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THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

The THG Graphics 
Card Buyer’s Guide has 
been written to be a 
guideline for the 
purchase of a new 
graphics card. It aids 
beginners in selecting 
the right model with 
the right feature set, 
and explains the 
newest technologies 
and features. 

#1: Intended Use 
#2: Technology 

#3: Performance & 
Image Quality 

#4: Budget 

#5: Manufacturer & 
Feature Set 

#6: The Purchase 

uying a new graphics card may 
seem like a simple matter at first. 
After all, both Internet shops and 
local retail stores carry a plethora 
of graphics cards in every performance 
and price category. This large variety of 
cards, however, makes it hard to select the 
one that is ideal for you. A multitude of 
factors need to be considered in the selec- 
tion process, to ensure that the choice you 
make will keep you happy over as long a 
period of time as possible. 
This article covers all of the criteria 

involved in selecting and buying the graph- 

ics card that is right for you. How impor- 
tant each factor is will depend on your 
personal preferences and the way you 
intend to use the card. For example, some 
people will require a video-in line, and for 

them this will be a make-or-break feature; 
others will not care about this particular 
capability. To help you define your 
requirements, we will also give a short 
overview of the technologies used in 
graphics cards of the past and present. 

We've broken this buyer’s guide up into 
six large sections that cover all of the 
important factors. Obviously, there is no 
perfect way to prioritize selection criteria, 
because preferences and needs differ for 
each individual. The order that we present 
here is only one possibility among many, 
and is meant more as a guideline to help 
you find your own personal ranking of cri- 
teria. Remember also that it’s sometimes 
difficult to draw a line between these 
issues, so there will be some overlap in cer- 
tain areas. 


THG Graphics Card 

Buyers Guide 

#1: Intended Use 
A Short Overview 

o matter what the intended use of your PC, 

be it games, office work, photo and video 

editing or anything else, you're going to 

need a graphics card. However, the impor- 
tance of the card’s performance depends greatly on 
the nature of the application! These days, the most 
important differentiating factors are video and 3D 
performance and quality. 

The first step in determining your ideal graphics 
card is to take stock of the primary applications for 
which you use your PC. If most of your time on the 
computer is spent using office applications (word 
processing, spreadsheets), or other 2D software, then 
the 3D performance of a graphics card won’t play a 
great role in your buying decision. 

However, in future operating systems such as 
Microsoft’s “Longhorn”, the user interface will make 
much heavier use of a graphics card’s 3D functional- 
ity, so 3D performance may be potentially important 
even for those who do not use 3D applications. For 
example, to use even the simplest 3D version of the 
Longhorn interface -- which goes by the name 
“Aero” -- full DirectX 9 support and 32MB of 
video memory are likely to be the bare minimum 
graphics card requirements. The grander “Aero 
Glass” interface version will require DirectX 9 sup- 
port and 64MB of video memory! 

Of course, there is still some time until Longhorn 
makes it to the marketplace and a computer near 
you. And even when it arrives, it will also come 
with a 2D-only user interface for systems that don’t 
meet the 3D requirements. You can get more info 
on Microsoft’s Longhorn here: 

There are measurable 2D performance differences 
between individual cards and the various chip gen- 
erations. However, the 2D performance of current 
graphics processors has reached such a high level 
overall that these differences won’t make a tangible 
difference in everyday use, for example in a 
Windows XP environment. Applications such as 
Word, PowerPoint, Photoshop or Acrobat won't run 
any faster on a bleeding-edge high-end card than on 
a mainstream offering. This means that these days, a 
graphics card’s performance is determined nearly 
entirely by its 3D performance. 

Modern games such as Doom3 are very demand- 
ing on graphics cards. 

Since today’s graphics cards differ the most in 3D 
performance, this is the probably the main factor to 
look for if you intend to do any gaming on your 
PC. The variety of different card models from differ- 
ent generations and price brackets is enormous, as 
are the differences in 3D performance and feature 
sets. Even if you’re more of a casual gamer that only 
plays a game every now and then, you shouldn’t try 

to save money in the wrong place. After all, gaming 

time is your free time, and you don’t want to ruin it 
with stuttering or low-detail graphics. Cut too many 
corners and may end up with more exasperation 
than entertainment. 

The 3D architecture of the card -- that is, which 
generations of which 3D standards it supports -- is 
ve ry important. Usually, adhernce to 3D standards is 
expressed in terms of support for a certain generation 
of Microsoft’s DirectX 3D API, which is updated re g- 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

ularly. We’ll talk about this some more later on in 
this guide. For now, we’d just like to mention that 
while most DirectX 8 compliant cards will be suffi- 
cient for current games, they won't do as well in the 
most recent and soon-to-come hit games, such as 
Doom III, Stalker and Half-Life 2. 

If you're looking to replace your motherboard as 
well as your graphics cards, integrated graphics 
solutions may be an option for you. Beware, how- 
ever, that the 3D performance of these solutions is, 
at best, comparable to that of the slowest add-in 
cards. As a result, these motherboards are only of 
limited use to PC gamers. If your focus lies more in 
the areas of office work and video editing, then 
they will usually be quite sufficient. 

Recently, many companies have begun campaigns 
to secure a foothold for the PC in the living room. 
The primary selling point of such a solution is the 
PC’ inherent suitability for video and audio play- 
back. Again, special attention is given to the graph- 
ics card here as well. In principle, any graphics card 
is capable of displaying any video format, but there 
are major differences between cards in the resulting 
CPU load on the PC, and the output image quality. 
If the CPU load is too high when playing high-res- 
olution HDTV videos (for example), there will be 
noticeable stuttering during playback. Graphics 
processors also differ in their offered color fidelity, 
and features such as de-interlacing and scaling. We’ll 
look at this in more detail in section #2. 

#2: Technology 
(Future Proofing) 

ver the past few years graphics processor 

have evolved from pure 3D accelerators that 

could only perform pre-determined, special- 

ized tasks, into real processors that are pro- 
gammable to a certain extent. This development 
has allowed game designers to create their own 3D 
effects, in the same way as the creator of profes- 
sional 3D rendering applications. These applications 
use their own programs for 3D effects, called shaders. 

Simply put, a shader is a specified mathematical 

definition or description of an effect. For example, 
if a stone in a game is supposed to look wet, then a 
shader can be written for this purpose, which 
would define the sheen effect, reflections, incidence 
of light, and so on. The graphics processor then uses 
the shader to calculate this effect in real time. 


In the past, the solution might have been taking 
the texture of the stone and overlaying it with a 
second texture that incorporates pseudo reflections, 
thereby creating the illusion of shininess. Of course, 
this wouldn’t exactly have looked realistic. Today, 
these effects can be rendered with a high level of 
realism. In short, shaders add a great deal of realism 
to any game, though due to the topic's complexity, 
we will only be able to cover the most important 
aspects of how they work. 

As we discussed earlier, a ve ry important factor to 
consider when choosing a graphics card is which 
DirectX generation the graphics processor supports. 
The DirectX support of a card has important impli- 
cations for its ability to make use of shaders, because 
each generation of DirectX increases the complexity 
of what calculations can be done by shaders. So, let’s 
get back to the matter of DirectX generations. 

DirectX Technology 
DirectX 7 Class 

The 3D engine of the game Battlefield 1942 sits 
solidly on a DirectX 7 foundation. Through the 
clever use of textures, the developers really squeeze 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 


or ST Micro’s Kyro II. 

DirectX 8 Class 


Introduction to DirectX 8: 

Programmable Shaders for 
DirectX 8: 

Introduction to DirectX 9: 

Shader Model 3.0: 

Microsoft DirectX Overview: 

a lot out of the engine, but the in-game world is 
very static; dynamic lighting is not possible, for 
example. Another very popular DX7 game is 

Games such as Quake 3 (OpenGL), Unreal, and 
even comparatively recent games such as Battlefield 
1942 belong to this generation. Almost all effects in 
these games are realized through simple textures. 
Aside from transformation and lighting (T&L), 
these cards are not programmable. In fact, not all 
graphics processors of this generation even offer 
T&L support; for example Intel’s integrated 1865G 

Unreal Tournament 
2003 uses a number of 
DirectX 8 shader 
effects. As a result, the 
game’s graphics look 
much better than that 
of older games, and the 
in-game world seems 
more alive. 

Graphics processors 
truly began to become 
programmable starting 
with DirectX 8.There 
are two capabilities that 
need to be taken into 
account here, namely 
pixel and vertex 
(=geometry) calcula- 
tions through shaders. 
DirectX 8 incorporated 

several different pixel shader models (SMs), which 
support varying levels of programmability (PS 1.0, 
1.1 and 1.2 are part of DirectX 8, while PS 1.4 was 
added in DirectX 8.1). At first, the complexity of 
the shader programs was quite limited, but their 
complexity has increased with the newer shader 
models. There is only one vertex shader model that 
is shared by both DirectX 8 and DirectX 8.1: 
Vertex Shader 1.0. 

