Matrox G450 Dual Head

by Choong Ng

Once upon a time Matrox graphics cards were marketed to people building everything from value consumer desktops to gaming rigs to high-end, PC-compatible workstations. Though even Matrox's fastest G-series has fallen far behind the competition in terms of raw 3-D performance, thus losing the gaming and consumer markets, they remain popular in the workstation market due to their reputation for stability, high-quality visual output and excellent Linux driver support. I will examine the Matrox G450 dual-head video card, with regard to both the usefulness of dual monitors and how well the G450 handles running two monitors. My test system is a 560MHz Pentium III supported by a 440BX chipset and 384MB of RAM running Linux Mandrake 8.0 (kernel 2.4.4 and XFree86 4.0.3). My video card is, of course, a Matrox G450 with one 360MHz RAMDAC, one 230MHz RAMDAC and 32MB of DDR RAM on board to drive two VGA outputs.

Setup and First Impressions

Having found X to be a common source of issues in the past, I wasn't looking forward to configuring this setup. Much to my surprise it was quite easy, with just one stumbling block--upon installing the card, Mandrake incorrectly recognizes the G450 as a G400. This isn't a big deal as they are very similar cards. After I had the card physically installed in the computer I went to Matrox's web site to download the latest drivers, choosing the Matrox-authored but closed-source binary version. The binary drivers are installed by simply dropping the two binaries into your /usr/X11/lib/modules/drivers directory. Updating your X configuration to reflect the new setup is similarly easy.

First, add one or two monitor entries (depending on whether your two displays are of different capabilities):

    Section "Monitor"
    Identifier "monitor"
    VendorName "Unknown"
    ModelName  "Unknown"
    HorizSync   31.5-57.0
    VertRefresh 50-90
EndSection

Add two device entries for the G450, one for each port (see Listing 1). Then add two screen entries, again one for each port (see Listing 2).

Listing 1. Adding Two G450 Device Entries

Listing 2. Adding Two Screen Entries

Tell X how you want the displays to be logically oriented with respect to each other. Most people will probably want a horizontal layout. Also tell X that you want it to join the two displays together into one virtual display--I opted for two XGA screens so the resulting desktop will be 2048 x 768 pixels (see Listing 3).

Listing 3. Server Layout Subsection

Write the config to disk, restart X and you're done. Listing 4 is a complete copy of my X config, and Matrox's own documentation (ftp.matrox.com/pub/mga/archive/linux/2001/beta_1_2_0/readme.txt) explaining how to set this up is actually quite useful.

Listing 4. Full Copy of X Config

How It Stacks up

With Xinerama enabled the G450 handles the dual outputs quite well despite Xinerama's disabling DRI. The first visual artifact I noticed was a slow update if solid window dragging is enabled (via KDE in this instance) and a large window is dragged from one screen to the other. This really didn't bother me too much, but it has the potential to turn into more of an issue if one has a large window spanning both screens displaying animation of some sort. The other visual artifact stems not from the video card itself but from the monitors: because I used two similar 17" monitors and had them both running at the same resolution and refresh rate, there was a small amount of crosstalk resulting in a subtle grey band that slowly (approximately once per two seconds) but repeatedly progressed over each screen vertically (going up on one, down on the other). I found it to be vaguely annoying but really not much compared to the benefits of having two monitors (see next section).

I did try running dual displays without Xinerama, and this resulted in two separate desktops that shared little other than the mouse pointer. Logging into KDE resulted in two separate desktops; one came up with the usual compliment of toolbars and icons and the other with the toolbar but no icons other than the trash can. Windows could not be dragged from one screen to the other and due to this I found the configuration substantially less flexible and useful than Xinerama mode. Overall the G450 handled dual outputs just fine.

But is it really useful? In a word, yes. Being able to have not only two monitors going but to have them running off of the same login on the same machine is amazingly helpful. I found that I ended up switching between just three modes of use most of the time: lots of shell windows (six or eight) covering both screens, shell windows on one screen with web browser windows on the other and web browsers covering both screens.

The second configuration is how I use the machine most of the time, as it allows me to read documentation, etc., from the Web while I work at the command line or write. The first configuration came in a close second as it allows me to watch logs, IRC (I follow several channels on irc.openprojects.net from time to time) and read man pages, all while I work at a command line. The third I use mostly when I catch up on the news or when I'm researching a topic covered on many different web sites (comparison-reading). Other cool or useful suggestions I've heard of include: 3-D modeling, with blueprint view and toolbars on one screen and perspective/preview on the other; programming, with editors on one screen and debuggers on the other; running emulators, with the native environment on one screen and the emulated operating system on the other; network debugging, with command lines on one screen and tailed logs on the other; and watching a DVD on one screen while in IRC on the other (okay, so this is cool but really not useful).

There are truly a lot of things a dual monitor configuration is good for. There is only one major downside to any dual-monitor configuration; however, having two monitors on your desk consumes a lot of real estate. Unfortunately, there are really only two ways to work around this issue: get a bigger desk or get smaller displays (e.g., flat panels). Another (albeit minor) issue is that in a dual-monitor configuration certain default GUI behavior that makes a lot of sense on a single display doesn't make any sense at all. The most significant of these is that the once-convenient default placement of many dialog boxes and prompts in the center of the screen suddenly becomes very irritating due to the message being split between two displays. Despite these disadvantages, however, a dual-monitor configuration will undoubtedly be useful to many readers.

The Bottom Line

As noted before, the only real drawback to the G450 is relatively slow 3-D performance, especially in Xinerama mode. That said, I personally found my dual configuration both useful and reliable enough to keep it on my desk. With a street price of less than $90 US and substantial usefulness for many users, I would definitely recommend the G450 to anyone who is feeling cramped with their current display setup.

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