When two, or even three, is better than one

What's better than half a dozen staffers crowded around a large 30-inch display on your desktop? How about splitting up the group and letting them sit comfortably at the next table to view the same work on a second monitor?

Of course, graphics adapters that support connecting two monitors have been available for some time, but Matrox Graphics Inc.'s new Parhelia card caused us to take another look. The Parhelia, which plugs into standard Accelerated Graphics Port 2.0 slots, offers two Digital Visual Interface ports on the card and gives the user unprecedented control over configuring output.

You can, of course, simply connect two DVI monitors to the Parhelia. Alternatively, you can use an included adapter to connect an analog monitor to one of the ports. Another bundled adapter allows you to connect to a TV monitor using either S-video or composite video. A third option is to use the array of provided adapters to connect three VGA monitors at the same time.

Software provided with the Parhelia makes it easy to further configure additional monitors to offer either a cloned copy of the display on the primary monitor or an extended desktop. By selecting the latter option, you can open a document or an application and drag it over to another monitor, for example, clearing the desktop on your primary monitor for other work. You can quickly switch from monitor to monitor by simply moving the mouse cursor from one display to another.

If, however, you run three monitors from the card, each display must have the same resolution and color depth. Also, the only mode supported is a stretched desktop. The card offers a maximum DVI resolution of 1,600 x 1,200 in 16.8 million colors on each DVI display and also supports a 10-bit GigaColor option, which offers 1 billion colors.

The Parhelia isn't the fastest 3-D card on the market, but it can meet the challenges of most computing needs at agencies and departments. What's more, the card meets the heavy demands of most gaming applications. We were especially impressed by the card's color capabilities.

The 128M version of the Parhelia that we tested has an estimated price of $399. The device is also available in a 256M version for $599.

Because we were going to link multiple monitors to test the Parhelia, we decided to take a look at Eizo Nanao Technologies Inc.'s 18-inch FlexScan L685, a recently released unit that we had not yet tested.

We were impressed with the L685 even before we plugged in the power cord. The thin bezel of the case — extending only three-quarters of an inch beyond the display — means the L685 won't dominate your desktop with plastic, just with display.

It also makes the device an excellent candidate for unobtrusive wall mounting or for mounting several units side-by-side in a wall panel. And if, as we did, you want to use the Parhelia to stretch your Windows display across two monitors, the L685 minimizes the amount of plastic between the two displays.

The L685 breezed through DisplayMate Technologies Corp.'s battery of tests, DisplayMate for Microsoft Corp. Windows, with no distortions at all in DVI mode. When running in analog mode, the L685 showed only modest distortions on a handful of tests, but nothing at all in our actual use of the display. The L685 offered a remarkably bright and sharp display overall.

On the whole, we liked the L685's physical design. Access to the two DVI ports on the back is easy, and there's a wire tunnel on the back of the base neck to keep cables mostly out of sight. We also liked the addition of a USB hub to the back of the unit. The L685 includes one upstream USB port and four downstream ports.

What's more, the L685 can be pivoted from a landscape orientation to a portrait orientation. Be aware, however, that there is no software included for turning the display contents as well. In addition to pivoting, the display can be raised and lowered, tilted and swiveled.

The only significant drawback we found in the system's physical design was that the labels — for buttons on the front and for ports on the back — are embossed in the plastic and difficult to read.

Were it not for the relatively high price tag on the L685 — $1,489 — the unit would receive a top score. As it is, we can highly recommend the L685 to those who seek a high-quality display regardless of the price. Also, the L685's optional Screen Administrator software ($375), which allows network administrators to manage and keep track of monitors across the network, will be a major selling point for some agencies and departments.

Return to introduction: New visual expteriences

REPORT CARD

Parhelia-512

Grade: A

Matrox Graphics Inc.

(800) 361-1408

www.matrox.com

The price is $399 for the Parhelia-512 graphics adapter with 128M of memory and $599 for 256M of memory.

The Parhelia isn't the fastest performer in its class, but it is not far behind. The tool's high flexibility in monitor configuration and relatively low price earn it a top score.

We tested the adapter on a Hewlett-Packard Co. xw5000 workstation with a 2.8G Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processor, 1G of system memory and an Eizo Nanao Technologies Inc. FlexScan L685 LCD monitor.

***

FlexScan L685

Grade: B+

Eizo Nanao Technologies Inc.

(800) 889-5493

www.eizo.com

The estimated retail price of the FlexScan L685 is $1,489.

This clean unit takes up little space on your desktop and has a case that hardly shows around the 18.1-inch screen. The display is clear and sharp. The only factor that holds the L685 back from a top score is the relatively high price tag.

We tested the display on a Hewlett-Packard Co. xw5000 workstation with a 2.8G Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processor, 1G of system memory and a Matrox Graphics Inc. Parhelia-512 graphics adapter with 128M of memory.

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