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/// Usenet Review:  Picasso II graphics board
    -----------------------------------------
    By David Hopper
    (i-daveho@microsoft.com)



PRODUCT NAME

        Picasso II RTG Graphics Board (Hardware rev. 1.2)


DESCRIPTION

        The Picasso II is a 24-bit graphics board with a Retargetable
Graphics system.  Additional software includes TVPaint Junior and a number
of image viewing utilities.

        [MODERATOR'S NOTE:  It is important to note that the Picasso's "RTG"
        system was created by Picasso's manufacturer, and is not the rumored
        Commodore RTG system.  - Dan]


AUTHOR/COMPANY INFORMATION

   Germany:
        Name:           Village Tronic
        Address:        Braunstrasse 14
                        D-30169 Hanover
                        Germany

        Telephone:      + 49/(0)511/13841
        FAX:            + 49/(0)511/1612606

   USA:
        Name:           Expert Services
        Address:        7559 Mall Road
                        Florence, KY 40142
                        USA

        Telephone:      (606) 371-9690
        FAX:            (606) 282-5942


LIST PRICE

        $549.95 (US) for one-meg version.  An additional $72 for the two-meg
version.

        I paid $499.95 at a dealer for the one meg board, and acquired the
additional meg of DRAM direct from Expert Services for $72 (it's 45
nanosecond RAM, and RAM is expensive today anyway).  I have seen the board
as low as $465 in mail-order shops (but we should all support our local
dealer, right?).


SPECIAL HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE REQUIREMENTS

        HARDWARE

                SYSTEM:  A2000, A3000, or A4000 with any empty Zorro II or
                Zorro III slot (the card itself is Zorro II).  The included
                pass-through monitor cable is a 15 pin male to male cable;
                it will work directly with an A3000 or a 2000 with an A2230
                deinterlacer card.  If you own a 4000, you will need to use
                the 23 pin RGB adapter provided with the A4000.  If you have
                a MicroWay flickerFixer, you will need a 9 pin to 15 pin VGA
                adapter, available directly from the manufacturer, or from a
                cable dealer.

                PROCESSOR:  A CPU faster than a 68000 is not required,
                although viewing and editing 8 and 24-bit images is always
                fairly CPU intensive.  The on-board Cirrus blitter makes
                certain graphics manipulations speedy regardless of the CPU.

                MONITOR:  A multiscan monitor is required; a 1080, 1084, or
                1084S won't cut it.  14" or higher is recommended.

                MEMORY:  The system hooks take very little overhead, and
                there are no special memory requirements for the Workbench
                emulation.  Some Fast RAM might be nice for the Picasso II
                to keep screens in.  A2000 owners with a full 8 megs of
                Zorro II memory (i.e. not on an accelerator board) will need
                to run the Picasso II in segmented mode, resulting in slower
                performance.

                TVPaint Jr. will run with 4 megs of fast memory, but things
                will be tight.  Since my recent upgrade to 8 megs of fast
                memory, TVPaint Jr. has run comfortably in 640x480x24 and
                800x600x8, and barely in 1024x768x8 (no undo buffer).

        SOFTWARE

                AmigaDOS 2.04 or greater required.  To use an 8-bit
                Workbench, AmigaDOS 3.0 or greater is required.

MACHINE USED FOR TESTING

        Amiga 3000/25
        8 Megs Fast RAM, 2 Megs Chip RAM
        A-Max II+ Macintosh emulator
        Picasso II 2 meg board
        NEC MultiSync 4DS (17" monitor)
        Kickstart 2.04 (37.175), Workbench 2.1 (38.35)


INSTALLATION

        Installation is easy:  simply plug the board in, connect the short
monitor cable from your Amiga's Video Out port to the Picasso, and plug your
monitor into the Picasso's second video port.  The board fit very snugly and
took me some force to fit into the slot.  The software installation uses
Commodore's Installer program, and is very straightforward.  You will need
to know the maximum horizontal scan rate that your monitor can sync to; I
clicked on "57kHz" for my MultiSync, and I was off and running.


