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Appeared on: Thursday, July 28, 2005
VGA Roundup Vol.2

1. Introduction

The graphics card market can easily be described as a vast place, consisting of numerous brands and manufacturers, a fact that is sure to confuse the potential buyer. Which card should they buy? Which type suits their needs, be it "office use" or for extreme gaming experience (chillin' 3D or heavy 3D environment respectively). How much VGA memory is really required by the latest games without it affecting performance? Which card supports which features and last but not least, which is the most affordable solution?

Throughout these pages, we will try to give a more comprehensive view of some of the latest PCI-E graphic cards out there by comparing their performance with the aid of some of the well known benchmarks available.

The cards we selected to present in this review are based on the following chipsets:

ATI NVidia

Before proceeding with any of the tests, we should mention that there is more than one version of each card, with differences in performance. For example, there is the X800, X800XL and X800XT or the 6800GT and 6800Ultra. In our case, we selected only one from each chipset instead of all of the versions, since we only want to point out some major differences between each card and help a potential buyer make up their mind.

-A brief "3D" History

Over the last few years, the need for better and better graphics cards has risen and as expected, has eventually led to a battle between the manufacturers with a single aim: market dominance. It all started with the release of the Voodoo series from the now defunct 3dfx, which featured the first consumer-level 3D hardware, adding 3D graphics to the 2D rendering cards using a pass through cable offered with the 3D accelerator Voodoo cards. Later on, Voodoo 4 came out in either a single PCI or AGP interface card, which led more or less to the now familiar scene we have in the graphics card market.

"A graphics card, video card, video board, video display board, display adapter, video adapter, or graphics adapter is a component of a computer which is designed to convert a logical representation of an image stored in memory to a signal that can be used as input for a display medium, most often a monitor utilising a variety of display standards. Typically, it also provides functionality to manipulate the logical image in memory."

Source: Wikipedia.com

Several major changes have taken place since then in graphic cards technology such as the AGP X bus speeds and of course the integration of Vertex/Pixel shaders as well as Direct X support (originally known as the "Game SDK") and the latest, PCI-E interface. All these contribute to the performance of the graphics cards and their ability to "render" the latest 3D applications, which in the main involves games.



- Tests

Lets take a quick look at the benchmarks used in this comparison.


we used the 01, 03 and 05 versions


the well known aquamark is also in our review


the codecreatures benchmark from Codecult

We also used a variety of graphics card dependent games:

this is considered one of the "heaviest 3D " applications what a stealth game is all about..
one of the best strategy games... for racing enthusiasts...


Half life, the most anticipated game ever created...

2. 3DMark05

With 3DMark05, Futuremark continues the tradition in its benchmarking software by providing a state-of-the-art Microsoft ® DirectX ® 9 3D performance benchmark.
3DMark05 is an all new 3DMark version making the most of Microsoft's DirectX 9. The previous version 3DMark03, did a nice introduction into this level of technology. However 3DMark03 used DirectX 9 specific features in a limited manner, because fully supporting hardware was rare at the time of its launch. In contrast, 3DMark05 requires DirectX 9 hardware with full support for at least Shader Model 2, and takes shader usage to never before seen levels.
Just like its predecessors, 3DMark05's point system is set so that at the moment of release, the high-end VGA cards available in stores can only score around 5000 3DMarks, whereas the worst card that meets the programs requirements yields a score of 1000.

Game Test 1 - Return to Proxycon

Click to enlargeBeing the sequel to the "Battle of Proxycon" from 3DMark03, in "Return to Proxycon" we're once again set in space and the battle continues as space pirates invade a cargo ship in order to take control of its valuable cargo.

This test, tries to simulate a future first-person shooter game with all the high details that entails. The dynamic shadows, high-detailed environment and advanced lighting techniques ensure that under normal circumstances, no recent card can run it with decent frame rates.

Game Test 2 - Firefly Forest

Click to enlargeA forest gets filled with magic fireflies in the night. The moon is nearly full, illuminating the forest with a bluish faint light. The magic fireflies have flickering bright green lights that playfully move around the forest.

