Parhelia is a graphics chipset offering from Matrox. Intended to compete with nVidia's GeForce 4 series and ATI's Radeon, this chip signaled Matrox's intent (more or less successful) to get serious in the 3D accelerator market. It features a 512-bit GPU and it uses DDR SDRAM with a 256-bit data path.

Hardware Overview

Parhelia has all the features of a pro-level card; 10 bits of color per channel (still the standard for pro graphics generations later), fast gamma-corrected antialiased text, fast trilinear texture filtering, and of course Matrox's signature high-quality RAMDACs. Matrox upped the ante over other cards in a number of ways with this unit, however; It supports three displays (As compared to two for the GeForce 4) and will stretch a game (or other fullscreen 3D application) across all of them. In addition, the card supports the full range of DirectX 9 features, including a quad-parallel vertex shader.

Parhelia is fabbed in a .15 micron process, and uses up to 256MB of 256 bit DDR SDRAM, though initial models came with only 128MB. The card will of course do both analog VGA and digital DVI output. It uses the AGP bus, and it supports AGP 4X with fast write. There are two versions; A retail box set with a 220MHz core clock and 275MHz memory clock, and a OEM version with a 200MHz core and 250MHz memory clock.

This card was later followed by the "Matrox Parhelia 256MB", a $639 list price update with AGP8X and of course 256MB. Later Parhelia models include the Matrox Parhelia DL256, a dual-link DVI card which can run a dual-link panel or one panel and one CRT; The Matrox Parhelia APVe, a "PCI Express x16 graphics card with video input and HDTV output"5; and the Matrox Parhelia PCI 256MB, a 64-bit, 66MHz PCI card "compatible with all PCI and PCI-X slots"6.


Using a system based on the AMD Athlon XP 2100+, the original Parhelia showed that it was not really a match for the GeForce 4, though it did hold its own tolerably well. It did much better when compared to the ATI Radeon 8500. Its multitexturing fill rate was much better than either, probably as a result of its one-pass quad-texturing engine. In an Unreal Tournament 2003 test, the Parhelia came in between the ATI Radeon 8500 and 8500LE, putting it well below any of the GeForce 4 Ti cards. On another test it manages to beat out both Radeon 8500s but still falls far behind the nVidia cards. In Jedi Knight 2, the Parhelia is humiliated by all contenders. The picture becomes even worse when you look at the Return to Castle Wolfenstein benchmarks, where it runs from half the speed of the 8500LE (And little more than a third of the performance of a GeForce 4 Ti 4600) up to trailing by a 'mere' 10% or so.

Anandtech blamed this on a three-part program of a low GPU clock (220MHz rather than their originally announced 250 or 300MHz), poor drivers, and a lack of good occlusion culling. Clearly Matrox will have to do something about the poor frame rates if they would like to sell any significant number of these cards into the gaming space, especially given the price; A faster nVidia card is significantly less expensive.

Image Quality

One of the touted features of the Parhelia is its high image quality. Matrox has been known for superior 2D image quality for as long as they've been around; the design of their RAMDACs really makes a significant difference in spite of the fact that they are not clocked any higher than anyone else's (nor would such a change provide any benefit, as it would be outside the range of frequencies supported by the displays.)

Matrox further claims that when using such image-enhancing features as anisotropic filtering, their performance will blow away the competition. First it is necessary to examine the quality of the filtered images. This is the wrong place for it; Examine the Anandtech Article for that. But the quality of the filtered image is very good; The Radeon's image is sharper, but also has more jaggies, as you might expect. The Parhelia's image quality is virtually identical to the GeForce. As per benchmarks, it's true that the Parhelia takes a much lesser performance hit than the GeForce, but it still gets much lower frame rates when antialiasing; no win here for gamers, although it's quite desirable for professional work.

The other big image enhancement feature of the Parhelia is "Fragment Antialiasing", and it's basically a form of edge antialiasing. The image quality is fantastic, looking significantly (but not dramatically) better than antialiased output from the Radeon or GeForce. Most significant however is the Parhelia's frame rates while using this mode at high resolutions, in which it finally pulls ahead of the competition, though only by just over one frame per second. Using both filtering and antialiasing, the parhelia is slightly quicker than the Radeon (Except in a low-resolution test) and not so far behind the GeForce, especially at 1024x768.

Conclusions (from 2002)

If Matrox intends this product to be competitive, they are going to have to optimize (and debug) their drivers as soon as possible, and come up with a higher clock-rate part. As a business graphics solution, the Parhelia will probably give you the best possible image quality, and it supports three displays on a single card, which is nothing to be sneezed at. Having used a dual-monitor setup for several months now (dual 19") it's hard to imagine going back to a single display. Now if they can just solve the performance issues, or drop the price considerably, they might have something serious going. Matrox cards have excellent display quality, and an number of features not generally found elsewhere, such as support for combined sync; but those features alone won't endear them to gamers unless they increase their performance, or decrease their price.

"Further Conclusions" (From 2007)

10 bits per channel is still the standard for pro-level PC video cards. And the PCI version is probably the finest PCI video card available for pro-level work, if not the fastest (especially today.) Unless you're stuck with an AGP bus or using a CRT, you're better off with an nvidia Quadro card. Matrox still knows more about making a RAMDAC than anyone else.


(Webpage dates are date of citation)

  1. Technology - Parhelia-512. Matrox Graphics, July 2, 2002. (
  2. Matrox's Parhelia - A Performance Paradox. Anandtech, July 2, 2002. (
  3. Matrox Parhelia 256MB. Matrox Graphics, July 23, 2007. (
  4. Matrox Parhelia DL256. Matrox Graphics, July 23, 2007. (
  5. Matrox Parhelia APVe. Matrox Graphics, July 23, 2007. (
  6. Matrox Parhelia PCI 256MB. Matrox Graphics, July 23, 2007. (

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