The Fastest Graphics Cards of 2004: Ultimate Testing of 27 GPUs. Part II: Performance Analysis

Today we would like to offer you a continuation of our ultimate testing of 27 different graphics cards based on GPUs from ATI and NVIDIA supporting different interfaces (AGP and PCI Express). Do you feel lost in the tons of graphics cards out there? Then our indepth performance guide will definitely help you out!

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko, Anton Shilov
02/15/2005 | 12:06 PM

Testbeds and Methods

After a brief review of the last-year graphics market, we are now ready to taste that year’s vintage of graphics cards in practice. We had to use three platforms for our mega-roundup: two computers with an AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 processor (with AGP 8x and dual PCI Express graphics interfaces) and one with an Intel Pentium 4 560 (with a PCI Express x16 slot). Our choice was determined by the huge number of the tested graphics cards and the late availability of the full-fledged NVIDIA nForce4 SLI platform. Since the nForce4 SLI is yet fresh, we only used the mainboard on this chipset to test graphics cards in the SLI mode, so it would be logical to compare the results of the SLI platform with those of the AGP cards that also worked with an Athlon 64 FX-53.

 

So, here’s a full list of the hardware we used:

AGP platform:

PCI Express platform:

NVIDIA SLI platform:

Software:

AGP graphics cards:

PCI Express graphics cards:

We enabled ForceWare optimizations, save for the Anisotropic mip filter optimization, and used the Quality mode. With ATI’s Catalyst, we set the Catalyst A.I. option to “Standard”, and the Mipmap Detail Level option to “Quality”. We disabled the vertical synchronization (VSync) in both drivers. We turned on the full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering from the game’s own menu. If the game didn’t offer this option, we forced the necessary mode from the driver.

In all cases we only adjusted those settings which are accessible to any user; we didn’t change games’ configuration files, though it was possible in some cases, because an ordinary user is unlikely to be into editing various CFG or INI-files. The maximum graphics quality settings were selected in each game, the same for graphics cards on ATI’s and NVIDIA’s GPUs.

We enabled the Multi-GPU Rendering mode for the SLI platform, in which the SLI mode is enforced even for games which are not supported explicitly by the ForceWare driver. Thus we will see if NVIDIA’s technology works efficiently in such cases, if works at all. Unfortunately, the current BIOS of the A8N-SLI Deluxe mainboard is far from perfect – the system doesn’t work with graphics cards from ATI Technologies and hangs up from time to time in a number of games. We hope this will be amended in future BIOS updates or new revisions of this mainboard.

Here’s a list of games and benchmarks we made use of when writing this review:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

Simulators

Strategy Games

Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

Synthetic Benchmarks

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Call of Duty: United Offensive

The new version of Call of Duty boasts a much better graphics with especially spectacular explosions. The water surface is good here, too, but less realistic than the water from Half-Life 2 or Far Cry. We decided to include this game in our review as it is one of the most popular online shooters.

In fact any modern graphics card would suffice for playing Call of Duty: United Offensive unless you enable full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering. The game prefers NVIDIA’s new-generation graphics cards, especially in the top-end class. The RADEON X800 cards seem to press against some barrier in low resolutions, which evidently has nothing to do with the speed of the central processor. We can’t really say why the RADEONs behave like that, but as is often the case, the problem may lie somewhere deep in the driver.

The GeForce 6600 GT is on top in the performance-mainstream class, but its advantage over the RADEON 9800 XT is small and diminishes in higher resolutions: in spite of the new architecture, this GeForce is equipped a narrow 128-bit memory bus, while the driver for the RADEON 9800 GPU has been perfected and optimized for almost all the existing games and applications in the two years of this GPU’s life.

The graphics cards with the PCI Express interface perform much like their AGP-interfaced mates do, but the GeForce 6800 GT is somewhat slower than the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition.

So, NVIDIA’s cards seem to deliver more “pure speed” in this game than their competitors from ATI Technologies.

When we enable the “eye candy” mode with its full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, NVIDIA’s cards retain their leading positions, but in two first resolutions only. In the highest resolution, 1600x1200, the GeForce 6800 Ultra is slower than the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition.

A similar situation is in the mainstream sector: the GeForce 6600 GT is only ahead in 1024x768 as its narrow memory bus inhibits it in higher resolutions and its performance falls to the level of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra.

As for devices that plug into a PCI Express slot, ATI’s top-end solutions feel much more confident here, but well, they are only opposed by the GeForce 6800 GT. There’s parity between the GeForce 6600 GT and RADEON X700 XT, although the latter looks better in 1600x1200 because ATI’s architecture is better suited for combinations of FSAA with anisotropic filtering.

As for the SLI platform, it doesn’t work correctly in this game, in spite of the enabled Multi-GPU Rendering mode. We have either negligible or even a negative performance gain. We have no complaints about the image quality, though, but there was no Load Balancing indicator on the screen.

Doom III

Due to the specifics of the new game engine from id Software, their Doom 3 prefers graphics cards with NVIDIA’s GeForce FX and GeForce 6 architectures as being more efficient with the Z-buffer and shadows. Moreover, Doom 3 makes use of the OpenGL API, whose support is implemented in NVIDIA’s driver better than in ATI’s.

The superiority of the GeForce 6 is beyond any doubt as the diagrams show. NVIDIA’s graphics cards are a cut above their rivals from ATI in all resolutions, yet we can’t say that the latter are too slow for a comfortable play. It’s less dramatic in the PCI Express realm, but the modest GeForce 6800 GT anyway outperforms the RADEON X850 XT PE. The GeForce 6600 GT, in both AGP and PCI Express incarnations, rules among mainstream solutions.

The advantage of NVIDIA’s cards shrinks a little in the “eye candy” mode, since ATI’s architecture is better suited to do full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering. This goes for the top-end as well as mainstream class; the GeForce 6600 GT is still superior in the latter.

The RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition delivers the performance of the GeForce 6800 GT, but these two devices belong to different weight categories (the official price of the GeForce 6800 GT is $399 against the ATI card’s official price of $549).

The SLI platform shows here what this technology is capable of when is correctly optimized for a particular game. The GeForce 6600 GT duo easily reached the level of the GeForce 6800 GT, while the system with two GeForce 6800 Ultra cards has absolutely best results, especially in high resolutions as well as in the “eye candy” mode.

We have the same picture on the d3dm4 level, but since there are no monsters on this multiplayer map the overall level of performance is higher here. NVIDIA’s GeForce architecture shows its best on this map, too.

Everything said about the “eye candy” mode on the Hellhole map can be applied to the same mode on the d3dm4 level. As you see, NVIDIA’s GeForce 6 cards are best for playing Doom 3, or you can wait till ATI Technologies releases its new OpenGL driver.

This map being less CPU-dependent than Hellhole, the advantages of the SLI technology become the more conspicuous, especially with the two GeForce 6800 Ultra cards that deliver more than a doubled frame rate of the GeForce 6800 GT in some cases.

