Diamond Viper V550 graphics cardReview date: 3 December 1998. Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
If you're after lightning fast 2D and 3D graphics for serious applications and games, there are presently a few options open to you. 3DFX's Banshee chipset is capable of the windowed 3D needed for 3D rendering previews and other serious applications, but its drivers don't support windowing properly at the time of writing. This isn't important for gamers, though, who have been buying plenty of Banshee cards for their near-Voodoo 2 3D performance and fast 2D.
Matrox's G200 has been much more seriously hogtied by terrible drivers ever since its release. Its 2D graphics hardware and software are near-perfect, but in 3D it doesn't support OpenGL properly, and has to use a Direct3D "wrapper", which translates OpenGL calls into Direct3D, more or less, fairly slowly.
This means that in the 2D/3D graphics card race at the moment, it's NVidia Riva TNT based cards like the Viper V550 first, and daylight second.
If you've got a fast CPU, the TNT chipset gives you very fast, very good-looking 3D, 2D far faster than anyone needs, and supports ludicrously high resolutions. With a rather imposing 16Mb of RAM onboard, and if your monitor can take it, 1920 by 1200 is possible. And we're not talking low-depth flickervision, here; 1920 by 1200 can be yours in 32 bit colour and with an 85Hz refresh rate. Yow.
On a Pentium II 350MHz computer, the V550 handily beats the Diamond Monster 3D II in Quake II framerates. In the higher resolutions and bit depths (remember, Voodoo cards can't even do 32 bit colour in 3D) the V550's score on the Massive1 multiplayer demo is close to its score on the standard demo2 test, and its minimum framerate, as reflected by the brutal Crusher demo, is also right up there. So it's not just a show pony; work it hard and it won't bog down.
On my 450MHz overclocked Celeron, the Viper was as fast in 1152 by 864 16 bit colour as my old Voodoo Graphics (Voodoo 1) card was in 640 by 480. No matter how fast your processor, you're not going to get much more than 35 frames per second on average out of a Voodoo 1 when you're running games like Quake 2; the newer graphics chipsets are much better suited to modern CPUs.
With current CPUs and 3D games, resolutions above 1172 by 864 are probably not a good idea for 3D gaming on TNT cards. Even a 500MHz machine will produce low-ish Quake 2 framerates in 1280 by 1024 or 1600 by 1200. On the other hand, if you're into low-polygon games like flight simulators, in which very high framerate is not necessarily important, the higher resolutions may work well - on fast Pentium IIs, frame rates in excess of 20 frames per second have been reported running the F-16 Falcon 4 beta in 1600 by 1200.
The resolution bonuses apply to games that don't make use of 3D acceleration, too. If you're into Total Annihilation, for instance, you can run the game in whatever resolutions you can use for your desktop. Again, woe betide you if your processor's not fast enough, as TA is still eminently capable of bringing an arbitrarily fast computer to its knees, but seeing that much more of the battlefield is definitely groovy.
For Quake 2, 1024 by 768 is as high as I'd care to go on my 450MHz machine. A recent upgrade to a similarly overclocked Celeron 300A made only a very slight difference to Quake 2 framerates with the V550 card.
Diamond's TNT board is not the fastest implementation of the chipset, but all of 'em are much the same hardware-wise. Performance differences of 10% or less are not noticeable, and inter-TNT card differences are considerably less than that. If it gives you a bad taste in your mouth to know that someone, somewhere, has a faster graphics card than you, feel free to nitpick the stats. But they're really all much the same.
In both 16 bit and 32 bit modes, the V550 delivers gorgeous 2D and 3D graphics. 2D output is as crisp as you'd expect from any decent card - the lack of a Voodoo-style passthrough cable doesn't hurt here - and I doubt anyone could spot a flaw in the TNT's rendering in 3D titles. Gamma adjustment may be needed to brighten up the image in 3D, but this is hardly a problem unique to the Viper. Once you've tweaked up your brightness a bit, all is very tasty.
If you want to play Unreal, forget it until the TNT drivers start working with it. Unreal on the TNT makes for some gorgeous high-res screenshots but, unfortunately, as of the 2.19b version it's still unplayably jerky in Direct3D mode and strangely broken in OpenGL mode - full screen mode is sort of squished into a corner of the screen, with the desktop visible around it. You can make Direct3D mode barely tolerable by turning off much of the pretty-stuff, cutting sound quality and using a lower resolution, but you might as well use software rendering. Which, by the way, is not an abysmal option; Unreal's software renderer is amazingly good looking, and if you've got a machine fast enough to make a TNT card worthwhile, it'll give you decent software rendered framerates in 640 by 480.
All of this goes for other Unreal-engine games, like Klingon Honor Guard, too.
While I'm on the subject of Stuff That Doesn't Work, some motherboards, particularly Super 7 ones, disagree with TNT cards. Check with your vendor and/or the motherboard manufacturer, and upgrade to the latest BIOS version if necessary. ALI boards are, apparently, particularly bad in this respect.
Want a manual? Tough. The V550 comes with a CD-booklet sized Installation Guide and has the rest of its documentation on the driver disc. Since the disc manual doesn't actually contain any useful troubleshooting information, it wouldn't help to have it on paper. That's not a good thing, though.
Game-playing owners of Matrox G200 based cards presently have a deep and abiding loathing for driver programmers who take their own sweet time to do their job. The G200s came out in July of 1998, and as I write this, almost five whole months later, there still isn't a proper OpenGL driver for them. The latest news is of a "pre-beta" (uh, that would be an alpha, right?) driver, no faster than the Direct3D wrapper but presumably without its bugs, coming on December the 9th. Whoopee.
