Spectrum Reviews: Interactive Media & Online Developer Product/Service Reviews

16 November 1998

Written and edited by David Duberman for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send mailto:duberman@dnai.com ________________________________________ Editor's note It's been a while, but we always promised Spectrum Reviews would return some day, and now it has. We still can't promise the biweekly schedule with which this publication launched, but we'll try to keep it going more regularly from here on in. We resume with a review of Matrox's remarkable Millennium G200, an excellent 3D modeling plug-in from Digimation, a game and several books. ________________________________________

Today's Reviews (details below)

--Matrox Millennium G200 AGP Review --daVinci 3D Review --MediEvil Review

BOOKS

--Web by Design --3D Studio MAX 2 Effects Magic --Photoshop 5 Artistry --The Project Cool Guide to Enhancing Your Website --Web Pages that Suck

F.Y.I.

--About Spectrum Reviews ________________________________________ Matrox Millennium G200 AGP Review What can you say about a graphics card? When it comes to the Matrox Millennium, you can start with a bit of history. The original Millennium, introduced in 1994, was one of the first consumer-level cards to feature hardware 3D acceleration. Most of the card's silicon was developed in-house at Matrox, which until then was best known for its non-linear video editing systems. Unfortunately, hardly any application software took advantage of the Millennium's proprietary 3D hardware, partly because of a lack of standards in those days. But that was okay, because the card featured (for the time) blisteringly fast 2D graphics. It sold scads of units at retail and was OEMed for years by practically every computer maker around. Then came the Millennium II, also a big success. End of story, until earlier this year, when Matrox came out with the Millennium G200, available in 8MB and 16MB configurations, again based on a proprietary graphics accelerator chip (the G200). The G200's specs are impressive. For example, its design uses two independent 64-bit buses that operate in parallel inside the graphics chip to effectively double the raw performance of most 2D operations. According to Matrox, this 64-bit granularity means that for frequent copying of small bitmaps and fonts, the G200's performance beats that of traditional 128-bit architecture. Additionally, Dual Command Pipelining permits read and write phases of consecutive commands to be overlapped and executed simultaneously. The tests bear this out: On my system, in Ziff Davis' Business Graphics WinMark 98, the G200 returned a score of 146, and in the High-End Graphics WinMark 98, the G200 returned a score of 187. These tests were performed at 1024 x 768 and 16 bits/pixel on a Pentium II/266 with 128MB of memory. Unfortunately, I don't have anything to compare this with, but it's quite fast. Video playback tests at 320 x 240 yielded frame rates of up to 200 fps, and up to 70 fps at 640 x 480. Text is remarkably sharp and clear at all resolutions, and colors are bright and saturated. In my system, using the 8MB G200 with a ViewSonic G790 monitor, the highest resolution available at 24 bits is 1600 x 1200, and at 32 bits is 1280 x 1024, both at 75 Hz refresh rate. G200 and 3D But how is the G200 for 3D gaming? In a word, it smokes! The first game I tried out with the card was a Direct3D title, Motocross Madness from Microsoft. At 640 x 480 resolution, the action was silky smooth, with an apparent frame rate well over 30 fps. Even at 800 x 600 things looked great, although the graphics started getting a bit choppy at 1024 x 768. It works impeccably with every other D3D game I've tried, as well. In particular, Psygnosis' texture-laden G-Police, which supports AGP (the G200 uses AGP 2x), looks sensational, and loads new levels almost instantly. When I put the card through its paces with 3D Winbench, it performed admirably with a WinMark (cumulative) score of 828, again, at 1024 x 768 and 16 bits/pixel on a Pentium II/266 with 128MB of memory. Unfortunately, I was unable to compare this with any other D3D cards, but I know it's a high score. The only test it failed was Mirror Texture Addressing, and performance was weak with several Z-buffer tests, as evidenced by visible landscape seams in some games. Some of the best 3D games, based on the Quake/Quake II and Unreal engines, don't support D3D. They work primarily with OpenGL cards, and 3Dfx's Voodoo family. But Matrox has gone the extra mile and made available, on their Website, a D3D "wrapper" that maps OpenGL calls onto the Direct3D driver of the G200. This works only with games based on the Quake/Quake II engines (including Sin, just out from Activision), but does so admirably well. Running Quake II at 640 x 480, I achieved an average frame rate of 25 fps, and at 800 x 600, a still-respectable 17 fps. It also worked well with Hexen II. Some titles come out looking very dark, but fortunately the wrapper download includes a freeware utility for brightening game palettes. Because the D3D wrapper is specific to Quake-engine games, it doesn't support