Top 10 Graphics Boards: They Got Game

The latest generation of graphics boards are fast, full-featured, and cost less than $300.We test their performance with the hottest 3D games and find ten that will make your screen come to life.

Graphics boards have long mastered the fundamentals of accelerating Windows applications, pumping up the performance of word processors, spreadsheets, and most other popular office applications. But whether you're ready to make a fast break for the latest shoot-'em-up 3D games or edit your video masterpieces like a seasoned pro, you'll need to recruit your new graphics star carefully if you want top performance with software that goes beyond the basics. You can also choose from a few boards if you want extra features such as an integrated TV tuner or built-in support for running two monitors (even at different refresh rates) simultaneously.

For this roundup, we put 15 AGP graphics boards through a variety of tests, focusing on 3D gaming because games are the only mainstream apps that challenge their capabilities. The results varied even among our Top 10 contenders. For example, in seventh place, the Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator--equipped with NVidia's GeForce 256 chip--delivered the fastest frame-rate score of 89 frames per second in Quake 3 Arena. By contrast, the number ten Matrox Marvel G400-TV, sporting the company's own G400 chip, managed only 45 fps.

Beyond speed, we also judged each board's visual quality in games. Overall, Guillemot's Maxi Gamer Xentor 32 delivered the best-looking graphics. Two others--the Creative Labs 3D Blaster RIVA TNT2 Ultra and the ELSA Erazor III Pro--also pumped out sharp, colorful images. All the rest--the 3dfx Voodoo3 3000, the ATI Rage Fury Pro, the Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator, and the Diamond Viper V770 Ultra and Stealth III S540 Xtreme, and both Matrox models (the Marvel and the Millennium)--generated pleasing graphics, but not as eye-popping as those by the first three.

These boards also vary in hardware features. If you're looking for a board that lets you capture and edit video from a camcorder or other video device, consider ATI's Rage Fury Pro or Matrox's Marvel G400-TV--both of which come equipped with video-in and -out ports. Although over half of the boards here allow you to output to a TV, only the Marvel provides a TV tuner that lets you display television programming on your PC's monitor.

When it comes to memory, the amount you need depends on how you intend to use your graphics card. If you use standard office applications, 8MB of memory will suffice. If you use a big monitor and would like to get high display resolutions, go for a card with 16MB or 32MB of RAM. For performance-hungry gamers, however, we consider 16MB the minimum, and recommend 32MB.

All of the boards we evaluated support a resolution of at least 1280 by 1024 (some even go as high as 2048 by 1536, which may be useful if you work on large spreadsheets or highly detailed graphics) at a refresh rate of 85 Hz. Your monitor also must support such resolutions and refresh rates. Different feature sets among the Top 10 boards also mean varying prices, ranging from $129 to $299.

But one board emerged on top: The $199 Creative Labs 3D Blaster RIVA TNT2 Ultra earns our Best Buy award, thanks to speedy performance, vivid image quality, and a video-out port.

Fast Break

Graphics boards installed in a 4X AGP slot promise to transfer information to and from system memory at roughly 1GB per second--twice the throughput of 2X AGP. Eight of the boards here already support 4X AGP, though they also function in an existing 2X AGP slot. Most of the latest games, however, don't use enough texture content to clog up a 2X AGP pipe. And because most graphics boards already have at least 16MB of RAM, 4X AGP may not deliver a discernable boost in performance over 2X AGP. Systems equipped with Intel's 820 chip set will be able to support the 4X AGP bus, but as we went to press, no 820-based PCs were available for review.

On the PCI front, card choices continue to dwindle. A few vendors still sell at least one similarly priced PCI graphics card in tandem with their AGP models.

For the latest and greatest products, however, most companies offer only AGP.

If you have a pre-Pentium II system or a PC with integrated graphics such as Intel's 810, a PCI card will be your only upgrade option.

Technological Leaps

Bolstering graphics cardsare two recent advancements: Chip clock speeds have been torqued to as high as 183 MHz, and dual rendering pipelines now enable those chips to process display information at the rate of two pixels per clock cycle instead of one. Some graphics chips can now accelerate 3D effects such as transformation and lighting (the process of calculating the polygons and light values in a 3D scene), letting software developers add elements of realism in games without bogging down performance.

