The Hand That Rocks The Rig

Published Date
01 - Oct - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Oct - 2007
The Hand That Rocks The Rig

Lets face it… DX 10 isn't going to be any sort of gaming platform-and this, directly from Microsoft's mouth! All DX 10 was supposed to be was a platform for Windows Vista and that gorgeous Aero. It seems DX 10.1 will be the gaming platform, and knowing Microsoft we may see a DX 10.1b or even a DX 11 before game developers switch over from good old DX 9.

We have seen a couple of DX 10 titles but they've been so horribly optimised that even the fastest DX 10 cards slow to a crawl-a slideshow, if you will. Visually, there hasn't been anything radical-but this is natural since game development takes anywhere between two and five years, and simply recoding a DX 9 title for DX 10 doesn't seem to do much in the way of visual realism.

So where does this leave most of today's graphics cards? Well, not out in the cold for sure… simply because all the newest DX 10 cards just happen to make terrific gaming platforms for all DX 9 games. The fact that they were equipped with loads of shader units for effect-intensive
DX 10 means they have all the horsepower to deliver blistering frames with all the eye candy enabled on DX 9.

We dug around the market for a while, and unearthed 55 of the most interesting cards for test, after rejecting numerous cards spread across many a variety of GPU cores. We were looking for three categories of chipsets:

Those that performed, par none.

Those that perform well enough, and due to their excellent pricing, make terrific value-for-money purchases.

Those chipsets that deliver outstanding value for those of our readers interested in HTPCs, multimedia PCs and general computing boxes.

High-End Chipsets: Bleeding-Edge Realism Redefined!
Thanks to the hype DX 10 created, we've seen a lot more pixel-crunching power on the new breed of cards. Both NVIDIA's 8800 and ATI's HD2900 series GPUs are much faster than their predecessors-thanks to an insane jump in the number of shader units.
These cards just chew up the latest DX 9 games and swallow them without a hiccup! Gone are the days when AntiAliasing used to cause stuttering in frames-the 8800GTX and HD2900XT will handle Anisotropic Filtering and AntiAliasing with a hit of anywhere between 5 and 15 frames even at high resolutions. This bespeaks tremendous improvements in the overall architecture and FSAA algorithms. Needless to say, both these cards will handle all the upcoming titles with ease. And you won't need to tone down settings for some time to come.

The Contenders
As they say, it's lonely at the top. ATI's HD2900XT is still a very new chipset, and we were only able to get a single card from one vendor-MSI. The MSI RX2900XT VT2D512-E comes with all the connectors you'll likely need. A DVI to HDMI adapter is provided-very important for HD junkies who will likely pair this card with a large screen LCD or Plasma screen. Incidentally, the HD2900XT chipset also has an audio solution integrated (HDMI supports video and audio signals on a single connect). There's also a token bundled that'll get you three upcoming Valve Software game titles, when they release of course… This card is also phenomenally heavy; we estimate it to be at least 200 grams more than the 8800GTX/Ultra (the next-heaviest card). This is because of the generous use of copper in the cooling solution, and three copper heat pipes.

NVIDIA had a slightly better showing with one 8800 Ultra from Galaxy and three 8800 GTX cards-two from ASUS and one from XFX. ASUS' 8800GTX Aquatank was something special-it features a liquid cooling solution and is completely set up to go with water block, pump and radiator. Since liquid cooling is thermally more efficient, ASUS overclocked this card to beyond 8800 Ultra levels. The radiator is well designed and looks like any other card-it'll occupy an extra PCI slot. The other three cards used reference NVIDIA coolers.

There were seven GeForce 8800GTS-based cards in our test-all on reference coolers. Note that the 8800GTS is a lower version of the 8800GTX architecture with slower core and memory speeds, less memory bus-width and shader units. It's also a shorter card-the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) being 1.5 inches shorter than the PCB of the 8800GTX/Ultra cards. Most of the vendors are generous, and the games bundled are some of the newer titles-especially games like Company of Heroes, Lost Planet and GRAW, bundled with MSI and XFX 8800GTS cards respectively.

