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I remember CAD being a major driver for PCs with high-end graphics cards; specifically AutoCAD was rising quickly in popularity around 1990 as PCs were able to compete with very costly CAD workstations.

My memory about the high-end graphics cards of the time is sparse. I do remember the TI TARGA compatible cards, which were popular for photo-realistic graphics, and I think could work with AutoCAD as well. And I remember Number Nine cards being highly regarded by some AutoCAD users.

I am mainly interested in the period from 1988 to 1992-3. At that time, SVGA was new (VGA even somewhat new), and lower-cost video cards lacked the resolution and performance desired by AutoCAD users. I think they were aiming for 1024x1024 pixel resolution with accelerated 2D.

So, what were the most capable/popular high-end video cards for CAD on PC's at this time, and what were their capabilities (resolution, color depth, monitor freq., VRAM capacity, etc.)?

  • I vaguely recall the Tseng Labs ET3000/4000/6000 chipsets being a big deal at the time, but I don't know if they were used in high-end workstations. – fadden Jun 14 at 15:17
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    I know AutoCAD is almost unique in using the accelerator functions built into the IBM 8514, but I've no idea as to its actual performance or popularity, alas. – Tommy Jun 14 at 15:56
  • In 1990 high-end like you described either meant higher resolution and/or colour depth than VGA (and not necessary VGA compatible, so not SVGA, like with the Truevision TARGA) or alternatively 2D accelerators like with the IBM 8514/A and its many clones. – Ross Ridge Jun 14 at 16:00
  • My memory says that Diamond Stealth cards were big then. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond_Multimedia#Stealth – LAK Jun 14 at 17:03
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    @Criggie I'm talking about whatever was most important to AutoCAD users. Not having been a user, myself, I can only speculate on what they valued highest. My guess would be resolution and re-draw speed, but I'm happy to be corrected. – Brian H Jun 15 at 14:25
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Basic level - 8514/a clones, like ATI Mach 8 (1990, up to 8-bit color, up to 1 meg VRAM, up to 899$) - see

Medium level - TIGA-based video accelerators, especially for CAD. see

High end - CAD/PostScript accelerators like SPEA Fire with i860 CPU onboard.

Early solution - miro GRAPH 510 on Signetics SCC63484 ACRTC chipset, 1986, 2 meg VRAM. see

  • Did any video cards with that Signetics chipset have the full 2 MiB of Video RAM? – snips-n-snails Jun 14 at 19:49
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    Some impressive cards there. I had forgotten about the i860 as a graphics accelerator. – Brian H Jun 14 at 20:16
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I think the Metheus UGA 1228 ($3,995 in February 1990, equivalent to $7,750 in 2018) qualifies as high-end. It supported 2 MiB of Video RAM for a maximum resolution of 1,280×1,024 pixels in 256 colors, when most other graphics cards at the time topped out at 512 KiB and 1,024×768 in 16 colors.

  • 1280x1024 at 8bpp is only about 1.31 MB. You can neatly fit 1600x1200 at 8bpp into 2 MiB (it requires 1.92 MB, plus whatever, if anything, is needed in video RAM for color look-up tables and such). – a CVn Jun 15 at 14:28
  • @aCVn That's true but it appears that color 1600x1200 monitors didn't arrive until around 1992 or 1993. – snips-n-snails Jun 16 at 19:20
  • I think I have/had one of these Metheus cards. I thought it was just a CGA card on account of the 9-pin connector but it had a standard text font that looked similar to what you get on a Sun so I always liked it for that. – bodgit Jun 18 at 8:54
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High-res monitors (1024 and above) were not commonly available at consumer or office store prices back circa 1991. So several companies, Sigma Designs for one, manufactured and sold custom monitors and matching graphics card combos. Custom yokes and magnetics, etc. in addition to a graphics card with a custom ASIC or gate array.

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In 1989 I had a "high resolution" video card for the time - but it was two-colour being black or white.

The Hercules graphics adaptor was capable of all normal text resolutions, and could display 720x350 pixel image. While not a lot of colours, its a respectably high resolution for the time.

Remember that one of your points in the question is CAD where high resolution easily trumps a couple of colours.

The Hercules card was an 8 bit ISA card, and was probably full length in earlier iterations, shrinking down to 8 bit card size by around 1990. Often doubled with a parallel port on the board, they had 64 kilobytes of video memory, compared to 16 kbytes for CGA or 4 kbytes for the IBM Monochrome Display Adapter.

Power users could run a herc monitor and a VGA monitor side by side too, for early dual-screen PCs.

Further information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hercules_Graphics_Card

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    In 1989 the Hercules Graphic Card was the exact opposite of high-end PC graphics. It was for people who couldn't anything better. – Ross Ridge Jun 15 at 19:31
  • @RossRidge Not sure if we're at cross purposes here - a high resolution 720x350 was well above what CGA could offer, and a higher res than EGA. Released in 1987, VGA was simply not able to exceed 720x350 until SVGA extensions made 800x600 possible. – Criggie Jun 15 at 22:10
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    Sorry, if I wasn't clear. I meant to say that in 1989 that Hercules graphics were for people who couldn't afford anything better. Also for CAD, VGA's 640x480 16 colour graphics were a massive improvement over Hercules 720x350 mono – Ross Ridge Jun 15 at 22:20

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