Seven Games and One Week: Games vs. GPUs

Summer is the time of vacations, picnics and camping. However, sometimes, you just don’t feel like going anywhere, and this is when the latest computer game may become your best friend. Today X-bit Labs will take a real close look at a number of latest gaming titles and the performance of all contemporary graphics cards in them.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
08/18/2006 | 10:09 AM

It’s the Christmas holiday season that is traditionally viewed as the most favorable for selling PC games. The publishers and developers try to keep up with their schedule to roll out new products right to this deadline while the potential customers plan their budget accordingly. However, it is usually during the time of lengthy summer vacations that we can wholly devote ourselves to playing games. Thankfully, there is quite a lot of exciting releases these days, too.

 

As you are shopping for new titles, it pays to know beforehand how powerful your computer should be. The developers specify minimum and recommended system requirements for each game, but you may often be disappointed at the level of performance of your particular computer even it fully complies with the requirements. Sometimes it is the CPU that acts as a bottleneck in your system while running a modern gaming application, yet in a majority of cases it would be your graphics card. And slow performance usually means that you are in for a hardware upgrade.

Right now there is a large multitude of graphics solutions on the market that vary dramatically in performance and in price, which can be as high as $1000. We would all like to have an expensive and fast graphics card, for sure, but not all of us can afford an ATI CrossFire or an Nvidia SLI subsystem.

So, in this review we are going to examine the performance of nineteen graphics cards in seven newest and most popular (according to various game charts) gaming applications. We will analyze the test results that will help you make up your mind regarding a graphics card you may want to have to enjoy some games in the last days of this summer.

Testbed and Methods

We ran all our tests on the following platform:

We set up the ATI and Nvidia drivers as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

We selected the highest graphics quality settings in each game. To measure the performance we either used the integrated tools of the games we tested in, or if there were none available, resorted to FRAPS utility. If it was possible, we measured minimal performance as well.

We tested the entry-level and mainstream solutions in two modes: pure speed mode with enabled anisotropic filtering (AF) and for maximum image quality mode with enabled full-screen anti-aliasing (FSAA). More expensive solutions were tested only in “eye candy” mode, because they boast much higher performance. Moreover, when the user is buying an expensive solution like that he initially expects to receive corresponding image quality in games.

We enabled FSAA and AF from the game if possible. Otherwise we forced the necessary mode from the ATI Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare graphics card driver.

We are constantly adjusting out testing methodology taking into account our readers’ requests and the changes in the graphics card market. Since widescreen monitors get more and more common these days and besides more users switch to large monitors in general, we decided to give up the outdated 1024x768 resolution and add 1920x1200 instead.

Here is the list of our today’s testing participants:

Premium Class

High-End Class

Performance-Mainstream Class

Mainstream/Entry-Level Class

We ran the tests in the following contemporary games:

Day 1. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

There are not too many good role-play games nowadays, but The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a treat for all the fans of the genre, particularly those that are interested in the Tamriel world created in Bethesda Softworks’ famous Elder Scrolls series that also includes such titles as Arena, Daggerfall, and Morrowind. This game was probably one of the most anticipated projects of 2006.

The game makes wide use of complex shader-based special effects and HDR. Combined with the detailedness and vastness of the Oblivion world, this makes the game a very heavy application for the graphics subsystem.

 

Premium

As you can see, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion runs best on a pair of ATI Radeon X1900 XT or a pair of GeForce 7900 GTX cards. These multi-GPU tandems both give you the highest performance in this game and are roughly equal between each other: Nvidia’s solution is better in some cases (see the 1920x1200 resolution results) and ATI’s, in others.

The balance between the single GeForce 7900 GTX and the single Radeon X1900 XTX is broken only by the newest graphics card from Nvidia: thanks to two GPUs on one printed-circuit board the GeForce 7950 GX2 is a little ahead in the race of single-card graphics subsystems. On the other hand, even the mighty GeForce 7950 GX2 is unable to give you a minimum frame rate higher than the Radeon X1900 XTX’s.

If you want to enjoy The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 1920x1200, you should consider building a CrossFire or SLI subsystem in which two graphics cards are joined together to render the game scene. Owners of monitors with a max resolution of 1600x1200 may want to consider less expensive solutions.

High-End

The Radeon X1900 XT remains the best high-end-class solution to run The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Although the GeForce 7900 GTX ensures the same or a slightly higher average frame rate in comparison with ATI’s product, the latter has two times the number of pixel processors (48 against 24) and provides a much higher minimum frame rate as the result. The min frame rate is no less important than the average speed since the game’s behavior in dynamic, graphically complex scenes depends on it. From this point of view, the Radeon X1900 XT is preferable to the GeForce 7900 GTX in the numerous dungeons and buildings as well as in the open vistas of Tamriel’s Cyrodiil province (the difference is especially noticeable in the latter case, amounting to 100% and more).

The same is true for the Radeon X1900 GT and the GeForce 7900 GT, but it’s the former card’s having fewer texture-mapping units (TMUs) that makes the difference here. There’s little between these two cards in closed environments, but as soon as you go out into the open, the GeForce 7900 GT is suddenly far faster. At least, that’s how it goes in the resolution of 1280x1024 pixels where the average speed of both graphics cards isn’t impressive, so heavy this game is. You can’t use higher display resolutions on your Radeon X1900 GT or GeForce 7900 GT, let alone on a Radeon X1800 XT, because their speed would be too low for comfortable play.