other applications that use OpenGL. For instance, I tried using it with 3D Studio MAX 2.5, but the program simply crashed at launch time. MAX 2.5 also supports D3D, so I tried that display option, but it didn't seem to accelerate the display. Simply 3D, which comes with the Millennium G200, can use the D3D hardware acceleration. It's fairly speedy, but again the Z-buffering problems are in evidence, with polygons jumping in front of and behind each other depending on the view angle. The card is great for games, but I wouldn't recommend it if you mainly need hardware acceleration for 3D productivity apps. As for Unreal, publisher Epic Megagames now supports D3D; check it out at http://unreal.epicgames.com/Versions.htm. It works very well with the G200. Support for these and other 3D games is available at http://www.matrox.com/mga/drivers/patch_demos/home.htm. On the downside, if your favorite game supports only 3Dfx hardware using the Glide drivers, you're out of luck. Add-on Hardware One of the keys to success in the high-tech business, whether for hardware or software, is adaptability, and the G200 features this in spades. Available add-ons include a flat panel daughter card; the Rainbow Runner video editing card with hardware Motion JPEG video capture and TV tuning; and a hardware DVD video daughter card for hardware accelerated MPEG-2 video playback. The G200 does not support MPEG-2 video playback in software. Conclusion How much for all this performance? Less than you might think. The list price for the 8MB version, bundled with several applications--Micrografx Picture Publisher, Micrografx Simply 3D, Netscape Communicator, PointCast Client, and Imagination Software IMAGinE--is $169, although you can typically find it for $20-$30 less. If you don't care about the apps, a recent search on CNET found the OEM version (without bundled software, except for control programs and drivers) at $99 from Micro X-Press (http://www.microx-press.com/online/product.asp?dept%5Fid=2300&sku=VIDMG120). If you're looking for the perfect holiday gift for your computer graphics-loving friend or relative, this is one to consider seriously. Just be sure to get the right version. Try asking a vague question, like, "So what's all this about AGP, anyway?". If the intended recipient claims not to have an AGP motherboard, get the PCI version (the G200 SD PCI, scheduled for release later this year). Find more at http://www.matrox.com/mga/ ________________________________________ daVinci 3D Review If you want to create an organic 3D shape from life, your best bet is to use one of the new laser scanners, such as Polhemus' nifty hand-held device, Minolta's portable Vivid 700, or Real 3D's RealScan. Of course, if you don't happen to have the $30K or so required to purchase one of those devices, or if you need to create an object that doesn't exist in the real world, you're back to modeling. Kinetix's 3D Studio MAX offers a number of alternatives for organic modeling, including spline-based patches and NURBS, plus Peter Watje's excellent Surface Tools plug-in. None of these is terribly easy to use, so Digimation has lowered the organic modeling learning curve with daVinci 3D, a new 3D Studio MAX plug-in developed by New Technologies. daVinci 3D's manual describes the plug-in's modeling paradigm as the creation of "minimal" surfaces: the smallest, smoothest surface that passes through its boundary conditions. You start by creating a flat membrane, which can be a rectangle, a circle or an ellipse. In wireframe views, the shape is depicted as a skein of irregular, medium-sized triangles, surrounded by a curve whose points can be manipulated by dragging them up, down or sideways. The technical term is "triangular elastic membrane surface," or TEMS. Next, you would typically add a point or a spline-like curve (the latter drawn point by point), which give you additional control over the shape of your surface. Moving a individual point away from the surface affects the membrane's shape, while a curve, by default, is "free," which means you can move it (and its points) around the membrane's surface without affecting the latter's shape or structure. But once you embed the curve into the surface, the membrane's mesh redefines itself in an intelligent way, giving greater resolution where needed at areas of greater curvature. Unfortunately, as you drag the curve, the plug-in tries to redefine the membrane in real time, slowing down feedback. It would have been preferable to give the user a "redraw on release" option for reduced response time. The embedded curve thus becomes part of the membrane's structure, and if closed can actually define a hole in the membrane. To allow a curve to actually affect a membrane's shape, you set its type to Pivot. Now, when you move the curve or its points, the membrane deforms itself in an intuitive way, forming "minimal" contours between the manipulated entity or entities and other curves and points on the membrane. If you need to be able to further shape these contours, you set the curve type to Clamp. Thereafter, you can access tangent points attached to the curve, which let you modify the membrane