So, youíre looking for a good graphics card to spend that Christmas bonus on? Or perhaps youíre still busy writing up your list. Whatever the reason, we figured that with 8 days left until Christmas, it was time for us to highlight your choices out there. With so many model numbers and names (which almost seem to change on a weekly basis) each supporting different features, it can get confusing. Keeping up with the graphics industry can sometimes be a fulltime chore!
In order to help sort things out, weíve collected NVIDIA and ATIís latest and greatest products for the value, mainstream, and high-end graphics segments, game tested and benchmarked them, and provide our thoughts in this article. Letís go ahead and get started.
The value market is often overlooked in our product reviews, focusing instead on the mainstream and high-end segments, but this is where the bulk of volume comes from, partially due to OEM orders, and also due to the low prices these cards sell for. Letís face it, not everyone has $200 or $500 to shell out for a graphics upgrade every 18 months.
After the launch of the GeForce2 MX (which in some cases was capable of giving a high-end GeForce 256 card a run for its money), this segment has evolved at a snailís pace. NVIDIA hadnít felt compelled to introduce any new features in its GeForce4 MX series, while ATIís RADEON 9000 family was hardly a step up from the RADEON 8500/8500 LE Ė the 8500 series were selling at roughly the same price point as the RADEON 9000/9000 PRO and offered more performance.
GeForce FX 5200 Ultra (bottom)
RADEON 9600 SE (top)
Both sport DVI/VGA and S-Video out
NVIDIA made quite a splash earlier this year however with the launch of its GeForce FX 5200 family. Rather than produce a DX8-level value graphics solution, NVIDIA skipped a generation and went straight to DX9. Critics like to point out its anemic performance in DX9 applications, which is certainly true, but the card is still backward-compatible with older software that utilizes 1.x pixel and vertex shaders, and it performs quite well with these titles thanks to its industry-leading fill rate and memory bandwidth. It packs a 325MHz core with 325MHz memory (650MHz effective).
Passive cooling on the 9600 SE
GeForce FX 5200 Ultra
ATI has decided to answer this with the RADEON 9600 SE. As its name implies, this card is based on ATIís RADEON 9600 PRO core, only the core clock frequency has been reduced to 325MHz core/200MHz memory (400MHz effective) and its memory interface has been cut to 64-bits.
As a result of these changes, the RADEON 9600 SE is a little bit cheaper to produce, but it also sacrifices performance. With a narrower 64-bit memory interface, the graphics core will be starving for more memory bandwidth at higher screen resolutions, especially when you turn on eye candy features such as anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering.
ATI does sweeten the deal however by including a free copy of Valveís upcoming shooter, Half-Life 2. This is one of the most highly anticipated games and will likely be a best seller when it arrives. When you couple this with the boardís MSRP of $129, ATI offers quite an interesting counter to NVIDIAís GeForce FX 5200 Ultra. Neither card will be a DX9 powerhouse, but with their backward-compatibility, they donít have to be.
|Value Graphics Feature Comparison
||Core Clock (MHz)
||Memory Clock (MHz)
||Peak fill rate (Mtexels/sec)
||Peak Memory Bandwidth (GB/sec)
|GeForce FX 5200 Ultra
|RADEON 9600 SE