So, if The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is among your favorite games, you should choose among graphics cards on ATI’s Radeon X1900 series processors. Radeon X1800-based products suit but little for this game because they have too few pixel processors.

Performance-Mainstream

We find a similar selection of cards as we step down the product categories. At least we’ve got a GeForce 7900 GT and a Radeon X1900 GT here. Added to these are a couple of less powerful solutions, a Radeon X1800 GTO and a GeForce 7600 GT. The Radeon X1800 XL is still available on the market, too. We’ve talked about the first pair of cards above, so it’s the second pair that this section is devoted to.

The speed of texturing and the memory bandwidth have little effect on the performance of a graphics card in closed environments. More important are the speed of execution of pixel shaders and efficient processing of lighting and shadowing. In the performance-mainstream class it is the GeForce 7600 GT that copes with these tasks better than the others thanks to its higher core clock rate in comparison with the Radeon X1800 GTO and XL. The latter makes up for that with its 16 pixel processors in high resolution, but its performance is already far from comfortable then. The Radeon X1800 GTO cannot stand the competition. Besides a low graphics core frequency, it also has one quad of pixel processors less than the Radeon X1800 XL and takes the last place in the table as the consequence.

The computer’s graphics subsystem will face quite different problems when you take a walk along the outskirts of Imperial City, particularly because of the copious vegetation growing there. Besides the pixel processors’ performance, the performance of the vertex processors comes to the fore. The fill rate and memory bandwidth parameters are also important for rendering large scenes.

The GeForce 7600 GT has a 128-bit memory bus, so it finds it difficult to compete with the Radeon X1800 series products that are equipped with a 256-bit bus. For some reason, the Radeon X1800 GTO is faster than the Radeon X1800 XL in resolutions below 1920x1200, but this has little value for gamers who want to enjoy the game rather than to compare the numbers.

From the practical standpoint, none of these graphics cards can provide a comfortable frame rate in open scenes of TES IV, although the Radeon X1900 GT looks much preferable to the GeForce 7900 GT in terms of minimum speed. Owners of less powerful graphics cards may want to disable HDR and use 1024x768 resolution. The game’s visuals will suffer terribly, but there is no other choice.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

It’s obvious that none of the graphics cards from this category can run TES IV: Oblivion at an acceptable speed. Perhaps the GeForce 7600 GT that has the best technical parameters of all is an exception, but not a very good one. The average performance of this graphics card is about 40fps in closed environments, but its min speed isn’t higher than 20fps if you use the game’s maximum graphics quality settings.

It’s even worse in open scenes with lots of vegetation. The GeForce 7600 GT hardly overcomes the 20fps point while the rest of the graphics cards yield 15fps at best. The Radeon X1600 XT with only four TMUs is no rival to the GeForce 7600 GT and is even slower than the GeForce 7600 GS which works at lower GPU and memory clock rates but has 12 TMUs and 8 raster operators (ROPs).

All that we’ve just said refers to the resolution of 1280x1024 pixels because in higher resolutions even the GeForce 7600 GT is beneath criticism. If you’ve got one of these graphics cards and want to play Oblivion, you have to disable HDR and lower the level of detail to achieve an acceptable speed. This isn’t good, of course, but that’s how advanced the visuals of this game are: TES IV is a huge burden for any computer’s graphics subsystem.

Day 2. Half-Life 2 – Episode One

Do you know anything better than a good first-person 3D shooter on a summer evening? Valve put much effort into making Half-Life 2: Episode One look fresh and effective even in 2006. This game is a sequel to Half-Life 2 and picks up when the Citadel’s main reactor explodes. Episode One uses an improved Source engine that is known to our readers by the tech demo Half-Life 2: Lost Coast. A HDR method with integers (INT16), different from the one employed in Far Cry, is implemented here. This method is less precise in comparison with Far Cry’s but allows using full-screen antialiasing on all GPUs and works on all graphics cards that support Shader Model 2.0.

 

Premium

Half-Life 2: Episode One is not a very heavy trial for modern graphics cards. The GeForce 7900 GTX SLI and the Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire both deliver a frame rate of over 100fps in any resolution. Surely that’s enough even for the most demanding user.

Having more pixel processors and featuring a ring-bus memory controller, the Radeon X1900 XTX still cannot outpace the GeForce 7900 GTX and is always one step behind this solution from Nvidia.

The dual-GPU GeForce 7950 GX2 graphics card is an unrivalled leader among single cards in Half-Life 2: Episode One. With a huge number of TMUs, this dual-chip monster from Nvidia is the best of all at filling the scene up with complex textures in high display resolutions. However, this graphics card cannot challenge the dual-card subsystems ATI CrossFire and Nvidia SLI.

High-End

The GeForce 7900 GTX goes through this test at a slightly higher speed than the Radeon X1900 XTX. The latter is slower even in 1920x1200 resolution where its ring-bus memory controller should have given it an advantage. We guess the Radeon X1900 XT is limited by its having fewer TMUs than the GeForce 7900 GTX has. This supposition is confirmed by the results of the Radeon X1900 GT (12 TMUs) that is always slower not only than the GeForce 7900 GT (24 TMUs) but also than the Radeon X1800 XT (16 TMUs). The latter two solutions have similar speeds because the higher core clock rate of the Radeon X1800 XT makes up for its having fewer TMUs.