contours by dragging them in various directions. Once you have a Pivot or Clamp curve, you can add a child membrane inside the curve, and you can continue building in this way. Thus you can create complex hierarchical membrane objects such as a humanoid figure. Other controls let you determine the display and render precision, which affect only how the membranes display, as well as alter the underlying mesh density. You can also set which types of entities (e.g., points, curves) are visible. A membrane actually has six different types of sub-objects, and you're typically switching rapidly among them when modeling with daVinci 3D. Keyboard shortcuts would have helped make this process smoother and faster. In addition, you can add control points to curves, and clone curves. You can define a curve as a hole, trimming away the surface inside or outside the curve's bounds. daVinci 3D takes advantage of MAX's multi/sub-object material capability by letting you assign different material IDs to the area inside each curve. You can specify a curve's stiffness, which determines how flat or curvy the membrane it controls is, and use the Tessellation Distance parameter to influence the number of TEMS elements along a curve in a given distance. Also, the Tess Angle setting lets you control tessellation in areas of high curvature. But that's not all, folks! daVinci 3D can convert MAX meshes that form a single open sheet, such as a hemisphere or NURBS surface, into a membrane. It can also convert closed curves in MAX to membranes. There's even a Membrane Select modifier for selecting membrane sub-objects for further modification. And snapping to membrane points works like snapping to any other such element in MAX. All in all, daVinci 3D fulfills its promise as a new way to easily model and animate organic objects. The software is well-designed and robust; it didn't crash once while I was using it. It's relatively simple to use, but there's a lot of power under the surface. Digimation and New Technologies are to be congratulated with their introduction of this highly useful 3D Studio MAX add-on. Find more at http://www.digimation.com ________________________________________ MediEvil Review New PlayStation titles are coming out in droves these days, but MediEvil, from Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, stands out from the pack as an excellent action/adventure title with a flair for the macabre. The "hero" is a gangling knight/skeleton named Sir Daniel Fortesque, a braggart who died in the first charge against Zarok the evil sorcerer. As in many such stories, the sorcerer is defeated but returns to conquer again. Sir Dan is resurrected, minus an eye and his face (as well as the rest of his flesh), this time to single-handedly foil the bad guy's scheme. The player must guide Sir Dan through various spooky locales such as graveyards and mausoleums, while taking out comically animated zombies, dodging giant rocks, recovering goodies and more. The first thing you notice in MediEvil is the three-dimensionality of the game world. This is a true 3D title, in which you can go just about anywhere (if you have the key), and view Dan from any angle. The level designers took advantage of their freedom and created a world with hilly exteriors and multi-level interiors. The color schemes are varied, and the music, composed Danny Elfman-style by Andrew Barnabas and Paul Arnold, fits the game well. Then there are the little touches that add so much, such as the disembodied "Thing"-type hands that run around the graveyard looking for their owners, and the fact that Dan is forced back when he strikes a solid object like a wall. Speaking of force, the use of vibration (in force-feedback controllers) is understated yet effective, if slightly hit-and-miss. The game designers worked hard to keep the player's interest active, and it shows in various ways. As Dan moves through the game, his progress is tracked by a horned statue who sounds like Tolkien's Gollum. Digitized voice is also used for other characters, including Dan (who mumbles badly, due to his lack of a tongue and lips) and the heroes (about which more shortly). Voice characterizations are competent, except for the actor voicing the evil sorcerer, who sounds like he was late for a massage. Another design praise for the use of in-game clues, presented in pedestal-mounted books found in each level. A slight annoyance is that you have to stand directly in front the book to get the clue. There's more to the game than just moving steadily through levels. Each time you dispatch an enemy, a chalice, whose location can be tough to discover, fills a bit more. When the chalice is full, if you find it, Dan can then visit the Hall of Heroes, where he chats briefly with a hero, and then receives a prize, such as a rapid-fire crossbow. Dan's ultimate hope is to end up in the Hall himself, where he can rest in peace. The gameplay is nicely balanced--not too easy, not too hard--and loading times between levels are minimal. If you like real-time 3D action mixed with your virtual adventuring, I recommend MediEvil highly. ________________________________________