Direct X 9 Class 

FarCry can be considered the first game that makes 
consistent use of shaders. Thanks to DirectX 9, the 
surfaces look very realistic and react to changes in 
lighting, throw believable shadows, and more. The 
game’s environment seems very “alive. 

Microsoft’s current 3D API is DirectX 9, which 
permits even more freedom in shader programming 
than DirectX 8, and also allows for longer and 
more complex shaders. It also introduces the float- 
ing-point data model, which allows for detail calcu- 
lations that are much more exact. 

ATI and NVIDIA are the two companies that 
dominate the consumer 3D market, and their cards 
offer varying levels of precision. While ATT’s proces- 
sors use 24-bit precision across the board, 
NVIDIA's cards also support 16-bit and 32-bit 
floating point modes (as well as some other FF for- 
mats). The rule of thumb here is simple: “the higher 

the precision, the more complex the calculation.” 

Which data format is required depends greatly on 
the effect that is to be created -- not every effect 
requires the highest available precision. 

DirectX 9 also incorporates several pixel shader 
models. First there is the original SM 2.0, to which 
the evolutionary SM 2.0a and 2.0b were later 

added. SM 3.0 is a completely new and very recent 
addition, which is supported starting with DirectX 
9.0c. Currently, only NVIDIA’s GeForce 6xxx line 
of graphics processors can make use of SM 3.0. 

If you would like to find out more about the 
various DirectX versions and the associated shader 
models, you will find lots of relevant information at 
the following sites: 

It is important to note that you can’t fully assess 
the graphics of a game solely by the DirectX version 
it uses. For example, DirectX 8 shaders can be used 
to implement many of the effects used these days, 

DirectX 9.0 

which can bring even cutting-edge graphics proces- 
sors to their knees. Game developers strive to use as 
low a DirectX version as possible, so they can target 
as large an audience as possible. How much comput- 
ing power a shader will end up needing depends pri- 
marily on its complexity. Finally, it should also be 
noted that all cards are downward compatible. 
Upward compatibility is only possible in the case of 
ve rtex shaders which can be calculated by the CPU, 
and while possible, this would be very slow. 

Two screenshots of the same scene in the game 
FarCry; one on a GeForce 4 Ti (DX8.1) and one 
on a GeForce 6800 (DX9). 

Bear in mind that although many entry-level 
cards are DirectX 9 compliant, they are unable to 
deliver playable frame rates due to their low pro- 
cessing power (more on this in section #3). In 
some cases, the DirectX 9 compliance also refers 
only to certain areas. A prime example of this is 
Intel’s new 1915G integrated graphics chipset. 
Although the graphics processor supports Pixel 
Shader 2.0 (making it DirectX 9 compliant), it 
offloads all vertex shader calculations to the CPU, 
increasing CPU load. 



After DirectX, OpenGL is the next most popular 
3D API. It has existed for far longer than DirectX, 
and is available for a large number of operating sys- 
tems. DirectX, on the other hand, is confined to 
Microsoft platforms. 

Like DirectX, OpenGL is constantly being 
refined, updated and extended in its capabilities. 
Also like DirectX, it is supported by virtually every 
current 3D graphics card. Furthermore, the newest 
3D features can usually also be implemented in 
OpenGL, even if these features have not yet been 
defined in the OpenGL standard; these are called 
OpenGL extensions. Frequently, graphics chip mak- 
ers will offer their own extensions in drivers for 
certain effects that can be employed by applications 
or games. The two industry heavyweights, ATI and 
NVIDIA, offer very good OpenGL support, so 
there’s not much to worry about there. Things 
aren’t quite as rosy in the case of XGI and S3, 
however, which still have some room for improve- 
ment in their drivers. 

Despite the seeming dominance of DirectX titles, 
there are still many games that are programmed for 
OpenGL. The most well known among these are the 
titles published by the Texan game designer id 
Software; many other game devel- 
opers have also licensed 3D game 
engines from id to use in their 
own software. The newest and defi- 
nitely most demanding OpenGL 

Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

More information on Linux 
and graphics cards: 

game from id is the first person 
shooter Doom II]. NVIDIA cards 
perform especially well running 
this game, closely followed by ATT’s 
offerings. The game will also run 
on XGI cards, with some effort 
and at reduced quality settings. For 
its part, S3 has published a special 
Doom II driver. 

Interested readers can find 
more information on OpenGL at 

Other Operating Systems 
Things get more complicated for 
operating systems other than 
Microsoft Windows. The various 
cards’ 3D performance under 

Linux differs drastically from that in Windows. Both 

ATI Linux Drivers FAQ 

HOWTO: Installation 
Instructions for the ATI 
Proprietary Linux Driver 


NVIDIA Linux Advantage PDF 
( 2003 

NVIDIA Linux Driver Forum @ 


THG Graphics Card 

Buyers Guide 

ATI and NVIDIA support Linux with special drivers. 
Linux drivers can be found on ATT’ and 
NVIDIA’s download pages. 

Video Playback 

Video playback and Media Player visualizations can 
be accelerated by graphics cards, taking load off the 

As we mentioned near the beginning of the arti- 
cle, video can be played back on practically any 
graphics card, as long as the correct codec is 
installed. Almost all graphics cards available today also 
offer special video acceleration features that handle 
effects such as resizing a video to fit a window, filter 

ing and the like. The more tasks the graphics proces- 
sor can handle, the less work is left to the CPU, 
improving overall performance. In the case of 
HDTV videos using ve ry high resolutions, it is possi- 
ble that the CPU alone isn’t up to the task of decod- 
ing and playing back a video at all -- and this is 
where the video processor can step in to help. 

Video acceleration is also an important issue for 
notebooks, as a CPU usually requires more power 
than a graphics processor. As a result, a good video 
acceleration will do its part in lengthening the run- 
ning time of a notebook. Video acceleration fea- 
tures also come into play when watching DVDs. 

Recently, both ATI and NVIDIA have put special 
emphasis on video features, and practically every new 
generation of graphics processors comes with extend- 
ed video functionality. ATI groups together these 
capabilities, which can be found in the new X800 
and X700 line of cards, under the name ‘“‘FullStream 
HD.’ More information is available here: 

res/5639fullstream WP.pdf. 

NVIDIA has equipped its newest chip family, the 
NV 4x line, with a special, programmable video 
processor. This ensures support even for future 
video formats. Additionally, the video processor is 
designed to take some of the burden off the CPU 
when recording videos or during video encoding 
processes. More detailed information is available 

#3 Performance 
& Image Quality 


The performance of a graphics card is normally 
measured by its frame rate, which is expressed in 
frames per second (FPS). The higher the frame rate 
a card can support, the more fluid the gaming 
experience will seem to the user. Essentially, a game 
displays a sequence of individual images (frames) in 
rapid succession. If they are output at a rate exceed- 
ing 25 fps, then the human eye is usually no longer 
capable of distinguishing the individual frames. 
However, in fast-paced games, such as first person 
shooters, even 25 fps will not be enough to make 
the game and all movements seem fluid. The bar for 
such games should be set at least at 60 fps. 

Aside from features such as FSAA and AF (which 
we will come to shortly), frame rate primarily 
depends on the selected screen resolution. The 
higher the resolution, the more pixels are available 
to display the scene, making the resulting output 
much more detailed. However, with increasing res- 
olution, the amount of data that a graphics card has 
to handle also increases, meaning greater demands 
are placed on the hardware. 

There are two important factors in assessing the 
ability of a graphics processor to provide high 
frame rate. The first is its pixel fill rate, which deter- 
mines how many pixels can be processed per sec- 
ond (megapixels per second). The second is memo- 
ry bandwidth, which measures how quickly the 
processor can read and write data from memory. In 
both cases, the “more is better” mantra applies. 

At higher resolutions, more pixels are available to 
depict a more detailed image, as you can see in this 
image. While only very rough details can be made 
out at 800x600 (the small tree next to the Jeep), the 
detail level is much higher at 1600x1200. 

Today, 1024x768 pixels is considered the standard 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

gaming resolution. The most popular higher resolu- 
tions are 1280x1024 and 1600x1200. In the case of 
classical CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors, the res- 
olution can be selected freely, as long as it doesn’t 
exceed the maximum possible physical resolution 
supported by the screen. Things are more compli- 
cated when TFT (thin film transistor, aka flat screen 
or LCD) monitors are used, since these have fixed 
resolutions. Any setting that differs from the moni- 
tor’s native resolution requires that the image be 
interpolated, meaning either shrunk or enlarged. 