Unreal Tournament 2004

Unreal Tournament 2004 can’t poise any hard problems before modern graphics cards and depends more on the speed of the central processor, as the diagrams show. We have almost the same speed with all cards, save for the most inexpensive ones. Somehow, the speed ceiling set by the CPU is higher with ATI’s cards as they yield about 95-95fps, while all GeForce 6800 cards halt at 83fps. It must be due to some peculiarities of the drivers of these cards.

We can see gaps between the graphics cards better in the “eye candy” mode. At least, the GeForce 6800 and the RADEON X700 PRO fall behind the others since 1280x1024 resolution. The GeForce 6600 GT doesn’t reach the speed ceiling, too, as it is hindered by its narrow 128-bit memory bus.

The scene recorded on the Metallurgy level is less complex; it contains some fighting indoors or in small open spaces. The CPU’s influence weakens here and the mainstream cards perform differently in the “pure speed” mode already, starting from 1280x1024 resolution. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP lost the low resolution to the RADEON 9800 XT – its architectural advantages are not called for here, while the ATI card has a twice wider memory bus. The difference is about 12-18 percent, but in 1600x1200 the GeForce 6600 GT AGP suddenly scores even or better, but only by 2 fps. As for the mainstream PCI Express cards, the GeForce 6600 GT is somewhat slower than the RADEON X700 XT in the first two resolutions, but has an insignificant advantage in 1600x1200.

With FSAA and anisotropic filtering enabled, the top-end cards from ATI have overall better speeds than the top models from NVIDIA, and this is already clear in 1280x1024. ATI is also superior among the 8-pipelined solutions, especially in the local fight “RADEON X700 XT against GeForce 6600 GT”. The bigger the resolution, the bigger the advantage of the former card is.

The SLI technology doesn’t yet work correctly with Unreal Tournament 2004: the game often freezes during benchmarking and when you try to exit it. Moreover, the SLI doesn’t bring any speed bonus in UT 2004, as this shooter heavily depends on the speed of the central processor.

Halo: Combat Evolved

This game was ported from Microsoft’s Xbox, so it can’t boast rich textures. The GPU has to execute numerous pixel shaders here, although of version 1.1, which create various visual effects. Because of using specific rendering methods, the game doesn’t support full-screen anti-aliasing.

It’s all right with the pixel shader performance of modern graphics cards, and there’s equality between the top-end solutions from ATI and NVIDIA. In the mainstream sector the GeForce 6600 GT takes its expected first place since it is the only AGP card of that class with a new architecture; its advantage over the RADEON 9800 XT is about 10fps, which is quite a lot considering that the absolute speeds are about 60fps.

A new leader filtered out of the PCI Express equipment, which is of course the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition from ATI. The SLI platform went through this test without problems, boasting an excellent speed. The pair of GeForces 6800 Ultra easily left behind the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition, while the two GeForce 6600 GT were as fast as the single GeForce 6800 GT.

Far Cry

Far Cry is among those games that can take and consume everything a modern graphics processor can give. There are numerous sophisticated pixel shaders in this game, and it has complex geometry and high-resolution textures.

Almost all cards, save for the GeForce FX and low-mainstream solutions, run this 3D shooter comfortably fast.

Top graphics cards evidently hit the ceiling imposed by the central processor of the system in the Pier scene. There’s a curious thing about the minimal performance: the average frame rates being the same, the GeForce 6800 cards have higher minimal frame rates in comparison with the RADEON X800. But the minimal frame rate of the GeForce 6 in the SLI mode decreases noticeably.

The “eye candy” makes any differences between graphics cards stand out more conspicuously and we can see now that the members of the ATI RADEON X800 family go ahead and increase their advantage over the GeForce 6800 series as the resolution grows.. The GeForce 6800 doesn’t look too bad by itself, though.

In the mainstream sector the RADEON 9800 XT is successfully competing with the architecturally more advanced GeForce 6600 GT AGP. The PCI Express version of the GeForce 6600 GT is a little ahead of the RADEON X700 family.

Although Far Cry is among the most popular and technologically perfect games today, the current driver from NVIDIA doesn’t seem to support the SLI mode in it. At least, the speed of two GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics cards proved to be lower than the speed of a single GeForce 6800 GT in all resolutions. The multi-GPU technology does bring a performance gain in the “eye candy” mode, but it’s too small, about 6-11fps.

The scene we recorded on the Research level depends less on the CPU speed, but it is geometrically complex and has many light sources processed on the per-pixel basis, which makes it a good tool for measuring the performance of modern graphics cards.

The GeForce 6800 and the RADEON X800 both use the most optimal rendering paths, enabling Shader Model 3.0 and 2.0b, respectively, but ATI’s devices still have a 10-percent advantage over their corresponding rivals from the GeForce 6800 family. Note that the number of pixel pipelines plays an important role in 1600x1200: the 12-pipelined solutions manage this scene much worse than their 16-pipelined mates do.

Victory comes to the GeForce 6600 GT AGP in the mainstream class as it can process long shaders in the Shader Model 3.0 mode, while the RADEON 9800 XT cannot.

The RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition is unrivalled among PCI Express x16 cards; the new R430-based card (RADEON X800 XL) looks well against the GeForce 6800 GT, too.

We turn on 4x full-screen anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering to see the 12-pipelined versions of the RADEON X800 and GeForce 6800 fall behind even farther, as the load on the pixel processors becomes too high. It’s overall more favorable for NVIDIA here as the GeForce 6800 Ultra is quite successfully contending with the RADEON X800 XT, although the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is still out of reach. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP again showcases the benefits of its new architecture, outperforming the RADEON 9800 XT by about 10 percent; its version for PCI Express is even more aggressive – up to 20 percent faster than the RADEON X700 XT in low resolutions, but less in higher ones.

The SLI platform works well on this level, but we can’t talk about a 60-80-percent performance gain. The gain is about 20 percent at best. Mark also the minimal frame rates – they are often lower with the SLI than with a single card, which indicates that NVIDIA’s technology is yet badly suited for Far Cry. Also, like Unreal Tournament 2004, Far Cry would sometimes hang up on the SLI platform.

Painkiller

Painkiller is a non-demanding game, so all the cards have excellent speeds here. It’s hard to name a winner as the performance of the top solutions from ATI and NVIDIA is much alike. In the mainstream sector, however, the new-generation GeForce 6600 GT AGP rules. Its PCI Express version is far ahead of the RADEON X700 XT whose performance is limited by its cut-down texture caches.

The ATI team gains the upper hand in the “eye candy” mode, and the gap is increasing in higher resolutions. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP still dominates the mainstream class, but only in low resolutions –it is impeded by its narrow 128-bit memory bus in high display modes. This also goes for the PCI Express version which is far ahead of the RADEON X700 XT in 1024x768, but loses its advantage in higher resolutions.

