by May 4, 2006 0 comments



Indian gamers have never had it so good. With everybody
believing in ‘The Indian Story’, prices are dropping faster than bombs in

Iraq


and the choices are like never before. What’s more, even entry-level cards
today give some pretty amazing performance. The top end of course, costs an arm
and a leg but the performance is so phenomenal that the cards that were top end
a few months back are already appearing sluggish and mediocre.

How we tested
We tested the cards on a variety of parameters which included performance,
bundle and price. For performance, we took a two-tier approach. The entry and
mid-range cards were tested at 1024×768 and 1200×1024 as the resolutions and
2xAA and 4xAF being the quality settings. For high and top-end cards, we added
another 1600×1200 as the highest resolution and the quality settings were fixed
at 4xAA and 8xAF. For all cards, we took the scores with AA/AF enabled as well
as disabled.

The games we used for the benchmark were Far Cry (Patch
1.33), Quake 4, Doom 3 and F.E.A.R. Along with these, we also used 3DMark 2005
at its default settings as it gives a reasonable estimate of the overall
graphics performance of the cards

0—6,000 Entry level
6,001—12,000 Budget gaming
12,000—19,000 Mid-range gaming
20,001 — 33,000 High-end gaming
33,001 — 42,000 Extreme gaming

The categories
With the extremely varied price points, we definitely had a hard time
classifying the cards. We classified the cards as follows:

The test bed While normally we set up identical

testbeds for the shootout, we set up slightly different ones here. For testing
NVIDIA cards the testbed consisted of AMD Athlon X2 4800+, 2x512MB DDR400 RAM
(dual channel enabled), ASUS A8N32SLI motherboard and a 120GB Seagate SATA HDD.

For testing the ATi cards, all else was kept the same as
above, except that we changed the board from ASUS A8N32 SLI to ASUS A8R32MVP.

The reason for the difference was that ATi had communicated
to us that their cards under perform when coupled with NVIDIA-based boards. They
said this was because NVIDIA refuses to open up and collaborate for a common
platform.

Weightage Chart

Category Price Performance Features
Entry Level 50 25 25
Budget 45 25 30
Mid Range 40 30 30
High End 25 45 30
Extreme 20 60 20

While we definitely checked out and found the performance
issue to be true (the performance difference is between 5—10%), we cannot
confirm either ways whether it is NVIDIA that is locking up its boards against
ATi or if it is ATi that is locking up its cards against NVIDIA-based boards.
Either ways, to be fair to both, we tested out the cards on different boards.

We would request you to kindly check for compatibility
issues before buying your graphics and motherboard solution.

With the civilities out of the way, lets

get down to finding out who is the performance king!

Entry level cards
These cards should be considered for the simple reason that you have bought
a motherboard without on-board graphics and need a display adapter but don’t
have enough money to buy a decent card. These cards are simply not cut out for
any level of gaming experience and really should be bought if the rest of the PC
buying has not left any money in your pockets!

While manufacturers will try to sell these cards with
various gimmicks around them and a never ending feature list, the blunt fact is
that these are entry level cards and they perform like them. For even a remotely
enjoyable gaming experience, move on to our budget or mid-range cards section.

There is an interesting concept that NVIDIA is really
selling to its customers. Its called TC (TurboCache). What it means is that the
card will share some memory from the system and thus, the effective memory
available doubles. This means that if you buy a 6200TC with 128MB of RAM, it can
scale upto 256 MB by eating into your

system RAM. A word of caution which we would like to put in is that, just
because it

reserves some of the RAM for its use, it doesn’t mean it will start performing
like a card with native 256MB of video RAM. This is because retrieving stored
data in the TC is still significantly slower than retrieving it from embedded
memory.

Having said that, in our tests, we actually found some of
the 128MB TC cards matching up to those with native 128MB memory. This is indeed
impressive because it implies that NVIDIA has got a terrific prediction system
which can guess quite efficiently as to what data should be in the embedded
memory and what should be stored in the TC. No doubt, the concept of TC has been
seriously boosted now that motherboard interconnect is via PCI-express instead
of the PCI used earlier.

