ProFormance III

Graphics cards – especially 24-bit ones – used to be the stuff of dreams, attainable only by power users with extremely deep pockets. Luckily with the proliferation of cheap graphics chipsets, high-end graphics power that would have been unthinkable only three years ago is now within everyone’s reach. The new ProFormance III card from Formac is a case in point. Only eight months after releasing the highly acclaimed ProFormance II Lightning, the German company has brought out a new card based on the Permedia 3 chip, replacing the Number Nine Imagine 128/III chip in the previous card. All change
The card tested sports 16MB SGRAM against 8MB VRAM in the ProFormance II, a 270MHz RAMDAC chip as opposed to 220MHz in the Lightning – the RAMDAC is the part of the card that handles digital-to-analogue conversions. Versions of the card with 32MB SGRAM will be available later in the year, but as there are no slots, a 16MB can’t be directly upgraded to a 32MB. Physically the card is also much smaller than its predecessor and has a lower chipcount, which helps to keep costs down. The graphics processor now sports a cooling fan, a result of itsincreased speed and power, but probably the moststriking difference is the addition of a small piggy-back digital interface that can drive flat-panel displays with a digital input – notably the 1600 SW from Silicon Graphics. The new 16MB VRAM supplied doesn’t really increase the highest resolutions, although some weird possible resolutions are listed – an unusable 1 ,920-x-1,080at 51Hz, for example. The usable ceiling is still a massive 1,600-x-1,024 at 90Hz, with the extramemoryacting as a texture buffer. Installation is simply a matter of dropping the card into its PCI slot – ease, of course, varying depending on which model of Mac you have – putting the GA control panel into its folder, and restarting. The Control panel itself lets you access all the functions of the Monitors control panel, such as setting start-up monitors and menubar placement in multi-monitor setups. A new Monitors tab also attempts to set up your configuration to the optimum resolution/scan frequency setting, although this can also be overridden. A few more features of varying usefulness are included such as Gamma control – very useful – others features include a screen saver, Hardware Pan and Zoom and font caching, which speeds up text scrolling. Also worth noting, enabling the font cache doesn’t interfere with system-wide anti-aliased text in System 8.5/8.6 as previously. Three main types of acceleration are employed: QuickDraw, QuickDraw 3D and QuickTime. Standard 2D QuickDraw showed a slight improvement, with the Norton System info turning in a graphics score of 340 versus the ProFormance II Lightning’s 302 – a respectable, if slight 13 per cent improvement. More impressive was the QuickTime acceleration. Playing a 43MB QuickTime movie was noticeably smoother. In fact, setting up a dual-monitor system with a ProFormance III and a ProFormance II Lightning, we could see the frame stepping introduced as the movie was dragged across to the monitor with the slower card. Motion blur
Even more impressive was the QuickDraw 3D acceleration. Using the same dual-monitor setup, the Apple Gerbils app (with all effects) on recorded a frame rate of between 45 and 60 fps with the Lightning. With the ProFormance III the frame rate counter was a blur, but seemed to vary between a truly startling 130 and 160 fps. The time taken to play a 200-frame fully shaded preview animation in LightWave 3D was more than halved: one minute 24 seconds for the Lightning against 54 seconds for the ProFormance III. Clearly the new Permedia 3 chip needs its cooling fan. As a comparison we tried the same preview animation with the Mac OpenGL version of LightWave and there was no difference between the two cards – not surprising, since the OpenGL drivers aren’t ready yet. What was surprising is that the unaccelerated OpenGL version was more less the same speed as the ProFormance III accelerated QuickDraw 3D. This clearly makes a case for getting the OpenGL drivers out of the door as quickly as possible. At the present moment there are a few licensing matters to be sorted out, but Formac in Germany assured us that the drivers should be ready by mid July at the latest.

OUR VERDICT

Finally, the digital interface for flat-panel monitors was tested with the amazing Silicon Graphics 1600 SW LCD. It worked without a hitch, driving the display at rock-solid 1,600-x-1,024, wide-screen resolution. It is also likely to work with the new Apple Cinema Display, which is expected to be functionally the same as the SGI model. A VESA option is also available for other brands of flat-panel displays. One thing to note is that even though there are two outputs on the card, they can’t be used for mirroring since the 50Hz frequency of the LCD screen is unwatchable on a CRT. However, it must be said that using a dual-monitor setup of a Formac 19/500 CRT and SGI 1600 flat panel is about as good as it gets, and at £199 for the 16MB option the value is pretty amazing.

Find the best price