This game can’t work correctly on the SLI platform: although we observed no visual artifacts, the speed gain was close to zero. Thus, NVIDIA’s SLI technology resembles multi-processor systems where the performance gain depends on the optimization of the particular application. If NVIDIA’s driver explicitly supports a game, the SLI may bring about huge speed bonuses. Without the optimization, you are unlikely to enjoy any benefits at all.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2 is a representative of the new generation of computer games which declare strict requirements to the graphics subsystem as well as to the central processor. We used two scenes for our tests, one of which abounds in pixel shaders and puts but a small load on the CPU, but the other is simple in graphics, yet has many AI-controlled objects. You frequently meet scenes of both types throughout the game.

The Canals maps which Gordon Freeman has to traverse in a speed-boat are all about water and this water is rendered with the help of computations-heavy pixel shaders. That’s the reason for the ATI cards to be so quick – they just execute such shaders faster than their competitors do!

You shouldn’t wonder at the results of the GeForce FX – these graphics cards use the DirectX 8.1 rendering path where many special effects are missing or simplified.

Nothing extraordinary happens in the “eye candy” mode – the frame rates just go down a little. ATI’s RADEONs are still victorious.

The SLI technology works excellently in Half-Life 2, nearly doubling the performance in high resolutions of the “eye candy” mode. A system with two GeForce 6800 Ultra would run this game smoothly with enabled FSAA and anisotropic filtering even in 1600x1200!

It’s different on the d3_c17 levels as the scene recorded on the d3_c17_12 map contains a street fight where the CPU has to process a lot of physics and AI for numerous game objects. You can see that in the diagrams: there’s practically no difference between the participants in 1024x768. In the highest resolution ATI’s cards have a negligible advantage of about 2-3 frames per second.

ATI’s cards look better when full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are in use. The architectures from the Canadian company are well suited for hard operational modes where there’s a high load on the graphics memory subsystem.

The SLI technology can’t show its best, as the speed of the central processor is the main frame rate limiter here. Anyway, you can notice a performance gain in high resolutions of the “eye candy” mode.

Counter-Strike: Source

Counter-Strike: Source runs on the same engine as Half-Life2, so you can’t expect any surprises from this test. Still, there are fewer complex special effects here than in Half-Life 2, for example, you don’t often see water. Chateau is one of the levels where there’s some water, though.

The GeForce 6800 Ultra is ahead of the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition in low resolutions, but the gap dwindles almost to zero in 1280x1024, and ATI’s card wins 1600x1200. The difference between them never goes beyond 10 percent, so we can call it a draw.

The advantage of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra over the GeForce 6600 GT AGP is easy to explain: the GeForce FX family cards default to use the DirectX 8.1 path in this game, as they also do in Half-Life 2. A number of special effects are missing in this mode to alleviate the load on these cards which are not actually very good at executing pixel shaders.

ATI’s devices again show their best qualities with enabled FSAA and anisotropic filtering. They are a cut above the competitors in high resolutions.

The Piranesi level is more spacious than Chateau and the GPU mostly has to manage textures here, since the geometry is simple and pixel shaders are practically absent. The RADEON X800 XT and the GeForce 6800 Ultra go neck and neck, while the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is beyond competition, although no more than 10 percent above the rest.

In the “eye candy” mode ATI’s cards again prove their ability to handle the FSAA+AF combination well. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP performs brilliantly in low resolutions, but in high ones gives way to its competitors with a wider 256-bit memory bus.

By the way, we met a strange problem after we had installed the latest game update. All PCI Express graphics cards from NVIDIA began to run this game very slow, and our reinstalling the driver didn’t help at all. Installing ForceWare 67.02 didn’t help, either. We tried to replace the hard drive with a backup one (with a copy of the OS and the games), but to no effect – the PCI Express cards from NVIDIA still performed too slow.

Shadow Ops: Red Mercury

This 3D shooter runs on the engine from Unreal Tournament 2003/2004, so it is unlikely to have anything new to say. At first sight it is an ordinary tactical shooter, focusing on the realism of the action. No sci-fi here – just the weapons and opponents of the 21-th century. The graphics with its sharp textures and rather complex geometry is very decent.

To our surprise this game, seemingly humble as concerns pixel shaders, turned to be a great admirer of ATI’s cards. The top-end RADEON X800 and X850 cards are much faster than their analogs on the NV40 GPU (well, the frame rate provided by the GeForce 6800 is anyway playable). The AGP and PCI Express versions of the GeForce 6600 GT lost their local fights to the RADEON 9800 XT and to the RADEON X700 XT, respectively.

The gap between the top-end cards from ATI and NVIDIA is smaller in low resolutions of the “eye candy” mode, as the UT2003/2004 engine needs the powerful FPU of the Athlon 64 processor. In high resolutions the RADEON X800 cards show the advantages of the HyperZ HD technology. The RADEON 9800 XT is ahead of the GeForce 6600 GT AGP in high resolutions thanks to its 256-bit bus.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

This game abounds in pixel shaders that create various visual effects, so ATI’s RADEON X800 cards feel at their ease here, especially in high resolutions. This is also true for the top-end cards with the PCI Express interface. The eight-pipelined solutions – RADEON X700 XT and GeForce 6600 GT – are racing almost neck and neck. As we have written already, this game doesn’t support full-screen anti-aliasing – turning it on leads to a lot of image artifacts.

The SLI platform supports this game, producing no artifacts. But it doesn’t produce any speed gain, either.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

This game uses simple pixel shaders and features optimizations for running faster on NVIDIA’s GeForces, and it does perform better on them than on the devices of the RADEON X800 family. Yet, the difference is small and unimportant since all top cards give you enough speed for a comfortable play. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP once again confirms its belonging to the new generation of graphics hardware, while the RADEON X700 XT again suffers from the reduced texture caches – the GeForce 6600 GT beats it utterly in this test.

The SLI technology doesn’t work here well. We have no performance gain on the platforms with the Athlon 64 4000+. The stability of the SLI platform is also bad as it would often hang up on our exiting the game. By the way, the game is tested manually, so the results are not very precise.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne

Max Payne 2 is a rather old game and is graphically simple by today’s standards, so all the cards yield very high frame rates here. The GeForce 6800 only falls out of the group of top-end solutions as it lacks fast memory in high resolutions. The mainstream cards also give out above 100fps in any display mode.

The difference between the cards is clearer when we enable full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering. As usual, the RADEON X850 and X800 are on top. The RADEON X700 XT is behind the GeForce 6600 GT in low resolutions but overtakes it in high ones.

Max Payne 2 is among those games the SLI technology can’t work well with. Here’s the most dramatic case, though, as the SLI mode even leads to a considerable performance hit. The game doesn’t have internal benchmarking tools, so we measured the frame rates in one of the last scenes of the game using the FRAPS utility.

Hitman: Contracts

Among peculiarities of the game’s engine is the unavailability of full-screen anti-aliasing if the Bloom effect is enabled. We tested this game with FRAPS, as we did many other third-person shooters.

The game has a liking towards graphics cards capable of effectively processing pixel shaders, so the victory of the RADEON X800 family looks deserved. Among the rest of the participants, only the GeForce 6800 Ultra and 6800 GT could provide playability in 1024x768 resolution.

