Welcome to the third dimension
There's a profitable niche in add-on graphics and sound cards. The buzzword is 3D and it's going to be big this year. While games are driving the market, other areas of interest such as professional music and graphics account for good sales levels. To come to terms with the developments in the 3D graphics and sound card market in this country, Australian Reseller News' Durelle Fry spoke with Paul Corning, country manager of Diamond Multimedia, and Kamil Gurgen, the newly appointed marketing manager of Creative PacificDiamond Multimedia's country manager, Paul Corning, explained that after last year's transition into 3D graphics and the combination of 2D and 3D into one chipset, the company is now in the middle of an AGP (accelerated graphics port) transition.
DVD technology has been placed on the back burner while a market for it slowly develops. Diamond has placed "a toe in the water" with DVD, but it is not prepared to commit heavily to this technology until it is clear there is a growth market.
New technologies have been developed for PCs in both graphics and audio and Corning highlights the transition from PCI to AGP for 3D graphics because using this technology, users can experience the same textures and lighting on the monitor as they would in a natural environment. Corning believes that people want their computers "to emulate life as much as possible". PCI on the other hand is becoming the new standard for audio, according to Corning, because gamers want to expand their perception of the game.
When discussing the future of 3D graphics, Corning said that Diamond's Monster card "started moving" when the software became available. By the same standard, he believes that sales of 3D graphics will grow as the software becomes available. In the business environment, 3D graphics will be used to put a point across more realistically and Corning believes that future versions of Microsoft Office will bring 3D features into its software.
The gaming market has been growing at the same high rate since its beginning, according to Corning, and gamers are now upgrading from earlier products. He says the market is very sophisticated about specifications and technology because of specialist publications and the Internet. This level of knowledge about new products and technologies leads about 10 to 20 per cent of gamers to upgrade every few months, and many others to upgrade as soon as a new package is available. Diamond research has discovered the gamers in the market are more likely to be 24Ð35 years of age with more disposable income, instead of 12Ð17 year olds as was once thought.
Where is the market headed?
In developing its product mix for this market, Corning concluded that Diamond "has focused on power users who care about the individual components of their systems - they want the fastest of everything and they want to upgrade it continually".
Creative Pacific's marketing manager Kamil Gurgen told ARN the future for PC audio lies in multi-directional digital sound reproduction. "Creative has been busy with the next generation of audio cards incorporating Dolby Digital (AC-3) output." This is the same technology, Gurgen says, that is utilised in the Creative PC-DVD Kit "and also at your local cinema complex".
"Dolby Digital offers six discreet audio channels - perfect for multi-dimensional reproduction. This will bring closer the accepted thinking that the PC and home entertainment will merge," said Gurgen.
And will the 3D graphics market move beyond gamers into business software? Gurgen noted the gaming community has led the way with "most of the razzle-dazzle that has now been incorporated into business presentations". Examples are video, audio, MIDI and navigation. Gurgen says there is no doubt that 3D graphics will move into business software: "It's just a matter of the software developers making use of the existing hardware."
Creative believes the next 12 months will see "even greater strides" in both video and audio technology. This has been confirmed, Gurgen says, by the demand for such Creative products as the 3D Blaster Voodoo2 Graphics Card and the new Sound Blaster PCI 64. "This demand has been led with the introduction of the Voodoo2 chip by 3Dfx and by the migration of the users to multi-directional PCI audio," he said. Gurgen adds that this trend will continue and will be joined by DVD by Q3 1998.
On the next couple of pages are some of the new 3D sound card and 3D graphics products that are arriving on the market.
Multiwave Innovation is a Singapore-based PC multimedia product manufacturer specialising in software modems and DSP modems, PCI entry level and mid-range sound cards, and Internet videoconferencing units. The company is keen to establish its presence in the Australian/New Zealand market.
Multiwave Innovation is a subsidiary of two major public listed companies in Singapore - Uraco and NatSteel Electronics. Uraco is Seagate's hard disk drive die-casting supplier and NatSteel is the world's sixth largest electronics contract manufacturer.
The AudioWave PCI DigitalSound Card from Multiwave Innovation has the technology and processing power to accelerate and enhance all DirectSound and DirectSound 3D functions. The product implements a single-chip PCI audio solution which can work in Windows 95 as well as legacy DOS mode. The dynamic range is over 80dB, complying with Microsoft PC97/PC98 specifications.