NVidia's GeForce 256 chip integrates transformation and lighting engines into a single processor, thereby relieving the CPU of those calculations. At press time, several manufacturers had introduced newer graphics chips, but could not provide products in time for evaluation. One of these, S3's Savage 2000 processor, like the GeForce, integrates the transformation and lighting engines within the chip. The catch with both Savage 2000- and GeForce 256-powered boards is that it may be difficult to find software (other than games) that can take advantage of their advanced features.

And 3dfx's forthcoming Voodoo4 and Voodoo5 boards--which will be equipped with the company's new VSA-100 chip--promise to produce photorealistic effects such as motion blur in games that are developed to support such features. To carry out those effects, 3dfx will provide 32-bit rendering--a feature that its Voodoo3 cards lack, making them the only boards here without that capability.

And 3dfx says it will make its Voodoo5 boards with two to four VSA-100 chips and up to 128MB of RAM.

Switching Teams

As you shop around for your graphics speedster, you'll find a plethora of choices. But several companies are conspicuously absent. Competitive pressures and subpar performance have brought a few companies together and knocked out others. Intel recently purchased Real3D's assets and plans to use them to improve its 3D graphics technologies. Last October, card maker Guillemot acquired Hercules' assets, yet released graphics cards under Hercules' brand name. Other financial maneuvering in 1999 included chipmaker S3's purchase of boardmaker Diamond Multimedia, as well as chipmaker 3dfx's acquisition of board manufacturer STB Systems.

Get Real

All of the graphics boards we reviewed accelerate 3D chores that can add realism to games. Bump mapping adds irregular surface textures to simulate the rivets in a sheet of metal, for example, or to imitate a bumpy surface on rocks or other natural objects. Environment-mapped bump mapping (which Matrox boards support) takes this approach one step further by producing realistic reflections and lighting effects on a 3D object regardless of the angle at which it's viewed. But these effects must be applied in the game in order for graphics cards to support them.

Diamond's Stealth III S540 Xtreme fully supports the DirectX Texture Compression (DXTC) effect, which produces realistic images by using a high level of texture information (the "skin" painted on objects to simulate photorealistic environments) without increasing memory requirements or system bus traffic.

Although the graphics boards we reviewed have the hardware support for these effects, software vendors have been slow to implement them in applications. A number of game developers are already starting to integrate these 3D effects into their next generation of games.

The Changing Game Plan

Microsoft is reportedly working on an operating system that integrates 3D into the graphical user interface. For now, however, you can get Office plug-ins, such as CrystalGraphics' PowerPlugs, that add 3D transition effects to PowerPoint presentations, as well as ViewPoint DataLabs' LiveArt, which lets you paste 3D clip art in Word and PowerPoint documents.

The brightest prospect for 3D business graphics may lie with Web sites for browsing through a virtual shop or to view products from any perspective. Lands End, purveyors of Your Personal Model, lets shoppers view catalog items on the body shape of their choice. But such sites are rare, partly because of limited bandwidth and a lack of solid standards. Lands End's site requires only modest 3D-rendering capabilities that don't use 3D hardware acceleration because the company doesn't want to exclude consumers lacking advanced hardware.

As streaming video becomes more popular on the Web, you might be tempted to upgrade your graphics card to improve your PC's video quality. But the biggest problem with streaming video is the quality of the video stream itself, not the quality of the graphics card. Snail-paced Internet bandwidth typically results in choppy, delayed, and pixelated video playback. We tested all the boards using RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2. Thanks to each card's hardware video scaling capability, all cards performed well in our AVI video playback test. But keep in mind that even the best graphics card can do very little to ameliorate the quality of extremely compressed images streamed at 176 by 132 resolution.

We also evaluated each card based on its ease of installation, its documentation, and the quality of its extra features. Our jury panel compared lighting and transparency effects, ambient lighting, backgrounds, textures, and level of detail. On the basis of all of these performance and usability criteria, we rank the ten best in the bunch.

Mitt Jones is a contributing editor for PC World. Joel Strauch is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer. Chart data produced by PC World Associate Editor Grace Aquino. Testing performed by Jeff Kuta and Elliott Kirschling of the PC World Test Center.

Best Buy

Ditch your 3D glasses: The Creative Labs 3D Blaster RIVA TNT2 Ultra fires up the hottest games at speeds that will make you want to play for hours. It wins our Best Buy for blazingly swift performance, video-out capability, and useful software extras.