The SLI technology brings no effect in this game.

Thief: Deadly Shadows

This third-person 3D shooter is a pixel-shader-heavy application, so ATI’s cards run it faster overall. The game is also sensitive to the graphics memory bandwidth as the results of the GeForce 6600 GT AGP suggest which is slightly slower than the RADEON 9800 XT.

The SLI technology, like in many other games, is deficient – the performance degrades if you turn it on. The testbed didn’t hang up, though.

Deus Ex: Invisible War

Like Hitman: The Contracts and Thief: Deadly Shadows, Deus Ex: Invisible War doesn’t support full-screen anti-aliasing if the Bloom effect is enabled. This effect, however, puts the graphics card under a stress, so we always turn it on for our tests.

Like the two previous shooters, Deus Ex: Invisible War prefers cards capable of fast execution of pixel shaders. The RADEON X850 and X800 cards are the best in this respect as the diagrams show. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP dominates the AGP mainstream, while its PCI Express version is successfully competing with the RADEON X700 XT which is not hindered by its cut-down texture caches here as the game doesn’t use too many high-resolution textures.

The SLI platform yielded some speed bonus, clearer seen with the two GeForce 6600 GT cards. We had no stability- or image-quality-related problems on the SLI platform in this game.

Manhunt

There’s equality between the top solutions from ATI and NVIDIA as well as between the RADEON 9800 XT and the GeForce 6600 GT AGP. The RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition is, however, unrivalled among the top cards for the PCI Express platform.

Switching to eye candy mode doesn’t result into any unexpected consequences: the higher gets the resolution, the bigger appears the advantage of the ATI cards. Both GeForce 6600 GT modifications yield to their RADEON X700 XT and RADEON 9800 XT rivals in high resolutions. The first one owes its victory to HyperZ technology, while the second one – to 256bit memory bus.

The multi-processor work mode by NVIDIA doesn’t work correctly in Manhunt game. We saw the performance dropping dramatically when we enabled SLI mode. Bedsides, the system would freeze every now and then, which is also no good.

Vampires the Masquerade: Bloodlines

The game is designed basing on a well-known gaming environment and represents a mixture of RPG and third-person shooter. The graphics quality in Bloodlines is pretty high. We believe that the characters boast the highest quality and level of detail in this game, because their mimics and face expressions are not any worse than what we saw in Half-Life 2. Nothing surprising actually. This project is based on Source engine by valve Software. Unfortunately, unlike Half-Life 2 this game doesn’t contain any integrated testing tools, so we had to use FRAPS utility again here.

Just like in Half-Life 2, the performance in Bloodlines is often very dependent on the system CPU. It is especially evident when the hero is walking along the city streets, which seems to be the most frequent situation in this game at first sight. Besides that we have also faced the same problem as in Counter-Strike Source: all NVIDIA cards with PCI Express interface ran extremely slowly unlike their counterparts with AGP interface. The problem seems to be connected either with our test platform, or with the drivers. In the nearest future, we are going to find this out and to see if we can eliminate it.

In high resolutions in eye candy mode we can already speak about the performance difference between various graphics accelerators. The best results here belong to RADEON X800 graphics card family, which corresponds nicely to the results obtained in Half-Life 2 on the d3_c17_02 level. In the mainstream segment, the winner is, on the contrary, GeForce 6600 GT AGP. GeForce FX graphics cards are surprisingly fast here, too. But they most probably work in DirectX 8.1 mode, which explains this success of theirs.

Performance in Simulators

IL-2 Sturmovik: Aces in the Sky

IL-2 is rich in both textures and shaders. The latter are mainly used to render the water surface, which looks very impressive from above. The game supports Direct3D as well as OpenGL, but defaults to the latter.

There are no questions as to the winner in the sector of topmost cards: the GeForce 6800 Ultra and 6800 GT benefit by their high fill rate and the quality OpenGL driver from NVIDIA. NVIDIA also wins in the mainstream sector with both versions of the GeForce 6600 GT. The RADEON X700 XT evidently suffers from the small size of the texture caches in this flight simulator where huge textures are in use.

The NVIDIA team retains its leadership in the high-end sector, and the GeForce 6600 GT AGP outperforms the RADEON 9800 XT, but the gap diminishes in higher resolutions. The PCI Express version of this GeForce is ahead of the RADEON X700 XT in all resolutions. As for the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition, it is as fast as the GeForce 6800 GT in the “eye candy” mode, but that’s not satisfying for a $549 card!

The SLI mode doesn’t work correctly with this game: there are image artifacts where pixel shaders are used, for example, to draw the water.

Lock On: Modern Air Combat

Lock On is another remarkable representative of the genre of flight simulators. Although almost free from pixel shaders, this game is very hungry for hardware resources.

The new-generations cards from NVIDIA win this test, too, in the top-end as well as mainstream class. Still, the speeds never exceed 30fps at the maximum graphics quality settings. We want to remind you that this game is very capricious and sometimes produces most surprising results.

ATI’s team makes up for their earlier loss in the “eye candy” mode, save for the RADEON 9800 family which can’t compete with the advanced GeForce 6600 GT AGP. Somehow the GeForce 6800 GT takes the first place among the PCI Express solutions.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004

This simulator is for the proponents of peaceful flight. It is nothing exceptional as concerns graphics, but it is anyway one of the most popular civil aviation simulators, so we decided to give it a try.

At its maximum settings the game relies heavily on the CPU speed and doesn’t allow judging which graphics card is better.

The “eye candy” mode has something to say, though. The NVIDIA team wins the low resolutions, but the RADEON X800 cards come ahead in 1600x1200.

There’s no sense talking about the effect of the Multi-GPU SLI technology, since the game is limited by the CPU speed and the fps counter never exceeded the 45fps mark in the scene we used.

FlatOut

FlatOut is another race simulator, which special feature is a very precise physical model. Moreover, there are not so many rules in the game, you can hit your rivals during the race, do whatever, the most important thing is to be the first at the finish line. From the graphics point of view the game looks very nice, although it is not a true masterpiece.

During the tests we revealed a performance limitation set at 100fps. However, in 1600x1200 it is already possible to compare the mainstream graphics cards performance and draw some conclusions. RADEON 9800 XT turned out slightly faster than GeForce 6600 GT AGP, while RADEON X700 XT, on the opposite, falls slightly behind this card.

When we enable FSAA and anisotropic filtering the performance difference between high-end cards gets visible in 1280x1024 and up. Note that here ATI based solutions are about 10% ahead. In the mainstream segment, NVIDIA won the laurels, although in 1600x1200 GeForce 6600 GT AGP yields to RADEON 9800 XT equipped with 256bit memory bus. As for the RADEON X700 XT, it runs almost as fast as GeForce 6600 GT.

The Multi-GPU mode by NVIDIA works fine in this game, although you will be able to really benefit from it only in high resolutions with enabled full-screen anti-aliasing because of the above mentioned performance limitations.