Nvidia 6600

Far Cry Far Cry is one of the most beautiful 
games out there. The graphics and the physics are some of the best around. It is
then a testament to the level of advancement that even the lowest end cards

were able to play this game without much

problems.

We were actually very surprised that a card costing a mere
Rs 2700 was giving a very playable 35 FPS at 1280×1024. If you are willing to
turn down your resolution a bit, you can crank up the quality settings all the
way to 4xAA/8xAF, which will make the water ripples look simply surreal! 
But of course, for more graphics-intensive games like Quake 4 and F.E.A.R, these
cards are simply not good enough. While you will be able to just about eke out
playable frame rates with every setting turned to low or off, the gaming
experience is miserable.

Doom 3 and Quake 4 Although Quake 4 does look
significantly better than Doom 3, they both essentially use the same engine,
which is why we have clubbed them together. By and large, due to the heavier
graphics load, cards give lesser FPS in Quake 4 than in Doom3.

Again, these cards will allow you to play Doom3 and Quake 4
at only the lowest quality settings. Increasing the quality levels even slightly
makes the game pretty choppy and unplayable. Even if you were to spend all of 6k
on a card, you will still not be able to play the game as the developers wanted
you to.

F.E.A.R This is one of the most graphics intensive
games available today. Even at the highest levels, cards have trouble rendering
it so obviously, at this end of the chain, the cards are simply not built to
handle the sheer calculations it belts out. There is no way you are going to be
able to get any kind of reasonable game play experience with the entry level 
cards. The game will simply not run on them, so if you want to play F.E.A.R (and
indeed the games to come), look elsewhere.

All our cards here (Turbo Cache or not) performed quite
miserably. This was most definitely due to the restricited pixel pipelines
available to them. At four per card, they simply lack the sheer power of
processing.

The winners While the entry-level cards don’t come
with any kind of a bundle, it is wrong to expect any, simply because of the
ultra low price point. Our “Highly Recommended award” is won by Gainward
Powerpack GeForce6200 card for its decent performance coupled with ultra low
pricing.

The “Editor’s Choice award” goes to Leadtek PX6600LE
for its impressive performance even under the stress of F.E.A.R. Even though its
priced under 6k, it performs slightly better than cards priced a little higher
like the ASUS EAX1300Pro.

Gainword Bliss 6800GS PCX512MB

Budget gaming
This is where the fun begins. With cards being priced between 6—12k, we
were

hoping to see some real fireworks and the manufacturers haven’t disappointed
us.

Silent ASUS Before we begin with the score analysis,
we would like to specifically talk about ASUS’s ‘Silent’ tag for a bit.
The biggest problem some gamers face is that some  cards have quite noisy
heatsinks. With the fan whirring away at its maximum, the sound is loud enough
to irritate and spoil

the fun.

ASUS has shown some pretty remarkable engineering and has
managed to do away with the heatsink fan altogether! Instead, it has a
brilliantly innovative fanless design (replicated even on some of the
motherboards, including the A8N32-SLI) which helps keep the card cool. While it
would be fair to say this design definitely works in most situations and really
does make a huge difference in terms of system noise, there is one issue with
it.  The issue being overclocking ability.

Gigabyte 7800GTX

You see, a fan really is much more efficient in keeping
temperatures lower. While at stock speeds (which maybe higher than NVIDIA’s
reference speeds, mind you) the card’s fanless design can take the heat, if
you were to overclock it, the card became too hot too fast. This reduces your
ability to basically overclock the card beyond a certain point. A case in point
being the X1300Pro Silent. We tried over-clocking it but couldn’t manage it
beyond 610MHz, The card then started seriously overheating and our system
started freezing or shutting down. The X1300Pro regular edition could be
overclocked to a cool 625 MHz without any issue!

