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Matrox's Millennium P750 graphics card

TripleHead with a two-by-four
— 1:15 AM on August 14, 2003

ModelMillennium P750o
Price (estimated)US$226

A LONG, LONG TIME ago, Matrox's G400 Max was arguably the best graphics card on the market. The G400 Max was the card to have for 3D gaming. The card had impeccable video signal quality, and was ideal for multimonitor configurations. Much has changed, however, in the four years since the G400 Max's release. Today, ATI and NVIDIA dominate the consumer-level 3D graphics, relegating Matrox to something of a niche player.

Fourteen months ago, it looked like Matrox might have found an edge with the high-end Parhelia. At first glance, Parhelia's technology was impressive, but the card's actual performance left something to be desired, especially considering its $400 price tag. With ATI and NVIDIA offering dual monitor support and strong video signal quality—traditionally sources of strength for Matrox—the pricey Parhelia wasn't exactly a hit with enthusiasts.

To give more budget-conscious consumers and businesses a taste of Parhelia's features at a lower price, Matrox is rolling out the Millennium P750. With only half of Parhelia's 3D graphics power, the P750 definitely isn't targeted at high-end 3D workstations or gaming machines. However, the prospect of getting Parhelia's features at a more reasonable price should be quite tempting for businesses and multimonitor enthusiasts. Can the Millennium P750 carve out space for itself in the crowded graphics market, or will it go the way of HeadCasting? Read on to find out.

Considering the targets
Before I get into too much detail on the Millennium P750, I should take a moment to highlight Matrox's target markets for the card. We don't always buy into clever market segmentation arguments, but we are aware that they sometimes make good sense. Considering the P750's target markets will help us evaluate the relative worth of each of the card's unique features. Matrox's stated target markets for the P750 essentially break down into four distinct areas.

At the top of Matrox's hit list for the P750 are 2D workstations that will benefit from the card's TripleHead support. The P750's 3D performance shouldn't matter much at all for 2D workstations, but the P750 does bring TripleHead down to a more affordable price point.

Because Matrox has traditionally targeted business users, I was a little surprised to see that the P750 is also positioned in home entertainment market. The P750 probably won't offer much in the way of gaming performance, but a high-quality TV output could make the card attractive for those looking to put together media-centric PCs.

Digital video editing workstations are another target for the P750. Video quality and multimonitor features will be particularly important for this market

Matrox's final target for the P750 is entry level 3D rendering and CAD workstations. Image quality and multimonitor features should be important to all workstation users, but 3D performance will also come into play for the 3D workstation crowd.

With clear targets defined, we can judge the Millennium P750 against the competition it's likely to face. Of course, that's not going to stop us from throwing a few games at the card, but before we get into that, let's look over some of the P750's features.

Parhelia lite
The Millennium P750 GPU is basically a cut-down version of Matrox's high-end Parhelia chip, which we've covered in the past. The two chips are nearly identical feature-wise, but the Millennium P750 has fewer functional units. Here's a quick cheat sheet on the P750 GPU:

  • Parhelia divided by two — Chop a Parhelia in half, and you've pretty much got a Millennium P750. The P750 has the same pixel pipelines with quad texturing units per pipe, five-stage pixel shaders, and DirectX 9-class vertex shaders as Parhelia, but only half as many of each. In total, Parhelia has four pixel pipelines, four pixel shaders, and four vertex shaders. The P750 has two pixel pipes, two pixel shaders, and two vertex shaders.

    The one-half rule also applies in the memory department. The Millennium P750 comes with a 128-bit memory bus and 64MB of memory. Parhelia has a 256-bit memory bus and is available with 128MB or 256MB of memory.

    Clock for clock, the Millennium P750 should be roughly half as fast as Parhelia, whose core and memory clock speeds are 200MHz and 500MHz, respectively. However, Matrox won't divulge the Millennium P750's core or memory clock speeds, which makes handicapping the card's real-world performance more difficult. Matrox's marketing materials claim the Millennium P750 is a little less than half as fast as Parhelia in 3D applications, which suggests the Millennium P750's clock speeds are at least a little lower than Parhelia's.