Colin McRae Rally 04

This game makes an extensive use of pixel shaders for creating special effects and is thus inclined towards ATI’s graphics cards. In the mainstream AGP sector, however, the GeForce 6600 GT AGP just has no competitors, unlike its PCI Express version which loses to the RADEON X700 XT in their private race.

The same goes for the “eye candy” mode with its full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering where ATI’s cards improve their positions even more. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP is on top, too, but its PCI Express version fell behind the RADEON X700 PRO.

NVIDIA’s SLI technology doesn’t work right here. The two cards often work slower than a single one, but do add some speed to the “eye candy” mode. The system lacks stability, though. The game hung up a few times on the SLI platform during our tests.

Performance in Strategy Games

Command & Conquer Generals: Zero Hour

This strategy game isn’t new, but requires high pixel shader performance and an efficient graphics memory subsystem. We test the cards in this game manually, with the FRAPS utility, so the results are approximations.

Alas but the performance is greatly limited by the speed of the CPU in the “pure speed” mode, so we can’t say anything definite about the graphics cards proper. In the mainstream sector, the GeForce 6600 GT AGP looks best, once again confirming the superiority of the new generation of graphics architectures. The RADEON X700 XT is, however, ahead of the GeForce 6600 GT as it is somewhat better with pixel shaders.

The “eye candy” mode, especially in high resolutions, helps to differentiate between the cards. Devices with GPUs from ATI Technologies are in the lead, and the RADEON X800 PRO even delivers the performance of NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800 Ultra/GT. Among 8-pipelined AGP cards the GeForce 6600 GT AGP is faster than the RADEON 9800 XT, but by a narrow margin. As for the RADEON X700 XT, it is much better than the GeForce 6600 GT in low resolutions, but only by 2 fps in 1600x1200.

The SLI systems were functioning normally, even adding some more frames per second to the high resolutions of the “eye candy” mode.

Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War

This real-time strategy is new to our reviews. It is based on the well-known gaming universe called Warhammer and has a certain resemblance to Warcraft 3, but features much more detailed graphics since Dawn of War has appeared recently, unlike the hit from Blizzard. The battle scenes of the game are superb and impressive, and there’s only one drawback – the game has one solo company and you can play the Orks, the Eldar or the forces of Chaos only in the skirmish mode or on the network.

We include this game into our review because it features complex graphics and presents quite a load for a modern graphics card. Alas, like a majority of strategy games, Dawn of War isn’t benchmarker-friendly and we had to measure the frame rate using the FRAPS utility.

It is a general trend for games of that genre that the pure speed depends heavily on the performance of the CPU, yet we can notice a certain advantage of GPUs from ATI Technologies in high resolutions. The Multi-GPU SLI mode gives speed boost in terms of average fps, but sometimes even worsens the performance in terms of minimal framerate, which is quite unsurprising after all we have seen with the technology.

FSAA and anisotropic filtering enabled, NVIDIA's GeForce 6 graphics cards feel more confident and increase their advantage over their competitors from ATI Technologies at this time. This time the SLI technology works quite right, especially for the GeForce 6600 GT couple – you get a hefty performance bonus in 1600x1200.

Perimeter

As we have reported a number of times, this game with its complex shaders is hard for any graphics card to digest. We test it using FRAPS.

The 16-pipelined RADEON X800 cards do the math1s associated with pixel shaders better than NVIDIA’s cards. Yet, the 12-pipelined X800 PRO doesn’t provide playability and runs Perimeter at the same speed as the GeForce 6800 GT – about 17-20fps.

The “eye candy” mode is unplayable at all. The RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition and the X850 XT Platinum Edition were the only cards to yield 25fps, and that in 1024x768 resolution only. Overall, the ATI team looks preferable to NVIDIA’s cards in this game. For example, the RADEON X700 XT is much better than the GeForce 6600 GT.

Perimeter is among those games where NVIDIA’s SLI technology shows its best. It achieves the absolutely best results, especially in the “eye candy” mode. You can even play Perimeter comfortably in resolutions up to 1280x1024 on a SLI platform!

Rome: Total War

This truly epic game offers you a chance to become a Hannibal (or better!) in the real historical setting, but it is also most demanding as concerns the speed of the CPU as well as of the graphics card. Unfortunately, Rome: Total War is rather whimsical, i.e. the results of the cards lack repeatability, so you should regard the numbers below as approximations.

The performance of ATI’s and NVIDIA’s cards is comparable in the “pure speed” mode, but the former team looks better in high resolutions.

The game doesn’t permit to use 1600x1200 resolution with some graphics cards – this option just vanishes from the menu. We guess that this resolution becomes inaccessible if the graphics memory amount is less than 256 megabytes.

The SLI technology doesn’t work in this game or works incorrectly – the results don’t practically differ from those of the single devices.

Performance in Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

Final Fantasy XI Official Benchmark 3

The new benchmark from Square Enix, the creators of the Final Fantasy series, is beautiful and complex in textures, special effects and geometry. Unfortunately, it only supports one resolution, 1024x768, and produces results not in frames-per-seconds but in the total number of frames the graphics card could render in a fixed time interval.

The graphics cards from ATI Technologies are far ahead in this round. There are few pixel shaders here, and the advanced architecture with eight pixel pipelines can’t help the GeForce 6600 GT which loses even to the RADEON 9500 PRO. As for the nForce4 SLI platform, we have very low results on it – the technology needs improvement.

Aquamark3

Aquamark3 is rather a simple test by today’s standards. The shaders employed are mostly simple, but the scenes of this benchmark are known to have complex geometry and a high overdraw coefficient, which makes it an efficient tool for checking the performance of the vertex processors and the invisible surface removal functions of modern graphics cards.

This time the RADEON X800 XT/XT Platinum Edition are just a tiny step ahead of the GeForce 6800 Ultra. The same goes for the GeForce 6800 GT – RADEON X800 PRO pair.

The GeForce 6600 GT is the best in the mainstream class, in spite of its 128-bit bus and only 128 megabytes of graphics memory. It’s 2-3fps ahead of the RADEON 9800 XT in high resolutions.

It’s different with the PCI Express devices: to our surprise the modest GeForce 6800 GT has the same speed as the latest and highest-performance creation of ATI, the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition! Aquamark3 can make use of the Hyper-Threading technology and it’s possible that NVIDIA’s ForceWare also contains some optimizations for processors with that technology.

The results of the FSAA+AF mode are quite expectable, and ATI’s top-end cards are leaders in their category. In the performance-mainstream sector there’s parity between the GeForce 6600 GT and the RADEON 9800 XT until 1600x1200 where the latter has an advantage of 2 fps.

ATI’s RADEON X700 XT beats NVIDIA’s GeForce 6600 GT on the PCI Express platform, though. The reason is the same: ATI’s card can efficiently work with the graphics memory subsystem.

