In January 2005, we touched upon and compared AGP cards. Our prediction that PCIe video cards would take some time to pick up in the market has been correct to an extent. However, the lower end of the spectrum has not conformed to this, and it's certain that the popularity of low-end PCIe cards is on the rise-while the mid-range and high-end segments have yet to make its mark.
PCI-Express cards are much faster than their AGP cousins, and once you start playing games on them, it shows
In this comparison, we opted for the same method of categorising our cards-in three segments; low-end, mid-range and high-end, like we did last time. Most of the cards we received this time are also available in the AGP flavour except for the nVidia 5XXX series and the ATi 9XXX series.
Do refer to the AGP comparison in our January issue. This will help you gain an overall perspective into the performance difference between the two platforms.
We tested 32 cards this time in sum across all categories with a modified test process (See box How we tested). The test process was modified keeping in mind the powerful GPUs that are available on current video cards. We got to lay our hands on some of the best cards available in the market-and some not-so-available ones-including the GeForce 7800GTX and the 6800 Ultra Dual GPU.
Would you have imagined six months ago that PCI-Express products would be available for the low-end market so soon? PCI-Express has penetrated the budget segment big-time. This could partly be credited to the plummeting prices of PCI-Express motherboards which, as you're probably aware, we reviewed last month.
The eight PCI-Express low-end graphics cards we received were from Gainward, Gigabyte, MaxForce, MSI, PowerColor and XFX. Even the big players, thus, have a presence in this segment. The cards in this segment were obviously based on the lower-performing GPUs-the nVidia GeForce 6200TC and the ATi X300.
Both the nVidia and ATi GPUs in this segment featured new memory management techniques. While nVidia featured TurboCache, ATi featured HyperMemory. (More on these technologies later). The Gainward, PowerColor and XFX GeForce 6200TC supported 256 MB, while the rest supported 128 MB of memory. Of these, only the PowerColor X300 256 MB card sported a 128-bit memory interface, while the rest had either a 64- or a 32-bit memory interface. We therefore expected the PowerColor X300 to be the top performing card in this category.
Most of the cards came bundled with a S-Video cable-except the MSI GeForce 6200TC 128 MB, which came only with a driver CD. Some cards came bundled with a DVI to VGA adapter. Dual-monitor, which was a feature found only on high-end cards just a few years ago, was available on all the cards here-except for the Gigabyte GeForce 6200.
All the nVidia-based cards supported DirectX 9.0c, which essentially means Shader Model 3.0, whereas the ATi-based cards supported DirectX 9.0b, which means Shader Model 2.0. The core of the nVidia cards is clocked at 350 MHz, whereas that of the PowerColor X300 is clocked at 400 MHz-while the other ATi-based cards had a stock core speed of 325 MHz. The 256 MB nVidia cards had memories running at effective speeds of 700 MHz, while all the ATi based cards had their memories clocked at 400 MHz.
The GeForce 6200TC has all the features of the high-end cards from nVidia. So why are these cards in this category? It is crippled by only four pipelines and a single texture mapped unit per pipeline. Also, the core and memory clock speeds are much lower than the GT cards in the mid-range and the high-end. This, in addition to the shared memory, causes them to yield much lower performance than the mid-range and high-end cards. This is also applicable to the cards based on the ATi chips.
As expected, the top performer in this category was the PowerColor X300 256 MB card, with its comparatively higher clock speeds and a wider, 128-bit memory interface.
At 1024 x 768 in Doom 3, this card posted a score of 22.20 fps, followed closely by the Gainward GeForce 6200TC 256 MB 20.30. In Half-Life 2 at 1024 x 768, it logged 65.07, while the Gainward scored 48.13 fps. The same was the case with FarCry-the PowerColor churned out 72.19 fps, while the Gainward followed with 58.80.
In 3DMark 03 at default settings, this card scored 3098, which is the highest in this category, followed by the Gainward at 2659.
