At one of the recently concluded PCQuest events, one of the guests, an IT professional, made a personal request to our magazine to also look at the lighter side of life, even as we continue to serve loads of technical knowledge. And what better way to have fun than playing games-computer games. So, if you are game for it, we present you with fifty graphics cards to make your gaming experience more immersive.
However, as increased options offer you variety, they make choosing the right one more difficult and confusing. To dispel that confusion we have dissected these cards for their price, performance and features and compared them against each other. To start with, we have divided these cards into six categories, based on several factors.
The first and foremost factor is the way these cards interface with a motherboard. Presently, there are two types of interfaces for graphics cards-AGP and PCI-E (PCI-Express)-dividing them into two broad categories. PCI-E, being the latest, offers higher data bandwidth, between the card and the motherboard, than AGP. But, this doesn't mean that you should only go for PCI-Express and not AGP.
If your motherboard has an AGP slot, you can only put in an AGP card and not a PCI-E; the same applies for PCI-Express as well. However, if you are going for a new system, we recommend that you go for a PCI-E based motherboard, so that you can add a PCI-E card to it. Then, within each category, we have divided the cards into three sub categories, entry-level, mid-range and high-end, giving us six categories in all.
While buying a graphics card, one expects it to run any and every game available under the sun, but that is not the case. With every new game coming out in the market, the amount of graphics processing required to play it increases. A graphics card which lets you play all the current games, with a high degree of graphic detail and at a very high resolution, chances are, may not allow you to play next year's games in all their glory. A card, wonderful by today's standards, may not be the same tomorrow. In this shootout, we have divided the cards into categories based on their graphics processing abilities. A high-end card will allow you to play most current games at very high resolution, frame rate and detail. But to play a game coming one or two years down the line, you will have to reduce the resolution and graphic detail to achieve a decent playable frame rate. We have tested all high-end cards at a resolution of 1600*1200 with high graphic detail, provided by anisotropic filtering (AF) and anti-aliasing (AA). A mid-range card will also provide excellent game play but at lower, yet, decent resolution and detail. Such cards were tested at 1024*768 resolution and medium level of graphic detail. An entry-level card, as the name suggests, will give you entry level game play only, but still better than many on-board graphics solutions. These cards were tested at 800*600 resolution and no AF or AA.
The benchmarks used for testing were 3DMark05, Half-Life 2 and Doom3. All these test a card's ability to run DirectX 9 based games. Most Windows games are based on DirectX, and DirectX 9 is the latest version. 3DMark is a synthetic benchmark, which tests the game playing and several other capabilities of a card. Half-Life 2 and Doom3 are the latest and amongst the greatest games, presently available in the market. Benchmarking using these games gives us a performance metric to judge a card's performance in playing the real-world games.
Almost all graphics cards, barring a few, have graphics processing units (GPUs) coming from ATI or NVIDIA, in different flavors. So, what makes one card different from the other, if both have the same GPU? It is the features of that card. The first feature that comes to mind is the VRAM (video RAM) of the card.
Nowadays, 128 MB has become standard for most entry-level and mid-range cards, and 256 MB for high-end cards. Though, you may still find some entry-level and mid-range cards with 64 or 256 MB of VRAM. However, more VRAM doesn't always provide better performance. It's the right combination of the GPU and the amount of VRAM that makes a card faster than the other. A fairly low-end GPU with 256MB VRAM may not give you the performance that a slightly better GPU may provide with 128MB VRAM. This point will become clear in the pages to follow.
Other features to look for in a card are the type and number of monitor connectors. Most cards come with support for connecting two monitors to the system. Some cards give you DVI (digital) output for connecting flat-panel displays that accept digital input. A digital to analog convertor lets you connect a normal analog monitor to DVI output. Apart from a monitor, these graphics cards can also be connected to a TV set, using the S-Video or Composite-Video port. Some cards also come with hardware to capture video from a video source such as movie camera, and are called VIVO (Video-in video-out) graphics cards. Such functionality is useful if you want to transfer video from tapes to your computer.
For a gamer, nothing is better than a couple of games bundled along with the card, which can get him playing instantly. Many of these cards come with games, but the type of game varies from card to card. So it's your pick, which games you like and which you don't. Along with games, many cards provide some pretty useful software such as for overclocking the card, video capturing, anti-virus and tools for diagnosing, and controlling the cards' features. All these features have been taken into account for the 50 graphics cards that we reviewed.
Price is a point where most discussions start and end. Of course, every body wants to get the best deal at the lowest price. But if you are a die-hard gamer who wants the best out of each game, certainly, there is no end to how much you might want to spend. Prices for high-end cards start at around Rs 20,000 and go upto as high as Rs 45,000. This is a huge price band considering that you can get a decent desktop for around 20k and a notebook for 45k. However, as you go lower you can also get a card for Rs 2,500, which will give you basic game play according to current standards.
We used this three-axis model of performance, features, and price to determine the winners, and used the Brown-Gibson model (a standard statistical model) to arrive at the weightages. So, to find out which is the right card for your needs and also fits your budget, read on.
By Ankit Kawatra, anoop mangla, sanjay majumder