Summary: With so many graphics cards out there, keeping up with the latest options can be a difficult ordeal. In today's article, we've rounded up ATI and NVIDIA's latest offerings for the value, mainstream, and high-end segments -- 10 cards total. If you're still unsure of which card is right for you, you'll definitely want to check out this article!
So, you’re looking for a good graphics card to spend that Christmas bonus on? Or perhaps you’re 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, we’ve collected NVIDIA and ATI’s 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. Let’s 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. Let’s face it, not everyone has $200 or $500 to shell out for a graphics upgrade every 18 months.
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).
ATI has decided to answer this with the RADEON 9600 SE. As its name implies, this card is based on ATI’s 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 Valve’s 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 board’s MSRP of $129, ATI offers quite an interesting counter to NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5200 Ultra. Neither card will be a DX9 powerhouse, but with their backward-compatibility, they don’t have to be.
SIDEBAR: ATI was recently added to the NASDAQ-100
Defining the mainstream segment is really getting tough nowadays. You’ve got the traditional players that are cost-reduced versions of ATI and NVIDIA’s flagship graphics cards, the GeForce FX 5700 and RADEON 9600 series being the latest examples of this category, but more recently high-end cards that sport lower clock speeds have made quite a splash in this market, these cards would be the RADEON 9800 and GeForce FX 5900/5900 XT. We’ll start with the former category.
RADEON 9600 XT/GeForce FX 5700 Ultra
ATI’s RADEON 9600 XT was born out of the need to produce a faster RADEON 9600 PRO card, without having to resort to the added development costs of designing and producing a new graphics architecture.
To accomplish this, ATI spiced up the RADEON 9600 PRO formula by refining the chip’s manufacturing process. The RADEON 9600 XT adds a layer of low-k dielectric material to TSMC’s 0.13-micron process. This increases the performance of the millions of circuits within the 9600 XT’s graphics core and enhances power efficiency: ATI is able to hit higher clock speeds without having to rely on an external power source or resort to a larger cooling unit.
With the enhanced core in place, ATI bumped up the core clock frequency to an even 500MHz, an increase of 100MHz over the RADEON 9600 PRO. Unfortunately, the speed of the RADEON 9600 XT’s memory was unchanged at 300MHz (600MHz effective). ATI has taken quite a bit of heat for this oversight. One bonus that should take this off your mind however is Half-Life 2. Just like the RADEON 9600 SE, the RADEON 9600 XT ships with a voucher for this game that can be redeemed when it is ultimately released. ATI and Valve are offering Valve’s Premier Pack as a free download in the meantime. The Valve Premier Pack includes Half-Life, Counter Strike, Team Fortress Classic, Deathmatch Classic, Half-Life: Opposing Force and Ricochet. This is a limited time offer that expires once Half-Life 2 is available. Customers who wish to cash in on this offer must download the Valve Premier Pack via Valve’s Steam client.
For GeForce FX 5700 Ultra, NVIDIA decided to abandon the GeForce FX 5600 architecture in favor of the more powerful CineFX 2.0 engine first adopted in the GeForce FX 5900 family. GeForce FX 5700 also incorporates NVIDIA’s UltraShadow and Intellisample HCT technologies which improve stencil buffer (shadows) and anti-aliasing performance respectively.
Finally, in order to further improve performance, NVIDIA also turned up the clock frequencies for GeForce FX 5700 Ultra. Its graphics core operates at 475MHz, 25MHz shy of RADEON 9600 XT, but thanks to its 450MHz DDR2 memory (900MHz effective) the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra boasts significantly more memory bandwidth – 14.4GB/sec versus 9.6GB/sec in RADEON 9600 XT. In theory, this should give NVIDIA an advantage in high resolutions or when anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering are used.
SIDEBAR: ATI was rumored to be releasing CATALYST 3.10 today. We’ll see if that holds up!
ATI RADEON 9800
Thanks to increased competition between ATI and NVIDIA, one development that has taken the mainstream market by storm (at least among enthusiasts) are high-end cards like the RADEON 9800 and GeForce FX 5900 128MB that are sold as products for the mainstream segment.
This started with the RADEON 9700 and later, the RADEON 9700 PRO, when its price was reduced with the introduction of the RADEON 9800 family. ATI eventually offered the RADEON 9800 128MB at incredibly low prices which we highlighted in our review back in August. This card boasts a 256-bit memory interface and eight pixel pipelines, just like ATI’s high-end offering the RADEON 9800 PRO/9800 XT. The only difference is the clock speeds have been reduced to 325MHz core/290MHz memory (580MHz effective).