BOOKS

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Web by Design

Web by Design, recently published by Sybex, is subtitled The Complete Guide; at 901 pages, there's little doubt. Author Molly E. Holzschlag covers the five key elements of Web design: designing for the screen, controlling layout, using color and graphics effectively, making sound typography decisions, and taking advantage of multimedia and Internet programming. Other topics include information management, accessibility, and navigation. The content is highly informative without being dense, the tone of the writing is intelligent, and there are plenty of examples, both graphical and textual. The book doesn't include a CD-ROM, but a color reference section illustrates the 216-color Web-safe palette; a selection of preset color swatches such as Natural, Southwest, Shocking and Sporty, with applied examples; and a subtractive color wheel for interpreting colors found in nature. Web by Design is a terrific all-around book for anyone undertaking an online venture. See the book's companion Web site at http://www.designstudio.net/. $39.99! Save 20% at Amazon.com
cover

3D Studio MAX 2 Effects Magic

New Riders is probably the foremost publisher of books about 3D Studio MAX, and their latest effort, by Greg Carbonaro et al, is aimed at intermediate to advanced users who want to exploit the program's potential for producing special effects. The book is divided into four sections: Water Effects, Space Effects, Atmospheric and Terrestrial Realism, and Natural Disasters. Tutorials are presented recipe style in the full-color book, with numbered-step instructions for re-creating such effects as rocket-engine glow, a bubbling caudron, Star Trek's beaming effect and many more. Unfortunately, there are few explanations, and with instructions like, "Create a standard cylinder primitive at x = -0.14, y = 42.573, z = -6.808," users may end up doing more typing than learning. It's obvious that the writers simply set up the scenes the way they liked, and then wrote down all the coordinates, rather than starting out to create tutorials that would be fun and easy to follow. Certainly, you can learn the techniques by following the directions while thinking about what you're doing (and possibly experimenting with different settings), and that's probably the best way to use this book. But be sure to have a cup of your stimulant beverage of choice handy, because vibrant writing isn't exactly 3DSM2 Effects Magic's forte. And get something heavy to prop open the stiffly bound book. Save 20% at Amazon.com
Photoshop 5 Artistry If you've just bought the latest version of Adobe's top-of-the-line imaging software and can't do a thing with it, this new book by Barry Haynes and Wendy Crumpler may be just the thing. Even if you're just curious about Photoshop 5, the accompanying CD-ROM contains a demo version of the program, as well as Adobe ImageReady. The book's content has been revised to cover such new features as color management, layer effects, history, and Magnetic tools. As is appropriate for a book covering such a color-intensive application, the illustrations are in color. Most chapters take you through an entire project that emulates a real-life situation, such as South Africa in Focus, where you build a flexible multi-layered file to create various composite screens for multimedia use, using layer masks, adjustment layers, clipping groups, text effects, filters and actions. Each instruction carefully explains what's going on, and presents alternative scenarios. This is an excellent way to learn Photoshop 5, even if you already think you know it pretty well. $44.00! Save 20% at Amazon.com
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The Project Cool Guide to Enhancing Your Website