ASUS had several ATI-based X1950 and X1900 series cards-four to be exact. MSI had three and GeCube had two. GeCube has a slightly different cooler design with a complete backplate on both their cards. Throughout the test, we noticed these cards running cooler than other cards based on the same core. We concluded the backplate dissipates some of the heat as well. In fact, although the X1900XTX and X1950XTX cards share the same core (R580), the X1950XTX series come with GDDR4 memory as opposed to GDDR3. This isn't as good as we expected it to be-probably due to the latencies involved in GDDR4 memory.

How They Performed
We were surprised to see, in reality, the jump in performance over the previous-generation hardware we tested last year. Especially NVIDIA-their 8800GTX GPU seems to eat each and every game for breakfast…

Games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are very taxing once the settings are cranked up, but these cards didn't even break stride. As expected, the 8800GTS core-based cards place behind the 8800GTX and Ultra chipset-based cards. ATI's HD2900XT is targeted squarely at the 8800GTS and does a good job keeping up with it-even managing to sneak ahead at times.

Galaxy 8800 ULTRA

The numero uno pixel cruncher

Last year's fire-breathers-the X1950/X1900 series-don't even come close to snapping at the heels of any of the latest generation cards, let alone dethroning them. One look at the graph on the previous page will prove beyond any doubt the utter supremacy of the G80 a.k.a. GeForce 8800GTX/Ultra throughout the benchmarks. Moreover, these cards don't seem to take a large performance hit no matter how high the settings and resolution. Only Oblivion shows signs of getting these monsters all sweaty, proving the superb scaling capabilities of Bethesda Software's gorgeous-looking game engine. A closer look shows another little tussle ensuing between the 8800GTS-based cards and the MSI RXHD2900XT. The older X1900 and X1950-based chipsets do not really compare with the faster DX 10 cores, but then they aren't exactly meant to.

Pick One!
What a surprise... high-end cards available at a price point of just under 10,000 rupees! For example, the price of the ASUS EAX1900XTX was around Rs 30,000 around the time of last years test-this year it's a third of that. The fact remains that cards based on these chipsets are outdated both in terms of performance on DX 9 and support for DX 10. However, with proper DX 10 titles some time away from markets you could have a superb DX 9 gaming platform at your disposal. These cards are definitely faster than the newest DX 10 mid-range offerings-meaning if one removes the DX 10 equation from the picture the X1900/X1950 cards offer terrific value for money at their current prices.

If you want something powerful enough for all DX 9 games at decent settings and resolutions, and if you're on a frugal budget, we suggest ASUS' EAX1900XTX, at Rs 9,900. Just remember you aren't DX 10 ready with this one…

This time there's no reward for second place... Why? Well, there are two winners. With a fraction of a point between them, ASUS' EN8800GTX Aquatank and Galaxy's 8800 Ultra share our Best Buy Gold award. In you're looking for the most powerful card out there, and cash happens to be bountiful, go for Galaxy's 8800 Ultra. Just make sure you have a good 500-watt power supply, else your gaming rig will go up in smoke! Although ASUS' EN8800GTX Aquatank is definitely fast, it's also super-expensive, and very difficult to find. Unless you specifically want liquid cooling-we don't see why you would-we suggest you stick with the Galaxy 8800Ultra, or save a bit and go for XFX's PV-T80F-SHE9 (their 8800GTX solution).

How We Tested 
We segregated all the contestants on the basis of their chipsets i.e. the GPU. Our High-End category consisted of NVIDIA's GeForce 8800 and 7800/7900 series, and ATI's Radeon HD2900 and X1900/X1950/X1800 series of chipsets. Cards based on these chipsets give you the best performance possible-while not necessarily being wallet-friendly. The most future-proof cards are likely present here.

The Mid-Range consisted of NVIDIA's GeForce 8600/8500/7600 series of chipsets and ATI's Radeon HD 2600/X1600 series. Cards based on these chipsets represent excellent value for money-and are a must for any sort of HTPC. Some of the higher chipsets also make decent gaming platforms capable of taking on the latest games with relative ease.