We don’t have any information about the minimum performance of the graphics cards in Episode One – the integrated benchmark doesn’t provide it – so we can only base our judgments on the average frame rates. From this point of view, the Radeon X1900 XT and the GeForce 7900 GTX are roughly equals, even though the latter wins their particular struggle by a small margin. Both these cards can give you 60fps and more in 1920x1200 with enabled full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, and so they can easily provide comfortable gaming conditions in the lower resolutions. The choice is also simple among the less powerful solutions: you can take a Radeon X1800 XT or a GeForce 7900 GT depending on your personal preferences. You shouldn’t buy a Radeon X1900 GT if you are planning to use resolutions above 1280x1024 because its 12 TMUs will not cope with the increased textural load.

Performance-Mainstream

The two Radeon X1800 series models and the GeForce 7600 GT are capable of running Half-Life 2: Episode One at a high enough speed. The resolution of 1280x1024 pixels is available for play on all these cards with or without full-screen antialiasing. The Radeon X1800 XL even makes the resolution of 1600x1200 playable when FSAA is not enabled.

In all those cases when the speed of the mentioned solutions is high enough for comfortable play, the Radeon X1800 GTO is less than 10% behind the GeForce 7600 GT. This card should probably have got better results if its GPU were clocked at a frequency of 550MHz at least. As far as we’ve learned in our tests, it’s from this point that ATI’s R520 and R580 chips begin to show their full potential.

The best choice in this category is beyond any doubt the Radeon X1800 XL which is designed by the 16-16-16 formula (Pixel shader processors – TMUs – ROPs). The Radeon X1800 GTO is similar to the GeForce 7600 GT in terms of performance, but the Nvidia product consumes less power and is smaller in size.

The higher-category products that are included for the comparison’s sake – the Radeon X1900 GT and the GeForce 7900 GT – offer more speed, of course, but at a higher cost.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

The GeForce 7600 GT takes a deserved first in this test. Even the original Half-Life 2 was remarkable for its nice-looking high-resolution textures and showed a preference for graphics cards with high texturing speed. No wonder the Radeon X1600 XT cannot stand the competition here: its 4 TMUs don’t cope and become a bottleneck that keeps this otherwise well-made solution back, behind the GeForce 7600 GS with its much lower GPU and memory clock rates.

It’s only in 1600x1200 resolution of the “eye candy” mode that the Radeon X1600 XT is competitive against the GeForce 7600 GS, but this is of no real use for gamers, the average speed being a mere 20fps.

So, there is only one rather inexpensive graphics card that is capable of running Half-Life 2: Episode One at a comfortable speed. It is the GeForce 7600 GT model. You can even try to enable 4x full-screen antialiasing on it. In either case (with or without FSAA) the resolution of 1600x1200 is unplayable, not to mention 1920x1200. These are for top-end graphics cards only. The rest of the products in the mainstream/entry-level category can’t cope with this game if you use resolutions above 1024x768 along with the maximum graphics quality settings. After all, this is not the original Half-Life 2 that used to have quite moderate system requirements.

Day 3.  Hitman: Blood Money

If you’re into stealth action, you can’t be bored this summer because Eidos Interactive has released another title in the series of games about a hired assassin that goes under the name of 47. The maps in this game are limited in space, but the developers have taken care that you could pass each mission in several different ways. The graphical aspect of the game has changed since the previous parts, but in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way. Hitman: Blood Money cannot boast such hot features as HDR, dynamic lighting or high-resolution textures, but the fans of the series are sure to appreciate that the level designers have managed to keep the atmosphere of the previous parts of the game intact.

 

Premium

If you are going to pursue the carrier of a hired killer, you should definitely acquire a GeForce 7900 GTX SLI platform since ATI’s Catalyst driver cannot yet enable CrossFire mode for Hitman: Blood Money. This is a matter of time, of course, but right now the pair of GeForce 7900 GTX cards is unrivalled and is sufficiently fast even in 1920x1200 resolution.

The dual-GPU GeForce 7950 GX2 card looks much better than the closest opponent from ATI. The ring-bus memory controller helps the Radeon X1900 XTX catch up with the GeForce 7900 GTX in 1920x1200, yet it is a fact that ATI hasn’t yet released a product that could match the GeForce 7950 GX2.

Hitman: Blood Money being a third-person shooter, an average speed of 30fps is quite enough for comfortable play here. Owners of a GeForce 7900 GTX have to limit themselves to 1600x1200 resolution. If you’ve got a Radeon X1900 XTX, you have to use the lowest resolution among the tested ones.

High-End

Although Hitman: Blood Money is a multi-platform project, like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory for example, it behaves quite differently, overtly preferring Nvidia’s products to graphics cards on ATI’s GPUs. The difference between the average and minimum speed is considerably bigger with the latter than with the GeForce 7900 series models.

Generally speaking, Hitman: Blood Money is a demanding application since it is based on an advanced engine called Glacier 3.0 which supports parallax mapping and self-shadowing and uses version 3 shaders to create special effects. The lack of polygons in the models is compensated with normal maps whereas the use of soft shadows and the depth of view takes your attention away from the not-very-detailed textures. The lighting is good in the game too, but HDR is not used.

All these niceties come at a cost, so there is no comfort in resolutions above 1280x1024 with enabled full-screen antialiasing. The speed of the cards is too low, so the GeForce 7900 GTX is the single card that is more or less capable of providing some comfort in that resolution. Owners of other products from this category should either disable FSAA or lower the level of detail and lose in the quality of graphics.

