Video Card Wars Part II : Matrox: Wherefore Art Thou?

by

Video Card Wars Part II : Matrox: Wherefore Art Thou?

Originally Published on December 8, 2003

Video Card Wars, Part II

In Part I of the video card wars we took an in-depth look at the intense rivalry between graphics card titans ATI and Nvidia, as well as the latest controversy surrounding their association with the upcoming blockbuster titles Doom III and Half-Life 2. Much ado has been made about Nvidia’s supposed incompatibilities with Half-Life 2 and the Direct X 9 spec and ATI is still blushing from the leaked Doom III demo debacle, but despite the devastating public relations broadsides that both companies have endured the arena remains relatively uncrowded. Both competitors have been bruised and battered somewhat, but they still stand unchallenged, without a third party candidate or independent contender around to challenge the two-party status quo. ATI and Nvidia may not like each other much, but at least they know who the enemy is.

Last year the comfortable stalemate which both parties had settled into was shaken up a bit when Matrox cast its hat into the ring with the Matrox Parhelia, a high performance 3d video card that was the first to offer triple-head support, giving gamers the chance to immerse themselves in their favorite game world with not one, not two but three monitors perched upon their desktop. In addition to this innovative feature the Parhelia touted a 512-bit graphical processing unit backed by 128mb of DDR memory and support for AGP 4x. What it all amounted to was an impressive challenge – a dark horse candidate showcasing its first offering with all the bells and whistles that both Nvida and ATI could offer (at the time). According to Zdnet magazine, the Parhelia was named after a solar phenomenon that occurs when the sun is accompanied by two bright spots. Astrologers commonly refer to it as ‘Sun Dog’, but in the case of Matrox’s new card, the term Under-Dog may have been more appropriate.

The Parhelia was a gamble for Matrox, whose move out of familiar waters – the traditional market of graphical desktop and work server clientele – gave ATI and Nvidia serious pause for reflection. Here at last was a rival video card backed by impressive specs and a name brand company whose aim was squared directly into the heart of Nvidia and ATI’s most beloved consumer base. People started talking, and the initial buzz about town indicated great promise – the Parhelia received favorable preview coverage, with many of the most jaded publications eagerly anticipating their chance to take the Parhelia for a spin. For a moment it looked as if the two lane video card market was about to make room for one more on the road, and the masses applauded the opportunity to have additional choices when it came to one of the most important components in their gaming systems. After all, who could resist a video card whose name sounded like some Nordic female WWF superstar?

Unfortunately, innovation isn’t always rewarded with runaway financial success (especially in the gaming industry) and the Parhelia was slow to catch on. Technical publications ran tests and benchmarks that gave healthy, if not stellar marks to the Parhelia. Running with all that power behind it allowed the Parhelia to score impressive benchmark numbers, but its overall performance was held back by poor software support. Driver support and incompatibilities were complained about often (coincidentally one of the original limiting factors that held ATI back for so long), as was the limited amount of games that featured support for three monitors. On the fiscal home front many cost-conscious gamers questioned the financial logic of purchasing three monitors for the their home computers, and waited nervously as the list of software developers willing to support triple monitor interface grew slowly. Despite the fact that the Parhelia could drive a single monitor just as well as three it continued to garner a reputation as a ‘hardcore’ component, something only the extremely adventurous uber-tech crowd was willing to embrace. These issues, coupled with the Parhelia’s then premium price tag, served to significantly limit its success.

In the end the splash that Matrox was hoping to make in the graphic’s card pond was more of a skip and sink. The innovative features offered by the Parhelia still stand as a landmark in the history of PC gaming, but the widespread adoption of its technology remained elusive. Today, the Parhelia is still alive and well, if not the powerhouse Matrox was hoping for, and comes in 128mb and 256mb flavors. Feature-wise however the Parhelia is beginning to fall behind the times and as of this writing both the 128mb and 256mb version of the video card were still locked at AGP 4x.

In the interim between Matrox’s bold move into the video card market and the lukewarm success of the Parhelia, ATI and Nvidia have not remained silent. Still locked in a tenacious battle with their flagship products – the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro and the Nvidia GeForce FX 5900 – both companies have made moves to improve their premiere products just in time for the holiday buying season.

ATI is currently riding the wave of its latest success, the Half-Life 2 bundle offer in which purchasers of Radeon video cards receive a voucher for a complimentary copy of Half-Life 2 when it hits store shelves. Aware that even the most anticipated games can only generate so much self sustaining hype, ATI has also beefed up their current flagship product, the Radeon 9800 Pro, by bringing a faster version to market. Called the Radeon 9800 Pro XT, this monster of a video card packs a little bit more punch than its 9800 Pro brethren, courtesy its 256mb of memory (up from 128) and a healthy 256-bit memory interface. The XT is currently receiving rave reviews from across the board and has done much to help solidify ATI’s position as an industry frontrunner.