Clearly, the difference between the cards lie in the heat
sinks. The fan clearly makes a difference even though it is certainly a lot

noisier.

Personally, while we are pretty impressed with ASUS’s
Silent Cooling technology, we aren’t willing to sacrifice overclocking
capabilities. Give us a noisy fan any day and if it interferes with the gaming
experience, simply turn up the volume a few notches!

Far Cry If you buy in this segment, you can expect
some pretty reasonable performance. A game like Far Cry can be comfortably
played at 1280×1024 with 4xAA and 8xAF. The point to note here is that even
though a 30+ frame rate is considered more than reasonable, our eyes cannot make
out the difference above 30fps. If you are coupling this card with a slower
processor (ours was a mega X2 4800+), you might see some framing when there are
too many enemies around, as your system struggles to cope up with the game A.I.

The 6800GT clearly outdoes everyone here. Even the newer
X1600XT gets completely decimated by it. The interesting thing to note here is
that the 6800GT is clocked significantly lower than other cards, but it outdoes
them because of the sheer number of pixel processors!

Doom 3 and Quake 4 Again, here we see that the
6800GT far outshines its rivals, thanks to its massive pixel processors. The
other cards don’t do too badly though. The X1600XT does come in a comfortable
second here. This is also the category where we are beginning some pretty decent
packaging, especially at the top end of the field with games like Far Cry being
part of the bundle! We were quite impressed with XFX, as they seem to have the
best prices with the best bundles!

F.E.A.R Finally, we come to a level where the cards
can handle FEAR to a reasonable extent. Of course, even then you will only be
able to play FEAR at 1280×960 (remember that FEAR doesn’t have 1280×1024) with
AA/AF switched off, you will at least be able to play it!

The winners It is clear that core clock speeds
don’t count for much if they aren’t backed up by some impressive processing
power. If you match the core clocks of the X1600XT and 6800GT, you will find
that 1600XT is clocked almost twice as fast (as is the X1300Pro!), but the
6800GT outshines it simply because it has 16 pixel pipelines instead of 12 on
the 1600XT! An increase of just 4 pipelines has helped the card overshadow a
significantly higher clocked card! This is a phenomenon we will see more of as
we progress higher up the order and will become extremely pronounced when we
talk about cards like 7900GTX and 1900XTX.

In this category, the “Editor’s Choice Award” goes to
the XFX 6800GT, while the “Highly Recommended award” goes to Powercolor
X1600XT.

A word of advice. NVIDIA has discontinued the 6800GT core.
The only 6800 series card still in production is the 6800GS which is available
for a mere Rs 500 more and ends up performing better. So

if you have around 12k to spend

on a card, we would actually recommend you to buy XFX 6800GS.

Mid-range gaming
This category is for the serious gamers. If you want superb quality and
don’t mind paying big bucks for it, this ones for you!

Interestingly, this category consists mostly of NVIDIA’s
6800GS based cards and a single 7600GT from MSI and the AX800 Silenzer from
ASUS.

Asus EAX1900 XTX 512MB

Far Cry This game becomes an easy play for these
cards and they just whizzed through it without any problems whatsoever. We were
particularly stunned by the MSI NX7600GT, which gave a cool 51fps even at
1600×1200 4xAA/8xAF. It easily outshined the others with only the gainward
6800GS, making it anywhere close at 50. It seems the higher clock speed coupled
with 12 pixel shaders really did the job for this card. It even outshined the
6800GS from Zebronics, even though, it came with 512MB of video memory! Again,
the core clock is perhaps more important than the amount of memory on board.

Doom 3 & Quake 4 The story was no different
here. The 7600GT was simply in a league of its own. The heavy textures and
graphics of Doom3 and Quake 4 didn’t really do much to impediment the card’s
performance and it gave a pretty comfortable frame rate of 69 even at 1600×1200
4AA/8xAF!