Project Cool (http://www.projectcool.com) is an online resource for Webmasters and wannabes founded by Teresa Martin and Glenn Davis. Last year, Wiley Computer Publishing published Martin's and Davis' book The Project Cool Guide to HTML, and this year they've come out with The Project Cool Guide to Enhancing Your Website. The book addresses nine areas or technologies you can use to add value to your site, such as JavaScript, Dynamic HTML, and Cascading Style Sheets. Chapter 2 is a great way to get started, because it talks about ways to enhance a site without adding anything, such as taking advantage of browser caching, and optimizing graphics. The authors then proceed to discuss such vital topics as meta tags, search engines, interaction and more. These two know what they're talking about, and you'd be wise to heed what they say. There's no CD-ROM, but you can follow along with the exercises at the Project Cool Website. $23.99! Save 20% at Amazon.com
cover

Web Pages that Suck

If you've ever looked at a poorly designed Web site and said to yourself, "I could do better than that!", you know where authors Vincent Flanders and Michael Willis are coming from with this book, published by Sybex. The authors, a Webmaster and graphic designer respectively, have done a great job of explaining by example what should and shouldn't be online. They start out by examining reasons to create a site (e.g., "... to Stroke Your Little Ego," "... to Make Money"), and figuring out who the target audience is. Next, they address the need for the home page to be a site guide, navigation issues and more. They're unstinting in their scorn for poorly designed pages, with such comments as, "I'm in a lot of freaking pain" after visiting the Pepsi site. But they carefully explain what's wrong with each, and how it could be improved. The art of Web page design is still in its infancy, but if enough people read this book and follow its advice, we could achieve adolescence in our lifetime. The CD-ROM contains various Web tools such as HomeSite 3, GIF Builder, Web Razor and more. The book is lavishly illustrated in color; if only the authors had eschewed all the pictures of themselves--these guys aren't exactly photogenic! $31.20! Save 20% at Amazon.com ________________________________________

F.Y.I.

About Spectrum Reviews Spectrum Reviews, a sister publication to Spectrum, is published on an irregular schedule for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. It offers original reviews of software, hardware, books, Web sites, events and more. Software categories covered in Spectrum Reviews include Web authoring tools, content creation tools (e.g., 2D/3D graphics apps, audio/video production/editing tools), Internet email and Usenet news clients, multimedia clients such as RealSystem, consumer multimedia titles, and, of course, games, both local and online. In the hardware realm, we cover 2D and 3D graphics accelerators, game controllers, mass storage products and more. If you would like to submit a product for coverage in Spectrum Reviews, please send an email inquiry to mailto:duberman@dnai.com Send review product and press kits by mail to Spectrum Reviews, Attn: David Duberman, 2233 Jefferson Ave., Berkeley, CA 94703. Publisher's note: We are now accepting limited advertising. If you'd like to offer your company's products or services to Spectrum's elite audience of Internet and multimedia professionals, send an email query to mailto:duberman@dnai.com, or telephone 510-549-2894 during West Coast business hours. If you contact companies or organizations mentioned here, please tell them you saw their product/service in Spectrum Reviews. Thanks. (c)Copyright 1998 Motion Blur Media. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any for-profit or revenue-generating venue in any form without written permission from the publisher.
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