Manufacturers website: www.matrixorbital.com.
Average retail price: $79.00 USD (LCD only, due for release soon!).
-122 x 32 pixel serial LCD display,
-RS232 or l2C connection (@ 9600bps - 155Kbps),
-15872 bytes of memory (for image screens, custom fonts and remembering settings!),
-25 key and 1 GPO (General Purpose Output) interface.
Looking back just a short year in the computer market I, for one, hadn't even thought about attaching an LCD of any kind to my computer - I bet you hadn't either. So after LCD's short exposure to the consumer computer market they're still in their infancy, undeveloped and unreliable aren't they? Well they probably would be if they hadn't captured the imagination of companies like Matrix Orbital and implanted in everyone great expectations of their capabilities. In reality great efforts have been made by many different groups to produce reliable, useful software and they have made LCD's one of the most desirable luxury items you could add to your beloved computer.
The LCD consumer computer market may be about to boom (with companies like Sony now shipping pre-built systems with LCD's in them) but two rivalling LCD standards still exist, those which use the parallel port to receive the data to be displayed and those which use the serial port. I'll quickly introduce the two standards,
Parallel: Parallel LCD's are generally very much bare LCD units, normally bought directly from electronic companies, connection usually requires the user to solder up to 16 pins from the LCD to the parallel port and power lines from your computer. As you can probably imagine this can be a daunting task for anyone not at home with using a soldering iron, and requires some effort even by those who are and they are less popular than their serial brothers because of this. The advantages of parallel port LCD's are generally their price and their compatibility - they are normally cheaper than serial LCD's (though the price difference is becoming much less noticeable nowadays) and most use an industry standard HD44780 controller (supported by most LCD driving software).
Serial: A serial LCD is usually just a parallel LCD with a controller onboard which acts as a interface between the serial input and the parallel LCD. The advantage of using a serial LCD is mainly their ease of connection and use - only one data line is needed to be able to write data to the display, and connection is generally no more complicated than plugging in the supplied serial and power cables. Some serial LCD's are badly supported by software as there are many different standards for the serial/parallel conversion boards, though this is becoming less of a problem as time moves on and more software is written.
The popularity of serial LCD's has driven down their price and at the time of writing it is difficult to pay much more for a serial LCD than its similarly spec'd parallel brother - together with good software support from the supplying serial LCD companies it is difficult to see much of a future for parallel LCD's.
The LCD I have to review today is no ordinary LCD though, Matrix Orbital have supplied me (thanks guys) with a graphical serial LCD to review. This LCD's display isn't divided into single character squares, it isn't limited to text only and when it is asked to display text the choice of font and character spacing is yours! It's not even very expensive (less than $20USD more than a similarly sized non-graphic LCD), so how will it perform? Keep reading...
You may or may not have realised by now but Matrix Orbital (MO from here on) are a Canadian company, though you shouldn't fear the hassle of shipping - most countries have MO distributors who are more than willing to
sell you their LCD's (I hear news of a British MO distributor coming very shortly), a list of all MO distributors can be found here. If you do decide to order directly from MO you should be pleasantly surprised, shipping to me via UPS took just 2 days (from Canada), though you will almost certainly have to pay import tax (17.5% of the package value) if you choose to import to the UK.
Inside the parcel.
-The LCD unit (bottom left),
-A '4BR' cable (top left - bought separately),
-A standard 4' serial cable (top right - bought separately),
-A CD containing a lot of LCD software and manuals etc.
Connecting her up.
As with all serial LCD's, connecting the unit to your computer is very simple indeed - the serial cable plugs into your serial port and one end of the 4BR cable (which is mounted on a backing plate to make internal fitting of the LCD unit very easy), the 4BR cable then plugs into a red/brown connector (the same colour as the 4BR plug) on the LCD. For this unit power is supplied by a normal floppy cable, though most MO units need a specially wired floppy cable which can be bought cheaply from them. The picture below shows the back of the LCD with the power and 4BR cables plugged in.
The floppy connector is the one in the bottom left - in the picture I've snipped the yellow cable, there's no need to (I'm using a lengthened floppy cable, the 12v yellow line is not used so there was no point in lengthening it with the rest of the cable!). You might have noticed the six cables and questioned why so many (despite 6 being less than half of those needed by a parallel LCD) - well three of them are earths (and all the same really), and one of the two 4BR cables is used so the LCD can send info back to the computer. The pins on the right labelled c1-5 and r1-5 are presumably for use with a keypad or as GPO's - I didn't get a keypad so I won't be playing with these features in this review :o)
Power on time.
When you first switch the power on you are met by a 'lil image and the words 'graphics in any direction' - silly me forgot to take a picture of this though and now I've replaced the power on picture with the 'www.icehardware.net' image (I'll introduce the program to do this shortly)! D'oh!
When windows finally greeted me I decided to test this LCD in LCDCenter first - this is one of the most versatile LCD driving programs and compatibility with this program will ensure the day-to-day usefulness of this LCD!
Using the settings shown in the picture above the LCD worked perfectly (as if a normal LCD) straight away! (I did encounter a slight problem with scrolling in LCDCenter - but it doesn't really bother me, I don't use it!).
So the graphic LCD is just as good as a normal one, that's all very nice but what else can it do I hear you ask? Let's install the 'Matrix Orbital Graphical Display' (MOGD - catchy name!) program and find out!
Upon loading MOGD displays a plethora of options to play with, among them it lets you,
-Upload your own fonts (changing the default one if you like) - so we can use LCDCenter in a nice font now, nice!
-Upload your own pictures into its memory (122x32 1 bit bitmaps) - the first
picture in memory is the one displayed on power on.
(the picture shows the display without the backlight).
-It also lets you draw lots of things on the screen...
It's a good test program then, and also very useful for writing to the LCD's memory.
As far as very useful programs go there aren't many more (apart from the normal LCD ones and a couple of small apps for setting the default comm speed and contrast etc.) - there is a large collection of 'fun' graphical LCD programs too and they certainly show what is possible with this unit, it's a shame that there isn't a program with everyday usefulness which uses all of this unit's potential.
I'm a big fan of LCD's in general and if I was reviewing this LCD never having used one before I'd give it 10 out of 10 and sing its praises for all to hear. As it happens I own a parallel LCD too (I'm currently using 2 LCD's at the same time, both running LCDCenter - works like a dream!) and I've also used a couple of smaller 2x20 serial LCD's. I'm still going to give this LCD 10/10 and sing its praises though! Have you seen my pictures? It's blue and it looks amazing! It's almost as cheap as a normal parallel LCD (my parallel LCD cost about £50, this retails about £60 in English money) and it looks a lot better and the installation is hassle free (you'd have to pay me more than £10 to fit a parallel LCD). It's not faultless, the backlight could be slightly brighter, and current software doesn't exploit this unit as much as it should, but it's still worth every penny of your money. This unit will only get better with time as more software is developed (and it will be) and as it is, it's good enough to get my highest mark and ICEhardware's first gold award...