Incorporated is a microcontroller; ESFM music synthesiser; 3D stereo effects processor; 16-bit stereo wave ADC and DAC; 16-bit stereo music DAC; MPU-401 UART mode serial port; dual game port; DMA control logic with FIFO; and PCI bus interface logic. There are two stereo inputs (typically line-in, CD audio), a mono microphone input, and one stereo output (line-out).
The card can record, compress, and play back voice, sound and music, and features programmable independent sample rates from 4KHz up to 48KHz for record and playback, as well as full duplex operation for simultaneous record and playback.
The card supports PC games and applications for Sound Blaster and Sound Blaster Pro, and supports the Microsoft Windows Sound System.
Recently the card has been awarded Microsoft's WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Labs) Compatibility listing, and has been proved to work under Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 successfully.
The RRP of the AudioWave PCI DigitalSound card is $66.
The Australian distributors are:
Tel (02) 9418 3322
Fax (02) 9418 3833
Tel (03) 9419 6600
Fax (03) 9417 5799
Tel (02) 9642 2610
Fax (02) 9642 2919
Tech-Excel distribution offers the following 3D graphics cards for a number of different sectors of the market.
Leadtek 3D S800. Designed for the "edutainment" market, Leadtek's 3D S800 card provides DVD playback integrated with 3D graphics acceleration.
The card is a hardware DVD solution which operates on low spec Pentium processor-based PCs. The minimum requirement is a Pentium 166MHz processor. The MPEG-2 video playback standard is supported and true-surround Dolby Digital sound is offered.
The 3D S800 can play back wide- screen movie format pictures or standard format, and supports multi-angle DVD view scenes.
The product is licensed to play back all digital content without area limitations.
Additional features include 8MB RDRAM memory; 230MHz RAM DAC.
Bundled software includes 3D/FX from Asymetrix; RealiMation STE (Demo) from Datapath; Microsoft Internet Explorer; Digital Video Producer from Asymetrix; VRCreator from Platinum; and VDOLive Video Player from VDOnet.
The RRP of Leadtek's 3D S800 is $370.
Leadtek Winfast 3D L2500. The L2500 for graphics professionals delivers workstation-class graphics performance for the CAD, multimedia authoring, and high-end graphics and animation markets.
The main graphics processor provides full hardware acceleration for 3D rendering operations such as Gouraud shading, depth buffering, texture mapping and alpha blending.
An on-board delta geometry engine locally processes all calculations, minimising the CPU workload.
The L2500 is compatible with software standards such as OpenGL, Heidi and Direct3D.
The RRP of the Leadtek 3D L2500 is $1570.
Asustek AGP-V2740. This product for high-end gamers provides 3D video and is powered by Intel's new i740 accelerator with Hyper Pipelined architecture.
The accelerator features precise pixel interpolation for a high level of image quality; parallel data processing for consistent 3D acceleration; and direct memory execution for more efficient use of memory, leading to higher resolution and better quality graphics.
The AGP-V2740 features an AGP 2x mode interface which offers high bandwidth data transfer of up to 532MBps. This compares with an AGP 1x rate of 266MBps, or a traditional PCI rate of 133Mbps.
Minimum requirements for the AGP-V2740 are an Intel Pentium II processor and Microsoft Windows 95 or NT 4.0 operating systems.
The RRP of the Asustek AGP-V2740 is $260.
Tel (02) 9417 7898
Fax (02) 9417 3417
Aztech is a publicly-listed company based in Singapore that has been established since 1986. Sales and manufacturing operations are currently in the US, Europe, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
The key features of Aztech's PCI 338-A3D sound card include 3D positional sound, professional studio-quality 64-voice wavetable synthesis, PCI audio accelerator and high-fidelity audio performance - the signal/noise ratio exceeds 93dB.
The sound card meets all the requirements of Microsoft PC 98 specifications and exceeds the current requirements set for Microsoft PC 98 Advanced Audio. The card is compliant with Intel's AC 97 for high-quality audio. The frequency response is 20Hz to 20KHz, and the harmonic distortion is about 0.003 per cent.
The Aztech PCI 338-A3D accelerates DirectSound and DirectSound3D enabling multiple streaming of .WAV files and digital mixing. It also supports legacy audio of existing DOS-compatible games. The card is compatible with major sound cards including Sound Blaster and Sound Blaster Pro. It is midi-compatible with MPU401 UART interface, providing a choice of MIDI connections to musical keyboards and drum machines for recording and playback. It also supports the general MIDI standard to ensure accurate reproduction of professionally produced MIDI files.