This scene is a nice example of a smaller scale outdoor scene with rich vegetation. Immediate visibility is not so far, and there is a skybox surrounding the whole scene.

A large number of trees with their branches swinging separately, and dense vegetation being dynamically distributed according to the camera movements, make this test the most demanding of the three.

Game Test 3 - Canyon Flight

Click to enlargeA Jules Verne type airship flies through a canyon guarded by a dangerous sea monster. The airmen defend their ship using heavy cannons, but these seem to have no effect on the huge sea monster. Finally the crew manages a narrow escape using the "last resort" afterburners of the airship.

This scene is fairly complex with large areas of water reflecting the high canyon walls. The water actually is one of the key points of interest in this scene. The water not only does realistic looking reflections and refractions, it has a depth fog, making the sea monster swimming under the airship actually look deep down in the water. The air in this scene also uses a volumetric fog, making distant cliffs of the canyon really look far away.

Final Score

In the final scores for the 3D marks benchmark, we can see that the X850XT series graphics card registered the highest score, followed by the 6800GT series and X800. All cards scored at least a thousand marks, meeting the benchmark's requirements.

3. 3DMark03

3D Mark is a widely used and accepted benchmark that stresses the DirectX performance of a VGA card. A very strong point of 3DMark is that it's VGA card measuring is does not require any CPU power. So the resulting fps are a good reference a VGA card's rendering performance. For testing the performance of each card we used the 4 game benchmarks 3DMark has.

3Dmark03 also includes sound and CPU tests as well as some other feature tests.

- Game Test 1 - Wings of Fury (DX7)

This test is a combat flight simulator written for older hardware (DirectX 7). Particles are used a lot in this test - smoke and vapor trails, flak and gunfire, and explosions are produced using point sprites and quads.

- Game Test 2 - Battle of Proxycon (DX8)

This test is a simulation of first person shooter game types. 1.1 and 1.4 Vertex shaders are widely used since all character models are skinned using vertex shaders.This makes this test a good vertex shader comparison for VGA cards.

- Game Test 3 - Trolls' Lair (DX8)

This test should be the favorite of all RPG lovers. It is a cut scene of a female warrior facing two malicious trolls. Again the same vertex and pixel processing is used as in game test 2.

This test also uses post-processing effects, such as Depth of Field and Bloom effects which are widely used in today's game cut scene sequences.

- Game Test 4 - Mother Nature (DX9)

Mother nature represents the level of effects and realism that are possible using 2.0 vertex and pixel shaders, plus some other features that DirectX 9 offers.

- 3DMark Official score

This is the overall graph performance, a combination of all four benchmark tests. Presenting the individual results for each card and test-resolution would prove meaningless and frustrating for the reader, so we simply post the total 3DMark score.

The X850GT is once again first with the 3DMark03 series of benchmarks this time, closely followed by the 6800GT series card. The difference between the two cards is 1000 marks. Then follow the X800, 6600GT and the other graphics cards.

4. Codecreatures

CodeCreatures is a synthetic 3D benchmark that is a good reference for VGA performance comparison. This is a high-end 3D benchmark that also requires DirectX 8 hardware, making a good tool for measuring the potential of DirectX 8 game performance.

The Codecreatures benchmark is written with Microsoft's DirectX 8.1 API and incorporates the use of Vertex and PixelShaders popular on next generation 3D accelerators.

The benchmark plays a photo-realistic nature scene and calculates the performance of the graphics adapter by measuring the fps that it can display at 1024x768, 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 resolutions.

-Codecreatures number

The codecreatures number is the resulting score of the total benchmarking process and is basically the geometric mean of the three frame rates multiplied by 100.

The X850XT graphics card continues to hold onto first place with this benchmark also. This is no surprise since this card is a real powerhouse. Second place again goes to the 6800GT.

5. Aquamark/3DMark 2001

Since the majority of today's applications and games are compatible with DirectX 9, the need of benchmark applications that use DX 9 has been brought up. The benchmark uses the 3D engine (Krass engine) of the Aquanox game.