The SLI platform worked well here, providing some speed bonus. Yet, this bonus is far from the promised 80-90 percent. As expected, the biggest gain is observed in high resolutions, in the “eye candy” mode.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark 03

Traditionally we begin to analyze the results of 3DMark with the scores the cards get when they pass this test at its default settings.

As you see, almost all top-end cards have overcome the 10,000 peak, save for the GeForce 6800 which seemed to feel the lack of fast memory. Two cards, RADEON X800 XT Extreme Edition and GeForce 6800 Ultra, even got beyond 12,000, but the ATI card got a higher score.

The GeForce 6600 GT has firmly established itself as a leader in the mainstream class. No wonder as its architecture is perfectly suited for the conditions of the second and third tests as well as of the most difficult, fourth one. The ex-king of 3D graphics, the RADEON 9800 XT, follows behind. The GeForce FX 5950 Ultra is close by, too, thanks to the ForceWare driver.

There’s a new record-breaker among the PCI Express cards: the increased frequencies of the GPU and memory helped the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition to get beyond the next milestone (13,000 points). The RADEON X800 XT and the GeForce 6800 GT share the second place; the new RADEON X800 XL did well, too, in spite of the reduced GPU clock rate (400MHz). The RADEON X700 XT beats the GeForce 6600 GT here, which in its turn outperforms the RADEON X700 PRO.

Let’s examine the results of each of the 3DMark03 tests.

The first test doesn’t employ any advanced functions the modern graphics card can offer. DirectX 7 is used here, and the best results belong to NVIDIA’s cards in both top-end and mainstream sectors.

The same goes for the PCI Express devices: the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition is the best, of course, but the GeForce 6800 GT is only 5-7fps behind, the absolute speeds being about 200-300fps. The GeForce 6600 GT is slightly ahead of the RADEON X700 XT.

The tables are turning when FSAA and anisotropic filtering are turned on, but the GeForce 6600 GT AGP still dominates the mainstream sector. In 1600x1200 its 128-bit memory bus cannot cope with the increased load, however, and it loses to the RADEON 9800 XT as well as to the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra.

Among the PCI Express cards ATI’s ones look better than NVIDIA’s, but the GeForce 6600 GT is still a little faster than the RADEON X700 XT.

The second game test from the 3DMark03 suite with its specific rendering methods works better on NVIDIA’s cards, but ATI and NVIDIA are equals in the top-end class. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP is king of the mainstream, while the new RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition rules the PCI Express market. The GeForce 6600 GT is slightly ahead of the RADEON X700 XT.

As for the “eye candy” mode, in which 4x full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering of the maximum possible level are enabled, NVIDIA’s cards perform better than their rivals, especially in low resolutions. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP is unrivalled in its class, while its PCI Express version is fighting well against the RADEON X700 XT.

The third game test resembles the second one, so there’s no need for us to repeat the same comments.

The same goes for the “eye candy” mode. Let’s better see what we have in the fourth and the hardest game test from the 3DMark03 suite.

There are no surprises here – the high speed of processing complex pixel shaders allows the ATI team to win all the resolutions. The graphics cards of the NV4x architecture look well, but anyway inferior to the RADEON X800 series. The only exception is the GeForce 6600 GT AGP which outperforms its main rival, the RADEON 9800 XT.

With FSAA and anisotropic filtering turned on the RADEON X800 cards don’t lose their ground, but still outperform the members of the GeForce 6800 series. In the mainstream sector, however, the GeForce 6600 GT AGP has no advantage over the RADEON 9800 XT starting from 1280x1024. Well, the latter has a 256-bit memory bus, although the memory itself is clocked at a lower frequency. The RADEON X700 family go neck and neck with the GeForce 6600 GT in the PCI Express category.

Futuremark 3DMark 05 Build 1.1.0

Let’s analyze likewise the results of the new version of the benchmark.

The graphics cards equipped with GPUs from ATI Technologies have the highest overall scores, being much better than their counterparts from NVIDIA, both on the AGP and PCI Express platform. The only exception if the GeForce 6600 GT AGP which has the best score in its class, but is closely followed by the RADEON 9800 XT. Let’s see what the success of the RADEONs is comprised of.

The first game test of the new 3DMark is a typical scene from modern first-person 3D shooters: closed environments, numerous light sources, and a bunch of angry enemies.

ATI’s graphics cards win everywhere, but the advantage varies from big (in the top-end class) to negligible (in the mainstream sector, like the RADEON X700 XT against the GeForce 6600 GT).

The same goes for the “eye candy” mode. By the way, the GeForce 6600 GT refuses to run this test in resolutions above 1024x768 because of having only 128 megabytes of graphics memory on board. Our sample of the RADEON X700 XT has 256MB of memory and works without problems.

The second test looks more like a role-play game, depicting the flight of a firefly in a fairy forest. The scene features rich dynamically-generated vegetation and numerous spectacular light and shadow effects.

Graphics cards with GPUs from ATI Technologies are on top here, too, but by a smaller margin. The GeForce 6600 GT AGP, however, raises NVIDIA;s banner high in the AGP-mainstream class, while its PCI Express version successfully competes with the RADEON X700 XT.

As is often the case, the RADEONs increase their advantage in the “eye candy” mode, but in the mainstream sector the GeForce 6600 GT AGP is unrivalled. Its PCI Express version is slower than the RADEON X700 XT.

The third game test from 3DMark05 can’t be fit into a definite genre: a zeppelin is flying along a canyon and is attacked by a giant monster. This test is the most difficult as it uses sophisticated pixel shaders to render the water and the walls of the canyon. There’s only one light source, however, - the sun.

It’s similar to the second test – the RADEON X800 cards have the best scores. Among the lesser folk, the GeForce 6600 GT AGP wins the first two resolutions, but is hindered by its narrow 128-bit bus in 1600x1200. As for the PCI Express platform, the RADEON X8x0 models are on top. The relatively inexpensive RADEON X800 XL matches the performance of the GeForce 6800 GT. The GeForce 6600 GT is a little faster than its rival, again save for 1600x1200 resolution.

Turning on full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering we change nothing in the sector of top-end graphics hardware, but the RADEON 9800 XT overtook the GeForce 6600 GT AGP thanks to a higher-performance memory subsystem, and the RADEON X700 XT did the same with the PCI Express version of this GeForce.

Overall, the victory of the RADEON X8600 and X800 families in 3DMark05 looks well deserved as they are faster than their NV40-based opponents in a majority of subtests.

The NVIDIA SLI platform worked well in both versions of 3DMark that we used (well, these are the most popular benchmarks and no wonder NVIDIA supported them in its ForceWare driver). The SLI technology almost doubled the performance, both with two GeForce 6800 Ultra and with two GeForce 6600 GT cards.

So, this is the end of our tests and it’s time to do some summarizing.

Conclusion

This review is drawing near to its end. We have tested 27 graphics cards in more than 30 popular applications and have got quite a heap of information on our hands. The main message that can be extracted is rather simple: modern top-end graphics cards allow playing newest games with comfort at maximum possible graphics quality settings, but you can still enjoy the game on a $199 device if you drop just a couple of those settings down a little.