Depending on the model that is used, this can have 
a noticeably adverse effect on image quality. 
Therefore, it is a good idea to choose a graphics 
card that offers good frame rates at your TFT’s 
native resolution. 

In addition to the resolution chosen, a card’s 
frame rate will also depend to a great extent on the 
game being run. The extensive use of complex 
shaders in new games slows down many older cards 
unacceptably, even if these same cards offer very 
reasonable performance when running older titles. 
Most PC games allow for a reduction in detail 
level, thereby also reducing the number and com- 
plexity of effects, but this of course has a negative 
impact on the image quality and, consequently, on 
the gaming experience. The most important factor 
here is the DirectX support of both graphics card 
and game, which should be on the same level (see 
the section on DirectX Technology). 

Benchmark Results 

Since the performance of a card depends to such a 
great extent on the game being played and the 
selected resolution, a large number of combinations 

must be tested to reach a conclusive verdict on a 
card’s performance. Cards from different manufac- 
turers may show different performance in the same 

This picture shows a typical benchmark table 
from the THG VGA Charts. Here, the game 
Doom3 was tested at a resolution of 1024x768 at 
32-bit color depth. 4xFSAA and 8x anisotropic fil- 
tering were enabled, and the quality setting “High” 
was selected. 

To determine a card’s in-game performance, 
frame rate measurements are taken at distinctive 
points in the game. Many titles offer a recording 
feature for motion sequences, making it very easy 
to take comparable measurements for a number of 
cards. Some games measure the frame rate using a 
built-in function, while others require additional 
add-on utilities such as FRAPS. Another option for 
benchmarking tests is using in-game cut scenes, 
which are of course identical every time. Finally, for 
games that don’t offer any of the choices above, the 
only remaining option is to try to replicate the 
same series of movements manually on every card. 

The results found in the benchmark tables are 
usually the average of several tests, showing the 
average frame rate a card is able to sustain in a 
game. Thus, a result of 60 fps means that the frame 
rate may dip below and rise above that number at 
different places in the game. 
Minimum scores would be 
more meaningful, but these 
are very difficult to deter- 
mine; dips in frame rate can 
be caused by in-game load- 
ing or background activity of 
the operating system, and 
these factors cannot be easily 
replicated. Therefore, the 
average frame rate remains 
the most meaningful measur- 
ing standard. 

Despite this, we can’t emphasize often enough 

that you need to remember that these are indeed 
average values. If a card only runs a game at an aver- 
age of 25 fps, the game will show pronounced stut- 
tering during its “slower periods” which may seem 
to turn it into a slide show. In general, you should 
be on the safe side with a card that pushes 60-100 
fps in games — at the highest quality settings, of 

You can find a good overview of the perform- 

Buyers Guide | 

THG Graphics Card 

Comparisons with older graph- 
ics cards can be found in previ- 
ous iterations of our VGA 







ance of different current and previous-generation 
graphics cards in the Tom’s Hardware VGA Charts: 


The system CPU has quite a bit of influence on 
the graphics card’s performance. Even though mod- 
ern graphics processors no longer need any CPU 
time for their calculations, the data they process has 
to be prepared by the CPU and then transferred to 
the card. Additionally, the CPU also must take care 
of handling computer player AI, physics calculations 
and sound, all at the same time. To be able to push 
a fast graphics card to its limit, you'll also need a 
potent CPU. 

Of course, the opposite case is just as true — a fast 
processor won't do any good if the graphics card is 
limiting the frame rate. And the same also holds 
true for the system memory, which can hold the 
system back if it’s too slow, or if there isn’t enough 
of it. In summary, the individual components need 
to be well-balanced. A single weak component can 
cripple the entire system. 

Fortunately, there aren’t any bad choices where 
the graphics interface is concerned. 
The current standard is the AGP 8x 
bus, which will gradually be sup- 
planted by its successor, PCI 
Express, over the coming months 
and years. For now, don’t expect to 
see any performance increases from 
switching to the new bus, however! 
If you'd like to read up on PCI 
Express and its future role in the 
graphics market, take a look at our 
article here: http://graphics. 


FSAA and AF 

The abbreviations FSAA and AF 
stand for two methods of improving 
the image quality in 3D games. 
FSAA is short for Full Scene Anti 
Aliasing, which is a technique for 
smoothing the edges of 3D objects 
within a scene. AF is shorthand for Anisotropic 
Filtering, which is a filtering method applied to 
textures on 3D objects to make them look crisper 
and less washed-out, greatly enhancing image quali- 

ty. Both FSAA and AF are 
very demanding on graph- 
ics processors, especially 

when used in combination. 

These features can usually 
be enabled or disabled 
through the graphics driver's 


control panel. Some games 

also let you enable them directly through the in-game 
options menu, without the need for special software. 
However, some games have trouble with FSAA, due 
to peculiarities of the graphics engine they use. In 
these cases, leaving FSAA disabled is usually the better 
choice, as image corruption can occur otherwise. 

The advantages of FSAA become especially obvi- 
ous on slightly slanted vertical object borders. 

Anisotropic filtering results in much crisper tex- 

Although the underlying principles are the same 
everywhere, the technical implementation of these 
techniques differs from company to company and 
even from one card generation to the next. On 
older graphics cards or newer low-end models, 
FSAA can only be used to a limited extent; this is 
usually either because the card’s performance is too 
low to deal with the extra calculations, or because 
it uses a slow or outdated FSAA method. There are 
also a number of different AF methods that differ 
both in calculation complexity and resulting image 

Both FSAA and AF require a lot of computing 
power and memory bandwidth. For this reason, ATI 
and NVIDIA use heavily “optimized” versions of 
these methods to achieve better results (higher per- 
formance) while still offering greatly improved 
image quality compared to the standard rendering 
output. The heaviest optimization is done on the 
anisotropic filtering implementations. As a result, 
there are some cases in which a reduction in image 
quality compared to the “correct” or “real” method 
becomes visible. Unfortunately, both of the big 
players like to use this method of tweaking too 
much in order to try to win benchmark compar- 
isons. Therefore, image quality and performance can 
differ immensely between driver versions even on 
the same card! 

You can read up on the texture filtering “opti- 
mizations” currently in use in the following article: 

Image Quality 

Image quality is a topic that would easily merit its 
own article, if not a book in its own right. What I 
mean here is the quality of the rendered 3D scene 
as it appears on the player’s screen. This whole dis- 
cussion was originally caused by the tricks and 
tweaks that graphics card makers have begun to 
build into their drivers. Their goal is to get the 

2 4x 1! Gx FFF 
ores Ny 

most perform- 
ance out of 
their cards, and 
to this end, 
sometimes cer- 
tain calcula- 

GeForce FX 
tions are either 

skipped or sim- 
plified. In prin- 
ciple, this is 

| Radeon 9700 
FSAA comparsion pylons oe 
possible in a lot of 
places without the 
player being forced 
to accept reduced 
image quality. 
Unfortunately, the 
chipmakers tend to 
do a bit too much 
tweaking, especially 
to win performance MAUGLI 
comparisons. The 

result is often visibly reduced image quality, notice- 
able at least to experienced users. Casual gamers, on 
the other hand, may often not even notice any- 
thing. In our article (http://graphics.tomshard- we took 
a look at a number of optimizations used by the 
graphics chip companies, and explained how they 
work and what effect they have on image quality 
and 3D performance. 

Here is an image quality comparison taken from 
the game FarCry using older drivers. In this driver, 
NVIDIA replaced some of the game’s own shaders 
with highly optimized ones. The result is visibly 
reduced image quality on the one hand, but 
improved performance on the other. 

Meanwhile, the chipmakers have learned that 
many users don’t necessarily want such optimiza- 

16x Anisotropic (Tr) 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

tions, especially if they are forced upon them. 
Anyone who pays $500 (or more) for a graphics 
card understandably expects the highest possible 
image quality. This is especially so considering that 
such optimizations are not really that essential -- 
the enthusiast cards are now more than fast enough 
to handle the highest quality settings. In response, 
NVIDIA and ATI now allow for most of these 
optimizations to be switched off in their most 
recent drivers. 

Another reason for reduced image quality can be 
the use of reduced floating-point precision in 
DirectX 9 games. A good example of this is the 
game FarCry. NVIDIA’s GeForce FX cards render 
most of the shaders using only 16-bit precision, 
which leads to pronounced visual artifacts (see also: 
46.html). While NVIDIA has 
addressed these quality issues with 
newer drivers, the result is that the 
frame rates have taken a nosedive 
as a result (http://graphics. 
NVIDIA was only able to over- 
come this performance handicap 
in DirectX 9 games with the new 
GeForce 6xxx line. 