REVIEW

        The Workbench emulation and RTG subsystem consist of only three
files:  village.library, vilintuisup.library, and the Picasso monitor file.
Additionally, there are some useful utilities included with the Picasso II
and actively supported by Village Tronic and Expert Services:

        ChangeScreen:   A commodity to "promote" applications that do not
                        directly support the display database, so they
                        can (potentially) run on the Picasso board.
        StyxBlank:      A screen blanker commodity.
        ViewIFF:        IFF/IFF24 picture viewer.
        ViewJPEG:       JPEG picture viewer.
        ViewGIF:        GIF picture viewer.
        PlayMPEG:       MPEG animation viewer/decompressor.
        Play:           Views uncompressed MPEGs at up to 25 frames/second.
        IntuiView:      This is a GUI front-end for the utilities included
                        with the Picasso.  With it, you can launch programs,
                        view images and animations, read text files, or
                        configure your own filetypes.

The remaining files are benchmark utilities, graphics test programs,
AmigaGuide help files, and developer autodocs and examples.  Drivers are
included for Art Department Pro, ImageFX, ImageMaster, Real3D, and
Reflections.  Finally, the Picasso II is bundled with TVPaint Junior, a
fantastic 24-bit paint program, little brother to the legendary TVPaint.

        Upon plugging the board in and installing the software, a quick
reboot left me facing a 640x200 4 color screen.  Once I launched Screenmode
(just the standard preferences program), I was faced with a tough decision.
In addition to the regular Amiga modes, I was given the choice of eight new
ones: 320x240, 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768, 1120x832, 1152x900, 1280x1024, and
1600x1280.  I have fully tested them all and discovered a few things.
(NOTE:  these observations may be specific to my NEC 4DS monitor.  Your
results may differ if you have a different monitor.)  1600x1280 flickers
like an old NTSC:Hires-Interlaced screen, and is much too small.  I notice
no flicker at all on the 1280x1024 screen, but again, it was just too small
for my 17" screen.  My 4DS will not sync to 1152x900 at all (this is the
monitor's fault; the sync rates fall well within spec), and 1120x832 (NeXT
resolution) requires some manual screen adjustment.  I've found 1024x768 to
be a terrific balance between screen size, legibility, and compatibility.

        Now, I need to admit that I was expecting to see 8-bit Workbench
support with the Picasso, even though I've only a 3000 with AmigaDOS 2.1,
but this is not the case.  The Picasso programmers have decided not to play
any color depth tricks with Intuition, and have left it up to the OS.  This
is fine with me, as it seems to have boosted the Picasso's Workbench
emulation above competing boards' emulation schemes (from what I gather),
which all add hooks to Intuition to provide 256 on-screen colors with a 2.x
system.  For the sake of compatibility, I am quite content to wait for 3.1
to be released for my machine.  With MagicWB installed, I'm not as anxious
to get an 8-bit Workbench (yet!).

        I have had the board for four weeks now, and have thrown everything
I've got against it.  I was pleased and relieved to discover that A-Max II
works just fine with the board; the Picasso passes the video right through
to the monitor (as long as you use Productivity mode with A-Max, that is).
Perhaps the Picasso's strongest suit is its grace under pressure.  It has
rarely failed to pass through screens and programs which use illegal
graphics calls.  A comprehensive list of the programs I use daily will
follow, and whether the board directly supports, promotes or passes through
the video.  The Picasso directly supports those programs that use AmigaDOS'
own Display Database.  If the board promotes the program, I have listed the
maximum usable resolution that the program itself can handle (on my
monitor).  And yes, as a matter of fact, I *did* pay for all of this
software. :^)

        COMPATIBILITY LIST (for my setup):

        APPLICATIONS:

        A-Max II+, 2.56         : passed through
        AmigaVision 1.70Z       : promoted (1600x1280)
        AdPro 2.3.0             : special (24-bit saver)
        DigiPaint3              : passed through
        Directory Opus 4.11     : Display Database (1600x1280)
        Distant Suns 4.2        : promoted (640x480)
        DPaintIV                : passed through
        Digital Sound Studio    : passed through
        MandelMania             : passed through
        Mand2000 Demo           : Display Database (1600x1280)
        PageStream 2.1          : promoted (1600x1280)
        ProWrite 3.3.1          : promoted (1600x1280)
        Term 3.4                : Display Database (1600x1280)
        Terminus 2.0a           : Display Database (1600x1280)
        TVPaint Junior          : special (direct support)
        VistaPro 3.00           : passed through (saves IFF24)
        VLT Jr. 5.576           : promoted (800x600)
        WordPerfect 4.1.12      : promoted (1600x1280)

