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NeoN GRAFIX 3D- by Dr. Dirk Terrell

If you're looking for a professional quality 3D modeling and animation program, NeoN 3D by COMPO Software is by far the most complete solution for OS/2 users. Consisting of two parts, an object editor and a scene editor, NeoN GRAFIX 3D offers powerful capabilities with an intuitive interface.

Installation

Installation of the program went off without any problems. The full version of NeoN GRAFIX 3D uses a dongle that plugs into the parallel port as copy protection. After installing the program, you must reboot in order for the dongle's device driver to be loaded. A full install requires about 51 megabytes of disk space, but most of that is taken up by optional sample files and bitmap textures. The program executables require only about 2 megabytes.

Use and Features

NeoN GRAFIX 3D has two separate executables for creating images or animations. The object editor is used to create and edit 3D objects, while the scene editor is used to arrange objects in scenes that can be rendered as still images or as animations. This separation of tasks has definite advantages, such as making it easy to reuse objects across scenes, but it does require extra steps if you are in the scene editor and want to change an object's properties (such as texture or color). However, the object editor can be called from within the scene editor and it loads very quickly.

The object editor (GIF, 33.5k) consists of several parts. You can construct 3D objects by combining simple shapes, or by extruding or spinning 2D curves. The simple shapes are the cube (although the name is somewhat misleading because the three dimensions of the cube can be different, yielding rectangular boxes), chessboard (checkerboard), sphere, and torus. Although they can be created easily with the other tools, conspicuously absent shapes are the cone and the cylinder.

Objects with axial symmetry can be created very easily with the spin tool with which you define the cross section of the object using lines or curves. The spin tool is very easy to use and when creating smooth curves, gives instant feedback on changes. It gives full control over spline options and the resolution of the spin (smaller numbers give polygon-like shapes, larger ones give smoother objects). The extrude tool is similar (they share the same dialog in the program), except that the curve is moved linearly rather than rotated.

With complex objects, it is often useful to group objects together as a single unit. NeoN GRAFIX 3D calls these groupings "meshes" and provides functions to manipulate them.

The surface of an object can have all sorts of characteristics. For example, a sphere could be a colored beach ball, a shiny ball bearing, or a transparent glass ball. The object editor's material editor controls these properties. Materials can be very simple, consisting of a single color, or very complex using bitmaps to control colors and/or shading and simulate surfaces like stone or wood. And if you can't get exactly what you want with these functions, you can always place a bitmap directly onto an object (creating a 3D Earth for example).

The material editor is very nice, but does have some shortcomings. As you make changes to the various properties, you can see the effect that your changes have by clicking on a small image in the material editor. I would prefer to see the image updated automatically as material properties were changed, rather than having to click the image each time. Another change that would be beneficial would be to change the slider bars for some properties to spin boxes so that numerical values could be seen and entered. [Note (added after review originally published): Robert Engberson at COMPO Software has pointed out that by holding down the Ctrl key and left clicking on a slider, a numerical entry field will pop up, enabling you to type in a value for the slider.]

Once the objects are built, the scene editor (GIF, 28.8k) is used to composite the objects into a scene that can be rendered. The scene editor and the object editor are very similar in appearance and operation, offering views of the various Cartesian planes (X,Y,Z) as well as 3D views. In the scene editor, objects are easily selected and moved, rotated, and resized. A mouse click can change the origin of rotation quickly, a feature I find extremely useful.

Light sources can also be easily placed and modified. NeoN GRAFIX 3D supports point sources, spotlights (with full control of spot radius and fall off), and planar sources. One handy feature is that any object can be a light source or a camera. It is often convenient for the camera to also be a light source and this is very easy to do.

Animation

Even if it only rendered single images, NeoN GRAFIX 3D would be worth its price, but it also has some extremely powerful animation capabilities. Scenes can be animated by creating individual frames or by moving objects in a variety of ways. Objects can rotate, revolve around others, or move along curves. Additionally, object motions can be linked hierarchically, making it possible to have one object move around a second one and have that second one follow it as it moves around a third one. The individual frames of the animation can be output in TARGA or BMP formats, and they can be interlaced for animations that will be played on video tape (both the 30 Hz NTSC and the 25 Hz PAL standards). Just for fun, I whipped up this sample animation in GIF format (GIF, 98.5k) with NeoN GRAFIX 3D and MainActor.

Various Versions

A demo version of NeoN GRAFIX 3D is available. With the demo, you can try out all of the program's features, but you can not save anything you create. Two versions of the program are sold: the "light" version (NeoN GRAFIX 3D SE) and the full version. The SE version has many of the features of the full version, but morphing, elastic deformation, and time splines are disabled and resolution limits are enforced for images (640x480 pixels) and animations (320x200 pixels). For many users though, these limitations may be very minor. If your goal is producing images for web pages, for example, Neon GRAFIX 3D SE will be a valuable component of your graphics toolbox. The full version is a bit more expensive, and has none of the limitations of the SE version.

Performance

If you experiment with the demo version, you will find that NeoN GRAFIX 3D is very fast. It's obvious that the programmers spent some time addressing the issue of efficiency by combining the generally faster Z-buffer algorithm with the raytracing approach. Areas in the scene that don't involve mirroring, transparency, or shadows are rendered with the Z-buffer method, speeding up the calculations. I ran Neon GRAFIX 3D on my old 50 MHz 486 with 20 megs of RAM, and the performance was quite respectable. On my 200 MHz Pentium Pro, the performance was, well, blistering.

On the down side, one complaint I have about NeoN GRAFIX 3D is that it will not allow you to use long filenames. That is a limitation that shouldn't exist for an OS/2 product, especially not one of this caliber

Documentation

Neon GRAFIX 3D comes with a nice manual that thoroughly explains the program's plethora of features. Throughout the manual are hints and examples that make it easy to get up to speed with the program. A nice touch is an appendix that details the format of the output scene and object files. Users with some programming experience might find that very useful.

Conclusions

Whether you are a beginner looking to spice up your web pages or a graphics professional who needs to create high quality 3D animation videos, NeoN GRAFIX 3D is the program of choice. Like all good programs, it is intuitive and easy to use for beginners, and powerful enough underneath for professionals who need to control the tiniest details of the program's operation.

The products are competitively priced. The SE version has a suggested retail price of US$69 US, and is worth every penny of it in my opinion. Once quite expensive, the full version has recently been priced more competitively at US$249 US. No matter what your 3D graphics needs, or your budget, there is a version of NeoN GRAFIX 3D that will serve you well.

* * *

NeoN GRAFIX 3D

by COMPO Software
download the demo from COMPO Software
MSRP: US$249.00

Dr. Dirk Terrell is an astronomer at the University of Florida specializing in interacting binary stars. His hobbies include cave diving, martial arts, painting and writing OS/2 software such as HTML Wizard.


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