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COMPUTER FILE / Richard O'Reilly

Hercules Shows Off Its Impressive New Muscles

July 07, 1986|RICHARD O'REILLY | Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Four years ago, when the first Hercules monochrome graphics board was introduced for the IBM PC, there was no software to take advantage of its features.

The video circuitry was capable of producing graphs on the IBM monochrome monitor that were nearly four times more detailed than those possible on an IBM color graphics monitor and circuit board. But what good was it if there wasn't any software to take advantage of that ability?

It wasn't until Lotus 1-2-3 gave the product its blessing nearly a year later by adding a so-called driver for the Hercules that the board began to gain popularity.

Today, about 500,000 boards later, the Hercules has become a virtual graphics standard for PCs and is widely copied by clone board makers who have been able to profit handsomely by undercutting the $499 suggested retail price of the original. Now, Hercules Computer Technology of Berkeley intends to set a standard with the introduction of the Graphics Card Plus. And this time it has Lotus on its side from the outset with drivers for 1-2-3 and Symphony, along with Microsoft Word and Ashton-Tate's Framework.

The new card, introduced July 1 and retailing for $299, does everything the old one did plus allow you to display multiple sizes and styles of type simultaneously on the monochrome monitor.

It also lets you create windows in which graphs can be displayed so that, for instance, you can have a Lotus spreadsheet on the screen and superimpose a graphics window over a portion of the display in which the data you're working with appears as a graph.

The new board, which cannot display color nor work with a color monitor, has two advantages over the standard color graphics cards and the newer enhanced graphics cards--it paints the screen with multi-size characters much faster than the color graphics cards can, and it provides superior resolution.

If you look closely at a computer monitor, you'll see that the characters it displays are composed of multiple dots of light. In fact, every computer screen is electronically divided into invisible rows and columns--200 rows and 320 columns for the IBM standard color graphics display and 350 rows by 720 columns for the IBM monochrome display. The enhanced graphics card divides the screen into 350 rows by 640 columns.

If you multiply the rows by the columns, you get the total possible points of light (pixels) that can be displayed. It works out to 64,000 for a color graphics display, 252,000 pixels with a monochrome card and 224,000 with an enhanced graphics board. Since the dots collectively cover the same screen area, The greater the number of pixels, the finer the resolution of the screen.

In graphics mode, the computer must keep track of each pixel separately, which is a lot of information to manage and consequently time-consuming by computer processing standards. But it allows you to have any kind of image you want, from a tiny A to a Z that fills the entire screen, or a pie chart or any other image you desire.

In text mode, the IBM PC and compatibles keep track of only 256 pieces of information instead of tens of thousands of pixels, each piece of information representing a complete character, be it a letter of the alphabet or a happy-face symbol. Each character resides in something called a "matrix," which is simply a subdivision of pixels so many rows deep by columns wide. Whether you see an A or a Z simply depends on which pixels within that matrix are turned on. Each matrix pattern is assigned a number between 0 and 255 so that, for instance, when the computer displays item 65, it is always a capital A. It's fast, but you can't make a pie chart in text mode, nor can you have different sizes of characters on the screen.

Hercules' co-founder and board designer, Van Suwannukul, simply figured out how to increase that 256-item limit to 3,072 items--a dozen-fold increase that actually gives its card the ability to display up to 24 separate type fonts on a screen simultaneously. The ingenious way he did it means that the computer doesn't even have to process more information than it did to display just 256 characters, so it's still lightning fast.

In fact, with the new board, Microsoft's Word word-processing program runs four times faster than it does with a normal graphics board yet still displays the same multiple fonts, italics, boldface, superscripts, subscripts and small capitals and does so with much finer screen resolution.

Even if you don't have Word or any of the three other programs that can use the new board now, you can use it to substitute a different type font for the one now displayed on your screen--larger characters with serifs, for instance, or all italics, even script.

You also can design your own fonts with software that comes with the board, as Hercules President Kevin Jenkins demonstrated to me recently. He changed the capital S into a dollar sign with two vertical lines through it, making no secret of what he hopes this new board will do for his company.

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