The sound card supports Plug and Play and is designed to work in Windows 95, Windows NT 4.0, Real-Mode DOS environments and is Windows 98 ready. The card is being marketed to both OEMs and end users.
The Aztech PCI 338-A3D sound card is available this month from Aztech's Australian distributor, Westan, at an RRP of $115.
Tel (03) 9563 6775
Fax (03) 9563 6836
Datawell is the Australian distributor of DataExpert products.
The distributor has announced three new products:
ExpertColor DIT5740. This 3D AGP graphic card is based on Intel's i740 chipset. 8MB SDRAM, and 2D and 3D graphics features are combined in the card, which comes with a DB-15 analog monitor connector, VMI connector, a feature connector, and optional RCA and S-Video output.
The hardware is DVD MPEGII-capable and the software is DVD MPEGII-ready. Video capture support is 16-bit or 8-bit; there is a full bi-directional VMI CCIR601 video port; programmable video output characteristics for VGA and SVGA; full motion video; video conferencing support; intercast and VBI support; and NTSC and optional PAL TV out support.
The 3D API graphics card is compatible with Windows and DOS with full Direct 3D and OpenGL support.
The DIT5740 is available for an RRP of $198 (ex tax).
ExpertColor DPM5020 AGP Graphic Card. The card features 3D Labs Permedia II 3D Chipset and has 4MB SGRAM which is upgradeable to 8MB SGRAM. Applications for the card include PC games, multimedia animations, presentation, authoring, personal CAD/CAM, virtual reality and virtual web browsing. It integrates 2D and 3D acceleration and advanced video processing.
3D acceleration is provided with 100Mflop Geometry Pipeline Processor, and the Windows 95 Plug and Play accelerator has VESA DDC1/DDC2AB+ support.
The DPM5020 is available now at an RRP of $168 (ex tax).
MED6617 S3 Audio Sonic Vibes 3D Full-Duplex Wavetable 32-bit PCI sound card. The MED6617 includes an S3 SonicVibes PCI 3D SRS Surround Audio Accelerator; S3 InfiniPatch, a sound palette for Microsoft DirectMusic API; and professional PCI audio for Internet, games, business and entertainment.
The card is compatible with Sound Blaster Pro games utilising distributed DMA, DOS applications and Windows. Wavetable music synthesis, FM synthesis and an audio codec are integrated onto a single-chip solution. Features include a speed compensation joystick interface, stereo auxiliary inputs and 3D Surround.
The MED6617 is available now at an RRP of $69 (ex tax).
Tel (02) 9748 8688
Fax: (02) 9748 8688
Sound Blaster PCI 64. Sound Blaster PC I64 is designed by Creative for "the home user, gamer, or multimedia enthusiast". Using up to four speakers at once, the card uses the PCI bus for less CPU overhead, and for music playback, the synthesis engine provides 64 voices of wavetable sounds. The product works with the existing base of MS-DOS and Windows titles.
Features include a Creative synthesis engine; digital effects engine for reverb and chorus; 64-voice polyphony and multi-timbral capability; 16 midi channels, 128 GM- and GS- compatible instruments and 10 drum kits; MT-31 compatible instrument set; 2MB, 4MB and 8MB sample sets included; 3D audio technology in two- and four-speaker mode; a memory subsystem which is user configurable for 2MB, 4MB or 8MB; CD-quality, 16-bit stereo digital audio; MIDI interface/joystick port; and five on-board connectors.
Bundled software includes Microsoft NetMeeting, Creative Inspire, Creative Multimedia Deck, and Creative WaveStudio.
The RRP of Creative Sound Blaster PC I64 is $249.
3D Blaster Voodoo2 Graphics Accelerator Card. There are two versions of this card which is based on the Voodoo2 Graphics chipset from 3Dfx Interactive, a 12MB version and an 8MB version.
Both models include high-speed, single-cycle DRAM and deliver three million triangles per second as well as 90 million dual-textured, bilinear-filtered, per-pixel MIP-mapped, alpha-blended, Z-buffered pixels per second.
The RRP of the 12MB version is $699, while the 8MB version is $499.
Graphics Blaster Exxtreme. Based on the Permedia2 graphics engine from 3D Labs, Graphics Blaster Exxtreme has been designed with full support for all the major 3D standards -- OpenGL, Direct3D, and Heidi. The product is upgradeable to Creative's DynamicExtended Resolution (Dxr2) PC-DVD playback or video and TV output.