Aquamark Triscore

The Aquamark Triscore comprises 3 values: the overall system performance, the performance of the graphics system and the CPU performance. Keep in mind that this is not the total result of the tests, but the result of the whole benchmark process including all 9 chapters.

3DMark 2001

3DMark 2001 is the predecessor to 3DMark03. It's mainly a directx8.1 benchmark and the score depends a lot on the CPU power of your computer. However for reference use only we decided it'd be best to just leave it in our benchmark list so you can compare the next generation cards with the possibly outdated you have at home.

Both these benchmarks are not as intense as the previous ones and as we can see, all the cards reported high values. Once again the rankings stay more or less the same.

6. Half Life 2

Half life 2 is no doubt the most anticipated pc game of all times. Gamers keeping the excellence of Half Life 1 in their mind as well as the remarkable E3 demo preview, have been anxiously waiting for the much delayed release of HL2.

Characters - Advanced facial animation system delivers the most sophisticated in-game characters ever seen. With 40 distinct facial "muscles," human characters convey the full array of human emotion, and respond to the player with fluidity and intelligence.

Physics - From pebbles to water to 2-ton trucks respond as expected, as they obey the laws of mass, friction, gravity, and buoyancy.

Graphics - Source's shader-based renderer, like the one used at Pixar to create movies such as Toy Story® and Monster's, Inc.®, creates the most beautiful and realistic environments ever seen in a video game.

AI - Neither friends nor enemies charge blindly into the fray. They can assess threats, navigate tricky terrain, and fashion weapons from whatever is at hand.

To measure performance we used the Video Stress Test (VST) that is available in CounterStrike:Source beta available through Steam. We set all the details to the highest level and each time changed the resolution, from 800x600 up to 1600x1200.

In Half Life 2 VST, the highest framerate was generated by the X800 at a resolution of 800x600, while as the resolution increased, only the X850XT, 6800GT, X800 and 6600GT graphics cards managed to maintain adequate framerates which would guarantee the user a satisfying gaming experience.

Same performance when enabling Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic-Filtering. Notice that the low end graphics cards can barely hold on at the highest resolution.

7. Doom 3

A massive demonic invasion has overwhelmed the Union Aerospace Corporations? (UAC) Mars Research Facility leaving only chaos and horror in its wake. As one of the few survivors, you struggle with shock and fear as you fight your way to Hell and back, in an epic clash against pure evil.

Activision made it's miracle again with Doom 3 which is said to be the best-looking game ever, thanks to the brand-new OpenGL graphics engine used to generate its convincingly lifelike, densely atmospheric, and surprisingly expansive environments. If you are a fan of the previous Doom games then you will get many flashbacks with this revision, since you will find reimagined versions of almost every monster from both Doom and Doom II.

To measure performance on the game we used the time demo demo1 command from the console (Alt+Ctrl+~).
Enabling the high quality setting and executing the time demo demo1 command twice for each resolution, we witnessed the following:

First, without the Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering settings enabled, we got the following results:

Nvidia based chipset cards have slightly better FPS as opposed to ATI based cards with this game. This time, the 6800GT rules with the X850XT close behind.

As we can see, Doom3 is not a game to play unless you have a powerful graphics card.

8. Thief 3

Instead of Deus Ex from now on we'll be testing our cards using Thief 3. It's based on the same engine but it's much less GPU intensive and playable by more VGA cards than Deus.

The game makes severe use of Pixel Shader 1.1 instructions, the bloom effect and stencil shadows to achieve a wonderful result in your screen.

In the game you play the part of Master Thief Garrett who is back to rule out any evil forces using his unique stealth abilities. Deadly Shadows shows what stealth gameplay is all about. This game really gives you the feel of sneaking around and holding your breath when stuck in a sticky situation.

Since there is no official benchmark for the game, we'll do our tests using a GPU intensive scene from the tutorial-level which we believe that represents the average fps you'll get when playing the game.

Thief 3 is a torture test for any graphics card. Even at low resolutions and with no multisampling enabled, the results are far from great, when in other latest games we have figures of 100+ FPS.

The X850XT delivers the best framerate especially as the resolution rises, but even without any of the advanced game features enabled, we can see that at higher resolutions, the framerate drops considerably.

