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Matrox Millennium G550

When Matrox launched the first single-chip dual-display product (the G400) it faced scepticism about how much this feature would be needed. Today, the sceptics have gone quiet, having seen how useful a low-cost, dual-display configuration can be. Now Matrox is doing it again with the Millennium G550, only this time the sceptics may not be so easily convinced.
Written by Laurence Grayson, Contributor on
7.0/10

Matrox Millennium G550 (AGP 4x, 32 MB)

Very good
Pros
  • Inexpensive DualHead adapter with DVI support excellent image quality and 2D performance.
Cons
  • Poor 3D performance proprietary vertex shader only assists HeadCasting.
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

When Matrox launched the first single-chip dual-display product (the G400) it faced scepticism about how much this feature would be needed. Today, the sceptics have gone quiet, having seen how useful a low-cost, dual-display configuration can be. Now Matrox is doing it again with the Millennium G550, only this time the sceptics may not be so easily convinced.

With the G550, Matrox is hoping to grab a piece of the visual communications market -- a sector typically reserved for high bandwidth video conferencing solutions -- with a feature called HeadCasting. Put simply, this uses a 3D animated representation of your own face to replace a typical live video stream, and synchronises lip movement and facial expression to an accompanying audio stream. Because all the work is done at the client end, it's just the audio that requires bandwidth, making this type of visual communication feasible on a 56Kbit/s dial-up connection.

To get your 3D head, you need to provide two digital photographs (front and side) to Digimask -- one of Matrox's partners in this venture -- who will provide a 3D texture-mapped model in return. Using software from LIPSinc, this is then animated based upon audio keys in your live- or pre-recorded vocal track -- pauses, changes in volume, inflection -- as well as throwing in the occasional blink and twitch for added effect.

HeadCasting targeted at three key areas: Voice over IP (VoIP), business presentations and customer service. For VoIP, Matrox has bundled HeadFone, which allows HeadCast communication between two clients, and Virtual Presenter, a PowerPoint 2000 or XP plug-in that synchronises your presentation's narrative to your talking head (which can occupy a second screen thanks to the G550's DualHead feature).

Admittedly, the end result is a couple of notches short of photorealism, but it's extremely disconcerting to see your virtual twin leering back at you from your PC. You don't actually need a G550 to view HeadCasts (which would drastically limit its usefulness), they just look better if you do. This is because the G550 chip has a vertex shader that can handle 256 registers, where other systems are limited to DirectX 8's standard 96. These are the points used to create facial expressions in HeadCasting, so more is better, as they allow more realistic animations.

But realistically, this peculiar form of communication is more likely to appeal to gamers than business users, and the G550's unimpressive 3D performance is unlikely to attract any of those.

So it's just as well that underneath it all, this card continues Matrox's tradition of producing excellent business-related products. Like the G400 and G450 before it, the G550 can drive two monitors with entirely different refresh rates, resolutions and colour depths. What's new about the G550 is that it adds twin Transition Minimised Differential Signalling (TMDS) emitters, which allow the same approach to be applied to digital displays (using the DVI-I port at the rear) as well as analogue monitors. So you can spread or replicate your desktop across two entirely different displays, from a high-resolution analogue monitor, through a digital flat panel, right down to a humble TV.

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The vertex shader used for HeadCasting is of no use in other applications, and the twin texture units per pixel pipeline do little to bring the Millennium G550's 3D performance in line with current consumer graphics cards. What you do get is the best dual-head product available, along with Matrox's usual excellent signal quality for less than £90 (ex. VAT). HeadCasting may be somewhat eccentric, but this shouldn't prevent business users taking the Millennium G550 seriously.

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