Our Entry-Level segment consisted of NVIDIA's GeForce 8400/7300 and ATI's Radeon HD2300/X1300 series of chipsets. These represent extreme value but not necessarily value for money. Not suitable for gaming, these cards are essential for a good HTPC.

Our Test Rig
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo X6800 cooled by CoolerMaster   AquaGate S1
Motherboard: ASUS Commando
Memory: 2 x 1 GB Corsair Dominator PC8500 1066 MHz(5-5-5-15)
HDD: 2x Western Digital Raptor 74 GB (10,000 rpm)
Power Supply: Tagan 900W
Operating System: Windows XP SP 2
NVIDIA driver version: 162.18
ATI Catalyst version: 7.8

The Tests
We used the highest quality / highest resolution settings for the High-end cards, while toning down both for the Mid-range cards. The Entry-level cards were tested with lower resolutions, while exacting settings like AntiAliasing were kept at a minimum.

Real-World: DirectX-Based
F.E.A.R: A Superb 3D engine, amazing particle effects and realistic damage models along with suitable terrain deformation. F.E.A.R.'s combat sequences are some of the most realistic you'll encounter. Needless to say, it stresses out all but the most powerful of cards.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl: Based on GSC Gameworld's X-Ray engine, this game depicts an ultra-realistic post nuclear fallout world. Some great visuals, great attention to detail as far as weapon and architectural modelling go. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. redefines immersive realism, and is one of the newest games we've benchmarked.

The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion: With a massive world to explore, Oblivion features beautiful environments with plants, vegetation and foliage that are life-like. It is a very pixel shader intensive, and at higher resolutions will cause all available cards to stutter. This game rewards lots of shader units, memory bandwidth and quantity.

Company of Heroes: As an RTS, Company of Heroes is a delightful-looking game. What is shocking is that it looks even better up close-as good as any third person shooter around. Weapon detailing, damage effects, and squad and vehicle animations are absolutely top-notch.

Splinter Cell:Chaos Theory: Featuring ultra-realistic lighting and shadow detailing as well as incredibly well rendered locales, Chaos Theory is one of the oldest games in this test. It nonetheless still has what it takes to bring the latest cards to their knees. This game exemplifies what DX 9 and SM 3 are really capable of.

Far Cry: With huge outdoor levels, complete with the Pixel Shading goodness that brings the environments in the game to life Far Cry set the benchmark for the way games should look and play way back in 2004. Three years down the line, Far Cry is still a very good looking game.

Serious Sam 2: Like its predecessor, Serious Sam 2 features sprawling outdoor levels, with tons of bad guys to shoot at. Although this engine is largely CPU-bound, it still makes a very good test for the slower mid-range and entry-level solutions.

Prey: Based on a heavily modified and optimised Doom 3 engine, Prey is significantly heavier on system resources than its ancestor was. Level design is excellent, and with great use of lighting and physics, not to mention superb gameplay, Prey is a definite must for gamers and benchmarks alike.

Doom 3: The only other "old" game apart from Far Cry, Doom 3 nonetheless still has what it takes to mash the lower-end crop of cards. The fact that the engine is so sensitive to even minor changes in hardware makes it the perfect engine for benchmarking. The engine still has one of the best implementation of shadows we've seen-and level design is superbly scary and unbelievably claustrophobic.

Synthetic Benchmarks
3D Mark 2006 Professional: An industry-standard reference for Shader performance. 3D Mark is very taxing for entry level cards though most of the mid-range DX 10 cards can handle it easily.

3D Mark 2005: An older standard than 3D Mark 2006, this benchmark is nonetheless an industry standard, and proves the first challenge for entry-level cards, sort of like the beginners' difficulty level in a game.

There's another angle to consider-DX10.1 on the horizon means the GeForce 8800GTX may not remain a top-end solution for very long. As we've mentioned earlier, we don't really see DX10 and its successors taking over from DX9 anytime soon. Assuming you want something cheaper, check out the NVIDIA 8800GTS chipset based cards-we recommend the 640 MB versions. MSI's HD2900XT also makes a potent gaming solution and is a little faster than the 8800GTS (and should be more future-proof too). Once again, you'll need a good power supply.

