THE PICASSO II REVISITED
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.
by Eddy Carroll, July 1994
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Last updated 26 November 2000. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.