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by Eddy Carroll, July 1994

Note: This review was originally written for Amiga Shopper, as part of a feature they were doing on Amiga graphics cards. While much of the ground is covered more comprehensively in my earlier review, this represents my thoughts on the Picasso II after using it regularly for a year.

Since its launch a year ago, the Picasso II has become one of the most popular Amiga graphics cards. And for good reason -- it combines a wide range of display modes and solid Workbench emulation with an attractive price.

Physical design
The Picasso is a full length Zorro II card, and so will work with the Amiga 2000, 3000 and 4000. It doesn't make use of the video slot, leaving it free for other graphics devices. Many new screen modes are provided, ranging from 640 x 480 in 24-bit to 1600 x 1200 in 16 colours on the 1 Mb model, or 800 x 600 in 24-bit to 1600 x 1200 in 256 colours on the 2 Mb model. A 16-bit mode is available at up to 1152 x 900, and screens in fewer than 256 colours are also supported. A fast onboard blitter is included to speed up operations like scrolling text and copying bitmaps.
   The Picasso features a passthrough connector, allowing a single monitor to be used for both the native Amiga display and the new high-resolution screen modes. This creates something of a problem: while normal ECS and AGA Amigas output video in the range 15 kHz to 31 kHz, the Picasso prefers frequencies from 31 kHz right up to 64 kHz. Very few, if any, of the monitors best suited to the Picasso will also support the 15 kHz necessary for native Amiga screens.
   The best all-round solution is to install a flicker-fixer or scan-doubler in your Amiga. This ensures that the Amiga's native video will always be at least 31 kHz, and gives access to a much wider range of monitors. A cheaper alternative is to use one of the Commodore-compatible multisync monitors that can scan from 15 kHz to 38 kHz.
   Even at 31 kHz, the Picasso can display up to 1280 x 1024; the advantage of the higher scanrates is that the screen can be refreshed more quickly, helping to reduce flicker. For example, at 31 kHz, the Picasso displays 800 x 600 at 50 Hz, the same refresh rate as a normal PAL screen. At 57 kHz, the same screen can be displayed at 83 Hz, which is much easier on the eye.
   A third alternative is to retain a second monitor or TV for use with the Amiga's native video output. This will usually only be needed for running games and demos, though Software Failures will also appear there.

Workbench support
One of the most important features of any graphics card is the quality of the Workbench emulation, and here the Picasso scores highly. The new screen modes are added to the monitor display database which Commodore introduced with Workbench 2.0, and so are directly available to any program that provides a screenmode requester. Older Amiga software that doesn't support the monitor database is catered for by the ChangeScreen commodity, which allows you to conveniently make any program use one of the Picasso screen modes instead of a native Amiga screen.
   As well as supporting multiple screens, the Picasso allows these screens to be dragged, a feature not seen on any other card. This is particularly clever, given that while the Amiga contains special hardware to support this, the Picasso does not. Although Picasso and Amiga screens can't be displayed simultaneously, several Picasso screens can be viewed at the same time, and you can work on the background screens by activating them with the mouse, just as you would expect. However, all screens will use the colour palette of the currently active screen, because the Picasso can't change colours in mid display.
   The speed of the Workbench emulation is largely dependent on the speed of your Amiga, since the CPU is used for much of the work. Realistically, you should have at least a 68030 with 4 Mb of 32-bit memory before you consider installing a Picasso. A 68040 is even better.
   If you are using an A2000 with Kickstart 2.04, you should consider upgrading to Kickstart 3.1, which is now finally available. Under 2.04, the Picasso only supports screens with up to 16 colours, while under 3.0 and 3.1, a full 256 colours are available, even on ECS Amigas. (Under 2.04, the 16-bit and 24-bit modes are still available to software specially written for the Picasso.) The Picasso's monitor driver is also more stable under 3.0; users running 2.04 with the Picasso have reported occasional problems and Enforcer hits.

Using the Picasso
In use, the Picasso feels about the same speed as a normal Amiga screen running in 4 or 8 colours. However, while the speed of the native Amiga chipset degrades rapidly as you increase resolution and number of colours, the Picasso's speed remains fairly constant, even at high resolutions like 1280 x 1024 in 256 colours.
   Applications like Final Writer take on a whole new feel when operating at 1024 x 768, allowing a full A4 page to be displayed during editing. Workbench itself looks much more professional at high resolutions, with room to run many applications simultaneously. You'll soon wonder how you ever managed at 640 x 256 or 640 x 512.
   By default, the Picasso uses planar bitmaps for maximum compatibility with normal Amiga screens. However, the monitor driver also supports a chunky 8-bit mode, which is up to 10 times faster for some operations when running in 256 colours. Although early releases of this proved somewhat buggy, the current version (2.51) is very stable, and compatible with the majority of software.
   If the myriad of new screen modes isn't enough to suit your needs (or perhaps your monitor's capabilities) you can use the supplied PicassoMode utility to design your own custom modes. This is useful for ensuring that the picture is properly centred on your screen, but can be put to more exotic uses as well.

Software support
The Picasso is well supported by third-party software. Both Art Department Professional and ImageFX allow 24-bit images to be rendered directly to the Picasso, and the animation programs MainActor and Magic Lantern allow realtime playback of animations on Picasso screens. Graphics software not supporting the Picasso directly will usually generate 24-bit IFF files, and these can then be viewed using an external viewer program.
   Several utilities for displaying JPEG, GIF and 24-bit IFF files are included with the Picasso, as well as a simple MPEG player. In the UK, the card also comes bundled with TV Paint Jr, which is a cut-down version of TV Paint 2.0, probably the most highly regarded 24-bit paint package available on the Amiga. Although it lacks many of the powerful features of its big brother, TV Paint Jr is useful for touching up small to medium size 24-bit images. For professional work, you'll certainly want to get the full version.

Expanding the Picasso
While the Picasso is aimed mainly at users looking for more resolution, more colours, and higher refresh rates, VillageTronic can also supply an optional video encoder card (150) which will allow you to transfer the Picasso's 24-bit output to video tape in composite or S-VHS format. This is useful for playing back 16-bit and 24-bit animations, though it won't be as fast as an Amiga 3000 or 4000 playing back HAM8 animations from 32-bit CHIP RAM, since it is limited by the speed of the Zorro II bus.
   Support from VillageTronic and Blittersoft is good, with monitor driver updates appearing on a regular basis. If you are fortunate enough to have Internet access, the Picasso mailing list provides an active forum for discussing the card, and also acts as a distribution method for updated files.
   Overall, the Picasso II is an excellent graphics card. In day to day use, it integrates seamlessly with the rest of the Amiga's operating system and quickly becomes an indispensable part of any setup. Highly recommended.

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Last updated 26 November 2000. Comments to ecarroll@iol.ie.