For you to see the overall picture better, we grouped the data into joint diagrams. Since the performance of many games is limited by the speed of the central processor in 1024x768 resolution, we only included 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 resolutions into these final diagrams, both in the “pure speed” mode and in the “eye candy” mode (4x anti-aliasing and the max possible anisotropic filtering).

Now let’s see which of the tested graphics cards is the best performer in its category, and which is the best buy. First go the devices with the AGP interface as they are still more widespread in market.

AGP Graphics Cards

Ultra High-End

It’s not really easy to find the winner among the three contenders, ATI RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition, ATI RADEON X800 XT and NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra.


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The NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra often surpasses the RADEON X800 XT/XT Platinum Edition in the “pure speed” mode, especially in games that don’t have complex math1ematical computations and in games that use the OpenGL API. This graphics card feels best of all in such games as Call of Duty and Doom 3 as well as in the popular flight simulators IL-2 and Lock On. It is somewhat worse in programs that make a wide use of complex pixel shaders, to which category Half-Life 2 and Far Cry belong. In such games the GeForce 6800 Ultra loses to its competitors as ATI’s cards work at higher frequencies and also perform more efficiently that complex math1ematics involved in shader-based special effects.

Mark, though, that the gap between the topmost solutions from ATI and NVIDIA isn’t dramatic and the GeForce 6800 Ultra can satisfy the needs of any user.


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Shader Model 3.0, implemented in each GeForce 6 card, hasn’t yet become a weighty argument in their favor. So far only Far Cry features shaders of the third version, but it also supports Shader Model 2.0b supported by ATI’s RADEONs. On the other hand, many game developers are already adapting their programs for Shader Model 3.0, so the owner of a GeForce 6 may have a certain bonus in upcoming applications.

On the downside is the design of the GeForce 6800 Ultra: the reference card is rather noisy and requires a very-high-quality power supply. Some manufacturers solve the noise problem by mounting low-noise cooling systems of their own design on these cards.

The ATI RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is superior to the GeForce 6800 Ultra everywhere where high pixel shader performance is a must and inferior where complex geometry or shadows must be processed. OpenGL applications aren’t the RADEON’s ground, either. There seem to be bright perspectives before the RADEON X800 family since games with complex shaders are numerous already and their number is only going to increase in the future.


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The RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is also perfect in modes with enabled full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering thanks to its efficient memory controller and HyperZ HD technology. You can see that the RADEON X800 Platinum Edition outperforms the GeForce 6800 Ultra in a majority applications in the “eye candy” mode, save for Doom 3 and a couple of other games.


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The ATI RADEON X800 XT only differs from the Platinum Edition in slightly lower frequencies (500/1000MHz against 520/1120MHz). The card performs at the same level with the GeForce 6800 Ultra, but costs less. It makes it a more appealing purchase, of course, if you can find one in your local shop.

RADEON X800 graphics cards are small and don’t need two additional power connectors, but their standard cooling system isn’t very efficient, although practically noiseless. They do not support Shader Model 3.0, which is unimportant today, but may become a serious drawback in the future as there are more games that use shaders of that version.

Again, it’s hard to give recommendations about the best buy in this category. The RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition and the RADEON X800 XT may be a little faster than the GeForce 6800 Ultra, but the latter still wins some games like Doom 3. So, it’s your choice, and it depends on your particular needs, while we can only offer you information about the performance of these cards in as many games as we can.

High-End

There are two devices in this class, NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT and ATI RADEON X800 PRO, both priced at $399 by their manufacturers.


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The NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT looks overall more appealing than ATI RADEON X800 PRO due to its 16 pixel pipelines. It does slow down in games that require high pixel shader performance, though. Half-Life 2 is the most conspicuous example.


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High resolutions and situations when a high fill rate is important are the conditions under which the GeForce 6800 GT can show its best. The RADEON X800 PRO, however, often beats it across a number of games in the FSAA+AF mode.


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The reason for that is typical: the RADEON has highly efficient anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering algorithms, an efficient memory controller and HyperZ HD technology which helps to make the best use of the available memory bandwidth.


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The ATI RADEON X800 PRO is smaller and quieter, yet we would still call the NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT the best choice for about $400. Some samples of the GeForce 6800 GT can overclock to the frequencies of the GeForce 6800 Ultra, while the RADEON X800 PRO, however well overclocked, still has 12 pixel pipelines against 16 of its competitor. Theoretically, it may be possible to unblock the four disabled pipelines, but some of them may be really defective and the card wouldn’t work correctly then.

Performance-Mainstream

Going one step down we meet four cards: GeForce 6800, GeForce 6600 GT AGP, RADEON 9800 XT ? GeForce FX 5950 Ultra.


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One new product came to this category since our last-summer roundup, the NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT AGP model. Despite its 128-bit memory bus and simple design this card easily beats the ATI RADEON 9800 XT in a majority of applications, in low and high resolutions alike. Besides that, the GeForce 6600 GT AGP features advanced video encoding capabilities as it carries a full-fledged version of the PureVideo processor from NVIDIA on board.


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The NVIDIA GeForce 6800 offers you somewhat more performance than the RADEON 9800 XT and the GeForce 6600 GT AGP, but it also costs more; its recommended price is $299 against $199 for a GeForce 6600 GT. This solution has 12 pipelines and a 256-bit memory bus, but the memory itself is clocked at 700MHz, so sometimes the GeForce 6800 performs like the RADEON 9800 XT or even worse.


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You can still come across an NVIDIA GeForce FX 5950 Ultra in shops, but we don’t recommend it for purchase since the obsolete NV3x architecture doesn’t meet the requirements to modern mainstream graphics cards. This device is beaten by the RADEON 9800 XT, GeForce 6600 GT AGP and, of course, by the GeForce 6800 almost everywhere. We can claim it now that the time of the GeForce FX architecture has passed.


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Alas, the prices for RADEON 9800 XT and RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB cards remain too high, about $300-350, while you can find a GeForce 6600 GT AGP for $210-230, or a GeForce 6800 for $275-290. Since the AGP version of the GeForce 6600 GT has been around for a very short while, it is yet rare in shops, but that’s a transient situation as NVIDIA has no problems with the shipments of the NV43.

So, if you’re ready to spend about $220-300 for a graphics card, choose a GeForce 6800 or 6600 GT AGP. These cards have the advantages of the new graphics architecture and have excellent speeds for their class. A RADEON 9800 would cost you the same money as a GeForce 6800, but will give you less performance.

We advise you to avoid the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra – its price is inappropriately high for its speed.

Mainstream

Among the less powerful mainstream cards we have tested ATI RADEON 9800 PRO and NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900/5900 XT.


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Here, it is easy to make a judgment: the ATI RADEON 9800 PRO wins an overwhelming majority of tests. The GeForce FX 5900/5900 XT, like the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, are representatives of the GeForce FX architecture which cannot work fast with pixel shaders and has problems with texture filtering and anti-aliasing.