Pounding the Boards

1. Creative Labs 3D Blaster Riva TNT2 UltraWHAT'S HOT: The $199 3D Blaster RIVA TNT2 Ultra delivers first-rate speed in games. In Quake 3 Arena, it churned out 48 frames per second running at 800-by-600 resolution and 32-bit color depth. In 16-bit mode, it jumped to nearly 71 fps. It also produced excellent image quality, though we saw some blurry textures on the walls while playing Unreal Tournament.

WHAT'S NOT: The 3D Blaster includes only E-Color's Colorific and 3Deep color calibration tools and the Creative Software MPEG-1 player (most other cards here come with a game and a DVD player). Although the 21-page manual describes the installation process well, you'll have to refer to the company's Web site for information about this card's utilities.

WHAT ELSE: The board's video-out functionality allows you to view games and other video on a television screen. What's more, the 3D Blaster TNT2 Ultra's utilities allow in-depth control over such settings as memory overclocking, the method of setting the graphics card's memory to run at a higher speed. One caveat: Excessive overclocking may overheat the chip or eventually your entire PC.

BEST USE: Fast performance and impressive image quality make it a prime choice for gamers and office users alike.

2. Guillemot Maxi Gamer Xentor 32

WHAT'S HOT: Well-tuned drivers help give the Xentor 32 terrific speed, turning in an above-average 51-frames-per-second score in Quake 3 Arena using 800-by-600 resolution and 32-bit color. It also displayed top graphics quality in Quake, with sharp backgrounds and crisp transparencies on effects such as smoke from the guns and a translucent, hovering bubble with a fading yellow cross inside it. In Unreal Tournament, it produced well-balanced lighting and realistic water effects.

WHAT'S NOT: The Xentor 32's DVD video playback was somewhat weak, showing jerkiness during action sequences, and we noticed slight pixelation along brightly-lit peripheries. Guillemot offers the fewest tech-support hours among all board makers here--just nine-and-a-half hours per weekday.

WHAT ELSE: Its video-out port lets you pipe games or other video from your PC onto a TV screen. It comes bundled with two games--UbiSoft's Speed Busters:

American Highways and Interplay's Kingpin: Life of Crime.

BEST USE: This speedy card is great for game enthusiasts.

3. Elsa Erazor III Pro

WHAT'S HOT: The $169 ELSA Erazor III Pro is an all-around stellar performer.

Equipped with NVidia's RIVA TNT2 Pro chip, it performs well in games, especially in Need for Speed, where it scrambled to 28 frames per second at a resolution of 800 by 600 when running at 32-bit color depth. In 16-bit mode in Quake, it achieved 70 fps. It had good color quality overall. The Erazor III Pro's bundled utilities allow separate overclocking settings for the graphics chip and the memory.

WHAT'S NOT: This board suffered from a few lackluster images in some of our 3D-gaming tests. The sky in Quake 3, for example, appeared too bright, and halos surrounded the clouds. We also noticed some pixelated water effects in Unreal Tournament. This board attempted to drive our test monitor to a refresh rate beyond the monitor's capabilities. To fix that, we had to select a non-Plug-and-Play monitor profile and disable the games' automatic refresh-rate changes. Unlike some other cards here, the Erazor III lacks DVD player software.

WHAT ELSE: It comes with ELSA's MainActor video-editing suite, though the card we tested lacked video capture and output. (Those options are available on ELSA's $149 Gloria Synergy.) The Erazor includes demo versions of 15 games, including Descent 3, Moto Racer 2, and Tomb Raider 3. Unlike most competitors, ELSA provides toll-free technical support.

BEST USE: Solid performance and a reasonable price make it an attractive choice for game aficionados.

4. Matrox Millennium G400 32MB

WHAT'S HOT: Equipped with two 15-pin VGA connectors, the Millennium G400 lets you drive a second monitor or a TV (using an included cable adapter) without installing a second card; the two displays can run at separate resolutions and refresh rates. You can use this feature to show the same screen on two displays, or to create one big desktop so you can stretch a large spreadsheet across two screens. In our 3D image quality tests, this card rendered lighting effects realistically, unlike some others.

WHAT'S NOT: The G400 slogged through a dismal 16 frames-per-second rate in Need for Speed IV. Although it's competitive in Quake 3 Arena at 32-bit color, when we dropped our calibrations to 16-bit, the card barely increased its speed. And although its dual-display feature is handy for some users, getting the card to drive a TV on the secondary connector required some tweaking, and Matrox's manual lacks in-depth instructions about this installation hiccup. Another quirk: Though Matrox's DVD player did an excellent job with video playback, the software insisted on starting where it last left off when we reinserted our test titles.

WHAT ELSE: The Millennium's generous software bundle includes Micrografx's Picture Publisher 8 and Simply 3D, plus Rage Software's Expendable--a game with environmental scenes that displays the card's support for bump-mapping effects.

Unlike many boards here, Matrox provides drivers for Windows 3.x.

BEST USE: This Matrox is a great pick if you need dual-monitor support and dabble occasionally in gaming.

5. Diamond Stealth III S540 Xtreme

WHAT'S HOT: At $129, the Stealth III S540 Xtreme is the lowest-priced card on our Top 10. It also made a decent showing in most of our games--it blasted through Quake 3 Arena at 68 frames per second when running at a resolution of 640 by 480 at 16-bit color.

WHAT'S NOT: It mustered only 16 fps in Flight Simulator 2000--the worst showing in this game in the Top 10. It also produced a flickering line across the top edge of our screen and flat lighting in Unreal Tournament, and colors were faded in Quake. Diamond provides a scant six-page installation booklet devoid of illustrations. For the card to support 4X AGP-equipped PCs, you have to change jumper settings. Other cards we tested were capable of autodetecting 4X AGP and configuring themselves without the need to tinker with the jumpers.

WHAT ELSE: This board comes with utilities that let you adjust color and performance settings in games. The software can then automatically load your custom preferences when playing a game. You also get Zoran's SoftDVD player.

Diamond offers any two of the following games via Chumbo.com for a shipping cost of $13: Asteroids, Fighter Squadron, Heretic II, Shogo Sin, or Starsiege.

BEST USE: The S540 Xtreme is a reasonable choice for budget-conscious buyers who occasionally play games.

6. 3DFX Voodoo3 3000

WHAT'S HOT: The $150 Voodoo3 3000 provides quick performance when driving 16-bit color. In Quake 3 Arena, it ran at 59 frames per second at 800-by-600 resolution--well above average. Plus, a video-out port lets you view graphics on a TV.

WHAT'S NOT: As with other Voodoo3-based boards, the 3000 can support only 16-bit color with 3D graphics (others here support 32-bit, which adds more realism to a scene). Although this card offers terrific speed, it generated flat lighting in Quake and poor detail on objects in Viper Racing. Using the card's Direct3D driver, it produced overly bright scenes and inaccurate colors in games. But by using 3dfx's Glide driver, it was capable of displaying much more realistic images.

WHAT ELSE: 3dfx throws in Electronic Arts' Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, GT Interactive's Unreal (along with a coupon for a free copy of Unreal Tournament) and a demo of Interplay's Descent III Sol Ascent. Plus, 3dfx provides toll-free technical support and a lifetime warranty (more than any other board vendor here).

BEST USE: Pleasing speed and video-out connection suits it for most gamers.

7. Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator

WHAT'S HOT: Equipped with NVidia's GeForce 256 chip, the Annihilator sprinted through Quake 3 at 62 frames per second when running at 800 by 600 resolution and 32-bit color. In 16-bit mode, it hit an astonishing 89 fps--by far the fastest Quake performer we've ever seen.

WHAT'S NOT: Quake aside, it ran Need for Speed IV: High Stakes at a disappointing 15 fps (slowest of all the graphics cards here), and the board showed some fuzzy images in Quake 3 and Flight Simulator 2000. Priced at $250, it's also one of the most expensive cards in this roundup. The 3D Blaster Annihilator comes with a skimpy software bundle, which includes E-Color's Colorific and 3Deep for color-calibrating your PC to your monitor, scanner, or printer.

WHAT ELSE: Creative Labs provides an above-average, 14 hours of weekday technical support, and it's available weekends (which most manufacturers don't offer).

BEST USE: This board would make a very expensive upgrade for hardcore gamers who are willing to pay extra for stellar Quake 3 performance.

8. Diamond Viper V770 Ultra

WHAT'S HOT: Diamond's Viper V770 Ultra shows vivid lighting effects and backgrounds when running Unreal Tournament or Quake 3 Arena. It also delivered terrific speed in Unreal Tournament.

WHAT'S NOT: This $199 card is too expensive considering the mediocre 3D-gaming performance it delivers. Compared to other boards equipped with NVidia's RIVA TNT2 Ultra chip, the Viper V770 Ultra ran sluggishly in Quake 3 Arena, posting only 37 frames per second in 32-bit mode. Unlike competitors, Diamond provides only a six-page unillustrated pamphlet as documentation.

WHAT ELSE: Diamond's easy-to-use InControl utilities automatically create a profile for each 3D game you run. You can then customize 3D options and color settings. And the card's software bundle includes a Zoran SoftDVD player and a PowerPoint graphics plug-in from CrystalGraphics. To prepare the card for a 4X AGP-equipped system, you must properly set the jumpers, as explained in a separate instruction sheet.

BEST USE: It plays an impressive game of Unreal Tournament, but other cards are speedier and somewhat less expensive.

9. ATI RAGE FURY PRO

WHAT'S HOT: ATI's Rage Fury Pro is affordable at $179. It performed expeditiously in most of our gaming tests. The card comes with useful video capabilities, including video-out, video capture, and hardware DVD decoding. It produced accurate detail in Viper Racing, and handled layered textures and lighting effects well in Unreal Tournament.

WHAT'S NOT: Although it performed quite well in other games, the Rage Fury Pro tanked in Quake 3 Arena, lumbering to only 31 frames per second in 32-bit mode.

It displayed lackluster lighting effects in Quake 3, and it colored Quake's scenes with a purple and green tinge. ATI's video-editing tool is short on the features and flexibility that are necessary to put together a polished video; to do that requires a more advanced editing program, such as Avid Cinema, which comes bundled with Matrox's Marvel G400-TV.

WHAT ELSE: The company's extensive array of utilities and video-related tools, which include ATI's DVD player software, install automatically when you insert the bundled CD-ROM. The Rage Fury Pro also captured video smoothly. And it comes with a couple of games: Activision's Heavy Gear 2 and GT Interactive's Need for Speed IV.

BEST USE: If you want to push the threshold of your 3D-gaming experience and to try your hand at video editing, consider the ATI Rage Fury Pro for your next upgrade.

10. Matrox Marvel G400-TV

WHAT'S HOT: Easy-to-use video-capture and video-editing capabilities compensate for the Marvel G400-TV's high $299 price. The card's hardware Motion-JPEG compressor/decompressor enables fast, high-quality video capture and editing capabilities. The Marvel comes with the Avid Cinema video-editing program, as well as an external connector box that provides in and out ports for a TV antenna, audio, and video.

WHAT'S NOT: In our 3D-gaming tests, the Marvel performed sluggishly. In Unreal Tournament, for instance, it dragged its way through at just 21 frames per second in 32-bit mode, and it ran at 20 fps in Need for Speed IV. The G400-TV costs more than any other graphics card in our roundup, though none of the others come so well equipped. The Marvel's external connector device may contribute to cable clutter around your PC's workspace. The card supports only PCs running Windows 95 or Windows 98.

WHAT ELSE: Unlike most competitors, the Marvel lets you use a monitor and TV simultaneously with different resolutions and refresh rates. In addition to Avid Cinema, Matrox throws in its own DVD player and PC-VCR control software, plus Ulead's Photo Express image editor, and Gremlin Interactive's Wild Metal Country and UbiSoft's Tonic Trouble.

BEST USE: Though 3D gamers won't be impressed, the reasonably priced G400-TV provides an easy-to-use, full-featured solution for editing home videos.

More Reviews Online

We tested five other graphics boards that scored too low to make the chart.

Visit www. pcworld.com/feb00/graphicsboards.

* 3dfx Velocity 100

* 3dfx Voodoo3 3500TV

* ATI All-In-Wonder 128

* ATI Xpert 128

* ATI Xpert 2000

What Every Graphics Card Owner Should KnowThe Softer SideWhen shopping for a graphics card, the hardware always seems to be first priority. What chip set's inside? How much memory does it carry? But certain software factors should also affect your purchase decision.

Driver's Seat

Using the latest driver--the software that communicates between the application, the OS, and hardware--can boost a card's overall performance in office programs, as well as significantly improve the speed and image quality in 3D games.

Kathleen Maher, editor and analyst at the research firm Jon Peddie Associates, says that hardcore gamers typically pursue the most up-to-date drivers. Most board vendors update drivers to bolster performance and improve image quality.

But the average user only needs a new driver when upgrading an OS, or if their monitor displays inaccurate colors when running a graphics program such as Photoshop.

In some cases, an injudicious update may harm your machine. You may experience a system crash or get error messages, Maher says.

The Lowdown on API

Application programming interfaces allow programmers to create games that take advantage of hardware features built into graphics accelerators--as long as the card also conforms to the API. The two most commonly used APIs are Direct3D and OpenGL. Any graphics card will support these APIs. Another API, Glide, is currently supported only by 3dfx graphics boards. Aside from Unreal Tournament, few new games support Glide.

Gamers should consider using DirectX 7--it's free from Microsoft's site.

Current versions of Windows and most DirectX games also include version 7, which offers enhanced 3D support and features. Peter Glaskowsky, a senior analyst for 3D and multimedia at Microprocessor Report, says developers are taking advantage of DirectX 7, but business users don't need it.

Microsoft is developing the Fahrenheit API. "If your card supports DirectX, then your card [also] supports Fahrenheit. It'll be another year before Fahrenheit talks directly to your hardware," Glaskowsky says.

OS Hardball

But the most important software that your graphics card deals with is the OS itself. Josephine Mong, a research analyst at International Data Corporation, says, "most graphics cards support Windows 95, 98, and Windows NT." Very few support 3.x, and board vendors are still working on Windows 2000 drivers. If you use an NVidia-based card and run Linux or BeOS, you can get drivers from the NVidia site.

-Joel Strauch

Inside Moves: Hardware That'll Take It to OvertimeHardware FeaturesWhen considering a graphics card, bear in mind expandability options, such as whether it supports digital monitors or dual displays. Choosing a board that makes it easy to add features you might want later can save you money and frustration in the long run.

If you are planning to upgrade to an LCD monitor, consider a graphics card that offers a digital connection. Most current LCD monitors accept analog signals to retain compatibility with standard graphics cards, but to accomplish that they must include their own analog-to-digital circuitry, which adds to the final cost. More important, you will get better image quality with a digital interface.

Unfortunately, buyers who want digital interface support will find few options, even among the graphics cards we tested. None of the boards comes with a digital connector as standard equipment, although Matrox's cards can accept a $59 daughtercard, the G400 Flat Panel, that adds a digital connector. ATI promises to offer a solution as well.Double Teaming

For those who have desktop space to spare, running two displays can aid your productivity. With Windows 98's integrated support for multiple displays, you can stretch a spreadsheet across two monitors, for instance, or run your browser on one monitor while editing a document on the other. With Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2000, you might use a second display to give yourself two large views--one for the cockpit and the other for the ground beneath you. You can even run the two displays at different resolutions.

You can configure dual displays by installing two graphics cards in your system--two PCI cards or one PCI card and one AGP. Assuming the boards and their drivers were designed to work properly with Windows 98, the operating system will detect multiple display adapters and will automatically enable multiple monitor support.

However, Matrox Millennium G400's DualHead feature provides an even better solution: The board comes with two standard 15-pin VGA connectors and allows you to connect a second display without having to install a second graphics card. The board's utilities also simplify your display options. But not all Matrox boards work alike: Although the Matrox Marvel G400-TV provides dual-monitor support, the second display is limited to a television monitor, which is not ideal for displaying text.

Five other cards in our Top 10 list provide a video-out connection, but this feature does not provide the same functionality as dual-display capability does. With video-out, you can't use the second display to stretch out your Windows desktop and applications: The monitor and television must display the same content. What's worse, the monitor must also use the same flickery 60-Hz refresh rate and the same low resolution as the television, which is usually only 640 by 480 or 800 by 600.

Ready for Prime Time

Graphics cards with TV-tuning capabilities can display standard television programming on a PC monitor. For some users this feature might come in handy:

As you're typing an e-mail message or surfing the Web, you can have a small window on screen displaying the evening news or viewing your favorite sports broadcast. Certain TV tuners also provide VCR-like features, such as the capability to capture or "record" programming on your PC.

Three of the 15 boards we tested--the $249 3dfx Voodoo3 3500 TV, the $139 ATI All-in-Wonder 128, and the $299 Matrox Marvel G400-TV, which makes our Top 10 chart--come with TV tuners. The utilities from Matrox provide useful features, including the capability to search programs and notify you of words you specify.

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