In contrast, the current TNT drivers work very well. Sure, switching back to Windows while playing Quake 2 is a bad idea (everything looks fine until you try to do something and discover not one solitary Windows resource appears to be unused), and the taskbar occasionally hangs around until you reset the video system (going into Q2's video menu and out again is good enough), but there seem to be no serious bugs except for the abovementioned Unreal incompatibility. I'll settle for that.
UPDATE The drivers I'm currently using for the V550 are the NVIDIA Detonator reference drivers, available from the Drivers link here. They're advertised as up to 30% faster for OpenGL and DirectX games; I saw a 25% improvement in Quake 2 frame rates in the Crusher demo, but less when the machine was less heavily loaded. I run 1024 by 768 in 16 bit colour; many users have reported less dramatic increases or even speed decreases from the Detonator drivers. Get 'em and see if they work for you.
The new drivers also support the extra 3D instructions in such processors as the AMD K6-2 and the Intel Pentium III; I don't have such a processor to test, and initial reports of the actual results are unexciting. If you, like me, are not running a new K6 or P-III, it's reported that you'll get better Direct3D performance by turning off the new CPU support.
To do so, click the Additional Properties button on the Riva TNT panel in your Display Properties, select the Direct3D tab and click the Advanced button, and check the "disable support for enhanced CPU instruction sets" box.
Some users have apparently reported that K6-2 machines actually ran faster with the enhanced CPU support disabled. Weird.
Along with the usual collection of game demos and low-powered graphics software, the V550 comes with Gremlin Interactive's race game Motorhead. Motorhead is a superb example of the Lens Flares 'R' Us school of computer graphics and, to my mind, fatally flawed by having cars that do not have guns on them and, indeed, cannot actually be destroyed. But it's undeniably gorgeous, runs blisteringly quickly on the TNT, can be set up as a simple arcade racer or a highly challenging single or multiplayer experience with quite realistic handling, and generally shows off the power of the card like nobody's business.
You also get Diamond InControl Tools 98, another of those programs that wants to Change The Way You Use Windows by giving you handy little menus and extra bits and pieces. InControl Tools has no V550-specific features; it lets you switch screen resolution and colour depth quickly, but there are umpteen programs that do that.
The outside of the box also declares that Zoran's DVD playing software, SoftDVD, is included in the package. The one I got, though, had just a dinky little coupon apologising for the unavailability of SoftDVD at the time of packaging and inviting me to send in the coupon to get my copy.
Coupon valid only in the USA.
I'm in Australia.
By now, V550s on the shelves should actually have SoftDVD in the box, and not just promise it. If it matters to you, check. If you've got a DVD-ROM drive but not a decoder card (like, for example, the Jaton one reviewed here), it's not a bad piece of software.
The back of the V550 has a Y/C S-video connector on it and it comes with a little adaptor cable that gives you a composite connector. In brief, this means you can plug the card straight into any VCR, regular or S-VHS, and any TV with a video in, and play games on the big screen, record graphics to video or what have you. You can't use your TV and monitor simultaneously, though, and the TV Out part of the V550 driver is deeply flaky, with controls you can't use, and an "on" button that only seems to work once per Windows session. Classy
Unfortunately, the card I reviewed had NTSC TV out, and I'm in Australia, where the TV standard is PAL. To use NTSC video output in Australia you need an NTSC compatible TV or VCR, and the output will always look pretty lousy, since NTSC has only 5/6ths as many lines as PAL and computer video output needs all the lines it can get. Remember, the screen resolution of even a really good television set is less than 800 by 600 - the tube quality is not nearly as high. That's the main reason why 21 inch televisions are so very much cheaper than 21 inch computer monitors.
This also means that playing games on your PC is rather a waste of the V550's abilities, even if you have a PAL version. With your television showing you only 640 by 480 or so and no more than 25 frames per second, you might as well be using a Voodoo 1 card like Canopus' Pure3D, which also has video out.
If you own a video projector, though, forget I spoke. Low res, yes, but having a screen the size of a wall makes up for a lot!
For more info on what the heck this means, check out my guide to all flavours of video here.
Is the Riva TNT the chipset that succeeds the Voodoo 2 as king of the mountain? Well, probably yes. If you play games that support only Glide, any TNT card will be useless to you - only 3DFX products will work. And if you've got a slower computer - anything under a Pentium II 300 - the TNT's full benefits will not be available to you. And if you love Unreal, the TNT drivers do not yet share your love. And if you absolutely positively must have frame rate above all else, then Voodoo 2 Scan Line Interleave (SLI), with two cards in the one machine, is for you, and nothing else will do.
But otherwise, buy a TNT card. The Diamond Viper V550 is a pretty good one, but they're all much the same speed, so base your decision on pricing and bundled software and extra features, like, for example, TV out.
If you've already got an adequately fast 2D card (pretty much anything current, in other words) and can live without resolutions higher than 800 by 600 and colour depths greater than 16 bit, you can presently get a yum cha 12Mb Voodoo 2 for less than $300 (Australian dollars). But the V550 only costs $469 at present, and offers a great deal more. Monstrous resolutions at high refresh rates, better-than-Voodoo 2 performance in the same graphics modes, support for higher resolutions at useful speeds on quite affordable processors - I think we have a winner.
You'll have to excuse me now. Quake 2 beckons.