When it comes to computers I'm particular about a few things: noise, size and general outlook. As far as I'm concerned computers are now at the stage where performance is ``guaranteed''. I'm not doing any hardcore gaming, number crunching or anything like that. 99% of the time my CPU chugs along quite happily at no more than 5% utilisation. My laptop (a Vaio X505/CP) has a whopping 20GB hard disk and 1.1GHz Pentium M processor -- performance and capacity-wise this is pretty much what I require. The point being that people can now be far more choosy about things like noise and size.
My main machine is quite old now -- it's a Shuttle SN41G2B (the cute black one) with an XP2800+ CPU, 1GB of RAM and an 80GB hard disk. Most of the time this is overkill for what I do -- web browsing, chatting, email and occasionally some coding. I've got two very sexy ViewSonic 17" TFT panels but driving these properly is a pain. As far as TFTs go these are pretty much top of the line -- each has a DVI and two RGB inputs (three in total). Problem is that I'm particular about noise and I don't have enough space for replacing fans with massive heatsinks, etc.
So, my graphics card requirements are thus: Single AGP card providing dual DVI output without any fans. Oh... did I mention that I have to be able to view crazy OpenGL stuff on *both* screens *at the same time*?
This is not an easy thing to achieve but there are a number of cards that appear to fit the bill: Matrox Millennium P650 (half-length AGP card with two DVI outputs), Matrox Millennium G550 (low-profile, half-length AGP card with LFH-60 connector and dual DVI dongle) and the Nvidia Quadro4 NVS 280 (low-profile, half-length AGP card with LFH-59 connector and dual DVI dongle).
Over the past week I've tried all three of these cards. I'd like to provide a very brief round-up of each, explaining their pros and cons.
The Matrox P650 is a very sexy looking card with two DVI-I connectors. No messing around with Y-splitters to get two monitors hooked up. Based on the Parhelia chipset it provides some pretty good performance under Windows. Under Linux the performance is a little lacking -- running a regular sized glxgears I can get 800FPS. It requires very new beta drivers (1.4.1 at the time I write this) which messed up my system a little. The driver supports a merged framebuffer (OpenGL on both screens) but in those mode I couldn't get any higher than 1024x768 per screen. What's more, in the merged framebuffer mode I can only have a single stretched desktop -- the driver does not support pseudo-Xinerama for ``intelligent'' window placement. The card £70 on eBay and I'll hopefully cover my losses if somebody Buys it Now. Undoubtedly a brilliant card for Windows but Linux support is lacking.
The Matrox G550 is a half-heigh half-length AGP card. It has a standard LFH-60 connector and can drive two DVI-I displays or two RGB displays. The G550 is ageing a little now and 3D performance wasn't so great (no glxgears stats). I had great trouble getting it working under Linux but it did work and with a custom patch for the mga_hal driver I could even get it working with pseudo-Xinerama, thanks to the driver being open source. The main problems were very poor performance and difficulty in setting the card up. I got mine including a dual-RGB and dual-DVI cable for £31 including delivery.
Finally the Quadro4 NVS 280 from Nvidia. I think this is a PNY card but I picked it up on the cheap on eBay so have no way of telling. It might not even be an NVS 280 although I think it is. The card is definitely based on the GeForce 4 chipset (NV18GL if that means anything to you) which means 3D performance will be pretty good. This shares the same physical properties as the G550, although the heatsink is a lot sexier. Unfortunately it uses a seemingly non-standard LFH-59 connector (exactly the same as the 60 pin but with a pinout from what I can see) so I had to get a dual DVI splitter shipped from the US -- fortunately this was only £11 including P&P. Nvidia have great Linux support in the form of their closed-source driver -- installing this under Ubuntu was a breeze and getting the pseudo-Xinerama merged framebuffer working required adding just ``Option TwinView "true"'' to my xorg.conf. This works brilliantly and glxgears reports 1000FPS anywhere across my 2560x1024 desktop -- much to my delight it even works on both panels at the same time with no reduction in FPS. I took a risk when buying the card on eBay and got it for £19.50 including delivery, with the splitter cable from the US costing £10.94 -- in total the NVS 280 cost me just £30.44! I spoke to another fellow Quadro NVS owner on AOL IM and he said that lspci reported his Quadro as a GeForce FX5200 (which is why I am not certain I have an NVS 280) unlike my Quadro4 NVS AGP 8x from lspci. Even if it's not an NVS 280 I'm still damn impressed.
Good job Nvidia!