Remember that this category, which we have called 'low-end', is nothing but the budget category, and pricing a card too high in this category is alienating the card from the consumers in this segment. The fight would have been between the MSI GeForce 6200 256 MB and the Gainward GeForce 6200 256 MB. But the MSI was priced way too high at Rs 6,300, whereas the Gainward was priced at Rs 3,950 - and thus, won the Digit Best Buy Gold because of its best price-to-performance ratio.
Whatever it won in terms of pure performance and features, the PowerColor X300 256 MB card lost when considering its price of Rs 5,950. It still managed to scrape in as our Silver winner.
The mid-range cards always hold the interest of those who want the best, but can't afford it. Such users usually settle for the next-best. We got plenty of cards to play with this time-ten cards from nVidia and three from ATi. We could not include one card from Asus, the 6600GT, since it suffered from display corruption. We also had two new entrants in this category, namely BIG and Sapphire, who sent us nVidia and ATi cards respectively.
Most cards in this category were bundled with the regular assortment of cables and games, but some brands stood out. Sapphire, for instance, bundled a VIVO cable with their card, while it rained games in the MSI box-we counted 14 CDs, including game and software application CDs. As usual, Gigabyte, too, provided an excellent game and software bundle with their cards.
The rest of the cards were modestly packaged. However, the performance of the cards was what we were waiting for, and that's what we talk about next.
Almost all the cards we tested in this category were based on either the 6600 or 6600GT chips from nVidia, or the X600 or 600XT chips from ATi. Before we move on to performance, let's look at some differences in the cores of these two chips. This will let us better analyse the performance difference that will be apparent when you check the scores.
The 6600GT core has been built from the ground up for the PCIe bus and runs at a core clock speed of 500 MHz, which is actually faster than a 7800GTX. It also features eight pixel pipelines, which puts it in the same class as the Radeon 9700.
On the other hand, the X600 runs a clear 100 MHz less, and has four pixel pipelines less. The X700 is more in the class of the 6600 GT, but its performance is much lower, as you will see in the performance analysis.
|How We Tested|
The low-end segment of our tests comprised eight cards based on the nVidia GeForce 6200TC and the ATi X300 chips. The mid-range segment comprised thirteen cards based on the nVidia GeForce 6600 series and the ATi X600 and X700 series chips, while nine cards based on the nVidia 6800 series and the 7800 GTX and ATi X8xx series chips were included in the high-end segment. We also tested the MSI NX6800GT SLI and the ASUS Dual GPU GeForce 6800 Ultra cards separately.
The 6600 series dominated here. In most game tests, the ATi cards couldn't match the nVidias. None of the ATis posted scores that could match up to the 6600 cards. At higher resolutions, the 6600 non-GT cards and the ATi cards could only manage a maximum of 40 fps. The GTs comfortably cruised above 50 fps in most DirectX games. This translates into a good gameplay experience.
Users who purchase a mid-range video card look for value of money as well as a good, if not excellent, gaming experience. This is what we based our tests on.
The price these cards retail at is generally in the range of Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000. For a user who wants decent gameplay at resolutions of up to 1024 x 768, a regular non-GT 6600 is more than enough. In most cases, you can turn on a little of the eye-candy in games, but not all of it. The only ATi card we can recommend here is the X700. The other cards were barely able to provide playable frame rates-even at 1024 x 768.
The culprit in the case of the ATi cards is the crippled clock speed and pixel pipelines. Another factor is the older architecture that the ATi cards are based on, as compared to the 6XXX series from nVidia, which has been developed from the ground up. The architectural enhancements do play a major role in the scores that the 6600 cards posted.
The 6600GT definitely costs more, but you can be sure of the performance of the card, which is much better in terms of frame rates and the eye candy possible in games-even at high resolutions. In fact, it sometimes beat the plain vanilla X800 in the game tests.