Download PDF File OF High-end Graphics Cards

Mid-Range Chipsets: Exceptional Value performers!
This is one hot category! The mid-range has always represented the perfect unity of value and performance. Irrespective of which of the two variables you are more inclined towards, you're sure to find something here. DX 10 makes an appearance in more affordable territory with NVIDIA's GeForce 8500/8600 series and ATI's HD2600 series. Some of the older NVIDIA cards also linger-the 7600 series. Let's not waste any more time: 30 cards vie to make your pocket anywhere between Rs 4,110 and Rs 14,700 lighter!


Ultra-fast....a steal at its price!

Entry Level Solutions

The Junior League
With their low power requirements and good video decoding capabilities, these cards make excellent companions for all home PCs
Minnows are generally found in larger quantities than bigger fish, but this time round we could only scrape up four of them. This is due in part to the tremendous drop in prices of mid-range cards in particular. With prices of mid-range cards crashing through the four-thousand-rupee barrier, it seems there's nowhere for the entry level cards to go…the whole "between a rock and a hard place" analogy comes to mind.
The entry-level category was all NVIDIA, and only two chipsets-the new GF 8400GS and the older GF 7300GT.

An Affordable Foursome
The lowest bracket consisted of two cards from Sparkle. One was an 8400GS-based card, and the other a 7300GT-based solution. The other two DX 10 parts were from BIG and Galaxy; both these are 8400GS solutions.

Sparkle PCX 8400GS 256MB
A seriously affordable solution

None of these cards come bundled with any games; this is not a surprise, really, considering the prices. We were surprised, though, to see good connector bundles with each card-just as was the case in the mid-range category. This, we say, is a welcome trend.

Sparkle PCX 7300GT
Not good value any more 

The biggest minnow! 

Good for HTPC user

At the very outset, we wish to make one point crystal clear: these cards aren't for gamers-and you'd be doing a grave injustice to any game released over the past two years by buying one of these cards to play it! Such entry-level chipsets have one catch-phrase-HTPC. With their smaller form factors, low power requirements and good video decoding capabilities (excellent for the 8400GS chipset) these cards make excellent companions for all home PCs. And yes, you'll be able to play the odd game too, at lower resolutions and settings!

Sparkle's 7300GT offers 512 MB of video RAM-as mentioned earlier, this doesn't really add to performance in any way. Moreover, the 7300GT isn't DX 10 compatible, and is overpriced-especially considering the similar performing 8400GS chipset-based cards.

If you're looking for something really cheap to build an HTPC, or even a good multimedia PC, we recommend you give onboard graphics a skip and pick up a Sparkle GF PCX 8400GS 256-a real steal of a deal at Rs 2,600. For just Rs 300 more, you could get a Galaxy GF 8400GS-a slightly better performer mainly due to marginally higher core and memory clock speeds.

Now That's A Crowd!

We saw a multitude of cards from ASUS-10 to exact. The EN8600GTS Silent is a heatpipe-based solution, and will draw a second glance-it seems fanless solutions are hot (pun intended!). The ASUS EN8600GT OC Gear actually comes with a 3.5-inch bat solution that has a twist knob for overclocking. Besides looking cool, it's totally functional-no more messy BIOS overclocking, although to be able to really overclock, you will need to get into the BIOS and tweak, since the module only allows a limited overclock of 10 per cent. Considering that the core is already at 540 MHz, this translates to a cool (or hot) 50 MHz overclock at the simple twist of a knob!

The Zebronics 8600GTS Super has this huge heatsink with fins that resemble the fan blades on a turbine. However, most of the 8600GT cards do not have active cooling for memory chips. The newer ATI RV630-based (a.k.a. Radeon HD2600 Pro) cards have quite an efficient single-slot cooling solution-based on a 65nm manufacturing process, these cores run quite cool (unlike their bigger brother, the HD2900XT).

This time round, none of the manufacturers were skimpy while bundling connectors-a trend we hope becomes a norm, considering such connectors don't cost much anyway. Gigabyte takes the initiative and bundles good games with both their cards-Supreme Commander with the GV-NX86T256D and Warhammer 40000: Dark Crusade with the GV-NX85T256H.