These boards could be found for as low as $200, but unfortunately in recent weeks they’ve been all bought up, finding a true RADEON 9800 at $200 has been difficult lately. Fortunately the RADEON 9700 PRO at $230 performs similarly, but it doesn’t offer some of the RADEON 9800’s features and it’s built on an older board design that tends to generate more heat.
GeForce FX 5900/5900 XT
In contrast to the rapidly disappearing RADEON 9800, NVIDIA and its board partners have been stuffing OEM and retail channels with GeForce FX 5900 and GeForce FX 5900 XT boards. These cards boast the same feature set as the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, although in the case of the GeForce FX 5900, the core clock frequency has been reduced to 400MHz and it’s equipped with 425MHz memory (850MHz effective). The GeForce FX 5900 XT’s core also operates at 400MHz, but its memory is pared down to 350MHz (700MHz effective).
SIDEBAR: Here’s the PR for NVIDIA’s Call of Duty promotional bundle.
NVIDIA and ATI’s high-end offerings are both based on their refresh parts from Spring 2003. These cards support the latest technologies from both respective companies and ship with the fastest memories, larger frame buffers (256MB standard) and graphics cores that operate at higher clock speeds. All this performance comes at a cost though – both of these cards retail for $500; street prices online are just north of $400.
ATI RADEON 9800 XT/GeForce FX 5950 Ultra
ATI’s “XT” series adds one new feature over their predecessors, OVERDRIVE. OVERDRIVE dynamically adjusts the clock speed of the graphics core depending on temperature. The cooler the core operates, the higher OVERDRIVE will overclock the graphics core, but only up to a point, 432MHz for the RADEON 9800 XT. This is a 20MHz improvement over the RADEON 9800 XT’s stock frequency of 412MHz.
At the top of NVIDIA’s product lineup is GeForce FX 5950 Ultra. This card packs a 475MHz core with 256MB of 475MHz DDR memory (950MHz effective). Other than the higher clock speeds, the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra is the same as its forerunner, GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, and with its mild 25MHz core clock speed boost, many NVIDIA enthusiasts were disappointed with the 5950 Ultra’s final clock speeds. In fact, eVGA’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card, the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, is capable of outrunning GeForce FX 5950 Ultra in some situations because its core is clocked at 500MHz.
In the 5950 Ultra’s defense though, we’ve been able to overclock its graphics core to unprecedented levels, suggesting that NVIDIA may have been playing it a little conservative by holding the core to 475MHz. 1.0GHz+ clock rates on the memory are also achievable with a little bit of overclocking.
We ran the aforementioned cards through our usual battery of benchmarks to see which cards came out on top. We also included the GeForce4 Ti 4600 and RADEON 8500 as a frame of reference. They’re both popular cards with millions of boards floating out there. Other important factors include image and driver quality (stability/compatibility), two topics we’ve covered regularly in the past.
Call of Duty (custom demo)
Nascar 2003: OpenGL
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB: OpenGL
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Call of Duty
Call of Duty 4xAA 8xAF
Value Pick: GeForce FX 5200 Ultra
While ATI’s RADEON 9600 SE was just recently announced by ATI to take on the GeForce FX 5200 Ultra in the high-end of the value segment, its performance leaves a lot to be desired. ATI’s decision to equip it with a 400MHz 64-bit memory interface robs it of most of its performance. As a result, its 325MHz core is starving for more memory bandwidth, leaving a core that’s quite a capable performer in the RADEON 9600 and 9600 PRO idling in many situations.
Mainstream Pick: GeForce FX 5900 XT
For the mainstream segment, you’ve got the traditional RADEON 9600 XT versus GeForce FX 5700 Ultra, but actually we’d skip over these two cards and go straight to one of the value-priced high-end cards. Here NVIDIA offers the GeForce FX 5900 XT at $200, and the GeForce FX 5900 at $230, both with Call of Duty. As it stands right now, this combination can’t be beat. You’ve got the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra’s 256-bit memory interface and the same graphics core, only it operates at 400MHz. Many will probably dabble with a little bit of overclocking to narrow that gap a bit (if not surpass it).
High-end Pick: RADEON 9800 XT
At the high end, ATI’s RADEON 9800 XT reigns supreme. It offers excellent overall performance in DX8 and DX9 applications thanks to its 8-pixel pipeline architecture and 256-bit memory interface. This should allow it to perform well with games throughout 2004, making it an excellent investment for gaming in the future. And with the Half-Life 2 coupon in the box, the decision becomes a no-brainer. If all that wasn't enough, the addition of OVERDRIVE is icing on the cake. We just recently discovered a way to increase OVERDRIVE’s performance that you may want to take a look at.
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