Upgrade Report [GeekTech: Keep Graphics Discrete - 03/22/2005]



March 22nd, 2005

GeekTech: Keep Graphics Discrete

Sr. Assoc. Ed. Tom Mainelli

Explaining the different graphics options to someone building or
buying their first new PC used to be a fairly straightforward
proposition. It went something like this: For the best performance and
features, pay the extra money for a discrete graphics card with a chip
from ATI or NVidia, because, in brief, integrated graphics suck.

Today, things are a bit more complicated. It's not just that
integrated graphics have improved; they have, and they're fine for
many tasks. But don't kid yourself--they're still pretty lame. There
are also way too many discrete graphics chip choices out there: For
example, ATI's site currently lists a whopping 13 different chips.
However, what really confuses the issue is that both major graphics
vendors now offer chips that purport to combine the best aspects of
integrated and discrete graphics technologies for new, highly
affordable PCI Express-based cards.

Say what?

It's true. NVidia was first out of the gate with a new technology it
calls TurboCache, and ATI recently launched chips that use what it
calls HyperMemory.

Each technology uses a graphics chip with special memory management
features that can take advantage of the bidirectional speed of PCI
Express to access system RAM. Combined with a small amount of on-board
memory (anywhere from 16MB to 64MB, depending on the card), new boards
that incorporate these technologies offer better performance and more
features than integrated graphics systems, according to their makers.
The new cards are cheaper than most stand-alone cards due to their
smaller on-board memory capacities. Both chips support DirectX 9;
NVidia's also supports DirectX 9's Shader Model 3.0, while ATI's
supports Model 2.0.

In light of these new technologies, have I changed my advice to those
who are graphically challenged? Not one bit.

Faster Than Slow

ATI just launched its HyperMemory-based chips, so we haven't had the
opportunity to test any of its products yet. The company is playing
catch-up with NVidia, which launched its TurboCache technology a few
months back. NVidia is now shipping GeForce 6200 chips based on the
technology, and its partners are selling boards based on those chips.

We recently tested two boards based on the NVidia 6200 with
TurboCache, one with 16MB of included memory and one with 32MB:

NVidia says the 16MB cards sell for about $80; cards with 32MB sell
for about $100; and cards with 64MB (which we didn't test) will run
you about $130. You'll find TurboCache boards for less than these
prices online. However, you can also easily find sub-$100 PCI Express
graphics cards with a 128-bit memory bus that is superior to the
64-bit version, an actual 128MB of memory onboard, and DX9 support.

To take advantage of TurboCache, a computer needs at least 512MB of
system RAM and a PCI Express 16-x slot-compliant motherboard. In this
setup, NVidia says the 16MB and 32MB models are supposed to act like
cards with 128MB of memory; while the 64MB card should act like one
with 256MB.

In our tests of the 16MB and 32MB cards we saw acceptable performance
on most graphics tasks, plus decent frame rates at midrange to low
resolutions on some older games. However, despite NVidia's claim that
these cards can support the latest games at resolutions of up to 1024
by 768, in our tests games such as Far Cry and Doom 3 were largely
unplayable at those settings.

For example, in our Far Cry test running at 1024 by 768 the 32MB board
managed about 25 frames per second, while the 16MB test board netted a
mere 15 fps. In our Doom 3 tests at the same resolution the 16MB unit
offered up just 12 fps and the 32MB card pushed 19 fps. (PC games are
playable at around 30 fps, but they look best when they run closer to
60 fps.)

Sure, those speeds are better then what you'll likely get from most
integrated graphics setups, but that's not saying much.

What do game developers think of integrated graphics, which are
largely the domain of chip-set giant Intel? Epic Games founder Tim
Sweeney calls Intel "The bane of game developers," and notes that its
products "are not acceptable for gaming today."

If you'd like to read about additional tests on boards using the
GeForce 6200 with TurboCache, check out the reviews at Tom's Hardware
and AnandTech:

Tom's Hardware Guide


The review at Tom's hardware includes tests of an Intel 915-based
system that uses Intel's GMA 900 graphics processor. On Tom's site
there's also a useful (but frightening long) article called "How Much
Graphics Power Does a PC Really Need?" by Lars Weinand:

Planning Ahead

Somebody will undoubtedly write me to point out that if you're looking
to do graphics on the cheap, you're probably not on your umpteenth
playthrough of Doom 3. This is undoubtedly true, and for some folks a
TurboCache or HyperMemory-based board might provide just enough
performance for today. But remember, today's high-end games are a peek
at where mainstream computing and graphics requirements are going.

True, the next version of Intuit's Quicken may not tax your graphics
card, but I guarantee you that the next version of Microsoft Windows
will. PC World's Scott Spanbauer has looked at several early betas of
the operating system, and in "Your Next OS: Windows 2006?" he notes
that "Explorer's attractive displays of files and properties come
courtesy of Longhorn's new graphics subsystem, code-named Avalon,
which will hand much of its work to the PC's graphics subsystem."
Here's his review:

Longhorn isn't due for some time (2006 at last check), but chances are
if you're building a new PC or upgrading your current PCI
Express-based computer now you'll still be using this machine when
Microsoft gets around to launching its next, graphics-heavy OS.
Wouldn't you hate it if your year-old PC didn't have the chops to run

I understand that not everyone is willing or able to buy a
top-of-the-line $550 graphics card. In fact, I'm not willing to do
that either; bragging rights just aren't worth it to me. But I do
think anybody who cares about graphics in the least should spring for
a midrange card.

Plunk down $200 for a conventional graphics card with at least 128MB
of memory (and that 128-bit memory bus) and support for DirectX 9 and
you will not be disappointed. My current favorites in this price range
are cards based on NVidia's GeForce 6600 GT chip, one of which we
reviewed in December:

Not only will you enjoy good performance today, but you'll also have
enough juice to run tomorrow's apps.

Oh, and don't forget: Integrated graphics still suck.

Have a question or comment? Write to Tom Mainelli:
geektech at pcworld.com

Read Tom Mainelli's regularly published "GeekTech" columns:

"I was mean. I would see a girl across the ring and think, 'She's trying to take what I've fought for all my life.' Next thing, I'd be gouging eyes, pulling hair--whatever I had to do, that's what I did."
-- Lillian "Fabulous Moolah" Ellison (81)


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