Since the image quality produced 
by a card can change with literally 
every driver release, we recommend staying informed 
by reading the reviews of new card generations, as we 
also regularly test the image quality in theseaticles. 

#4 Budget (Card Overview) 

ach graphics chip maker develops products for 
E ==: price category. Pictured here is 
NVIDIA’s roadmap from the year 2003. 

Cards can generally be categorized into three 
large groups, each of which can once again be sub- 
divided into two subgroups. The two big graphics 
chip companies, ATI and NVIDIA, offer different 
chips for each of the various price brackets. Note 
that the boundaries between the categories tend to 
blur quite a bit, however, due to price fluctuations 
in the market. 

The three main price grouns are the entrv-level 

THG Graphics Card 


Buyers Guide 

For some further reading about 
image quality, check out these 


pre Fi Pe 

or budget line, the mid-priced or mainstream prod- 
ucts, and finally, the higher-end enthusiast cards. 
Again, within each of these there are two versions 
offering different performance levels -- one is the 
standard version, while the other runs at higher 
clock speeds. ATI denotes these faster cards by the 
addition of a “Pro” or “XT” to the card name, 
while NVIDIA’s nomenclature uses the “GT” and 
“Ultra” suffixes. 

Low-cost products are often tagged as SE or LE 
parts. However, these budget cards sometimes don’t 
carry any special tag at all, making them hard to tell 
apart from “the real deal”. In these cases, only care- 
ful attention to the technical data 
will help you from mistakenly 
purchasing the wrong card. 

NVIDIA is a chipmaker only, 
focusing its attention solely on 
designing and producing graphics 
processors, while leaving the pro- 
duction and sale of retail cards to 
its board partners. ATI, on the 
other hand, is quite active in the 
retail market as well, albeit only 
in the United States and Canada. 
Its cards are usually designated 
“Built by ATT”, while those pro- 
duced and sold by other compa- 
nies are “Powered by ATI.” 

Another factor further compli- 
cating any attempt to categorize the cards by price 
alone are the graphics cards from older generations, 
which keep getting cheaper due to the introduc- 
tion of newer models. There are especially pro- 
nounced differences between NVIDIA and ATI 
here. ATT’s second to last generation of chips 
(Radeon 9500, 9700, 9800) is still very much up- 
to-date from a technological perspective, with 
DirectX 9 support and multisampling FSAA. Only 
the Radeon 9000 and 9200 cards are the exception 
here, as they are still based on the DirectX 8 design 
of the Radeon 8500 along with its slower super 
sampling FSAA implementation. Shader Model 3.0 
is not supported by any ATI card at this point. The 
only cards that actually can take advantage of it are 

those of NVIDIA’s GeForce 6xxx 

In contrast, NVIDIA’s second 
to last generation of cards are, by 
today’s standards, technologically 
outdated (DirectX 8 and multi 
sampling FSAA on the GeForce 4 
Ti, DirectX 7 on the GeForce 4 MX). The last iter- 
ation of the GeForce FX 5xxx series performed 
very well in DirectX 8 titles, but drops to mediocre 
levels in current DirectX 9 games. As mentioned 
before, this weakness has been corrected in the new 
GeForce 6xxx line (note the absence of the “FX” 


NVIDIA GPU Positioning D 

Po formance 

Price Categories 

Let’s now take a look at the three main price cate- 
gories. We begin with the cheapest cards, which are 
the entry-level or low-budget products. These fall 
either into the sub-$100 category, or the price 
bracket between $100 and $150. The second cate- 
gory, usually called the “mainstream”, begins at 
$150 and reaches up to the $300 mark. In this cate- 
gory, the largest selection of cards can be found 
between $150 and $250. Last, we have the enthusi- 
ast category which starts at around $300 and 
extends to $500 (and well beyond, in some cases.) 
This is where the latest top models from ATI and 
NVIDIA are to be found. 

In the following overview, we have also listed 
cards from older generations that are still available 
in the market. The prices quoted here are current as 
of mid-October 2004; we take no guarantee for the 
correctness of this information. 

Note that in some cases it is rather difficult to 
determine which models actually exist in the mar- 

ket and what specifications they use. The low-cost 
sector, especially, is flooded with a multitude of dif- 
ferent configurations for the same basic chip. A 
good starting place to get an overview is Gigabyte’s 
product page ( 

Older Radeon Models 

Radeon 9200 

The RV 280 (Radeon 9200), like its predecessor 
the RV 250 (Radeon 9000), is based on the 
DirectX 8.1 design of the Radeon 8500 (R 200). 
Compared to the Radeon 8500 with its 4x2 pipe 
design, this chip only features half as many tex- 
ture units per pixel pipeline (4x1) and only one 
vertex shader unit. The main differences between 
the Radeon 9000 and the 9200 are the newer 
part’s higher clock speeds, and its support for the 
AGP 8x interface. It is produced on a 0.15 
process and contains roughly 32 million transis- 

The greatest weaknesses of the Radeon 9200 are 
its outdated and slow super sampling FSAA imple- 
mentation, as well as it being limited to bilinear fil- 


Radeon 9200 SE - 64/128 MB - 64-/128-bit 
DDR - 200/330 MHz 

Radeon 9200 - 64/128 MB - 64-/128-bit DDR 
- 250/400 MHz 

Radeon 9200 PRO - 128 MB - 128 Bit DDR - 
300/600 MHz 

Radeon 9600 

The Radeon 9600, which has the internal designa- 
tion RV350, is the successor to the highly successful 
DirectX 9 chip RV300 (Radeon 9500). The RV300 
only differed from the “big” R300 (Radeon 9700) 
in that it featured a memory bus that was pared 
down from 256 bits to 128 bits. In the standard 
version of the chip, ATI also disabled four of the 
eight pixel pipelines. Nonetheless, it was the exact 
same chip as the R300; its approximately 107 mil- 
lion transistors made it expensive to produce as a 
mainstream part. In the newer RV350, ATI didn’t 
just disable some of the pixel pipes through the 
card's BIOS, but physically reduced the number to 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

four in the chip design. Combined with a die- 
shrink to a 0.13p1 process, this made the 75-million 
transistor chip much cheaper to produce. 

The Radeon 9600’s advantage over its predeces- 
sor lies in its much higher clock speeds, which usu- 
ally outweighs the disadvantages incurred by the 
reduction in the number of pixel pipelines. Despite 
this, the Radeon 9600 Pro is sometimes outper- 
formed by the Radeon 9500 Pro in fill-rate inten- 
sive applications. Other than that, the 9600 offers 
DirectX 9, modern multi-sampling and fast 
anisotropic filtering — in short, everything that the 
flagship products have. 

The Radeon 9600XT (codename RV360) takes a 
special place in this line-up, though, as it is based 
on a more modern architecture than the earlier 
9600 variants. For the first time, this makes driver 
optimizations for trilinear filtering possible, which 
results in much higher performance. 


Radeon 9600 XT - 128/256 MB - 128bit - 
500/600 MHz 

Radeon 9600 Pro - 128/256 MB - 128 Bit - 
400/600 MHz 

Radeon 9600 - 64/128/256 MB - 128 Bit - 
325/400 MHz 

Radeon 9600SE - 64/128 MB - 64/128-bit - 
325/365 MHz 


Radeon 9800 

ATT’ flagship model of the past few years carries the 
internal designation R350.The main change from its 
predecessor, the Radeon 9700 (code name R300), is 
the increased clock speed, resulting in improved per- 
formance (especially when FSAA and AF are 
enabled). While other details were changed and 
improved as well, these aren’t really noticeable in 
practice. The chip is produced on an 0.15, process 
and consists of 107 million transistors. Its advantage 
over its smaller siblings lies in its 256-bit memory 
interface, giving it a higher memory bandwidth, and 
a full complement of eight pixel pipelines. During 
the product nin, ATI also introduced a 256MB ver- 
sion featuring DDR II video memory. 