Performance-Mainstream

The “eye candy” mode results aren’t useful at all since even the GeForce 7900 GT cannot provide a comfortable frame rate in it. However, it is this card from Nvidia that proves to be the single solution capable of giving you an acceptable “pure speed”, too. The weaker cards stop at about 30-35fps in 1280x1024 resolution and slow down to 20fps in the most complex scenes. This is not enough for comfortable play, yet we should note that the GeForce 7600 GT offers a bigger reserve of speed than the Radeon X1800 XL while the Radeon X1800 GTO, hamstringed by its 12 TMUs and low core frequency, has the worst result in the mentioned resolution. In the higher resolutions it is capable of competing with the GeForce 7600 GT thanks to the 256-bit memory bus, but they give you from 14 to 23-24fps then, which is unplayable.

So, if you want to play Hitman: Blood Money on a GeForce 7600 GT or a Radeon X1800 XL, you will have to use 1024x768 resolution and, perhaps, reduce the graphics quality a little below the maximum.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

The GeForce 7600 GT is victorious, but its “pure speed” is no higher than 35fps in 1280x1024. It means the gamer cannot expect even a minimum of comfort. The results of the rest of the products from this category are 20-23fps at best, which is below the point when the human eye perceives movement as smooth and continuous.

In other words, mainstream and entry-level graphics cards do not provide the speed you need at the maximum graphics quality settings in Hitman: Blood Money. The level of detail can be lowered, but you won’t enjoy the game fully then. So, we advise that you play this game in 1024x768 on your GeForce 7600 GT. On a weaker graphics card you will hardly be able to play Hitman: Blood Money without losing something in the graphics quality.

Day 4. Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends

It’s not an easy job to develop a really exciting real-time strategy because you have to balance the graphical, strategic and narrative aspects of the game. Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends is an excellent example of a modern RTS. The game offers an original approach to the plot, history and technological achievements of the warring nations, features superb animation of war units and buildings, employs an advanced physics model (support of PhysX is to be added in the future) and spectacular visual effects with changing weather, but the plot is given little attention and there’s lack of briefings that would introduce you to the intricacies of the game universe. In any case, if you do like real-time strategies, the product from Big Huge Games won’t leave you indifferent.

 

Premium

After 3D graphics came to the real-time strategy genre, the system requirements of such games grew manifold. The computer should yield at least 25fps for you to play Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends normally, and all the multi-GPU subsystems included in this review can give you that much. Once again we see the premium-class solutions from ATI and Nvidia equal each other whereas the GeForce 7950 GX2 is a little behind the leaders due to its considerably lower frequencies.

The GeForce 7900 GTX and the Radeon X1900 XTX give out a comfortable frame rate even in 1920x1200. The single-chip solutions are equals again.

High-End

When full-screen antialiasing is in use, even high-end graphics cards have surprisingly low results in Rise of Legends. They barely reach 40fps in 1280x1024. We can see that the Radeon X1900 XT is somewhat better than the GeForce 7900 GTX in that resolution, but both have the same average performance of 28fps in 1920x1200.

It’s clear that the better performance of the Radeon X1900 XT is due to its having more pixel processors on board, which is confirmed by the comparison of the results of the less advanced products, the Radeon X1800 XT and the Radeon X1900 GT. The latter has fewer TMUs and a lower core clock rate, but beats the R520-based card that has only 16 pixel processors against the Radeon X1900 GT’s 36.

So what card is a better buy? The Radeon X1800 XT is not the best option because it has the lowest performance in the high-end category. Otherwise the choice is yours, but don’t forget that even such powerful products as the Radeon X1900 XT or GeForce 7900 GTX do not offer a high speed when you enable full-screen antialiasing, so if you want to use really high resolutions, you will probably have to play without FSAA.

Performance-Mainstream

Among these graphics cards the Radeon X1900 GT and the GeForce 7900 GT seem to be the only ones that are suitable for running Rise of Legends. The rest of them won’t do even if you limit yourself to anisotropic filtering only, without FSAA. We don’t think that a speed of 19-27fps is comfortable for playing a game, even if it is not a first-person shooter.

We should single out the GeForce 7600 GT that has the best result in its class, closely approaching an average speed of 30fps. The Radeon X1800 XL takes the lead in the “eye candy” mode, but this has little practical value since the cards’ performance in too low then.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

Everything we’ve said about Hitman can be applied to Rise of Legends. Moreover, the results of the mainstream graphics cards are even lower on average here. The fastest card in this category, the GeForce 7600 GT, yields a mere 27fps in 1280x1024 without FSAA. Although you need less than 55-60fps to normally play a strategy, 27fps is still not enough for quick and accurate control over units under your command. Unfortunately, you can’t but use 1024x768 resolution and lower the level of detail to play this game on GeForce 7600 GT/GS or Radeon X1600 XT/Pro cards.

Day 5. Prey

If you’ve enjoyed Doom 3 and Quake 4, you must be facing a difficult choice this summer: to go out to bask in the sun or to stay home and launch Prey on your computer! The collaboration of Human Head Studios and 3D Realms Entertainment has brought forth one of the longest-under-development projects in history. Prey is a sci-fi shooter with an Indian protagonist who’s saving our planet from invading aliens. Running on a greatly modified engine from Doom 3, Prey features high-quality, even though not exactly brilliant, visuals that, coupled with the efforts of the plot writers and the level designers, help create a very engaging atmosphere. Low quality of textures is perhaps the single obvious drawback of this game, so connoisseurs of good 3D graphics should wait for Enemy Territory: Quake Wars to satisfy their aesthetic feeling.

We do not publish the results of the cards in the highest resolution here because this game doesn’t support 1920x1200 resolution unless you perform some special operations in the command console.