        UTILITIES:

        AIBB 6.1                : passed through(*)
        EdPlayer 2.1            : passed through (full screen)
        MegaD 2.00              : promoted (1600x1280)
        PowerPacker Pro         : promoted (640x480)
        Plotypus (SLAC Plotter) : promoted (1600x1280)
        ProTracker 3.01         : promoted (640x480)
        SysInfo 3.22            : passed through
        Xoper 2.4               : promoted (1600x1280)

        GAMES:

        SimAnt                  : promoted! (640x480)
        Act of War              : passed through
        Black Crypt             : passed through
        ChessMaster 2000        : promoted! (320x240)
        Civilization            : passed through
        Eye of Beholder II      : passed through
        F-18 Interceptor        : passed through
        Indiana Jones/Atlantis  : passed through
        MechForce 3.81          : passed through
        MegaFortress            : passed through
        Might & Magic III       : passed through
        Moria                   : passed through
        Out of this World       : locks up
        Pinball Fantasies       : locks up
        Populous II             : passed through
        Shanghai                : promoted! (320x240)
        Space Hulk (floppy)     : passed through
        Syndicate               : locks up
        Wing Commander          : passed through
        Wings                   : locks up

        (*) AIBB can be promoted, but its Intuition benchmarks
        aren't usable on screens other than the default Amiga
        screens.

        Now, I won't dig back through my archived disks to find more games
that fail, but of these that I play regularly, I'd say that 4 fails out of
20 isn't bad at all (too bad they're my 4 best games ;-).  If these were
booted from floppy, they would probably work.  You get the idea, though.
The other programs I use regularly, like AmiBack, sits happily on the
Workbench.  Compatibility has been excellent with the Picasso, and I've not
had to sacrifice a single program, save for four games.

        What's really terrific about the Picasso II is that my Chip RAM
rarely dips below 1.9 megs.  All background screens are copied only to Fast
RAM, and the frontmost screen is kept on the Picasso II's DRAM.
Screen-swapping occurs as fast as my monitor can sync up to the new screen,
or virtually immediately for two screens of the same resolution (maybe 1/10
of a second).


BUGS

        The Picasso RTG system tries very hard not to alter Intuition's
behavior in the way it handles screens.  It is, I believe, the only RTG
board (besides the Merlin) that still allows you to drag your screens,
something I don't think I could ever do without.  Such attention to detail
can't be an easy thing to program.

        In using the one-meg Picasso, certain little things would occur with
certain software.  For instance, I discovered that Terminus 2.0a would
corrupt the Picasso's display if it did three successive jump scrolls.  Or
DirOpus would sometimes leave bits and pieces of its interface lying around
the Workbench.  None of these things affected program execution, but it was
an annoyance nonetheless.  Pinpointing whether or not it's a Picasso bug, or
a bug with the application trying to deal with a screen it wasn't programmed
to work with, can be a difficult thing.

        To Village Tronic's and Expert Service's credit, updates have been
coming furiously.  Right now it looks as if a significant upgrade occurs on
a monthly basis.  Upgrades are available in the US for the cost of a
late-night call to their BBS in Kentucky (or Germany, depending on your
hemisphere).  Brick Eksten and Scott Bennett at Expert Services have been
extremely helpful, attentive, and competent both on the phone and through
the support BBS.

        Once I upgraded the Picasso II to two megs of video DRAM, all of the
graphics artifacting disappeared entirely.  TVPaint Junior, too, is much
happier with 2 megs of video memory on board.  If you are experiencing any
kind of video corruption or cosmetic glitches, you may wish to consider
upgrading your DRAM until a fix from Village Tronic is available.

        Since my upgrade, my configuration has become quite stable.  The
only crashes I experience are when I get adventuresome with individual
program settings (like trying to force Lyapunovia 1.5 or MandelMania to use
a 1280x1024 256-color screen-- whoops).


TVPAINT JUNIOR

        Perhaps the best part of the Picasso II software is the bundled
TVPaint Jr.  If you're thinking that it probably isn't that useful as a
'crippled' version of TVPaint, think again.  It deserves its own full
review, but I will run down some of the most important features here.