There is a continuous stream of new games released each year, and with each game the hardware ante is upped, at least in the video card department. Any investment on a 6600GT is money well spent-it will definitely stand you in good stead for at least the next two years.
Download This Low end Graphic Card PDF File
The XFX GeForce 6600GT duo was the king here. No other card could come close to the scores posted by these two, in any game, be it OpenGL- or DirectX-based. They even topped the 3DMark scores. The surprising thing was that the XFX GeForce 6600GT 128 MB card posted scores identical to its 256 MB counterpart in all the games! It seems none of the games or benchmarks could utilise the extra 128 MB available on the XFX GeForce 6600GT 256 MB card.
|nVidia TurboCache And ATi HyperMemory|
The nVidia GeForce 6200TC and the ATi X300 chips in the low-end segment featured new memory management techniques. While nVidia featured TurboCache, ATi featured HyperMemory. The bottomline is that both these implementations are in many respects similar to each other. In both the cases, the graphics card has dedicated memory onboard, but in addition to that, it can access a limited amount of system memory. This is something like AGP on a PCI-Express bus, because AGP cards can access system memory in a similar way, and this was known as AGP texturing. Using this method, the requirement of the amount of onboard memory is greatly reduced, and this contributes to reduction of price.
This is where we talk about the cream of the crop! Low-end cards are accessible to anyone, and anyone willing to spend a little extra can get mid-range cards. However, this is the section where we talk about the Porsches and the Maybachs of the desktop graphics world.
Features-wise, all these cards give you everything, including games, VIVO connectors and all the other stuff you could possibly expect. The VIVO connectors are especially mentionable, since you can directly provide component output to your HDTV from the card. Imagine playing Doom 3 on your HDTV!
PowerColor and Asus were the two manufacturers that provided HDTV VIVO connectors. Games were aplenty, and MSI actually provided five games with the RX800. It's a pity the card couldn't make it to the comparison. On the other hand, XFX with their eye-catching X-shaped box provided the regular wires and cables-there was no HDTV connector. In terms of games, they bundled the full version of FarCry (DVD) with their high-end cards, which is sure to attract users.
We received 10 cards in this category, discounting the Asus 6800 Ultra Dual GPU monster and the SLI-setup. Of these, we could only review nine, since the MSI RX800 provided a corrupted display, and we could do nothing about it. The remaining nine are the best to date, anywhere, worldwide. These included top-of-the-line offerings from ATi and nVidia.
While nVidia has come out with two revisions of the graphics cards in their arsenal, ATi has stayed put with their X800 series. Sadly enough, the current nVidia cards make the X800 look and feel aged.
All the cards except the Gigabyte had active cooling circuits. Gigabyte chose to walk a different path and provided a passive pipe cooling system on their ATi X800 card. The cooling was, however, not very efficient, and the heat-sink temperature soared when while testing it.
|MSI NX6800GT SLI|
When you buy a high-end 3D graphics card, you want the card to play the latest games for the next few years. Alas, newer technologies develop, and in just about a couple of years, your 3D graphics card buckles under the pressure of the ever-increasing polygons that are demanded by newer games, and you feel your card, which was high-end just a couple of years ago, is no longer a worthy gaming card.
The XFX Geforce 7800GTX was a pleasure to test. Talk about adrenaline rushes... this one will get yours into overdrive! It scored a massive 16,649 points in 3DMark 2003 and 7,942 points in 3DMark 2005, second only to the SLI and Dual GPU monsters. At 2,048 x 1,536 in Half-Life 2, we could barely manage to read the text on the monitor, but this card effortlessly shoved a score of 86 frames per second at our incredulous faces.
The processing power of the GPU is the what needs to be given the credit here. In the 7800GTX core-the G70-the number of transistors on the die has gone through the roof. The performance boost here is due to the effective implementation of the G70 architecture and the DDR3 video RAM.
Although it lost out in the 3DMark tests, the 7800GTX beat the pants off the competition in the game tests. Just take a look at the scores table-the rest of the cards didn't stand a chance!