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Those who are ready to part with a sum of $175-210 can take a RADEON 9800 PRO which is sufficient even for modern games. A card on the GeForce FX 5900 or 5900 XT GPU would cost you the same money, but they are only good rivals to the RADEON 9600 XT.

Budget-Mainstream

We regard cards priced up to $150 as belonging to this class. These are ATI RADEON 9500/9600 PRO/XT and NVIDIA GeForce FX 5700 Ultra.


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Such graphics cards cost the same money today, about $150. The RADEON 9500 PRO and 9600 XT are, however, speedier overall, being effective with pixel shaders and having a more perfect architecture.

PCI Express Graphics Cards

Ultra High-End

Here you have the same choice as among the topmost cards for the AGP slot. The ATI RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition is the fastest device of this class, but it is also the most expensive. Most users would think a price of $549 rather steep.

A graphics subsystem based on NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra SLI (two cards joined across the Scalable Link Interface) would put you back much more, but it does not always gain the upper hand since this technology needs special optimization of the ForceWare driver for particular games.


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The best buy, like with the AGP equipment, is the ATI RADEON X800 XT, which surpasses the NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT, especially in FSAA+AF modes. These two cards cost the same money, about $470 and higher, according to PriceWatch.com. Considering this, ATI’s device looks more appealing.


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ATI’s architecture shows its best in the “eye candy” mode, but NVIDIA’s cards still win some games, particularly Doom 3 and some flight simulators. That’s why we can’t give you any advice as to what device to buy – you know better what games you’re going to play!

For people who don’t care about money the ATI RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition will be the best options, as it runs all existing games at a breathtaking speed. There’s only one hitch – this card hasn’t yet appeared in retail shops. The ATI RADEON X800 XT is a good choice, too. The NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra in its PCI Express incarnation is still a rarity and costs a lot, so you may want to prefer it only if you want much speed in particular games and a quality OpenGL driver. A system with two GeForce 6800 Ultra in the SLI mode would cost much more. So far the SLI technology doesn’t work correctly in many games, so this is yet a toy for enthusiasts rather than a real method of improving the speed of the graphics subsystem of your computer.

High-End

Two cards fit into this category (NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT and the new ATI RADEON X800 XL) plus the SLI couple of two GeForce 6600 GT cards.


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We think the ATI RADEON X800 XL has more appeal towards the end-user. This new graphics card uses the R430 GPU manufactured with 0.11-micron technology. Unlike the X800 PRO, it has 16 pixel pipelines and thus offers more speed even considering its lower GPU clock rate.


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The ATI RADEON X800 XL beats the NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT in pixel shader performance, but loses to it in texturing speed and in processing shadows. Like other new-generation solutions from ATI, the RADEON X800 XL has no problems with full-screen anti-aliasing.


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As any other RADEON X800, this card is small and features low power consumption thanks to the 0.11-micron process (it comes without an additional power connector, by the way). Its recommended price is $299, so the RADEON X800 XL is an excellent choice in its price category.


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As for the SLI pair of two GeForce 6600 GT, it roughly corresponds to the speed of a single GeForce 6800 GT, if it works correctly, that is. Sometimes these two even beat the RADEON X800 XT. But again, the performance of this SLI combination largely depends on how well the ForceWare driver is optimized for the particular game. With this optimization the SLI pair can yield a speed boost of up to 80 percent. Otherwise, the performance either remains as that of the single card or improves just a little bit. Anyway, this pair will hardly cost you less than one RADEON X800 XT. One GeForce 6600 GT costs about $180 and more, and you need two such cards, and also a SLI-supporting mainboard (about $200 more). All in all such a system may cost as much as $550-600, which is the price of a topmost graphics card that would give you the best performance in all applications, without relying on any driver optimizations.

Performance-Mainstream

Mainstream NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT and ATI RADEON X700 XT/PRO cards are located a grade lower on the performance scale.


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The GeForce 6600 GT and the RADEON X700 XT match each other’s performance, even though the latter processes pixel shaders faster and has 6 vertex processors against 3 such processors of the former. In all probability ATI reduced severely the size of the texture caches of their new mainstream GPU, which negatively affected its performance with textures and the speed in some games.


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Anyway, the ATI RADEON X700 XT feels better in the “eye candy” mode than the GeForce 6600 GT. We don’t give definite recommendations here as you should choose a mainstream PCI Express card basing on your own particular needs, like with the top-end devices. Both these cards have the same MSRP, which starts at $199, but the availability of the RADEON X700 XT deserves to be more widespread.


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Fans of Doom III and of flight simulators will probably prefer the NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT, but if you’re into Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source, you may want to choose the RADEON X700 XT (of course if you can find one in shops, as ATI is rumored to have abandoned the X700 XT project in favor of the more powerful RADEON X800).


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The ATI RADEON X700 PRO differs from its XT mate in lower frequencies and a bigger memory amount (256MB). The price of the two being the same, the X700 PRO may be interesting for overclockers since some samples can speed up to the clock rates of the X700 XT.

Still, given relatively low chances to find ATI RADEON X700 XT graphics cards for sale, the majority of you will probably choose NVIDIA's GeForce 6600 GT, as it delivers excellent speed and is widely presented on the market.

Mainstream

Graphics cards on NVIDIA GeForce 6600, ATI RADEON X600 XT, and NVIDIA GeForce PCX 5750 GPUs all belong to the category of inexpensive mass solutions for the PCI Express platform.


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There’re no doubts as to the leader here. With its eight pixel pipelines and three vertex processors the NVIDIA GeForce 6600 is faster than the ATI RADEON X600 XT almost everywhere.


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The latter can sometimes score even in modes with full-screen anti-aliasing, but the GeForce 6600 still looks a better buy since its price starts at about $115, while a RADEON X600 XT will cost you $140 or more.

The GeForce PCX 5750 isn’t a good purchase anymore, as it’s too slow in modern games, while its price is about $110-130.

Budget-Mainstream

Regrettably we have only one card of that class in our labs, the ATI RADEON X300 SE model. This is a slow solution even in comparison with the GeForce PCX 5750, but it cost a modest $65-80.


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This card may suit those people who need a cheap, compact and quiet device, the speed in modern games being unimportant. The alternatives to the X300 SE are NVIDIA GeForce 6200 TC (we’ll publish a review on this card soon) and the obsolete GeForce PCX 5300 priced about $75.

P. S.: So you have just read through our review comparing twenty-seven graphics cards (counting the two SLI configurations in), and the amount of information is really overwhelming to allow for any generalizations. Yet one thing remains certain – if you’re thinking about buying a new PC or upgrading the graphics subsystem of your current one, take note of what games you’re going to play on the resulting computer. And then we will try to use as many games in our reviews as possible to give you a comprehensive picture of performance of particular graphics cards in popular gaming application. We hope this article will help you make a wise choice so that the money invested in the new graphics hardware brought you a thorough satisfaction in your favorite games!