The product provides 2D, 3D and enhanced video playback for all graphics applications, and 4MB of SGRAM and a 230MHz DAC.
Features of the Permedia2 graphics engine include hardware texture mapping, bilinear filtering, true per-pixel perspective correction, texture caching, and complete triangle setup processing.
The Graphics Blaster Exxtreme has dedicated hardware acceleration of OpenGL under both Windows 95 and Windows NT.
Creative offers a three-year limited warranty covering parts and labour.
The RRP of Graphics Blaster Exxtreme is $249 for 4MB and $499 for 8MB. Each of the above products from Creative is "ready to ship".
Tel (02) 9906 8887
Fax (02) 9906 5577
Focal Point Computing
Matrox Productiva G100. The Productiva 8MB AGP is powered by 8MB of SDRAM for 2D, 3D and video. Australian distributor Focal Point Computing believes the new Matrox MGA-G100 chip offers higher-quality video playback and better 3D performance than previous MGA graphics controllers. The MGA-G100 chip integrates a 230MHz DAC for refresh rates up to 85Hz at resolutions of 1600 x 1200.
The Productiva is available in an AGP and PCI with 8MB SDRAM for the retail market, and a 4MB SGRAM model is available at the entry level for system assemblers.
The RRP of the Matrox Productiva G100 8MB AGP is $270.
Focal Point Computing
Tel (03) 9525 1144
Fax (03) 9525 1925
Monster Sound Audio Accelerators. Diamond has introduced two PCI-based audio solutions to the Monster Sound family of positional 3D audio accelerators. The products include Monster Sound model M80, targeted at gamers, mainstream PC users and Internet users; and Monster Sound model MX200, a feature-rich product optimised with additional high-end features "for avid PC gaming enthusiasts".
The Monster Sound accelerators take advantage of the latest Windows 95/98 3D computer games developed for Microsoft's DirectSound and DirectSound 3D application programming interfaces (APIs) and Aureal Semiconductor's A3D API.
Also provided in the Monster Sound line is multi-stream audio processing (up to 23 independent CD-quality audio streams simultaneously), which is necessary for new PC games that use multi-track positional audio and special effects to create a "more intense 3D gaming experience".
The model M80 features full PCI acceleration, bundled software, hardware wavetable synthesis and high-quality playback through two speakers or headphones.
Monster Sound MX200 offers a "true" 64-voice hardware wavetable synthesiser providing studio-quality playback for midi-intensive game soundtracks. The wavetable synthesis is entirely hardware-based. The MX200 features audio playback capability through two to four speakers and headphones.
The RRP of the Monster Sound model M80 is $239, and the Monster Sound model MX200 is $549 for the 8MB version and $749 for the 12MB version.
Sonic Impact S70. This PCI-based audio accelerator has been designed for high-quality multimedia, music, Internet and gaming audio. Features include an advanced 64-voice hardware wavetable, hardware acceleration of DirectSound, and support for DirectSound3D and real-mode DOS legacy software.
The multi-stream audio feature accelerates up to 32 independent CD-quality audio streams at the same time. Each CD-quality digital stream carries an array of sound and effects simultaneously. The 32 streams are processed by Sonic Impact, reducing dropped or delayed sounds.
Sonic Impact S70 accelerates Microsoft's DirectSound and supports DirectSound3D, the audio standards built into Windows 95/98. Operating systems supported include real-mode DOS, Windows 95/98 and Windows NT 4.0.
The 64-voice advanced hardware wavetable supports DLS (downloadable samples) to take full advantage of Microsoft's DirectMusic.
The product delivers more than 90dB signal-to-noise ratio and records and plays back CD-quality sound. Sonic Impact is General MIDI compatible for playback of any standard MIDI file. The user can take advantage of live Internet broadcasts and 3D audio on the web in full-fidelity, and full-duplex stereo sound allows the user to take advantage of new Internet telephony applications.
Sonic Impact S70 has a three-year warranty and is available now at an RRP of $199.
Stealth II G460 Graphics Accelerator. This product features AGP 2x performance for mainstream Pentium II processor-based PC users. The Diamond Stealth II G460 is powered by the Inteli740 graphics controller and provides high-quality 2D, 3D and digital video playback performance. The product is Diamond's first AGP 2x graphics accelerator and is due to ship this month.
The Stealth II G460 features Diamond's own drivers and hardware design and incorporates powerful 3D acceleration features, high-quality 2D acceleration and advanced MPEG-1 video playback for PCs running under Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0. Plans for Windows 98 are being developed.
