Speed Up Your Windows... 2 the Max

by Alan Zisman (c) 1993. First published in Our Computer Player, 21 September, 1993

Products reviewed:

2 The Max Cheetah ISA and Local Bus
and 2 The Max TrueSpeed ISA Windows accelerated video boards

from: Focus Information Systems
4046 Clipper Court
Fremont, CA
94538 USA
tel: 510-657-2845
fax: 510-657-4158

price ????? (Cheetah VL-local bus is $165)
local distributor ?????

If you're running Windows after having worked in DOS, probably your first reaction was how much
slower many things seemed. It's not just you... everyone has that
feeling, and with good reason.

Windows always runs in graphics mode. Instead of just calling up a
letter 'A' that's hardwired into the computer's bios, it has to
paint the 'A' from scratch. This lets you display all those nice
fonts and sizes, but it takes longer.

There are, however, a few, relatively inexpensive things you can do
to help the situation. First, get at least 4 megs of RAM. 8 is
better. (And still more if you're working with large graphics files).

After that, the best way you can speed up your Windows setup is to
get a faster video card. This can have a bigger effect than you may
think... even if you're not working with graphics or DTP. I saw a
demonstration of a long EXCEL spreadsheet macro, running on two
machines that were identical except that one had an accelerated
video card. On the standard machine, the macro took about 2 minutes
to run; faster screen redraws got that to just under 60 seconds on
the machine with the accelerator card.

There are lots of companies producing video cards to speed up
Windows... luckily, there are only a few chipsets that are widely
used. Most cards with the same chipset produce virtually identical

TNC Industrial-Electronics, a Taiwan corporation, represented in
North America by Focus Information Systems, is currently marketing
three very similar cards with different, but well-respected chipsets.
Both, marketed as '2 the Max' series cards, can be counted on to speed up your Windows performance.

The CHEETAH comes with a chipset from CIRRUS LOGIC, while the
TRUESPEED card features a chipset from S-3. Both can be bought with
either 1 or 2 megs of video memory. As well, you can get the Cheetah in your choice of
ISA (standard 16-bit AT bus) or VL-bus (VESA standard).

Both share a number of additional features. Installation is pretty
straightforward; while there are a few jumpers on each, in most
cases, they can be ignored. Both include drivers for Windows 3.1, in
a range of modes, including 24-bit colour at 640x480 resolution. As
well, both support OS/2 ver 2, AutoCad, Lotus 1-2-3, and Word
Perfect 5.1 with drivers. The ISA Cheetah board includes drivers for a
few more DOS applications than the TrueSpeed.

Each ISA package also includes a 'lite' version of the WinRix image processing
package, a Windows program that permits retouching and exporting of
graphics files in a wide range of formats. Each version will only
work if you are using the appropriate video card.

So if they're so similar, why are there two ISA cards with different
chipsets, from the same company?

Price and performance.

If you're using a standard, non-accelerated video card, you'll find
that either will produce a noticable speed boost. The S-3 based
TrueSpeed card will be a bit faster (20% or so), and will cost a bit
more. It's as simple as that.

The performance boost will depend on a number of factors... what are
you using now? Even among non-accelerated video cards, there can be
quite a difference in speed depending on brand. (Oak, for example,
is low-priced, but slow... Trident is a little pricier, and not
quite as slow). As well, video drivers can make quite a difference.
Running the PC Magazine WinBench test software, I found my ATI
Wonder card reported about 35% faster performance using the new SVGA
drivers available from Microsoft (use your modem to call their BBS in Toronto at
1-416-507-3022, and look for SVGA.EXE... or check around locally).

As well, the number of colours you need to display will affect your
speed, as will the screen resolution. The more colours, and the more
pixels on screen, the harder your video card has to work. Again,
drivers help.