THG Graphics Card 


Buyers Guide 


Price Range 






XGI Volari V3 



XGI Volari V3 



NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 



NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 





eon 9550 SE 





eon 9600 SE/LE 

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Millennium G550 





eon 9550 





eon 9600 SE/LE 





GeForce FX 5500 




eon 9550 




GeForce FX 5500 




eon 9600 




GeForce FX 5200 




GeForce FX 5500 


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$95 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5700 LE 
$75 ATI Radeon X300 SE 
$77 NVIDIA GeForce PCX 5300 

$100-$149 $100 ATI Radeon 9600 B 2 4 
$106 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5700 B 2 4 
$110 ATI Radeon 9600 Pro B 2 4 
$130 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200U B 2 4 
$125 ATI Radeon 9600 Pro B 2 4 
$131 ATI Radeon 9800 SE B 2 4 
$140 ATI Radeon 9600 XT B 2 4 
$105 ATI Radeon X300 B 2 4 
$110 NVIDIA GeForce PCX 5750 B 2 4 
$135 NVIDIA GeForce 6600 B 3 8 

Main Stream 

Price Range Bus Lowest Model Memory Memory Shader Pixel 
Price Bus Model Pipes 

$150-$199 AGP $160 Matrox Millennium P650 64MB 128-bit 1.3 2 
$161 ATI Radeon 9600 XT 256MB 128-bit 2 4 
$164 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5700 Ultra 128MB 128-bit 2 4 
$175 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 SE/XT | 128MB 256-bit 2 8 
$195 Matrox Millennium P750 64MB 128-bit 1.3 2 

PCI $150 ATI Radeon X600 Pro 128MB 128-bit 2 4 

$170 NVIDIA GeForce 6600 256MB 128-bit 3 8 
$175 ATI Radeon X600 XT 128MB 128-bit 2 4 
$180 ATI Radeon X700 Pro 128MB 128-bit 2 8 

$200-$299 AGP $200 ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB 256-bit 2 8 
$215 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 128MB 256-bit 2 8 
$250 ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB 256-bit 2 8 
$270 NVIDIA GeForce 6800 128MB 256-bit 3 12 
$288 Matrox Parhelia 128 128MB 256-bit 1.3 4 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 


Price Range Lowest Model Pixel 
Price Pipes 

$300-$399 $303 ATI Radeon 9800XT -bi 8 
$350 NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT -bi 16 
$369 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra -bi 8 
$370 NVIDIA GeForce FX 5950 Ultra -bi 8 
$380 ATI Radeon X800 Pro -bi 12 

$400-$499 $465 Radeon X800 XT 

>$500 $525 NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra 
$550 Matrox Parhelia 256 

$680 ATI Radeon X800 XT PE 
$560 ATI Radeon X800 XT 

Not Available Yet (in USA) 

Price Range Model 

DIA GeForce 6600 128-bit 
DIA GeForce 6600 128-bit 
DIA GeForce 6600 GT 128-bit 
DIA GeForce 6800 LE 128-bit 
S8 Deltachrome 
Volari V5 Series 
Volari V8 Series 

DIA GeForce 6800U 
DIA GeForce 6800GT 
DIA GeForce 6800 
DIA GeForce 6600 GT 
DIA GeForce 6200 
Radeon X700 Pro 
Radeon X700 XT 
Radeon X800 Pro 
Radeon X800 XT PE 

wW WD WW] WW] W|W 

THG Graphics Card 

Buyers Guide 

clock speed, the smaller X800 Pro features only 12 
pixel pipes. Basically, the architecture is an evolution 
of the Radeon 9600 XT, but with a great number 
of improvements added as well as extra features. 
These cards are available as AGP products, and, in 
some cases, PCI Express parts as well. 


Radeon X800 Pro - 12PP - 256MB - 256-bit - 
475/900 MHz 

Radeon X800 XT - 16PP - 256MB - 256-bit - 
500/1000 MHz 

Radeon X800 XT PE - 16PP - 256MB - 256- 
bit - 520/1120 MHz 


Older NVIDIA Models 

GeForce FX 5200 

With the chip internally codenamed NV34, 
NVIDIA brought DirectX 9 to the low-cost mar- 
ket segment, replacing the outdated GeForce 4 MX 
line (DirectX 7). Like its bigger siblings, it features 
complete DirectX 9 support. However, NVIDIA 
reduced the number of pixel pipelines to four and 
didn’t give the chip the modern memory interface 
of the bigger models. Instead, it uses the time-tested 
solution from the GeForce 4 Ti generation. The 
vertex shader performance is also reduced relative 
to higher-end models. The chip has a transistor 
count of about 45 million and is produced on a 
0.15p process. 

In light of the very limited performance and the 
only moderate clock speeds, DirectX 9 support 
seems to be more of a paper feature than a real 
boon here. In practice, the chip is simply too slow 
for complex DirectX 9 calculations in resolutions 
of 1024x768 and above. Despite this, the chip is still 
quite a good performer for an entry-level card. This 
is due to the memory interface, the multi sampling 
FSAA, and the average (trilinear) filtering perform- 
ance, inherited from the GeForce 4 TI cards. 
Beware of non-Ultra parts, though, as some of 
them are only equipped with much slower 64 bit 
memory modules. 

GeForce FX 5200 - 64/128/256 MB 64-/128- 

bit - 250/400 MHz 
GeForce FX 5200 Ultra - 128 MB - 128-bit - 
325/650 MHz 


GeForce FX 5600 

This chip carries the internal designation NV31 
and is produced on a 0.13u process. It was meant to 
be the successor to the highly successful GeForce 4 
Ti 4200 line. Shortly after its introduction near the 
beginning of 2003, NVIDIA improved the Ultra 
version of the card; thanks to the switch to a flip- 
chip design, NVIDIA was able to increase the clock 
speed by another 50MHz to 400MHz. The previ- 
ous Ultras were then supposed to be sold as stan- 
dard chips, but whether or not this was always the 
case is hard to tell. By now all of these remnants 
should be off the shelves, but there is no guarantee 
that the old chips might not still be found on Ultra 
cards. Prospective buyers should therefore keep an 
eye on the clock speeds. If your card only runs at a 
clock speed of 350MHz, it still carries the older 
version of the chip. 

From a technological perspective, this DirectX 9 
card features all the functionality of its bigger 
brother, such as Color Compression, fast (adaptive) 
anisotropic filtering and multi-sampling FSAA. 
Only the number of pixel pipelines fell victim to 
the “red pencil,” leaving just four. Also, the card fea- 
tures a 128-bit memory interface instead of the 
high-frequency 128-bit DDR II memory of the 
NV30 (FX 5800) or the 256-bit memory of the 
NV35 (FX 5900). 


GeForceFX 5600 - 128 MB/256MB - 128 Bit - 
325/550 MHz 

GeForceFX 5600 Ultra - 128 MB/256 MB - 
128 Bit - 400/700 MHz 


THG Graphics Card 


Buyers Guide 

With the R360, aka Radeon 9800 XT, ATI once 
more extended the 9800 product line at the high 
end. Compared to the Radeon 9800 Pro, the XT 
ran at even higher clock speeds, and ATI also opti- 
mized the architecture. Radeon 9800 XT cards are 
only available with 256MB of video memory. 

Beware of the Radeon 9800 SE, however. Unlike 
the rest of the 9800 family, this chip only features 
four active pixel pipelines and is therefore closer to 
a Radeon 9600. On top of that, the SE also features 
a trimmed-down 128-bit memory interface. 


Radeon 9800 SE - 4PP - 128MB - 128-bit - 
380/675 MHz 

Radeon 9800 - 8PP - 128 MB - 256 Bit - 
325/580 MHz 

Radeon 9800 Pro - 8 PP - 128 MB - 256 Bit - 
380/680 MHz 

Radeon 9800 Pro - 8PP - 256 MB - 256 Bit 
DDR II - 380/700 MHz 

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ic/20030306/index.html graph- 
ic/20030604/index.html graph- 

ATI’s Current Product Family 

Radeon 9250 
The Radeon 9350 is based on the Radeon 9200 
series but operates at much lower clock speeds. 

Radeon 9250 - 128/256 MB - 128-bit - 
240/250 MHz 

Radeon 9550 

From a technological viewpoint, the Radeon 9550 
is nearly identical to the Radeon 9600. 


Radeon 9550 SE- 128MB - 64-bit - 22/2? MHz 
Radeon 9550 - 128MB/256MB - 64-/128-bit - 
250/400 MHz 

Radeon X300 

The Radeon X300 is the PCI Express version of 
the Radeon 9550. 


Radeon X300 SE - 64/128/256 MB - 64-bit - 
325/400 MHz 

Radeon X300 - 128/256 MB - 128-bit - 
325/400 MHz 

Radeon X600 

The Radeon X600 line traces its technological 
roots back to the Radeon 9600XT. This card is 
only available as a PCI Express version. 


Radeon X600 Pro - 128MB - 128-bit - 
400/600 MHz 

Radeon X600 XT - 128MB - 128-bit - 
500/740 MHz 

Radeon X600 XT - 256MB - 128-bit - 
500/600 MHz 

Radeon X700 

The Radeon X700 series carries the internal part 
name RV410 and replaces the seemingly short-lived 
X600 line. Technologically, the chip is based on the 
X800 (R420) design. As is the standard procedure 
for the mainstream chips, ATI has halved the num- 
ber of pixel pipelines to eight and limited the 
memory interface to 128 bits. The number of ver- 
tex shader units remains unchanged at six. 