 

Premium

The ForceWare driver doesn’t currently support SLI mode for this game, so the Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire has no competitors. The second GPU seems to be rather a burden for the GeForce 7900 GTX SLI and for the GeForce 7950 GX2 because both these solutions are terribly slow at about 25-35fps.

Although the game uses the Doom 3 engine, the GeForce 7900 GTX doesn’t have a very big advantage over the Radeon X1900 XTX. The strong points of ATI’s graphics card in this test are a large number of pixel processors and a unique memory subsystem that copes better with transferring the huge amounts of data that are the result of your using FSAA and high resolutions.

High-End

Running on the OpenGL engine from Doom 3, Prey shows all the typical traits of OpenGL-using games. In other words, graphics cards on Nvidia’s GeForce 6 and 7 GPUs have higher results than same-class solutions on ATI’s Radeon X1000 chips.

Here, the Radeon X1900 XT is slower than the GeForce 7900 GTX by about 15-17% in resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 pixels. In the former resolution both these card deliver a comfortable performance. The GeForce 7900 GT is close to that, too, but the Radeon X1900 GT with its 12-to-36 ratio of TMUs to pixel processors doesn’t feel at ease in Prey since this game doesn’t require high computational performance, but needs as many texture-processing units as possible.

It’s simple to make a conclusion here: like the rest of games on the Doom 3 engine, this one is an OpenGL application and you can have the best results in it only by using a graphics card on Nvidia’s G71 GPU.

Performance-Mainstream

Like in the previous cases, there’s no need to discuss the results obtained in the 4x FSAA + 16x AF mode. They are too low, except for the performance of the GeForce 7900 GT whose average speed is close to comfortable level. The overall picture becomes brighter when we disable FSAA, at least you can play the game normally on the GeForce 7600 GT in 1280x1024, with infrequent slowdowns in the most dynamic scenes when there is a lot of enemy models in the screen at the same time.

The Radeon X1800 XL and the Radeon X1900 GT are 8-9% behind the GeForce 7600 GT. The X1900 GT makes up for its lack of texture-mapping and rasterization units with a higher GPU clock rate (575MHz against the Radeon X1800 XL’s 500MHz). The Radeons look good, too, considering that they have to deal with an OpenGL engine that is optimized for the GeForce 6/7 architecture. If you’ve got one of these cards or a GeForce 7600 GT and want to plunge into the Prey world, you may want to switch to 1024x768 resolution to have a bigger reserve of speed. With a Radeon X1800 GTO you will also probably have to reduce the level of detail a little.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

Forget about using FSAA on mainstream or entry-level graphics cards. The best average speed is only 32fps in this case. Without full-screen antialiasing, the best result is 51fps which is comfortable enough, except for possible slowdowns in mass battle scenes, and this speed is available on the GeForce 7600 GT. The low clock rates of the GeForce 7600 GS prevent this card from showing an acceptable result despite the same number of TMUs and pixel processors as in the senior model. The Radeon X1600 XT and Pro again suffer from the drawbacks of the 3-to-1 design concept.

The tendency towards using more pixel shaders, and mostly loaded with math1ematical calculations, is not to be doubted, but four TMUs is insufficient by today’s standards. The 3-to-1 formula works fine in the Radeon X1900 XT, even though not always, but it fails in the Radeon X1600, preventing this otherwise well-designed graphics card from showing its potential. Here, this is further aggravated by the fact that the Prey engine uses OpenGL and contains rendering techniques that only work effectively on Nvidia’s GeForce 6/7 architecture.

So, the GeForce 7600 GT is the best choice in its class if you are going to play OpenGL-using games, particularly Prey. A very good OpenGL driver developed by Nvidia is not the least important factor in that.

Day 6. Titan Quest

For several years the fans of Diablo 2 had to replay their favorite game because of a total lack of worthy alternatives. The classic hack & slash in Titan Quest cannot obscure Blizzard’s famous creation, but keeping close to the roots of the genre and featuring high-quality graphics, this game is a pleasant surprise for all the RPG/action-loving people. The developers from Iron Lore Entertainment recreated the mythological world of Ancient Greece in all its splendor by consulting with historians as well as by utilizing up-to-date advances in the area of shader-based special effects. The game also supports the physical engine PhysX that helps make the ancient world even more realistic.

 

Premium

It’s no secret that graphics cards from Nvidia have no competitors in games that appreciate high texturing speed. Titan Quest obviously prefers products from the Californian GPU maker: the GeForce 7900 GTX SLI is faster than the Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire by over 10fps. In the single card competition, the GeForce 7900 GTX is better in lower resolutions, but is overtaken by the Radeon X1900 XTX in the highest one.

Owners of a GeForce 7950 GX2 should be cautious about 1280x1024 resolution because in our tests this card would often refuse to work normally, delivering an indecently low frame rate of 25fps.

Note that all premium-class solutions provide acceptable speeds in Titan Quest in any resolution.

High-End

The game demands 512 megabytes of graphics memory at its maximum graphics quality settings, punishing the gamer with a tremendous performance hit otherwise: just compare the results of the Radeon X1800 XT and the GeForce 7900 GT. On the other hand, it prefers graphics cards with high texturing speed. The GeForce 7900 GTX is such in the high-end class and it takes the first place in all the resolutions. Although there’s an abundance of shader-based effects in Titan Quest, this must be not enough to fully load the shader-processing units of the Radeon X1900 XT. That’s why this graphics card has no advantage over the older Radeon X1800 XT.

