Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 144 / SEPTEMBER 1992 / PAGE S5

How to upgrade your color graphics card. (Compute's Getting Started with Power Computing) (Buyers Guide)
by Steven Anzovin

For years, PC users were locked into a dull world of 16 colors while Mac and Amiga owners were free to experiment with thousands and even millions of hues. "Who needs all those colors anyway," we grumbled, "when all I'm using are spreadsheet and word processing programs?" But today we use PCs for much more: color desktop publishing, multimedia, and graphic art, not to mention playing games that can display stunning, high-resolution graphics. For these applications, plain vanilla VGA just doesn't cut it.

In the last year or so, a world of glorious PC color has opened up for those willing to go beyond VGA. The problem is finding the post-VGA color video card that's right for you. Popular and inexpensive SuperVGA (SVGA) is the widely supported successor to VGA.

Higher up the scale are the moderately priced high-color video cards and pricey, top-of-the-line true-color cards that can display millions of colors. Upgrading the color capabilities of your PC can be a confusing business, what with all the competing choices out there. The process will be easier if you understand how desktop color works.

Connect the Dots

Pixel-depth and resolution are the two fundamental and interdependent aspects of a color display model such as VGA. Pixel-depth is the term for the number of bits available for the color information of each pixel (a pixel is the smallest dot the video card can display, and it can be only one color at a time).

For example, standard 640-by-480-pixel VGA offers a 4-bit pixel depth, which means each pixel can be one of 16 colors. (The total number of colors a video card can display at one time equals 2 to the power of the number of bits per pixel; thus, 2 to the 4th power is 16.) The higher the bit-depth, the more colors you can see on the screen. SVGA cards offer 8-bit pixel depth and 256 onscreen colors; highcolor cards offer 1 5 or 16-bit color and up to 65,536 onscreen colors. The 24-bit true-color cards display a glorious 16.7 million colors--about 8 times as many colors as the human eye can distinguish--though processing 24 bits for each pixel can really bog down your CPU.

Resolution is the total number of pixels displayed on the screen. In standard VGA, there are 640 pixels across the screen and 480 pixels down, so VGA has a resolution of 640 x 480. More advanced video cards offer higher resolutions, such as 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768 pixels, but usually at a price--the more pixels on the screen, the fewer bits available for each one, and thus the fewer colors each pixel can be. Cards with lots of onboard video memory--at least 1MB, and up to 2MB at the high end--can display more colors at higher resolutions.

Then there are compatibility issues. No video card will work without a driver that's compatible with your software. Because there are no generally accepted driver standards for SVGA or the other display models(the VESA standard is just beginning to catch on for SVGA), each card manufacturer provides special drivers for major DOS applications. Most cards also come with a Windows driver that any Windows software--and that includes the majority of the hot new color programs--can. use. Keep in mind that few applications other than image processors or paint programs can display thousands or millions of colors even if you have a high- or true-color card properly installed. Another point to consider is whether your current hardware can keep up with the upgrade. High-and true-color 'images require lots of RAM and disk storage, a fast 386 or 486 to handle all those bits, and a compatible multiscanning monitor--preferably a large-screen monitor if you'll be working at high resolutions.

Putting on the Shades

Once you have the capabilities of the various video display standards clear in your mind, the last and most important question to ask is: "What do I need color for?" If games and standard Windows applications are all you'll be running, then any good SVGA video card with 256 colors will do. The most affordable is the Everex Standard VGA (Everex Systems, 48431 Milmont Drive, Fremont, California 94538; 830-821 -0806) for the amazingly low price of $98. It works well with 800 x 600 SVGA monitors, but you have to get the software drivers from Everex separately.

Also recommended is the Video Seven VRAM II Headland Technology, 46221 Landing Parkway, Fremont, California 94538; 415-623-7857), a solid performer at $499.

Graphic artists, multimedia producers, animators, and others who need lots of colors but want to keep their expenses down should turn to high-color, which offers the best combination of colors, resolutions, and price. Most of these cards cost about the same as midrange SVGA cards. Check out the Diamond SpeedStar HiColor (Diamond Computer, 532 Mercury Drive, Sunnyvale, California 94086; 408-736-2000; $299) and the ATI Wonder XL (ATI, 3761 Victoria Park Avenue, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada; 416-756-718; $399).

For serious desktop publishers and professional artists, however, true-color and ultra-high resolutions are the only way to go. Nearly all such cards list for more than $2000; one that squeaks just under this line is the Opta Monoline (Opta, 2525 East Bayshore Road, Palo Alto, California 94303; 415-354-1120; $1,995). Unlike many true-color cards, the Opta is also a VGA card, so you can use it at all resolutions and bit-depths--truly a versatile, piece of hardware.

Just as we go to press, Media Vision has announced its new Thunder and Lightning board (Media Vision, 47221 Fremont Boulevard, Fremont, California 94538; 800-348-7116; $349). It combines a sound card with a 24-bit color graphics adapter that can display 16.7 million colors at 640 x 480, 65,536 colors at 800 x 600 and 256 colors at 1024 x 768. Looks like high-end color is about to become a reality for millions of budget-minded consumers.