Radeon X700 - 128MB GDDR3 - 128-bit - 
400/700 MHz 

Radeon X700 Pro - 128MB/256MB GDDR3 - 
128-bit - 425/860 MHz 

Radeon X700 XT - 128MB GDDR3 - 128-bit 
- 475/1050 MHz 

ic/20040921 /index.html 

Radeon X800 

The Radeon X800 cards, codenamed R420, consti- 
tute ATT’s current high-end offering. While the 
X800 XT Platinum Edition (PE) and the X800 XT 
both feature 16 pixel pipelines and differ only in 

GeForce FX 5900 

Only a few months after the introduction of the pre- 
vious top model, the 0.13, GeForce FX 5800 
(NV30), NVIDIA replaced the heavily criticized card 
(loud cooling solution, great heat dissipation, too low 
memory bandwidth) with the FX 5900 (NV35). In 
addition to re-designing the reference cooling solu- 
tion so it is much quieter, NVIDIA also decided to 
drop the very hot DDR II memory on this card, 
instead widening the memory bus to 256 bits. 3D 
features saw only minor improvements or tweaks 
(Color Compression and floating-point performance, 
UltraShadow feature). Of note is the fact that the FX 
5900 Ultra chip is clocked 50MHz slower than the 
FX 5800 Ultra. In exchange, the memory bandwidth 
grew from 16.7 GB/s to a very impressive 27.2 
GB/s.The number of transistors also increased slight- 
ly, from about 125 million to 130 million. 

Obviously, the FX 5900 Ultra is the fastest card of 
the family. Since the Ultra version is only available in 
a 256 MB configuration, it is also the most expensive 
of the bunch. 128 MB and a lower price might have 
made more sense in making the card more attractive. 
The non-Ultra ve rion runs at slightly lower clock 
speeds, while the GeForce FX 5900 XT seems to 
offer the best price to performance ratio. Although 
running at lower frequencies than the two faster 
models, it offers the full feature set. 


GeForceFX 5900 XT - 128 MB - 256-bit - 
400/700 MHz 

GeForceFX 5900 - 128 MB - 256 Bit - 400/850 

GeForceFX 5900 Ultra - 256 MB - 256-bit - 
450/850 MHz 


NVIDIA’s Current Product Family 

GeForce FX 5500 

The GeForce FX 5500 is based on the FX 5200. 
Aside from the change in clock speeds there are no 
known differences. 

GeForce FX 5500 - 128/256 MB - 64-/128-bit 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

- 270/400 MHz 

GeForce FX 5700 

The GeForce FX 5700 series is based on the 
GeForce FX 5950 (NV38), but is cut down to four 
pixel pipelines. It features the same number of ver- 
tex shader units as its bigger brother, though. 
During the product cycle, NVIDIA refined the 
Ultra version of the FX 5700, giving it GDDR 3 


GeForce 5700 LE - 64/128MB - 64-/128-bit - 
400/500 MHz 

GeForce 5700 - 128/256MB - 64-/128-bit - 
425/550 MHz 

GeForce 5700 Ultra - 128MB - 128-bit - 
475/900 MHz 

GeForce 5700 Ultra - 128MB GDDR3 - 128- 
bit - 475/950 MHz 


GeForce FX 5950 

The NV38, or GeForce FX 5950, is a further 
refinement of the NV35 architecture. The main 
improvement in this case is the higher clock speeds, 
as the card was meant to be an answer to ATI’s 
Radeon 9800 XT. 

GeForce FX 5950 Ultra - 256MB - 256-bit - 
475/950 MHz 


GeForce PCX 5300/5750/5900 

The GeForce PCX series is NVIDIA‘ first product 
line for the PCI Express interface. The cards are 
based on the existing AGP versions, and the model 
numbers compare as follows: PCX 5300 = GeForce 
4 MX, PCX 5750 = FX 5700, PCX 5900 = FX 
5900. Note that the PCI Express versions run at 
different clock speeds from the AGP versions, how- 

THG Graphics Card 


Buyers Guide 


GeForce PCX 5300 - 128MB - 64-bit - 
250/332 MHz 

GeForce PCX 5700 - 128MB - 128-bit - 
425/500 MHz 

GeForce PCX 5900 - 128MB - 256-bit - 
350/550 MHz 

GeForce 6200 

Meant to be an affordable entry-level card, the 
GeForce 6200 rounds out the NV4x line at the 
bottom. At the very recent introduction of this PCI 
Express line of cards, NVIDIA used modified 
GeForce 6600 processors with some features dis- 
abled. It stands to reason that NVIDIA will use a 
different, newly designed chip to save on costs once 
the parts begin to ship to retail. Currently, an AGP 
version is not planned. 

GeForce 6600 

The GeForce 6600 (aka NV43) is the first main- 
stream line of cards built on the NV4x architecture. 
To reduce the production cost of the chip. 
NVIDIA reduced the number of pixel pipelines to 
eight, pared down the vertex shader units from 6 to 
3, and slimmed down the memory interface to 128 
bits. Two models have been announced so far: the 
GeForce 6600 GT and the 6600. NV43 is also 
NVIDIA‘ first native PCI Express part. According 
to NVIDIA, an AGP version of the 6600 using the 
HSI Bridge chip is already being prepared. 


GeForce 6600 - 8PP - 128/256MB - 128-bit - 
300/550 MHz 

GeForce 6600 GT - 8PP - 128/256MB - 128- 
bit - 500/1000 MHz 


GeForce 6800 

The GeForce 6800 is the first product family of 
NVIDIA’ NV4x line of chips. The fact that NVIDIA 
has dropped the “FX” from the name emphasizes how 
much the company is trying to distance itself from 
previous generations with this chin. The entire archi- 

tecture has been thoroughly overhauled, and the 
weaknesses of the NV3x addressed. As a result, the 
NV4x cards no longer suffer a performance penalty 
when running DirectX 9 shaders at full floating-point 
precision. Also, with support for DirectX 9.0c and 
Shader Model 3.0, NVIDIA is one step ahead of the 
competition. Compared to the previous flagship mod- 
els of the FX 59xx line, this card offers more than 
twice the performance. Unfortunately, the blazingly 
fast Ultra versions have ve ry strict power supply 
requirements (more on this shortly). 

The cards of the GeForce 6800 line are available in 
three versions. The Ultra version features 16 pixel 
pipelines, runs at clock speeds of 400/1100MHz 
(core/memory) and requires two auxiliary power 
connectors. The GT version differs from the Ultra 
only in that it runs at a slower speed: 350/1000MHz, 
and makes do with only one extra power connector. 
Finally, there is also the "vanilla" GeForce 6800 
(without any suffix) which features only 12 pixel 
pipelines and 128MB of memory. 

The GeForce 6800 GT and Ultra models are avail 
able in both AGP and PCI Express flavors, while the 
vanilla 6800 currently ships solely as an AGP part. 


GeForce 6800 - 12PP - 128/256MB - 256-bit - 
325/700 MHz 

GeForce 6800 GT - 16PP - 256MB - 256-bit - 
350/1000 MHz* 

GeForce 6800 Ultra - 16PP - 256MB - 256-bit 
- 400/1100 MHz* 

*The PCI Express models support NVIDIA’s SLI 


Beyond NVIDIA and ATI - Alternatives 

There are very few real alternatives to cards based 
on chips from ATI or NVIDIA. While boards using 
XGI or S3 chips are available, these don’t have any 
real presence in the market. Only SiS has been 
comparatively successful in the market, thanks to 
the low-cost Xabre 400 and 600 cards. These cards 
have been plagued by driver problems and low tex- 
ture quality, though, which should be considered 
before a purchase. 

THG Graphics Card 

Buyers Guide 

#5 Manufacturer & Feature Set 
0 nce you have found a model that suits you, 

the time has come to choose the right card- 

maker. As we mentioned earlier, NVIDIA, S3 
and XGI don’t sell cards themselves, choosing 
instead to focus their attention exclusively on the 
design and production of their graphics processors. 
While ATI sells cards, their scope of operation is 
limited to Canada and the USA ("Built by ATI"). 
ATI-based cards produced by other companies usu- 
ally say “Powered by ATI”. 

Performance differences between cards using the 
same chip are the exception, rather than the norm. 
Cardmakers usually adhere quite strictly to the 
clock speed specifications suggested by NVIDIA, 
with a couple of exceptions. First, a few companies 
offer special "OC" versions in the enthusiast seg- 
ment which run at higher clock speeds, and even 
most "normal" cards can be set to operate at higher 
clock speeds manually. The difference is that in the 
first case, the manufacturer guarantees that the card 
will work at the higher speed without a problem. 