The product uses Intel's Hyper Pipelined 3D feature set: Precise Pixel Interpolation for enhanced visual effects, Parallel Data Processing for more efficient use of the graphics pipeline, and Direct Memory Execution for fast storage and execution of large 3D textures in system memory.
Stealth II features true AGP 2x support for PC games and business applications written to DirectX 5.0, including Direct 3D and OpenGL (Windows NT) APIs.
3D functions accomplished include bilinear and trilinear filtering, MIP mapping, anti-aliasing, flat shading, Gouraud shading, perspective correction and Z-buffering for rich, detailed 3D imaging.
In 2D graphics, the product is equipped with a 203MHz DAC, and supports resolutions up to 1600 x 1200 and true colour resolutions up to 1024 x 768 to enhance speed and colours for desktop publishing and general business software. Users can customise their desktops (resolutions, refresh rates and colour depths) on the fly - without rebooting - using Diamond's InControl Tools 95.
Stealth II G460 is upgradeable to PCI DVD with a Diamond DVD kit and, in conjunction with the Diamond DTV 2000 TV tuner, can provide scalable, full-screen TV and video capture on the PC.
The RRP of the Stealth II G460 is yet to be announced, but it is expected to be under $US200.
Diamond Multimedia products are distributed in Australia by Chips and Bits, which supports other distributors.
Chips and Bits Australia
Tel (03) 9696 1911
Fax (03) 9696 1942
First look: two 3D PCI sound cards
by Durelle Fry and Paul Zucker
Remember the days when one of the reasons a PC needed a sound card was to control the CD-drive? Things have moved on a long way since then, but you may be excused for wondering why customers are asking for the latest 3D sound cards, and what they'll get for their money.
The two cards we've looked at here are PCI bus, and that alone makes them stand out from what we're used to. We installed them on both Win 95 and Win 98 (release candidate 2). In fact neither of them is designed to operate under Win 3.x or Dos in other than Sound Blaster emulation.
The Diamond card installed perfectly under both systems but we couldn't get the Aztech card to work in 3D mode under Win 98. Aztech said proper Win 98 drivers will be available soon. While the Aztech claims to be everything you'll ever need in an audio card, the Diamond will run in parallel with an existing audio card using a simple mini-jack patch cable to get the signal from the existing card. Actually, simple is far from the right word because the cable is a ridiculously fancy Monster brand cable which would probably cost $30 if you bought it separately. We took out the old card and found that all applications (DOS and Windows) worked well.
Both cards have impressive specifications. Their big claim to fame is being able to run Microsoft DirectX DirectSound and Direct-Sound 3D and Aureal A3D APIs with onboard processing, apparently taking this burden from the system processor. Just how intensive this is we can't say. What we can say is that the demo software is quite impressive. Using a pair of mid-level amplified speakers we were able to hear the auditory illusion that a sound source was moving right around our heads.
While both cards come with comprehensive utilities, midi players and so on, the Diamond card includes two extra disks with full commercial games.
Because the 3D sound is based on subtle changes in level and phase, we found that the card setup asks you to specify whether your speakers are in the monitor (or PC) or widely separated, or if you're using headphones. It's quite uncanny to hear footsteps coming up behind you, while playing Jedi Knight, as you're hiding in what you thought was a good sniper's nest.
Aztech PCI 338-A3D 3D sound card
This PCI 3D sound card is one of the first on the market. It promises much more exciting gaming, CD playing and music generation. Its specs include: positional sound, professional studio quality 64-voice wavetable synthesis, PCI audio accelerator and high-fidelity audio performance - the signal/noise ratio exceeds 93dB. Specs on p44.
Pros: Works well with the latest 3D games; sounds good; isn't too expensive; and has an impressive list of specificationsCons: Ho-hum packaging; could have some more bundled software (games); board looks a little roughPrice: $115 RRPWestanTel (03) 9563 6775Fax (03) 9563 6836Diamond Monster Sound MX80Like the Aztech, this card has full PCI acceleration, bundled software, hardware wavetable synthesis and high-quality playback through two speakers or headphones.
Pros: Good looking, bright box; lots of bundled software and gimmicks in the box; it installed perfectly, first time on both Win 95 and 98. It coexists with an existing sound card, though we couldn't find any reasons for itCons: Twice the price of the Aztech card which essentially does the same thingPrice: $239 RRPChips and Bits AustraliaTel (03) 9696 1911Fax (03) 9696 1942ENDS FEATURE