The Radeon X1900 GT suffers from both lack of graphics memory and too few TMUs, so its result doesn’t reach even 20fps in 1280x1024. This solution doesn’t suit for playing Titan Quest with enabled 4x FSAA. The GeForce 7900 GT doesn’t suit for that, too, since its performance is below 30fps in 1280x1024. When choosing between the GeForce 7900 GTX and the Radeon X1900 XT you should take note of the fact that despite the big difference in their average performance, these cards have almost identical minimum speeds and thus provide the same level of comfort in complex game scenes.

Performance-Mainstream

As we mentioned above, Titan Quest is predisposed to graphics cards with a lot of TMUs and also belongs to a genre where rather low frame rates are sufficient for comfortable play. 30-40fps should be enough. In 1280x1024 all the graphics cards deliver this frame rate. The Radeon X1800 GTO and the GeForce 7600 GT are slower than that in 1600x1200. However, it’s only with the GeForce 7900 GT that the minimum frame rate isn’t lower than 25fps. You can try to play this game on a Radeon X1900 GT or a Radeon X1800 XL in 1920x1200, but you’ll probably find the game unbearably slow at times.

FSAA can be enabled on the Radeon X1800 XL and, perhaps, on the GeForce 7900 GT, and ATI’s card is faster between the two despite the difference in the number of TMUs (16 against 24). So, if you are upgrading your computer specifically for Titan Quest, you should choose the GeForce 7900 GT in this category. The Radeon X1800 XL is second best here.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

Diablo-like hack’n’slash games aren’t very difficult applications for the graphics subsystem to run. It’s enough to have a frame rate of 30-40fps, and only slowdowns to below 20fps are irritating. That’s why the result of the GeForce 7600 GT in 1280x1024 resolution should be considered acceptable. The rest of the cards, unfortunately, cannot yield 25fps even in the “pure speed” mode, not to mention with enabled FSAA. So if you’ve got something other than the GeForce 7600 GT, theses results have no practical meaning for you.

Day 7. Tomb Raider: Legend

All the gamers whose hearts have been broken by Lara Croft can now give a sigh of relief. The nightmare called Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness is over. The publisher Eidos Interactive took notice of the pleas and requests of the army of fans and released Tomb Raider: Legends that has not only an advanced graphics engine, but also a well-developed plot and cleverly designed levels. The developers from Crystal Dynamics have managed to make the process of solving puzzles, beating various enemies and searching for artifacts of ancient civilizations as exciting as in the previous games of the series.

 

Premium

No matter what we tried, we couldn’t make the ATI multi-GPU platform work correctly with Tomb Raider: Legend. Without an opponent, the GeForce 7900 GTX SLI becomes the fastest solution in its class whereas the GeForce 7950 GX2, which doesn’t have a direct market competitor too, easily outperforms the Radeon X1900 XTX.

As for the speeds the cards provide, you may want to reduce the level of detail if you play this game in 1920x1200 on a GeForce 7900 GTX or a Radeon X1900 XTX: 25-30fps may not be enough in the most complex scenes.

High-End

We tested Tomb Raider: Legend in its Next Generation Content mode which involves Shader Model 3.0 and produces beautiful visual effects but, as is often the case, is a heavy load for the graphics card.

It seems that not all of the effects of this game consist of math1ematics-heavy shaders. ATI’s formula that implies a 1-to-3 ratio of textural operations to arithmetic ones doesn’t work here well, and the GeForce 7900 GTX is considerably faster than the Radeon X1900 XT in all the resolutions. The gap is very small in 1920x1200, but the speeds of the cards are too low then for the results to be of any practical meaning. The same is true for the Radeon X1900 GT and the GeForce 7900 GT. The Radeon X1800 XT has one important advantage that helps it beat the GeForce 7900 GT – it has more graphics memory. This factor is important for Tomb Raider: Legend, especially in the Next Generation Content mode.

Speaking in general, none of the modern high-end graphics cards can ensure a comfortable speed in this game even in 1280x1024 resolution because the min speed is below 20fps. If you are going to play like this, you will sooner or later encounter situations when the game slows down too much and prevents you from accurately controlling the heroine.

Performance-Mainstream

The humbler results of the performance-mainstream solutions don’t look surprising now that we know the high requirements of this game in the Next Generation Content mode. The GeForce 7900 GT is capable of giving you 40fps on average, but the min speed of this card is a mere 17fps. The Radeon X1900 GT doesn’t cope with this test, too, despite its 36 pixel processors. It is limited by its 12 TMUs, just as the GeForce 7600 GT is. We don’t think the published numbers will please you if you’ve got a mainstream graphics card in your system. Such products often lack power to run some of the modern generation of games (the new Tomb Raider is among them) at the max quality settings. We wonder what’s going to be in next-generation, even more advanced, games. In all probability you’ll have to play in 1024x768 and at an average level of detail on a card other than the Radeon X1900 XTX/XT or GeForce 7950 GTX/7900 GTX.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

You can’t expect to have an acceptable speed from mainstream and entry-level graphics cards in Tomb Raider: Legend in the Next Generation Content mode. This is fully confirmed by the practical tests. With the best average performance of 30fps on the GeForce 7600 GT you just can’t succeed in this game. That’s not enough for accurate control over everything that’s happening on the screen, and the game speed sometimes bottoms out to below 20fps. Comparing the cards between each other, we can see that the GeForce 7600 GS is faster than the Radeon X1600 XT, at least when full-screen antialiasing is disabled.