The next-best card was the 6800 Ultra, which stood up to its reputation of a pixel cruncher. The ATi cards put up a brave front, especially the PowerColor X850XT PE, which was able to take on the XFX and MSI 6800GTs.
All the other cards ended up like extras pn the set, never making their presence felt. The XFX GeForce 7800GTX was the show-stealer.
Conclusion SLI improves and scales gaming performance. But what if this could be achieved using a single card? What if two GPUs are snug-fit onto a single card?
Given the excellent performance of the XFX 7800GTX, we expected it to be expensive. However, the price will put a smile on your face: it retails for just Rs 35,000. The XFX Geforce 7800GTX wins the Digit Best Buy Gold crown in our graphics card comparison in the high-end category.
The XFX GeForce 6800GT is the runner-up. It provides blazing fast frame rates which, although not comparable to the 7800, are fast enough to let you play any game on it. At Rs 23,000, this card takes the Digit Best Buy Silver crown for the high-end graphics card category.
Asus Dual VGA/Dual GPU 6800 Ultra 512MB
Remember the Obsidian X-24 in the 3DFX days, which had implemented SLI on a single board with two Voodoo II chips on-board? The Asus Dual VGA 512 MB card does just that. It is, in fact, a chip-level SLI implementation-two GeForce 6800 Ultra chips on a single card, eliminating the need to plug in two cards into two different slots.
You will still need an SLI-capable motherboard to use this card. On a non-SLI motherboard, it will run as a single GeForce 6800 Ultra card.
Each of the GPUs gets only half the total bandwidth and memory of the board, so the 256-bit, 512 MB memory runs as 128-bit 256 MB memory dedicated to two individual GPUs-and hence is not as fast as a 256-bit, 512 MB memory should be. Hence theoretically, in high-bandwidth situations such as 16x AA and 16x AF, the GPUs should become severely memory bandwidth limited.
We tried to test if this was true. At 1,600 x 1,200 in Doom 3, Half-Life 2 and FarCry, the frames per second were 122.9, 84.3 and 117.6 respectively. The 3DMark 03 and 3DMark 05 scores were 18547 and 8745 respectively. This card thus performs better than the GeForce 7800 GTX and a bit poorer than the GeForce 6800GT SLI solution in the 3DMark benchmarks, while in the gaming benchmarks it comes third, behind the GeForce 7800 GTX and the GeForce 6800GT SLI- even though this card has two GeForce 6800 Ultra chips onboard.
In a situation involving two GeForce 6800 Ultra cards in SLI configuration, this dual-GPU card will fade into obscurity. Considering the price of Rs 60,320, this card at this moment is not worth considering even if you happen to be the most hardcore of gamers.
Summing It All Up
The XFX video cards dominated the graphics cards comparison. We remember the time last year when XFX made its entry in our comparisons. It was the underdog, and though it showed promise, could not make it to the big league. This time round it took over the show and won four coveted awards, which serve as a benchmark for you, our readers.
None amongst the opposition could stand up to the gauntlet thrown by XFX. Solid build quality and extremely competitive prices made the cards sure-fire winners, and so, this year concludes with XFX and nVidia on top. ATi has a lot of catching up to do, and if the rumour mills are to be believed, the R600 core is what we will be watching out for.
The next time round when we test graphics cards, we will surely be seeing more of nVidia's SLI solutions, as prices are sure to plummet. ATi is also set to bring out its own implementation of multiple-graphics-cards-in-a-system solutions, known as Crossfire, which is touted to be even more flexible than nVidia's SLI: here, you will not be required to have two ATi cards of the exact same model, but you will be able to get away even if the two are of the same series.
Until then, drive rashly, and go on a killing spree (disclaimer: we're talking about computer games!!).
SLI improves and scales gaming performance. But what if this could be achieved using a single card? What if two GPUs are snug-fit onto a single card?