Another trend we've seen and would like to comment on is the trick of using more memory on slower cores. GPUs like the 8600/8500/7600 series generally perform optimally with 256 MB of fast memory. What card manufacturers do is up the amount of video memory to, say, 512 MB, but use DDR2 RAM where DDR3 would normally be used. Such a card will not have much of an advantage over a card with, say, half the memory-simply because the mid-range and entry-level graphics cores don't have sufficient horsepower to keep all that memory busy. And due to slower memory speeds, there's less bandwidth available when it may really be needed. In some cases (when a game demands a larger frame buffer) 512 MB may be marginally better than 256 MB, but for the most part, a fast 256 MB will outperform slower 512 MB of video memory on these lower GPUs.

How They Performed
Despite the fact that the GTS and GT versions of NVIDIA's G84 (8600 series) are only separated by sheer clock speeds, there is quite a difference between the performance of cards based on these chipsets. This bespeaks good clock scaling-a good thing. The 8500GT based cards aren't in the same league as their elder siblings-there's a good bit of difference in the architecture, and it shows. We were surprised to see the ASUS EN8600GT outperform all the other 8600GT cards, and in fact demolish the 8600GTS cards. The reason for this seemingly magical performance turned out to be a factory-overclocked core-from 540 MHz to 625 MHz. The Point of View 8600GT seemed to be facing some issues with many of the benchmarks, and puzzlingly, delivered consistently lower frames than other cards. We ran the benchmarks several times and tried driver reinstalls, even swapping other cards and testing… inexplicable!

ASUS' EN8500GT Silent was another standout. It manages to come close to the other 8600GT cards; we initially thought we'd accidentally plugged in another 8600GT-another case of overclocking, this time by a whopping 150 MHz over stock speeds (600 vs. 450 MHz). XFX's PV-T84J-UDF7 (8600GT) is another good performer-it consistently manages to stay ahead of the other 8600GT based cards by tiny margins.

Choices, Choices
If you're looking for an excellent performer that will cost you significantly less than even lower-performing parts, then look no further than the ASUS EN8600GT (Rs 8,800). It matches the 8600GTS cards at just 60 per cent of their price. If you have a budget of around Rs 7,000, consider saving a little more for this excellent card. If you need further convincing, we've awarded it our Best Buy Gold award. The overclocked EN8600GTS TOP from ASUS gets our Best Buy Silver, but to be very honest, we'd suggest you stick with the Gold Winner because of its sterling price.

At a lower budget, XFX's PV-T84J-UDF7 will offer all the thrills, but with a little less wind in your FPS sails at a great price of Rs 7,200. In case you're looking for a good card for an HTPC that will allow you to enjoy HD content in all its visual splendor, take a look at Sparkle's 8500GT 256MB-at Rs 4,110, this is component for an HTPC with the occasional casual game thrown in.

ATI's HD2600Pro chipsets don't create too much of a splash-for one, they're slightly overpriced for the performance they deliver. As things currently stand, we can't really recommend any cards based on these chipsets as solutions.

fast. Silent. Expensive

Download PDF File Of Mid-range Graphic Cards

Something For Everybody
Contrary to the many industry experts who believed that the bigger, faster, better race between NVIDIA and ATI would slow down, this year has actually seen an acceleration of sorts. DX 10 being the wet squib it turned out to be notwithstanding, both companies have announced successors to their current line-up of cards. Rumours abound regarding release dates, but we have sufficient reason to believe NVIDIA has a GeForce 9 series not very far from the retail markets. ATI, too, has announced an HD3000 family, though details are sketchy at best. These cards should have support for DX 10.1-although once again, how they perform on an API that nobody's seen is anyone's guess.

But all this is irrelevant to most of you. The fact is, all this hype and competitiveness has brought around better technology at much cheaper prices. We reckon graphics cards aren't the novelty they were once considered. If you've been holding on to those purse strings for all you're worth, now may just be the time to indulge yourself… !

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.