Graphics cards in the lowest-price segment are 
the second exception. Here, the competition is so 
intense that every dollar counts, so manufacturers 
may try to cut corners. Often enough, the result is 
either low 3D performance or bad 2D quality, or 
even both. Frequently, the memory bus is reduced 
in size, for example from 128 bits to 64 bits (see 
above). We can only warn you to stay away from 
such products, since the 3D performance suffers 
enormously when memory bandwidth is halved. If 
detailed information is conspicuously absent from 
the box or the salesperson can’t or won't give you 
any technical data for the card, the best course of 
action is to keep looking, no matter how tempting 
the offer may be. 

Another variation on the game of “sales poker” is 
the use of lures that sound good but may not nec- 
essarily be of great value. For example, while 
256MB of video memory obviously sounds better 
than 128MB, the extra memory will only pay off in 
modern games with large textures, played at high 
resolutions and with FSAA and AF enabled. To be 
able to handle the amount of data produced in such 
a scenario, both the graphics processor and the 
memory bus need to be sufficiently fast. In other 
words, 256MB simply doesn’t make any sense out- 
side of the enthusiast segment! 

Image quality is a factor that is very hard to 

judge before a purchase. To prevent nasty surprises, 
you should always ask the staff about the store’s 
return policy before you buy the card. Then test it 
to see if it meets your needs, and return it if neces- 

AGP or PCI Express 

Without a doubt, the future belongs to the new 
PCI Express interface. However, the technology is 
still too new to judge when exactly this future will 
be upon us; in other words, when PCI Express will 
become a “must-have”. So far, only motherboards 
using Intel chipsets offer PCI Express at all, 
although the competition supporting AMD is set to 

A typical AGP 8x slot (top) and the new x16 
PEG (PCI Express for Graphics) slot. 

The different connectors. AGP on top, PCI 
Express below. 

Where 3D performance is concerned, PCI 
Express offers at best minimal advantages over AGP 
models. Buyers looking to upgrade their graphics 
card won’t be making a mistake if they pick up an 
AGP model, assuming that their system is reason- 
ably powerful and up-to-date. However, if the 
potential upgrade would also include a new moth- 
erboard and a CPU, it’s worth taking a look at PCI 
Express. Keep an eye on the price tag, though, as 
PCI Express systems on the whole aren’t signifi- 
cantly faster than their AGP counterparts at the 
moment. In the end, it’s up to the individual to 
decide how much an investment into the future is 
worth to them. 

We’ve compiled more information on PCI 
Express in the following article: 


When older gamers hear the term “SLI”, their eyes 
tend to glaze over and they wax nostalgic. These 
three letters bring back fond memories of the glo- 
rious times when the now-defunct 3D chipmaker 
3dfx was still around. The abbreviation SLI stood 
for a technique that allowed two 3D cards to work 
in tandem in one computer, splitting the work 
between them. This led to a performance boost fac- 
tor of somewhere between 1.5 and 2. 

The AGP bus put an end to this type of solution, 
but now, with the introduction of PCI Express, SLI 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

is experiencing something of a revival with the In 2D mode, graphics cards draw comparatively 
help of NVIDIA. The new interface allows for sev- little power. However, in a 3D game that puts a lot 
eral x16 PEG (PCI Express for Graphics) slots on of stress on the graphics card, the CPU and poten- 
one board. The success of NVIDIA’s SLI technolo- tially even the hard drive, the power draw can peak 
gy will depend mostly on the pricing and the avail- quite suddenly and overwhelm the PSU. The 
ability of motherboards with the appropriate sup- unavoidable consequence is a crash of the entire 
port. So far, SLI capability has been announced for system. 
PCI Express versions of the GeForce 6800 Ultra, As a reaction to the power needs of their cards, 
6800 GT and 6600 GT cards. You can read up on both ATI and NVIDIA state minimum require- 
SLI here: ments for power supplies. However, these should 
ic/20040628/index.html. only be considered guidelines, at best, since the 
power supply also needs to power the CPU, the 
Power Requirements drives and every other component in the system. 

The power requirements quoted by the manufac- 
turers refer to a standard PC with a modern CPU, 
say a Pentium 4 3.2GHz, a hard drive, a DVD drive 
and a soundcard. If your computer houses more 

Modern graphics processors are very complex; the 
newest flagship models contain more than 200 mil- 
lion transistors. Currently, the record for most tran- 
sistors in a consumer graphics chip is held by 
NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800 GT and Ultra chips, 
which weigh in at 220 million transistors. To give 

you a frame of reference, bear in mind that even 
Intel’s Pentium 4 EE CPU consists of "only" 178 
million transistors — 149 million of which make 
up the second level cache! 

The hunger for power of modern graphics 
cards is correspondingly high, and can no longer 
be satisfied through the current supplied through 
the AGP slot alone. While the AGP slot supplies 
up to 45 watts, a GeForce 6800 Ultra draws up to 
110 watts under full load. To make up for the dif- 
ference, 2 additional ATX Molex connectors 
need to be plugged into the card. This is an 
extreme example, and most cards need only one 
such auxiliary power plug. The new PCI Express 
interface improves this situation by offer- 
ing up to 75 watts, but even this obvious- 
ly isn’t enough for the highest-end cards. 

The way the auxiliary power cables are 
split up is important. Whenever possible, 
the graphics card should always have its 
own, unshared cable. The only other 
component that can be attached to the 
same cable without risking trouble is a 
case fan. 

Depending on the power requirements 
of a card, the power supplied by the 
motherboard may not be enough. In this 
case, cards require auxiliary power con- 
nectors fed directly by the system’s power 
supply. This picture shows the types of 
connectors currently in use. 

THG Graphics Card 


Buyers Guide 

it’s better to 
play it safe, 
bite the 
bullet and 
buy a brawnier 

Also, it should be noted 
that a good 350 watt power supply 
can deliver much more stable voltages 
than a cheap 450 watt model. The specifications 
of the PSU, such as the amperage at a certain volt- 
age, can be of great help in making an educated 
buying decision. Such information can usually be 
found on the manufacturer’s website. If the manu- 
facturer doesn’t publish any information, it’s usually 
safer to choose a different model. You can find 
more information on power supplies in this article: 

Power requirements of the 

newest high-end models: 

X800 XT PE: min. 350 watts and one additional 

connector on an unshared cable 

X800 Pro, 9800 XT: min. 300 watts and one 

additional connector 

GeForce 6800 Ultra: min. 350 watts and two 

additional connectors; cable can be shared. 480 

watts required for overclocking, with two unshared 


GeForce 6800 GT und 6800: min. 300 watts. 

One unshared cable from the power supply. 
Smaller models are less demanding where the 

power supply is concerned. A standard 300 Watt 

power supply will usually be sufficient, at least as 

long as there aren’t too many other components in 

the system. 

Looks & Cooling 

Features that make a card stand out visually, such as 
colored PCBs, classy materials or colorful fan 
LEDs, should be considered gimmicks; after all, the 
cards are currently installed into the motherboard 
upside-down anyway. Often, such extras will only 
make the installation more difficult. If, for example, 
the card features a large heat sink on the back, the 
result can be a cramped motherboard or, in the 
worst case, conflicts with existing parts. Sometimes, 
the cards’ length can also be a problem. 

Everyday Life: The 
card’s spiffy fan is no 
longer visible once it is 
installed into the system. This 
will only change with the 
upcoming BTX case standard, in 
which the cards are installed "right side 
up." Everyday occurrence: the inside of a 
PC is a dust magnet. 

More important than its looks is a cooler’s efficien- 
cy and noise level. Thankfully, most manufacturers 
have picked up on the trend towards quieter PCs and 
have begun equipping their cards with very quiet, 
temperature-controlled fans. The reference fan (i.e. 
the cooling design suggested by the chip designer) is 
often a good choice. You should only choose a 
graphics card with a different cooler if the cardmaker 
in question also offers detailed information on the 
differences in noise level and cooling efficiency com- 
pared to the standard cooling solution. 

On entry-level cards that usually feature graphics 
chips running at low clock speeds, a passive cooling 
solution is often sufficient. The advantages: no noise 
and absolute reliability. 

