Installing the card is simple enough, but as with other Matrox installations, you should cancel Windows' automatic prompting for the drivers and install everything directly from the CD. The numerous programs necessary for using the card's features are all on this CD, and you'll go through several reboots before everything is ready to roll. Still, we encountered no installation difficulties. The card is compatible with Windows 98, Me, 2000, XP Home, and XP Professional.
Two reasons to see you again
There are two primary reasons to consider this card. First, you get DualHead technology, which means that you can use two displays at the same time, such as two CRTs, one CRT and one LCD (analog or digital), or a TV with a CRT or an LCD. The adapters necessary for these connections are included.
Lots of home users have a second monitor sitting around. Plug it into the second VGA port on the G550, and you instantly give yourself some viewing options: a place for a browser window that you don't want to close, an encyclopedia entry that you're using in conjunction with an open Word document, a separate screen for the DVD movie you're playing, or a dedicated area for your chat windows. For many business users, multiple displays have become essential, and the G550 provides greater flexibility in working with two displays (the displays can be run at different resolutions, for example).
A second reason to consider this card is the fact that it incorporates Matrox's newest feature, the HeadCasting engine. This engine allows you to project a high-resolution 3D animation of your face and head over a LAN or the Internet, which another G550 user can see in the same resolution or a non-G550 user can view in a lower resolution. You create an image of your head by using the included DigiMask software to compile two digital photographs--one of the front of your face and the second of one side of your head. Another piece of included software, LipSinc's HeadFone, works with the HeadCasting system to animate the lips of the face when the user speaks into a microphone attached to the PC. The result is a kind of Max Headroom-like version of your face on the other user's screen.
My own private avatar
Matrox believes that HeadCasting provides a solution for business users who find the live video on today's Webcams to be too choppy. To be sure, HeadCasting is smooth, even over 56K dial-up connections. The G550 package provides a PowerPoint add-on that lets your DigiMask head narrate a presentation, another nod toward Matrox's business focus for this card. But it's hard to imagine important decisions being made during a videoconference using digitized heads--almost as hard as imagining important, internal, corporate communications being conducted this way. Business people tend to prefer conducting significant communications with actual people, not their avatars, no matter how realistic they may be. The animated head seems too toy-like for these uses.
The G550's 3D capabilities are poor, as CNET Labs' test results demonstrate. Despite the card's 32MB of DDR memory, the speed and the quality are below those of today's 3D-specific cards. The Millennium G550 staggered through our Quake III Arena test at a resolution of 1,028x768 with 32-bit color at 12 frames per second--about 75 percent slower than a 32MB GeForce2 card. The Millennium G550's 2D performance was very good, but still a bit below the results for both GeForce2 and GeForce3 cards. Even in 2D, however, slowdowns occur when DualHead is active; having separate resolutions on two displays cuts the speed of both to less than half of the card's capability when DualHead isn't activated. If you clone your main display onto the second display, the difference is even greater. In practice, the slowdown isn't noticeable except when the refresh rate on each monitor differs.
The G550 comes with Matrox's standard three-year parts warranty and free technical support--free except for the toll call, that is. You can call the tech-support line between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or you can access the technical support forums on the Matrox site (open 24 hours per day except on weekends, when it's unavailable from 5 p.m. Friday to 9 a.m. Monday). Should you lose the product manual, you can download it, and you can get the answers to additional questions via e-mail, fax, or the FAQs posted on the company's site. Matrox frequently upgrades its drivers and posts them on the Web, as well as offering beta drivers for more adventurous spirits.
Does the Matrox G550 offer enough in the way of usefulness and innovation to overcome its less-than-stellar performance? For many users, the answer is yes. Having two displays is a great advantage under any circumstance, and the HeadCasting feature offers the first innovation we've seen in a long time for online face-to-face communication--the first, in fact, since the introduction of Webcams and associated programs such as CUseeMe and NetMeeting. If you're a dedicated gamer or your company is capable of full videoconferencing, stay away. But anyone in the market for an inexpensive video card with substantial features should take a close look.
Editor's note: This page has been altered from its original version. Please see our .
|Quake III tests
Frames per second with 32-bit color at 1,024x768 (longer bars indicate better performance)
|eTesting Labs' Business Graphics WinMark 99 1.2 test
Measures the performance of a system's 2D graphics subsystem for 32-bit color at 1,024x768 (longer bars indicate better performance)
|The Matrox Millennium G550 was never meant to be a 3D gaming card, so it's not surprising that it bombed the Quake III test. Its 2D performance was much better, however.