We suspect that disabling Next Generation Content won’t improve the situation much. You will also have to switch to 1024x768 and to lower the level of detail to play the game on a GeForce 7600 GT, not to mention the Radeon X1600 XT.

Generally speaking, mainstream and entry-level graphics cards suit but poorly for playing modern games in resolutions above 1024x768 and at the highest graphics quality settings. Their performance is just too low even if you don’t use FSAA.

Conclusion

Premium

The Premium class includes not only single graphics cards but also multi-GPU tandems, so we should discuss the results of these two groups separately.

It’s clear that the Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire is the best in 1280x1024 resolution except for Hitman: Blood Money and Tomb Raider: Legend. ATI’s technology for combining the power of two graphics processors doesn’t work in these two games and even leads to a performance reduction to below the level of the single Radeon X1900 XTX in the latter case. That’s not a big issue, though. CrossFire technology is younger than its opponent SLI and hasn’t yet acquired support for as many games. And Nvidia’s SLI tandems aren’t spotless, either. Just take a look at the graph next to Prey and Titan Quest where the GeForce 7900 GTX SLI and the GeForce 7950 GX2 are slower than the ordinary GeForce 7900 GTX. This is why it’s hard to tell definitely which multi-GPU configuration is a better buy. Choose according to your personal preferences. But we want to remind you that the Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire consumes more power and produces more noise than a pair of GeForce 7900 GTX cards working in SLI mode.

The Nvidia GeForce 7950 GX2 finds itself in an intermediary position. It is an ordinary SLI tandem architecturally, but a single graphics card technically, even though with two PCBs and with compatibility limitations. On one hand, it is fast enough to be considered the best single-card solution in the Premium class today, but on the other hand, it is still far below the level of the GeForce 7900 GTX SLI and Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire. You should be aware that the GeForce 7950 GX2 is not free from all the disadvantages of SLI technology. Particularly, it doesn’t provide any performance gain in Prey and Titan Quest just like the GeForce 7900 GTX SLI.

In the competition of the two fastest single-chip graphics cards the GeForce 7900 GTX is a little faster than the ATI Radeon X1900 XTX in nearly all of the games included into this review, except for Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends.

Switching to 1600x1200 resolution solves the problem with the SLI systems in Titan Quest and they are not slower than the single GeForce 7900 GTX anymore. The overall picture remains the same, though. The Radeon X1900 XTX is still behind the GeForce 7900 GTX despite the more efficient memory controller. ATI Technologies had expected a rise in math1ematical complexity of pixel shaders and designed its GPUs by the formula “3 pixel processors per 1 TMU”, but this doesn’t work yet in current games, at least when it comes to average performance. In certain cases, particularly in TES IV: Oblivion, the 48 pixel processors help improve the minimum speed considerably.

Prey doesn’t support non-standard display resolutions, so it is not on the list now. The GeForce 7900 GTX SLI is still the fastest multi-GPU tandem. The most advanced single-chip cards from ATI and Nvidia are equals now: the Radeon X1900 XTX doesn’t overtake the GeForce 7900 GTX, but is as close as possible to it.

So, it’s hard to give any definite recommendations about the Premium class, especially when it comes to multi-GPU platforms. However, Nvidia’s SLI still looks more mature than ATI’s CrossFire. The GeForce 7950 GX2 stands out among single-card solutions with its superb performance, but it is a dual-GPU card, so it’s not quite correct to compare it directly with single-GPU products. Moreover, the GeForce 7950 GX2 has all the deficiencies of SLI technology, particularly the lack of any performance growth or even a reduction of speed in games that are not supported in Nvidia’s ForceWare driver.

As for single-chip single-card solutions, the GeForce 7900 GTX is in the lead but not by much. The 24 TMUs help this card feel confident in high resolutions with enabled FSAA. This is also the case when the game contains a lot of pixel shaders with multiple texture lookups or just a lot of high-resolution textures. On the other hand, the Radeon X1900 XTX, though having a somewhat lower average performance in comparison with the GeForce 7900 GTX, often surpasses the latter in minimum speed thanks to its ability to process more pixel shaders simultaneously. Thus, it provides a bigger speed reserve in games that make wide use of visual effects created by means of math1ematics-heavy shaders. So, your choice will probably depend on what particular games you are going to play.

High-End

The GeForce 7900 GTX falls into the same price range as the Radeon X1900 XT, so both these cards are present in the high-end category. But while the Radeon X1900 XTX looks competitive against the GeForce 7900 GTX in the premium class, the Radeon X1900 XT with lower GPU and memory clock rates has no chance against such a formidable opponent.

The trio of less powerful products – the Radeon X1800 XT, Radeon X1900 GT and GeForce 7900 GT – yield most curious results. Having only 16 pixel processors, the Radeon X1800 XT, which belongs to the first generation of top-end Radeon X1000 products, is often ahead of the newer Radeon X1900 GT, which has 36 pixel processors. There is a simple explanation, though: despite the claims of ATI Technologies, texture-processing speed is no less or sometimes even more important in modern games than the pixel shader performance. The Radeon X1800 XT not only has 16 TMUs, but also a higher core clock rate in comparison with the Radeon X1900 GT. This makes it competitive against the GeForce 7900 GT which is equipped with 24 TMUs, but has a much lower core frequency. Moreover, the Radeon X1800 XT has 512 megabytes of onboard memory, which is two times the amount of memory on the GeForce 7900 GT or on the Radeon X1900 GT. This difference may be crucial in some situations, for example in Titan Quest.