Nvidia, still reeling from the public relations snafu unleashed upon them by Valve has taken an approach similar to ATI’s – tweaking their flagship video card and making it better. The GeForce FX 5900 has now been given an upgrade in the memory department (as with the Radeon XT, from 128mb to 256mb) and been unleashed as the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, combat ready with a 256-bit memory interface and the patented Cine-FX 2.0 engine, a pixel and vertex shader that helps smooth out all the pixilated odds and blocky ends. With the exception of the 256mb edition of the Parhelia Matrox currently has no product to compete head to head with ATI and Nvidia’s flagship video cards, so I’d like to take a moment of purely self indulgent levity and put forth my own idea for the latest edition of the Parhelia.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Matrox Parhelia 3000: Oreo Edition. With ATI partnering up with Valve software and Nvidia cozying up to ID, shouldn’t Matrox have a heavyweight sponsor behind its latest video card? Pairing videogames with video cards to encourage buyers has become so passé, what’s really needed to supercharge the incentive market is food – sugary, unwholesome and completely addictive snacks to compel the sweet tooth in every gamer. After all, most gamers are male, and everyone knows the fastest way to a gamers heart is through his stomach. For this task I propose a partnership between Matrox and Oreo, “America’s favorite Cookie”. The devilishly sweet wafer cookie with frosting in the center has two things that the others graphics card partnerships lack: mass market appeal and the ability to keep gamers glued to their monitors during extended LAN and solo frag sessions. Doom III and Half-Life 2 will come and go, but Oreo’s after all, are forever. The hook is simple – “Buy a Parhelia 3000 Oreo and get Free Cookies!” or perhaps more to the point, “Even after your girlfriend leaves you for spending to much time playing games, your Oreo’s will still be there for you.” Too long-winded? How about, “Buy it. You get cookies.”

Not only should Matrox bundle large packages of the Nabisco product inside each Parhelia 3000 box, it should also meld various parts of the video card’s circuitry to Oreo cookies. To cool the GPU the creamy center of an Oreo could be used in lieu of a cooling fan. The result might be somewhat messy, but undeniably delicious. Slogans could abound. Taking their cue from Nabisco, Matrox could trounce Nvidia’s “The way it was meant to be played” by boldly proclaiming to the gaming world, “How do you eat your Parhelia Oreo – dunk or twist?” Best of all, partnering with Nabisco, a company without any knowledge of graphics accelerators that is eager to maintain a family image could lead to quite a bit of valuable knowledge enhancing cross industry interchange.

Imagine the following board meeting between Matrox and Nabisco reps.

Nabisco Exec: So Tom, how is that new, uh, visual computer coming along?

Matrox Rep: Actually Fred, it’s a graphics accelerator for personal computers, not a computer itself. The graphics card drives the visual component of PC configurations and can come as a third-party add-on or built in directly to the motherboard itself.

Nabisco Exec: I see, I see. And this mother board, does she approve of this kind of activity? We are, after all, a family company with an image to maintain.

Matrox Rep: Oh absolutely, nowadays quite a few vendors add in visual support via the motherboard’s chipset, like Nvidia’s Nforce motherboards or Via’s EPIA Mini-ITX series.

Nabisco Exec: (Whispers to secretary) Is this Nvidia motherboard some new fangled god damned single parent demographic? Why wasn’t I told about this? You tell marketing to get their butts in gear! (Turns back to Matrox Rep) Ah yes yes, the Nay-vidias; absolutely Tom, very important sector that. But now tell me, how is your visual, graphics….er, project coming along?

Matrox Rep: The Parhelia? Quite Well. Actually since its initial release we’ve taken the original stock GPU back to R&D for extensive upgrading and testing. Based upon user feedback and benchmark results in our own labs we’ve come up with a revised Parhelia that offers unparalleled visual quality, superior performance, and innovative features. In addition to it’s 512-bit graphics processing unit it has 80 million .15-micron transistors aided by 256mb of DDR memory which allows for up to 20gb per second bandwidth speeds. We’re including support for OpenGL and DirectX.

Nabisco Exec: And the cookies?

Matrox Rep: Uh, yes. We’ll also be including an entire package of Nabisco Oreo Cookies with each Matrox Parhelia. Oh, another exiting feature we’re about to implement with the Parhelia is our own proprietary Hardware Displacement Mapping, or HDM. It allows…

Nabisco Exec: and the slogan?

Matrox Rep: Oh…yes, I almost forgot. Each Parhelia will now feature the slogan, “America’s favorite cookie, now with America’s favorite graphics card!” (smiles thinly)

Nabisco Exec: (steeples hands together) Exxxcellent.

Matrox Rep: So, um the HDM feature adds realistic textures to in-game objects in a way that supercedes traditional bump mapping. And, this is this the best part, we’re adding AGP 8x support to the next edition of the Parhelia!

Nabisco Exec: Well, that all sounds very interesting. This… AGP… it only has 8 calories?

Matrox Rep: Well, um, no not exactly, it stands for Accelerated Graphics Port and the 8x represents data speeds that the video card can…

Nabisco Exec: Is it sweet? I don’t want anything paired with Oreo that’s not sweet.

Matrox Rep: (exasperated) Yes, it’s extremely sweet and scrumptious. No one will resist the sweetness of AGP 8x.

Nabisco Exec: Exxxcellent.

As you can see, the opportunities for the Parhelia’s product revitalization and expanded cross industry partnership are nearly limitless and can offer Matrox the competitive boost they need to get back into the ring with ATI and Nvidia. And hey – if the Nabisco sponsorship doesn’t work, maybe each company can sit down and resolve their differences over a nice glass of milk and cookies…as long as they’re Oreo.

Miguel Cervantes