The SBus Collector: RasterFlex


There are many common-as-muck (but useful) SBus cards for expanding sun4c, sun4m, and early UltraSPARC systems. These are generally well-known, well-supported and even run-of-the-mill. But there are some unusual or rare SBus cards, a few of which I have accumulated. This week, let’s talk about the RasterFlex graphics card.

The RasterFlex-32 is a 2D graphics framebuffer, designed by Vitec Corp. in 1991

  • Simultaneous nondestructive 24-bit and 8-bit colour
  • Single-width SBus card
  • Staggeringly fast, the fastest 2-D SBus graphics card ever
  • Display resolutions from 640×480 upto 1152×900 at 60Hz, 66Hz and 76Hz (so yes you can use a wide range of ancient wierd Sun monitors if you insist; personally I’m using a modern DVI flat-panel.
  • Device-driver officially supported on Solaris 2.3 through 2.6, but also works on Solaris 7 and 8 in 32-bit mode
  • Supported systems: SPARCstation-1, 1+, 2, IPC, IPX, LX, 4, 5, 10, 20, SPARCserver-600 series, SPARCclassic, Ross SPARCplug, Ultra-1, 1E, 2, Enterprise-X000 and X500, Hyundai Axil HWS-210, Tatung COMPstation-5, 10, and others.

The RasterFlex-HR is the same as the RasterFlex-32 but with more framebuffer memory to supports higher resolutions including 1280×1024.

When it was introduced, the RasterFlex-32 cost $2000 retail (and £2000 in the UK – ouch!). From approx 1999 to 2006, it was not too difficult to pick one up very cheap on eBay, but they are quite rare on eBay these days. There are companies that can still supply them commercially, but only at a sigificant price premium.

The RasterFlex performs better than the ATI Rage-II and Rage-Pro that come as standard in the Ultra-5 and Ultra-10, in spite of running on a 20 or 25MHz SBus instead of a 33 MHz PCI bus with a *much* faster CPU. The RasterFlex even keeps pace with the memory-bus-based SX graphics adaptor for many regular X11 programs (the SX wins big for specially-written XIL programs upto Solaris 2.5). It you need to play bitblt-ing games (DOOM, Quake, Hexen, etc) or heavily drag-and-drop full-colour image manipulation on a pre-UltraSPARC workstation, then the RasterFlex-32 or RasterFlex-HR are usually the best option by far – with no special programming needed (raw X11 is very fast, no need for special 2-D XGL or hardware-acellerated XIL). Conversely, for decoding real-time video-input, or running (rare) 3-D XGL programs, there are faster options.

Of course, for an Ultra-1, Ultra-2 or Ultra-Enterprise system, a
Creator UPA card is a lot faster, and fully supported upto Solaris 9 and 10.

WARNING: The 1991-vintage RasterFlex-24 is not quite so good: it does not support such a wide range of display resolutions, nor such a wide range of systems (not always compatible with 25MHz SBus), does *not* do simultaneous *non-destructive* 8-bit and 24-bit colour, and the very early ones were double-width SBus cards (take two slots and don’t even fit in the Ultra-1 at all).

Driver software is difficult to get these days, as Vitec, and their RasterFlex successors (ACAL in the UK, ConnectWare were also involved at some point) are either long gone or can’t provide driver software any more. I have the latest RasterFlex device-driver packages, or you just might be able to find copies on the ‘net if you are very determined.

SUMMARY: for general-purpose computing and 2-D games on pre-Ultra SPARC systems, get yourself a RasterFlex!

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