Only the two high end graphics cards can offer a satisfactory playing environment with AA and AF enabled. All other card owners are advised not to enable any of the advanced features to avoid a jerky game.

9. Colin McRae 2005

For all you racing fans out there, this test is for you and will represent the Racing game category in our benchmarks.

From the graphics point of view the first thing you'll notice in the game is the excellent amount detail of your racing car. High resolution textures on the car and lighting make it quite impressive. All the eye candy such as the sun reflection in the virtual camera are still the same as the older CM versions but motion blur has been added when your card hits something hard which will happen most often if you're new to the racing simulation world.

To measure performance on the game we used fraps to get the average fps of the whole 8th stage of UK which is actually the only stage you get to play on the demo.

This game is playable with all cards. Notice how the X850XT maintains a constant framerate at all four resolutions. This is due to CPU limiting.

Enabling 4x Anti-Aliasing and 8x Anisotropic Filtering, although improving the game's image quality, cannot be handled by all of the cards.

10. Ground Control II

Ground Control 2 is an action-oriented game of tactics and warfare. As Captain Jacob Angelus of the Northern Star Alliance, you will command squads of infantry, artillery, and air power against the might of the Empire of Terra. Base building and resource-collecting are replaced with unit control and combat tactics where your knowledge of the battlefield maneuvers will make the difference in your fight against a ruthless enemy. Position your troops on hilltops for better aim or inside buildings and forests for protection as you'll need to use every inch of terrain to your advantage.

For our benchmarks, we used the highest possible settings on the first mission of the single player game and moved around the camera to get an average frame rate using fraps.

At the lowest resolutions, GCII can be played with all cards. Best performance of course comes with the X850XT and the 6800GT.

Setting AA to 4x and AF to 8x, the 6800GT dominates at 800x600 but increasing the resolution, the tide turns and the X850XT appears to be more resilient although there is not much between the two cards.

11. Conclusion

It's obvious from the previous pages, which of the tested cards are Heavy 3D environment capable cards and which of them are Chillin' 3D environment cards. We can separate the list into three basic categories. The first is Chillin' 3D, for office use as many label graphics cards that are meant for simple operating system use (much like the onboard graphics cards). The second category would be the average performance graphics cards, or the cheaper versions of the Heavy 3D, which are meant for gaming at an affordable price. The last category and the best is Heavy Duty. These are the expensive cards, which are meant strictly for gaming purposes and are purchased primarily by hardcore gamers.

...some of the latest graph cards manufacturers.

Price is a major factor and will affect the buyers choice. Often, the buyer will compare the performance of a specific card that suits his needs against its price and bundled software (a compilation of software, utilities and most usually full pressed games that come with the retail box) to arrive at a suitable trade-off.

Manufacturers, in an effort to make their products more appealing, also offer a wide range of features with their cards such as integrated TV tuners and such. This is another issue that the potential buyer will contemplate before buying any specific game card. Which one offers the most features.

Overclocking is a different issue altogether, which we will not discuss here, as we have concentrated on the shipped versions of the graphics cards and not their overclocked versions, even though sometimes, a lower performance overclocked version will outperform the high end cards.

Summarising, we have: performance, features, bundle (retail box) and of course most importantly, price. Below we have posted a table with some of the graphics cards used in this comparison along with their respective price range. The wide variance in price per card is due to the fact that each card is available in editions, ranging from basic models up to extreme. For example, in the case of the 6800, we have the GT and Ultra editions, with prices of US$500 and US$700 respectively. The same applies to ATI chipset based cards.

Chipset Min US$ Max US$
X300 32 90
X800 149 522
6800 144 709
6200 38 96
X850 340 600
6600 105 245
X600 79 190

Throughout these pages, we have attempted to provide a comprehensive coverage of the capabilities of some of the latest PCI-E interface graphics cards. Another major factor is the the overall PC system which can make a marked difference, so users should take this into account (CPU, system clock frequency, memory type and size, etc).

We hope this comparison has helped you choose from the wide variety of the graphics cards available on the market.

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