Doiable Sha" Moita 

Many companies needlessly equip their entry- 
level cards with cheap and simple fans that are 
usually loud and short-lived. Often, a passive 
cooling solution would do just as well, and last 

In the case of slower graphics cards, it’s a good 
move to chose a model that features passive cool- 
ing, since the fans found on cards in this price cate- 
gory are usually more loud than helpful. The high- 
end segment features passively cooled cards as well, 
though. However, the computer case needs to have 
sood airflow for them to work well. 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

Monitor Connectivity 

Almost every graphics card today features connec- 
tors for two monitors. Usually, cards will come with 
one DVI-I connector for a digital monitor and one 
standard VGA connector for CRTs. Adapters that 
ship with the card also allow for a second analog 
monitor to be used instead of a digital one. So, typ- 
ically, the following combinations are possible: 1x 
VGA, 1x DVI, 2x VGA or 1x DVI & 1x VGA. If 
you're planning to hook up two digital (TFT) 
monitors to your card, you should look for cards 
with two DVI-I connectors; these are becoming 

more and more popular. Their flexibility allows for 

practically any combination of monitors. 

If you intend to use more than two monitors, 
you will either have to buy a more expensive 
workstation card, or take a look at Matrox’s selec- 
tion of multi-head cards. ATI offers another alter- 
native in the form of its IGP 9100 motherboard 
chipset sporting integrated graphics. Thanks to its 
SurroundView feature, the on-board graphics can 
remain active even when an add-in card is installed 
in the motherboard. As a result, up to three displays 
can be attached to one computer. However, for 
gaming purposes, simply hooking up several moni- 
tors to your system won't be enough. You can find 
a little guide here: http://graphics.tom 

Another factor that is an unknown at present is the 
impact of PCI Express, or more precisely, mother 
boards with several x16 PEG slots. Several such 
chipsets have already been announced but have not 
yet been released by their respective manufacturers. 

At present, only a few graphics cards come with 

two DVI(-I) monitor outputs, for connection with 
digital flat-panel monitors. A combination of 1x 
VGA and 1x DVI(-I) connectors is more common. 
Dual DVI-I is the more future-proof choice, even if 
you only attach analog monitors at present (using 
adapters — see next picture). 

Using special adapters, analog monitors can be 
hooked up to DVI-I connectors. In most cases, a 
graphics card will ship with such an adapter. 

Video In & Out 

Nearly all cards come equipped with video-out 
functionality, but video-in features are much rarer. 
Often video-in is only present on so-called "ViVo" 
models, which offer connection options for video 
sources via composite (RCA video) or S-VHS 
cables. However, these are of no help for connect- 
ing digital video cameras, as these tend to require a 
FireWire jack that is only rarely found on a graph- 
ics card. You can only watch television via video-in 
if the source signal is coming from a tuner, i.e. a 
video recorder, satellite receiver or TV. 

As an alternative, graphics cards with an integrat- 
ed TV tuner are also available. ATI offers its All-in- 
Wonder series, while NVIDIA sells its Personal 
Cinema line. Of course, these cards cost more than 
the standard models. Also, bear in mind that you 
will lose all of the functionality come the next 
graphics card upgrade (unless you buy a newer ver- 
sion of these cards, again at an additional expense.) 
If you consider yourself a frequent upgrader, you 
should probably opt for an add-in TV card instead. 

It is important to understand that even cards with 
video-in functionality are not "real" video capture, 
cutting and/or editing cards. Although modern 

cards offer hardware-supported encoding of video 

THG Graphics Card 


Buyers Guide 

material, the brunt of the burden is still borne by 
the CPU! 

Most cards with video-in & out connect to 
video sources using breakout boxes or dongles. 
Cameras or video recorders can also be connected. 

Video-out in HDTV quality is a new and hot 
topic. While most new graphics chips support this 
feature, the appropriate RGB cable is (still) usually 
absent from the bundle. If this is an important fea- 
ture for you, be sure to check the cards’ feature and 
accessory table. 

Software Bundle 

One significant area that sets individual card makers 
apart from each other is the software they bundle 
with their cards. Aside from the obligatory driver 
CD, most cards come with a software DVD player. 
Graphics cards with video inputs also often come 
with video editing 
software. In most 
cases, these pro- 
grams are either 
older or slimmed- 
down versions, 
usually carrying 
the SE or LE tag. 
Some companies 
also develop their 
own display tools 
that operate in par- 
allel with the 
graphics driver. 
These aren’t 
required, though, 
since the card 
makers have no 
partin driver 
development these 

days; they are written exclusively by the chip maker. 

Depending on the card manufacturer, some 
games may even be included in the bundle. These 
run the gamut from entirely useless (outdated titles, 
limited versions or freely available demo versions) 
to highly attractive (retail versions of top titles). You 
can save money this way, if you find a card that 
ships with a game you were planning on buying 
anyway. In most cases, the bundled versions ship 
without a manual, however. And of course, there’s 
no advantage if you’ve already bought the game, or 
if it isn’t one you like. 

As usual, it’s up to the individual to decide how 
much of a factor the software and/or gaming bundle 
is in the buying decision. 

#6 The Purchase 

0 nce you’ve picked out the right model, it’s 

time to clear the next hurdle, namely the pur- 

chase itself. Again, there is a lot to consider. 
First, you need to decide whether you want to 
order online or buy at a local store. On the whole, 
online shops tend to offer lower prices, but make 
sure to check out the cost of shipping and handling! 
Many online retailers charge a premium, and that 
would-be bargain can turn out to be more expen- 
sive than it would have been at your local store. 

Buying at a store can also offer some other adva n- 
tages, especially if you can get competent advice 
from the employees. If you’re lucky, your local store 
may even let you test the card in the showroom, so 
you can check out the 2D signal quality of the VGA 
output, for example. This is an especially important 
factor in the case of low-cost models. 

The main thing to remember is to closely scrutinize 
the paticulas of the offer in question. If information 
on the cards memory and core frequencies is conspic- 
uously absent, it’s best to keep looking! An exact list- 
ing of the card’s specifications is the least a customer 
should expect. Frequently, even a scan of the manu fa c- 
turer’s spec sheet may not be of any help. Especially in 
the low-cost sector, many manufacture rs just don’t 
give detailed information on their cards’ clock speeds 
or memory bus width, as the following pictures show: 

Abit’s data sheet for the Radeon 9200SE-T 
shows quite detailed information on the card’s 
specifications, with only the clock speeds missing. 
The note about the slower 64-bit memory is par- 
ticularly important. 

MSI does the exact opposite. Not only are the 

clock speeds not to be found anywhere a reference 
to the slow 64-bit memory is also absent. Instead, the 
spec sheet only gushes about the memory size of 
128MB - which has practically no beneficial impact 

on the performance of a card in this category. 

If you already have all of the information you 
need about your dream card, you can search for the 
best prices online by using search engines such as 
Bizrate (http://tomshardware.bizrate. 
com/buy/browse__cat_id--4.html). If 
you've already had a positive experience with an 
online shop, it may pay off to check if they have 
the card you're looking for, even if it is slightly 
more expensive there. Also, always make sure to 
check the availability of the card! Often, shops will 
list cards that they don’t have in stock. In the worst 
case, you may end up waiting for your card for 
weeks or even months. 

If you're unsure whether the card you’ve picked 
out is the right model, would like to take a look at 
the cardbefore you buy or have questions about the 
installation of the card, you’re better off going to a 
store — assuming you find one that offers compe- 
tent advice. 


The drivers on the CD that comes with your new 
card will probably already be out of date by the time 
you buy it. So, after you get the card home, we re c- 
ommend downloading the latest drive rs for it from 
the Internet. Newer games, especially, tend to have 
more problems with older drivers. The same holds 
true for Microsoft’s DirectX, which you should also 
keep up to date. Newer games often ship with a run- 
time installer of the current DX version, though. To 
make life a little easier for you, we have compiled a 
list of the most important links: 

THG Graphics Card 
Buyers Guide 

Current Drivers: 
ATI-based graphics cards (Radeon, All In 
Wonder, IGP) - 

Intel integrated graphics (chipsets 1865G, 
915G) - 

NVIDIA-based graphics cards (GeForce, 
nForce) - 

S3-based graphics cards (Deltachrome) - 

SIS integrated graphics - 

XGI-based graphics (Volari) - 

In many cases, the 
manufacturer of your 
card will also offer 

graphics drivers on their 
own website. < } 
Unfortunately, these are rarely as 

current as the ones found on the 
chipmaker’s website. As we men- 

tioned before, driver development is 

now handled exclusively by the chipmak- 
ers anyway. Nonetheless, regular visits to the 
cardmaker’s website make sense, for example to 
download updates for utilities and tools, or to find 
newer BIOS versions for the card . 

Closing Words: 

The Tom’s Hard ware Graphics Card Buyer’s 
Guide is meant as a guide and a reference to 
help beginners select and buy a new graphics 
card. Through constant updates, it is our goal 

to create a comprehensive and current overview 
of the models availabk in the marketplace and 
the technologies upon which they are based. 

Be sure to drop by regularly — it will be worth 
your while! m