Finally, I found the most performance boost on a machine with a
faster CPU... I tested these cards on two computers, a 386DX-33, and
a 486-DX2-66. I used WinBench, to get a Graphics WinMark score. (
WinBench is available free from PC Magazine, or on many BBSs. Look
for the latest version, 3.11... video card manufacturers had found
ways to cheat on earlier versions of this test). My comparison was
to an ATI Wonder XL-24, a fairly common, non-accelerated Super VGA
card, running the new Microsoft SVGA driver, in 800x600 resolution,
with 256 colours (8 bit colour).

On the 386 machine, the Cheetah tested at about 50% faster, while
the TrueSpeed came in at about 80% faster. Not bad.

On the 486, however,while the ATI card was rated as faster than on
the 386, the TrueSpeed clocked in at 4 times as fast! (8.8 million
pixels per second vs 2.2 million, for you statistics fans). The Cheetah
lagged behind, but still was about 3 times as fast as the ATI. For
the modest price increase, the TrueSpeed seems like the better value
for most users.


All this was testing the ISA versions... as I discuss elsewhere in this
issue, if you have a VESA local bus motherboard, this is really the way to
go (and if you're buying a new 486 computer or motherboard, make sure you get
one with VESA VL-local bus).

I pulled out the TrueSpeed board, and popped in the Cheetah XL-- the local
bus version. When I ran the same tests, the PC Magazine WinBench 3.11, this
card delivered a ferocious 14.9 million pixels per second... almost twice as
fast as the standard ISA-bus TrueSpeed, even though that board uses the
faster S3 chipset. ( I tested these boards at 800x600 resolution, using 256
colours. 640x480 pixels or fewer colours should produce higher scores and
faster performance).

Then I compared both boards at 24-bit colour. 16.7 million colours was
inconceivable on a low-priced video setup just a year or two ago. And it
still isn't something I'd recommend most of us use everyday... it just takes
too much power.

Still, people working with scanned images or other complex graphics may need
this kind of resolution, and for the rest of us, it's nice to be able to view
these sorts of images in the real colours now and then.

My original ATI XL-24 could produce this resolution, hence the name. But its
120 thousand or so pixels per second was barely tolerable. The TrueSpeed
board again was about four times as fast. Better, but still noticeably slow.
The local bus Cheetah-XL pushed the WinBench score up near the 1.4 million
pixel mark... making this resolution still a lot slower than running fewer
colours, but quick enough to feel productive.

You should be aware that these cards, like other 'Windows
accelerators', work by storing frequently used Windows graphics
commands in the cards' ROM... because of that, they won't speed up
performance of non-Windows, DOS programs. Cards with on-board
graphics co-processor chips are needed to speed up ALL video. You'll
pay more for this performance boost, however.

A couple of other minor quibbles, however... the packaging promises BBS
support, but never mentions the phone number. Presumably, you'd have
to phone long distance during office hours to find out how to get
BBS support, which is the best way to stay on top of the continually
improving drivers.

As well, the S-3 TrueSpeed card re-set itself into an flickering,
interlaced 800x600 mode each time I rebooted. There was a utility
that fixed this, and it promised to write a line into my AUTOEXEC.
BAT file to make this automatic, but it never did. Eventually, I
figured out how to set it by hand, and that problem went away.

(When in doubt with DOS programs, try typing the filename, followed
by "/?"... ever since DOS 5 introduced it, this has been becoming a
standard for command line help. It worked for me in this case).

I won't even mention glaring mis-spellings in the SET_UP program.

Some high-end co-processed cards can cost from $1000-2000. For that
price, you get 24-bit colour at finer resolutions, typically up to
1024x768 (and sometimes further). These cards can't do that. If you need 24-
bit colour, you get it at 640x480 pixels or not at all.

But any of this trio will provide a noticeable speed-up of your Windows
operations, finally letting your Windows word processor seem almost
as responsive as your old DOS standby. And these cards are hardly more
expensive than many name-brand, non-accelerated S-VGA cards.

If you have a local-bus computer, get the local-bus version... the Cheetah-
XL. There's really no price difference for better than double the
performance. For users with standard ISA-bus computers, the S-3 based
TrueSpeed board provides very good value.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan