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Best graphics card for 286 system

aitotat

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I just tested almost all my ISA graphics cards on a 286. I'm a bit disappointed since only few of them actually worked on a 286. It seems that almost all later ISA graphics cards have BIOS that uses 386 instructions.

I tested them using 24” HP LP2475w LCD monitor. It doesn't handle analog VGA well so none of the cards produced as good image quality as I would have liked. Best of them produced image quality that could be considered decent. Worst cards produced image quality so bad that I certainly don't ever want to use them with this monitor. One card failed to work at all with this monitor.

I tested with Keen 4 since it has two options (jerky motion fix and SVGA compatibility) for cards that are not 100% EGA/VGA compatible. Cards with perfect compatibility do not need to enable either. I consider compatibility to be more important than speed.


#9 (S3 928 ). This turned out to be the best ISA graphics card. Too bad it don't work on a 286.
  • Requires 386+: YES
  • Image quality: Decent (best of tested cards).
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

ATI (28800-5). My LCD monitor did not work at all with this card. The card does work on a 286 since there were no beeps and system booted based on hard disk LED activity.

Cirrus Logic (CL-GD5422)
  • Requires 386+: YES
  • Image quality: Bad but a little better than Tridents.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

Hercules Dynamite (ET4000/W32i). Worked on a 286 but only with Turbo disabled. There were some minor graphics corruption with Turbo enabled. First I thought that the RAM was bad but there were no problems on a 386.
  • Requires 386+: NO
  • Image quality: Decent. Perhaps a little bit worse than the S3.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: ON

Paradise VGA Professional Card (PVGA1A). This Paradise required SVGA compatibility unlike the other Paradise. This one is one year older and has 512 kiB RAM.
  • Requires 386+: NO
  • Image quality: Decent but not quite as good as the best ISA cards.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: ON

Paradise (PVGA1A). This Paradise had perfect compatibility unlike the Professional Card. This one has 256 kiB RAM.
  • Requires 386+: NO
  • Image quality: Decent but not quite as good as the best ISA cards.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

Trident (TVGA8800BR). This is the only card I tried only on 386. It it old and 8-bit so it should work even on XT systems. This was the only card that was too slow to run Keen 4 smoothly on a 386 DX-40. Keen 4 ran smoothly with all other cards on both 286 and 386.
  • Requires 386+: NO
  • Image quality: Bad. Trident 9000i was the only one with even worse image quality.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: ON

Trident (TVGA 9000i-1). This one has jumpers for 8-bit mode but it turned out that the BIOS requires 386.
  • Requires 386+: YES
  • Image quality: Bad. This card easily had the worst image quality.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

I've always liked Paradise cards and with a good reason. Image quality is a lot better than low-end graphics cards from early 90s. Paradise are also compatible so I have a good reason to keep Paradise on my 286. I would like to know if there are even better alternatives.

Edit: Here are additional cards.

OAK OTI037C. The only 16-bit card that was not fast enough for Keen 4 on 386-40. Wikipedia says that the OTI037C is a 8-bit VGA chipset so no wonder. This turned out to be easily faster than Trident 8800 but not as fast as 8-bit Paradise. Maybe the chip internally accesses RAM using 8-bit data path while the external data path is 16-bit. The card did have a jumper for grayscale operation. I would have liked it when I had to use grayscale IBM VGA monitor.
  • Requires 386+: NO
  • Image Quality: Decent. Not quite as good as the best ISA cards but a bit better than on Paradise cards.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

Paradise VGA Plus. 8-bit card that was actually faster than OAK and by far faster than Trident 8800. Avoid Tridents if you need 8-bit capable VGA card. This is simply 8-bit version of the non Professional Paradise card.
  • Requires 386+: NO
  • Image Quality: Decent but not quite as good as the best ISA cards.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

Since the 386 have VLB slots (386/486 hybrid motherboard), I decided to test the few VLB cards that I have.

ATi Graphics Wonder (Mach 32 VLB). Surprisingly this had the worst image quality of the VLB cards.
  • Requires 386+: YES
  • Image Quality: Below Paradise cards but far better than ISA Tridents or ISA Cirrus Logic.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: ON
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

Cirrus Logic CL-GD5428 (VLB). This should be quite fast so people usually recommend it since these are not rare. I feared that it would have as bad image quality as the ISA CL but it turned out to be far better. I had the Mach 32 on my 386 but now I'm going to replace it with this.
  • Requires 386+: YES
  • Image Quality: Decent. About the same as ISA Hercules Dynamite with ET4000/W32i.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF

#9 GXE64 (S3 Vision864 VLB). Again the #9 with S3 turned out to be the best. This one had the best image quality of all tested cards. This is the only card that my monitor is happy with. I've used this card on my 486 gaming system and happily keep it there.
  • Requires 386+: YES
  • Image Quality: Good.
  • Fix Jerky Motion: OFF
  • SVGA Compatibility: OFF
 
Last edited:

Anonymous Coward

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I like Tseng cards myself, as they are quite fast and compatible. Something tells me that your system is running the ISA bus out of spec, which would explain why things run better when you release the turbo button.
 

Chuck(G)

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Wouldn't the best graphics card depend on what you're attempting to do?

If, say, you were running a CAD package with TIGA support, wouldn't a TIGA card blow away most legacy ISA VGA cards?
 

Caluser2000

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FWIW the OAK 256k VGA card I had in my 286/16 in the early 90s had perfect compatibility as well. Ran CK 4 just fine and dandy, as well as a lot of other games available for PCs at that time. No issues with the likes of GeoWorks, Neopaint or Quikmenu either.
 

aitotat

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I was thinking about the usual general purpose (S)VGA-cards. I know there were CAD controllers that could cost many times as much as normal (S)VGA-cards. Is there any benefit from CAD controllers when not using any CAD application? Are they even VGA-compatible? I think I know where I could get Eizo MD-B12. It is a full length 16-bit ISA card with 5 SIMM-sockets and TMS34010 controller.
 

aitotat

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I just added more cards to the first post. Now I have tested all my ISA cards. I tested my VLB cards too since I wanted to know how bad the image quality was on later Cirrus Logic chip (they have integrated RAMDAC).
 

Chuck(G)

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I was thinking about the usual general purpose (S)VGA-cards. I know there were CAD controllers that could cost many times as much as normal (S)VGA-cards. Is there any benefit from CAD controllers when not using any CAD application? Are they even VGA-compatible? I think I know where I could get Eizo MD-B12. It is a full length 16-bit ISA card with 5 SIMM-sockets and TMS34010 controller.

No--almost all of the TIGA cards, for example, could do simple VGA emulation if no drivers were supplied, but performance in that mode was barely average.
 

Anonymous Coward

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I was under the impression that many of the TIGA boards needed to be paired with an actual VGA card through the feature connector. Is that not correct?
 

Chuck(G)

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Some TIGA cards were "add-ons" to a standard VGA card; a few (late) others had a VGA controller on-board. Some months ago, someone posted a photo of an example of the latter.
 

nestor

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Yesterday a workmate donated me a 286 Acer motherboard fitted with a 268-16 and 2 MB of ram in SIPP package that was abandoned 15 years ago or so. Surprisingly, it works like a charm. I planned to test my four ISA graphic cards before seeing this post, now I have another reason to do it... I will put my results here.

I'm really interested to test how they perform under CGA / Hercules compatibility modes (I have to find the DOS specific utilities to set these modes). I will use CGA_COMP to check the degree of real compatibility.

As monitor I'm going to use a Mitsubishi Diamond Scan 70 17'' CRT monitor.

These are the four ISA cards I have:

Realtek RTG3106
Trident TVGA 9000C
Hualon HM86304Q
UMC UM85C408AF
 
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joekster

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What about some of the 64-bit ISA video cards? I have a cl5434(i think) based card 64bit/2mb dram ISA. I know there were also ati mach64 ISA cards as well. I also have a 4MB s3-968 vlb card, since you brought vlb into the mix...
 

nestor

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Here are the results of my four ISA VGA cards, plugged in a 286 16 MHz AT clone with a Mitsubishi DiamondScan 70 CRT:

Realtek RTG3106
Memory: 1024k
286 compatible: Yes
Works on 8bit ISA slot: Yes
CGA / Hercules mode: Yes, using provided utility.

CGACOMP Benchmarks:
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory read benchmark: 676
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory write benchmark: 855
- Adapter Memory-only read benchmark: 1756
- Adapter Memory-only write benchmark: 2056
- Tests on CGA mode: OK.

Notes:
- CGACOMP Benchmark results are worse when plugged in 8bit slot.
- Alley cat runs with no slowdowns on CGA mode.

Trident TVGA 9000C
Memory: 512k
286 compatible: Yes
Works on 8bit ISA slot: Yes
CGA / Hercules mode: Yes, using provided utility.
CGACOMP Benchmarks:
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory read benchmark: 650
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory write benchmark: 856
- Adapter Memory-only read benchmark: 1741
- Adapter Memory-only write benchmark: 2078
- Tests on CGA mode: OK.

Notes:
- CGACOMP Benchmark results are worse when plugged in 8bit slot.
- Alley cat runs with no slowdowns on CGA mode.
- CGA mode is kept on reboot, reverts to VGA mode on power off.


Hualon HM86304Q
Memory: 512k
286 compatible: Yes
Works on 8bit ISA slot: Yes
CGA / Hercules mode: No
CGACOMP Benchmarks:
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory read benchmark: 526
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory write benchmark: 709
- Adapter Memory-only read benchmark: 800
- Adapter Memory-only write benchmark: 946
- Tests on CGA mode: N/A

Notes:
- CGACOMP Benchmark results are the same when plugged in 8bit slot.

UMC UM85C408AF
Memory: 512k
286 compatible: Yes
Works on 8bit ISA slot: Yes
CGA / Hercules mode: No

CGACOMP Benchmarks:
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory read benchmark: 566
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory write benchmark: 709
- Adapter Memory-only read benchmark: 820
- Adapter Memory-only write benchmark: 944
- Tests on CGA mode: N/A

Notes:
- CGACOMP Benchmark results are the same when plugged in 8bit slot.
- 320x200 VGA mode looks like it had a vertical scanline emulation or similar effect.
 

ajcc

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Trident TVGA 9000C
Memory: 512k
286 compatible: Yes
Works on 8bit ISA slot: Yes
CGA / Hercules mode: Yes, using provided utility.
CGACOMP Benchmarks:
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory read benchmark: 650
- Interleaved opcode/adapter memory write benchmark: 856
- Adapter Memory-only read benchmark: 1741
- Adapter Memory-only write benchmark: 2078
- Tests on CGA mode: OK.

Notes:
- CGACOMP Benchmark results are worse when plugged in 8bit slot.
- Alley cat runs with no slowdowns on CGA mode.
- CGA mode is kept on reboot, reverts to VGA mode on power off.

Cool, thanks for testing this and posting the result here :)
Which utility do I need to run it in CGA/Hercules mode?
 

nestor

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The file is called svm.exe and it is included in the utility package inside the TVGA9000 drivers. You can search for it in google, it finds some results like this.
 

freakedenough

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I know this thread is old, but it may be gold. I decided to bump it, as it's #1 result on Google.
I am trying hard to find a SVGA card that can display 800x600x64k or more under Win3.1 on a 286. I own a S3 924/911, CL-GD5422 and Match64 and none of them works. Win3.1 crashes during boot or sends me back to DOS prompt. However, the CL-GD5422 brings its own CLMODE utility for DOS, with which it is able to display SVGA resolutions flawlessly (even 640x480x16mil cols) under DOS on the 286, so I would not expect a general 286 incompatibility as mentioned above unless you try to run Win3.1.
I think the problem i am going to run into is that the Driver Development Kit Microsoft provided for 3.1 with an example SVGA driver, required a 386 for SVGA.
So unless a video card manufacturer wrote a 3.1 driver from scratch, theirs should also require a 386.
However, did any of you manage to get high resolutions under 3.1 on a 286? If yes, with which card?
 

Trixter

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High resolutions in Windows 3.1 on a 286 are possible, but typically only in 16 or 256 colors. I ran interlaced 1024x768x16 on Win 3.1 on a 286 once (ATI, IIRC).

There are understandable reasons why video modes that use more than 512K require a 386, from needing more horsepower, to addressing more than 64K at a time (if the card's chipset banking/windowing allows it), all for making such large modes practical from a speed standpoint.

Why is a 286 part of your requirements?
 

Eudimorphodon

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There are understandable reasons why video modes that use more than 512K require a 386, from needing more horsepower, to addressing more than 64K at a time (if the card's chipset banking/windowing allows it), all for making such large modes practical from a speed standpoint.

Honestly I think you hit the diminishing returns point pretty quickly with high resolutions/color depths on ISA systems *period*. I remember back in the day of having a theoretically-fast late-generation Cirrus Logic(?) video card in an ISA-bus-only 486DX/50mhz, and there's only so much you can do to ignore the fact that your CPU is on the wrong side of a 8MB/sec-ish (usually slower) bottleneck. A particular gotchya was the card *did* support a linear addressing mode that could supposedly improve performance substantially even on the slow bus, but it required your computer be able to create a couple-megabyte-long "memory hole" under the 16MB mark. Only option with that 486 board would have been to yank out memory (I think it had 20MB?), down to under 12MB or so, which obviously wasn't a great compromise.
 

1ST1

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Maybe your used TFT is the problem as it may not be able to support many of the old video timings. My secret wonder weapon for these cases is again the swiss army knife of TFT monitors which is NEC TFT Multisync 1970/1990 sxi/nxp etc.
 

freakedenough

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There are understandable reasons why video modes that use more than 512K require a 386
Why is a 286 part of your requirements?
That is not true. CLMODE application of my CL-GD5422 is able to display 640x480 at 16 mill. colors via 800x600x64k colors up to 1024x768x256 colors on my 286. Its just not working under Win3.1 since the MS Dev Kit for SVGA, on which base most later drivers were built, required a 386 for SVGA modes. The DOS-Driver is for sure not making use of this Kit, this is why it works.
What I need is a graphics card that built up their drivers before the SVGA-Kit release by Microsoft.
I assume a Trident 8900, which had drivers for Win3.0 and on, will do it. But I lack confirmation.
 

Trixter

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That is not true.

I wasn't saying it was impossible, I was saying it was impractical. I was referring to Win 3.1 drivers specifically. A DOS program that can display all the colors is not the same thing as a windows driver trying to optimize for speed.

Displaying JPEGs in truecolor was slow enough on my 386-40; I can't imagine how slow it would be on a 286. Why is a 286 part of your requirements? People didn't run highcolor/truecolor applications on 286s during that time period (or ever).
 
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