        TVPaint Jr. reads and writes ILBM/IFF24, JPEG, and its own DEEP
format.  It works with 32-bit data:  24 bits of color and an 8-bit alpha
channel.  All of the basic drawing functions are there, as are spline
curves, text, airbrush, magnification, and brush support.  Things missing
from classic TVPaint are full anti-aliasing on drawing functions and
freehand brush support.  This last one is a bummer, as it allows only
rectangular brushes.  Brush mapping is supported, but only horizontally.
Brushes can be inverted, rotated, and stretched.

        TVPaint's palette control is great.  Full colorwheel and RGB/CMY/HSV
color choice is supported.  Four separate color cycling ranges may be
defined, and cycle fills and color density fills are supported.  Color
masking and locking are fully supported.  The LUT, or Look-Up Table, is a
powerful feature that allows you to perform image-processing functions on
the image.  By altering an X:Y plot of source values:result values, you can
create a negative of the image, lighten or darken the image, solarize, or
create a false-color effect.  Compositing images using the Alpha channel is
fully implemented.

        Finally, the color modes.  Color and Stamp work like we're all used
to.  Smooth *is* available as a drawing mode, in spite of it not being
built-in to the drawing functions.  Smear is a mode that is very similar to
running your finger across a wet painting (duh...).  Shift is my favorite of
all.  Everything under the brush is moved along the direction of the brush
(I like what the manual says about this:  the colors are "carried by the
breath of its passage."  Ah, those French).  Different from Smear, Shift
keeps the image under the brush intact.  With it, I've been able to make
some rather disturbing images of bug-people and towering VistaPro crags.
Nice.  Transparency mode allows you to paint 'through' the spare screen
(great when you create a negative of the original image on the spare screen).
Shade and Light modes do just that; and finally, Grain mode generates
irregular 12-bit dithering to 'dirty' up impeccably clean images.

        The program is fast.  Very fast.  I've got a 25 MHz '030, but I
still have the idea that this program is written entirely in Assembler.

        That gives you an idea of what TVPaint Jr. is capable of; obviously,
classic TVPaint will give you more features.  But the engine, speed, and the
most powerful modes and features are the same.


SPEED

        There has been a great deal of debate on comp.sys.amiga.graphics as
to whether or not Zorro II versus Zorro III really makes all that much
difference when working with RTG cards like the Picasso II, Piccolo,
Spectrum, Retina, and Merlin.  All I have to add to that particular debate
is that I work with 16-bit ISA graphics cards on PC's every day:  cards like
the Video-7 VRAM II and the #9 GXE.  The Picasso's apparent speed on my
Amiga is no worse than similar 16-bit cards in the PC world.  And on my
system, it's damn fast.  Redraws, fills, blits... all are faster than the
Amiga's own blitter.  You should see Distant Suns' or SimAnt's sluggishness
disappear when run on the Picasso, and my Workbench just flies now.  The
number-mongers can debate as much as they'd like; what I have right now is a
fast system that works.


VENDOR SUPPORT

        As I mentioned earlier, support by both Village Tronic and Expert
Services has been tremendous.  The support BBS has an active message base,
as well as a file base that has the current build of the RTG drivers.
Additional utilities are available on the BBS such as an FLI animation
player for the Picasso and a demo version of Expert Services' 'Canvas', a
multi-module screen blanker for the Picasso.  The people I've dealt with at
Expert Services have been friendly and eager to help, and I've not had a
problem getting through to them at all, even on Saturdays.


WARRANTY

        One year, applies to original purchaser.


CONCLUSIONS

        The Picasso II provides Amiga users with RTG in a mature way:
provide the user with a system that works, that allows them to use
high-resolution displays, and works seamlessly with the Amiga's own
tried-and-true interface, Intuition.  I've not had to change a *thing* with
the way I work on my Amiga, right down to my draggable screens.  Once I get
OS 3, I'll have a virtual AGA machine.  As for the additional 24-bit GUI's
like the EGS system for other boards, I'll pass.  I've seen and used the
interface, and unless it becomes Intuition, I'm content that most popular
24-bit programs will be written specifically for the Picasso II until
AmigaDOS 4 and RTG hit the streets.

Dave Hopper     (i-daveho@microsoft.com)
 Corporate Events Technician, Microsoft.