We were quite disappointed by the XFX 6800GS XXX edition
though. We really

expected a lot more from it but clearly, the newer 7x cores from NVIDIA are
overall superior to the series 6x and it is definitely showing here!

F.E.A.R This is the real acid test for any card.
Here also, NX7600GT was the only card which could give us a 30+ frame rate,
which is truly commendable for a card costing just 14k.  The others
didn’t do so well and none of the others would ever let you play F.E.A.R at
1600×1200 4xAA/8xAF unless you get down to some serious overclocking.

Asus EN7900GTX 512MB

The winners MSI’s NX7600GT easily bags the
“Editor’s Choice award” because of the sheer performance and the
unbelievable price.

The “Highly Recommended award” goes to XFX 6800GS XXX
edition for the excellent value proposition it carries.

What surprised us was that MSI was still selling its 6800GS
for Rs 19,000. That’s pretty absurd as far as pricing goes since the 7600GT
far outshines it and costs about Rs 5000 rupees lesser!

While we are definitely impressed, what we would love to
see in future is manufacturers taking this great card and overclocking it and
souping it up with bigger and better heat-sinks. That is when the performance
will really begin to show and we suspect it might overshadow some of the cards
in the extreme category even!

High-End gaming
This is where we get to the cards that are for those with serious gaming
intentions and big bucks to back them. The section basically was made up of
7800s and X1800s which is quite surprising because a few months back, these
cards were in our extreme category and already they are on their way out!
Interestingly, Powercolor X1800XT was the only 512MB card in this category and
the added memory definitely helped it in beating everybody else pretty
convincingly.

MSI 7900PCI 256MB

Far Cry This game is pretty graphics intensive but
the cards in this category made small work of it and whizzed through it in no
time flat. All cards did more or less comparable frame rates and the difference
of 1-2 percent is really negligible. It was when we cranked the settings all the
way to 1600×1200 did we see the X1800Xt emerge as a clear winner. No doubt, the
bumped up high speed memory helped it through the large amounts of uncompressed
textures and such. The other card that really impressed here was the ASUS
EN7800GTX with 256 MB of RAM. The card did well to keep close to the vastly
superior X1800XT which eked out a small lead, solely because of its video
memory.

Doom 3 and Quake 4 With the results in Far Cry, we
expected the X1800XT to shine through here as well because the 512MB of GDDR3
will definitely help feed its fast clocked core and thus give out some pretty
amazing results. It did just that.

The card left everyone else behind even at the basic
setting of 1024×768 no AA/AF. It only got better as quality settings increased
and we saw the NVIDIA based cards give up significant chunks of their FPSes to
compensate for the 4xAA/8xAF. This is something we continued to see through out.
ATi cards seem to suffer lesser penalty for higher quality settings compared to
NVIDIA cards.

ATI Radeon X1900XTX

The ASUS 7800GTX did well here as well and while it
couldn’t match the X1800XT score for score, it came pretty close.

F.E.A.R Our favorite test would again tell us which
card really does have the power and it proved us right once again, the X1800XT
doesn’t seem to have a match anywhere in this category. It simply blazes
through F.E.A.R and that’s really saying a lot. Had ATi kept the price up and
it had landed in our extreme gaming category, it would’ve definitely lost out
to the 7800GTX 512MB as that is really a far superior card but the price point
of this card makes it a killer deal.

The ASUS EN7800GTX couldn’t keep up with F.E.A.R and gave
us a surprisingly low score of 31FPS at 1600×1200 4xAA/8xAF while the X1800XT
gave us a solid 49.

The Winners Selcting the winners here was
easy. The Powercolor X1800XT with its 512MB of video memory outshined all others
quite comfortably and thus bags the Editor’s Choice.

The XFX 7800GT 256MB does a pretty commendable job and
costs just Rs 21,000, 2000 more than the exorbitantly priced MSI 6800GS! We
therefor award the XFX7800GT “Highly Recommended”for high-end gaming.

Extreme Gaming
This is the segment for those for whom money is no object (or company pays
for everything!) and they want just the absolute fastest.

