original Parhelia article which will see their debut either in a follow-up to this Parhelia review or as a standalone comparison of the image quality of today's graphics cards.
We've also been playing with Matrox's multimonitor support but because of time constraints we couldn't get into talking about it in this article. We hope to revisit it again later.
The Matrox Parhelia is Matrox's best effort in the 3D graphics market to date. It offers tangible features, the highest performance Matrox has ever been able to provide and a good set of drivers just out of the box. The problem being that Matrox isn't competing with the ATI and NVIDIA that they once were, these two companies are utter giants today (especially NVIDIA). Their drivers are much more optimized and they've had much more experience with tuning their hardware and software for performance so that they do produce the highest frame rates possible. Matrox can't possibly compete with this; they can't compete with NVIDIA's driver team on the very first major hardware release they've had in the past two years, if they were able to then NVIDIA would have been off hiring members of their driver team long ago. Performance will improve over time; while you shouldn't expect a 30 - 40% boost just because of drivers, we'd expect that 10% isn't out of the question with 15 - 20% being in the "maybe" range.
In order for Parhelia to be an attractive performer at this point you have to be a heavy user of one of the following features:
- Games that make extensive use of quad-texturing
- Games with lots of complex pixel/vertex shader programs
- Fragment Anti-Aliasing
- Surround Gaming
The first two bullets on the list are basically out of your control; games will take advantage of the quad-texturing capabilities of Parhelia going forward, and some already do today (UT2003). There are almost no games on the market currently that put the pixel/vertex shader units to any serious use and thus you won't see much benefit from Parhelia there, at least for the immediate future.
Our favorite feature, by far, of the Parhelia was its Fragment Anti-Aliasing. The quality of the algorithm was incredible but in its current state it does have some limitations that must be addressed in future hardware from Matrox. Currently FAA will not work with any use of stencil in a game, which is one thing Epic had to disable in the UT2003 demo in order for FAA to properly work. Although the demand isn't necessarily great for UT2003 to support stencil right now, eventual support is necessary and if FAA doesn't properly work with it enabled then Parhelia will be forced into 4X supersampling mode which is no better than what the Radeon offers. Matrox should be working long and hard to make sure that they get as much support as possible from developers for their FAA. At the same time their engineers should be hard at work at making the system as seamless as ATI/NVIDIA's AA algorithms; the user should never have to worry about whether turning on AA will result in image artifacts.
We didn't touch on Surround Gaming throughout the majority of this article but we will discuss it now. Surround Gaming is really a hit or miss feature for a lot of people; for the majority of first person shooter plays, Surround Gaming is a novelty that can be lived without. The cost, desk space and relatively small improvement in gaming experience doesn't really make much sense for a first person shooter. Where Surround Gaming truly can shine is in RPGs or RTS games where things aren't as fast paced and there's a need for additional screen real estate to display tools, maps, inventories, etc. Matrox does believe very strongly in Surround Gaming and they are putting quite a bit of weight behind it as you can tell by the fairly impressive lineup of supported games at this point.
In the end it comes down to what sort of a value Parhelia brings to the table. At its ESP of $399, Parhelia doesn't deliver performance that's equivalent to what a $399 card should provide. With FAA enabled the situation turns out to be much better, but as we told Matrox a few months back, if they want to make a comeback they have to top all charts. If you look at the performance under Unreal Tournament 2003, the Parhelia is entirely too slow compared to the GeForce4; and we're not even taking into account the fact that in the very near future ATI's R300 will be introduced with much higher performance under Unreal Tournament 2003. As a pure gamer's card, the Parhelia gets mixed results.
Where the Parhelia can truly shine is in the relatively small niche that is interested in features like Surround Gaming, triple-head outputs, and those users that do play with AA constantly enabled. The analog image quality output of the Parhelia is also excellent, so those professional users that are looking for a solution with crisp display capabilities will find comfort in Parhelia. But in the end we're not talking about a large portion of the market that will be drawn to Parhelia, just the small percent that Matrox indicated they were going after in the first place.
We'd honestly like to see a more competitive Parhelia part, but it seems as if that will take another couple of product cycles at minimum. The good news is that Matrox is committed to supporting Parhelia and they do have a roadmap to follow-up the chip with refreshes and new architectures. Will we see a refreshed Parhelia this year? We wouldn't throw out the possibility, but the important thing is that there is something in the works. With Parhelia out the door the folks at Matrox can breathe a small sigh of relief now that their 2-year old is finally walking, but they can't get too complacent as it's the Parhelia refresh that will determine whether Matrox has what it takes to remain a player in this competitive business.