There are no great changes when we switch to 1600x1200 resolution, except that the Radeon X1900 GT looks somewhat better against the others. It is especially good at rendering scenes that abound in calculations-heavy pixel shaders like the closed scenes in TES IV: Oblivion.

The GeForce 7900 GTX enjoys an advantage over the Radeon X1900 XT in 1920x1200 resolution. For some unclear reason, the ring-bus memory controller doesn’t help ATI Technologies’ solution. It must be unable to make up for the difference in the memory frequency, 725 (1450) MHz against the opponent’s 800 (1600) MHz. The results of the GeForce 7900 GT are somewhat worse, too, especially in TES IV: Oblivion. Note that the cards’ performance is often not high enough for comfortable play in this resolution.

It’s all clear about what card to choose from the high-end category. The GeForce 7900 GTX is beyond doubt the best choice in the top price range. It is nearly always faster than the Radeon X1900 XT and has best results when you use extreme resolutions along with full-screen antialiasing. Among the cheaper products, you can choose between the GeForce 7900 GT and the Radeon X1800 XT. These two are generally similar in performance, but behave differently from game to game: Nvidia’s card is better in TES IV: Oblivion, but ATI’s one is superior in Titan Quest, for example. An additional argument in favor of the Radeon X1800 XT is its larger amount of memory (if you buy a Radeon X1800 XT 512MB).

The Radeon X1900 GT is only good in games that make wide use of complex math1ematics-rich pixel shaders, like in TES IV: Oblivion and Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. In other cases this solution suffers from its low fill rate, and the 36 pixel processors of the Radeon X1900 GT most often cannot make up for its having only 12 TMUs.

Performance-Mainstream

We’ve discussed the results of the GeForce 7900 GT and the Radeon X1900 GT with enabled full-screen antialiasing above. Now let’s see what they have to offer when FSAA is disabled. The single test where the Radeon X1900 GT is unable to rival the GeForce 7900 GT is Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. The Radeon X1800 XL in its turn is slower than the Radeon X1900 GT due to lower clock rates and fewer pixel processors, with the exception of Titan Quest and Prey. On the other hand, the Radeon X1800 XL looks competitive against the Radeon X1800 GTO and the GeForce 7600 GT, although is slower than the Nvidia card in a few tests. The Radeon X1800 GTO is the slowest of all in general, although it enjoys a certain advantage over the others in the open scenes of TES IV: Oblivion due to its 256-bit memory bus.

The 16 TMUs and 16 ROPs put the Radeon X1800 XL in the lead in the 4x FSAA + 16x AF mode, while the Radeon X1800 GTO is unfortunately slower than the GeForce 7600 GT in almost all of the tests despite the two times wider memory bus. Note also that the mainstream cards cannot provide a comfortable frame rate even in 1280x1024 when FSAA is turned on, except for Half-Life 2: Episode One.

The GeForce 7900 GT breaks farther away from the Radeon X1900 GT and the Radeon X1800 XL as the resolution grows. This is expectable since the GeForce 7900 GT is the only graphics card in the performance/mainstream category that has 24 TMUs on board. These TMUs come in handy in high resolutions where texturing speed becomes a crucial parameter. Among the less powerful solutions the Radeon X1800 XL, a good price/performance compromise, still has the best results.

Since high resolutions also increase requirements to the graphics memory bandwidth, the Radeon X1800 GTO is getting closer to the GeForce 7600 GT but this has little practical value for gamers because these solutions are too slow in 1600x1200, except in Half-Life 2: Episode One.

As for using FSAA, the GeForce 7900 and the Radeon X1900 GT have a comfortable or nearly comfortable speed in this mode in only one game out of the seven whereas the other cards are even worse than that.

The results in 1920x1200 resolution with disabled FSAA are similar to those that we’ve seen in 1600x1200 with enabled FSAA. Only the results of the Radeon X1900 GT and GeForce 7900 GT in Half-Life 2: Episode One have some real practical value. When we turn on 4x FSAA the GeForce 7900 GT remains the only leader since the Radeon X1900 GT slows down to below 40fps. As for the rest of the games, the performance-mainstream solutions can’t yield even 30fps in them.

So, what’s the best buy in this category? Obviously, if you want to purchase a mainstream graphics card, you should look at the results of the “pure speed” mode. Anyway, the choice is actually between the Radeon X1800 XL and the GeForce 7600 GT. The former is generally a little faster, but the latter requires less power, is small and less noisy. The diagrams should help you make the choice. The Radeon X1800 GTO is not a good buy, unfortunately. It is slower than the GeForce 7600 in low resolutions, but cannot deliver a comfortable frame rate in high ones.

Mainstream/Entry-Level

It is the GeForce 7600 GS, whose only difference from the GeForce 7600 GT is lower clock rates, that has the best results among entry-level graphics cards. The Radeon X1600 XT with much higher GPU and memory frequencies has only 4 TMUs and 4 ROPs and proves to be slower than the GeForce 7600 GS as the result. And even this 7600 GS cannot provide an average frame rate of 50fps in any of the games included into this review in the “pure speed” mode under the conditions of our today’s test session (i.e. in resolutions above 1024x768 and at the maximum graphics quality settings).

It’s quite clear that entry-level graphics cards do not suit for serious gaming. If you are a gamer, we do recommend you to think about purchasing a product from the performance-mainstream or higher category. And if you want to have the highest possible image quality and a comfortable speed, you can’t do without a high-end or even a premium-class solution.