This segment has seen some pretty hot action in the past
few months with both ATi and NVIDIA trying to grab the numero uno spot.

ATI Radeon X850XT 256MB

While we made it clear some issues back that NVIDIA was
clearly second to ATi’s X1900XTX, NVIDIA has since then launched the 7900GTX
and its performance is impressive. However, it is not really anywhere near the
performance we have come to see from the X1900XTX and that still retains the
crown of the fastest card on the planet.

Having said that, we commend NVIDIA for bringing down the
price of its top end product to around 34k. Although, to be fair, since it
couldn’t wrest the ‘fastest’ title away from ATi, it might not have been
left with a choice.

Far Cry

The CPU lock story continues here and all cards pretty much went through
this test at full throttle making it more or less redundant. Perhaps we will see
a difference in scores if we put in the brand new Athlon FX 60, but we’ll
update you on that once we are through testing it in our labs.

Nevertheless, the ASUS X1900XTX did outshine everybody else
and was definitely the card to beat! It was followed home by MSI 7900GTX. But to
be fair, only the subsequent tests will really tell us the whole story about
just how much muscle power each card carries.

Doom 3 & Quake 4 The minute we crank up the
graphics settings all the way up, we can immediately see the clear superiority
of X1900XTX. The 48 pixel shaders make small work of all the ultra detailed
graphics in these games. For some reason, even the water and smoke effects start
seeming to be a lot more natural.

Another superb card here though is the ASUS EN7900GTX
512MB. While the performance of this card is not top of the line, it is not far
off either and the price makes it a steal, at just 33,900!

Leadtek PX7800GT 256MB

Definitely, our pick of the cards for this test are ASUS
EAX1900XTX and the ASUS EN7900GTX.

F.E.A.R This is truly the test which separates men
from boys. Running the test at every

detail at maximum quality and resolution really loads up the processors in a
card and even the tiniest chinks in the design show. The X1900XTX left all the
others to dust. They were the only cards which could give a 60+fps even at
1600×1200 4xAA/8xAF!  So, they definitely look good for the

performance awards!

The winners

It’s a no brainer in reality. If all that you want is absolute
performance, you can’t go wrong with the ASUS EAX1900XTX.

It’s just unbelievably fast and the best part is that you
can overclock it further! It therefore gets the Editor’s Choice for this
category and the “Best Performance” overall as well.

If you want to have one of the best cards around but
can’t shell out too much money for it, then you could look at the ASUS
EN7900GTX 512MB at Rs 33,900. It’s performance is not really that far off the
mark from the 1900XTX and it is a cool Rs 7000 cheaper! Plus, it has a great
bundle as well.

Final thoughts
We love it when ATi and NVIDIA try to outdo each other for it always results
in

better and more cheaply priced products for the end user. If you look at some of
the top end cards today, they reflect more  a difference in philosophy than
the technological capability.

Comparing the specifications, you will find that ATi has
crammed the X1900XTX with a whopping 48 pixel shaders! This is not without
reason. The pixel shader calculations in the games today have grown manyfolds
since the days of pacman and the idea seems to be right, as at highest quality
settings, ATi’s X1900XTX leaves all NVIDIA cards to dust.

Throughout this shootout, at high quality levels, NVIDIA
cards had a higher frame rate drop in frames than ATi.

NVIDIA feels people don’t really care much about whether
their card gives thema score of 110fps or 130fps but are more concerned about
the cost. That’s why the 7900GTX is essentially an updated 7800GTX chip (die
shrink and associated complexities not withstanding).

We are truly impressed by ATi’s X1900XTX. From playing
catch-up ever since NVIDIA’s GeForce Series 6 cards, ATi has come back with a
bang. We cant wait for NVIDIA’s G80 and ATi’s R600 to hit the market. They
will surely relegate our current winners to mediocre level cards at best! Amen.

Varun Dubey

Click here to see
performance and feature table of the gaming cards.

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