  • AGP 8X — The Millennium P750 might be half as endowed as Parhelia in most categories, but with AGP 8X, P750 offers twice as much AGP bandwidth as Parhelia, which is limited to AGP 4X.

  • DirectX 8.1 with a dash of 9 — The Millennium P750's five-stage pixel shaders meet the DirectX 8 pixel shader 1.3 spec, but the card's DirectX 9-class vertex shaders meet the same vertex shader 2.0 standard as those in ATI's R3x0 chips. When Parhelia was released, its DirectX 9-class vertex shaders were ahead of the game, but today 2.0 vertex shaders are common.

  • Fragment antialiasing — Parhelia's 16X fragment antialiasing is available on the P750 and remains a unique antialiasing technique among mainstream graphics cards. The P750's edge-only fragment antialiasing works at a 16X sample size that all but eliminates jaggies. For CAD applications that use untextured or wireframe 3D models, fragment antialiasing should look gorgeous and be very efficient.

  • GigaColor — Like Parhelia, the Millennium P750 supports 10 bits of precision in its red, green, and blue color channels throughout the rendering pipeline and right on through the RAMDACs. In 32-bit GigaColor mode, Matrox scales back alpha channel precision from eight to two bits. That's generally an acceptable tradeoff, because 2D desktop applications don't use the alpha channel.

    GigaColor's 10 bits of precision per color channel yields 1024 shades of red, green, and blue each that can be mixed and matched to produce over one billion colors. Standard 32-bit color, which has 8 bits of precision per color channel, yields a comparatively unimpressive 256 shades of red, green, and blue for only 16.7 million colors.

    Windows doesn't natively support 10-bits per color channel on the desktop; the sexy high-precision floating-point data types in the new ATI and NVIDIA cards require DirectX 9's 3D graphics API. Matrox's drivers enable GigaColor mode in Windows, but (non-3D) applications also have to be patched in order to support GigaColor. Thus far, Matrox has released a GigaColor viewer for Photoshop, but I'm not aware of any other applications that support the technology.

    Before you get too excited about GigaColor, there are a couple of things to note. First, GigaColor doesn't work with stretched desktops across multiple monitors. Since TripleHead only supports three monitors via a stretched desktop, it's completely incompatible with GigaColor. GigaColor is also available on the Millennium P650, which runs about $70 cheaper than the P750, but lacks the P750's TripleHead support.

  • Glyph Antialiasing — Text quality snobs will no doubt appreciate the P750's Glyph Antialiasing feature, which handles font antialiasing in hardware. Glyph Antialiasing is gamma corrected, and users can even set their own gamma preference levels for text. I've been using Glyph Antialiasing for a while now, and it's definitely a nice feature for anyone who's staring at on-screen text for hours on end.

  • Video features — Just like Parhelia, the P750 supports dual, gamma-corrected hardware overlays with hue, saturation, contrast, and brightness control. The card supports 10-bit per channel DVD playback, too, which should interest those looking to build high-fidelity home theater PCs.

  • Extra drivers — Matrox offers its own Red Hat Linux drivers for the P750. Matrox's web site also provides links to a number of third-party drivers for alternative operating systems. Matrox also supplies a number of "certified" drivers for various CAD and 3D applications, but the P750 has certified drivers for significantly fewer applications than Parhelia.

    Parhelia's certified driver support advantage isn't just because the P750 is new. According to its website, Matrox has no plans to certify P750 drivers for application niches like plant & process design, geographic information systems (GIS), or digital content creation. Also, Matrox only plans to certify drivers for a handful of mechanical computer-aided design (MCAD) and architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) apps, probably because the P750 is considered an entry-level card.

The Millennium P750's GPU in all its understated glory.
Well, OK, it's a metal cap.