Nvidia GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 Review: Revenge of the Low-End?

Nvidia’s positions weaken pretty quickly as ATI technologies unwinds mass production of their DirectX 11 solutions. However, while ATI doesn’t have a new-generation product for the Low-End segment and continues offering inexpensive Radeon HD 4000 series cards here, Nvidia releases their first DirectX 10.1 solutions for inexpensive desktops. But will these newcomers be able to compete successfully against the already existing competitors? Today we are going to answer this question with the help of graphics cards from Gigabyte and Gainward.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
12/16/2009 | 10:42 AM

It is no secret that Nvidia’s attempt to develop a complex top-performance graphics core had not been good for the company which is now being beaten by AMD on both mainstream and high-end fronts. Unable to hold back the ATI Radeon HD 5x00 series, Nvidia has decided to make a sortie in the market sector where it has been rather inactive lately. We mean the sector of entry-level discrete graphics cards which are often found in HTPCs.

 

An HTPC-ready graphics card is supposed to support decoding and post-processing of High-Definition video in H.264 and VC-1 formats and be able to output sound, including HD audio, via HDMI. Nvidia has had problems with this functionality. First, almost all of the company’s solutions based on its 65nm and 55nm GPUs (excepting the G98 and the chipsets with an integrated G98 graphics core) had the VP2 version of the PureVideo HD processor which only offered hardware video decoding acceleration for VC-1 format. In this case, bit stream processing and entropy decoding had to be done on the CPU. Thus, such graphics cards could not be used in quiet HTPCs with inexpensive, low-performance CPUs. Second, there were even more problems with the audio-over-HDMI feature. The best that Nvidia’s discrete graphics solutions could do was to translate an S/PDIF stream into HDMI. So, they could not support multi-channel HD audio formats whereas all modern products from AMD equipped with an integrated audio core offered this opportunity.

In the summer of 2009, Nvidia quietly shipped two new entry-level GPUs that were meant to solve the mentioned problems. The GT218 and GT216 targeted computer integrators and notebook makers in the first place but on the 12th of October these solutions were announced for the retail market. The new GPUs feature a new version (VP4) of the PureVideo HD engine that supports bit stream processing and entropy decoding of both H.264 and VC-1 and has enhanced audio-over-HDMI functionality. They also represent Nvidia’s first attempt at implementing 40nm tech process and DirectX 10.1. That doesn’t seem much if compared to AMD’s Radeon HD 5x00 series, yet it is indeed a big step forward for Nvidia that could only offer 55nm and DirectX 10 until recently. Besides, the new GPUs support hardware acceleration of video in Adobe Flash 10.1 format (with the version 195 and higher driver), which is very good news for users of systems with low-performance CPUs.

These GPUs are installed on GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 graphics cards. Priced most affordably, these products may be appealing for people who don’t play modern games at high resolutions but look for a discrete graphics card capable of HD video decoding or PhysX acceleration (the 220 model only). In this review we will discuss a few versions of these cards offered by Gainward and Gigabyte. But first, let’s take a look at what Nvidia’s new entry-level GPUs can do.

Nvidia GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220: Family Portrait

You can see the specs of the new graphics cards based on the 40nm GT216 and GT218 graphics cores in comparison with Nvidia’s earlier solutions as well as with products from AMD.

GeForce 210 specifications, GeForce GT 220 specifications
Click to enlarge

The GeForce 210 is indeed a very entry-level solution only capable of offloading the CPU when playing high-definition video (as opposed to Nvidia’s earlier GPUs, the new 40nm ones offer hardware acceleration of entropy decoding and bit stream processing for VC-1 format). It also supports audio-over-HDMI although the card still has no integrated sound core. It receives audio via PCI Express, and this is itself a great improvement over the earlier implementation, especially as the new method supports HDMI 1.3a, i.e. High-Definition Audio formats. The GeForce 210 is not a gaming card with its 16 shader processors, of course. The best it can do is to run simple and undemanding games like The Sims. It is not even declared to support PhysX due to such poor computing resources.

The more advanced GeForce GT 220 is somewhere in between the GeForce 9500 GT and GeForce 9600 GT in terms of shader processor count. Yet considering the TMU and RBE subsystems as well as the graphics memory bandwidth, the GeForce GT 220 is closer to the GeForce 9500 GT than to the other. With its support for DirectX 10.1 and the fourth-generation PureVideo HD, the GeForce GT 220 can indeed compete with the ATI Radeon HD 4670 for a place in an advanced HTPC. It can also serve as an inexpensive discrete PhysX accelerator, unlike the GeForce 210.

AMD’s Radeon HD 4500, 4600, 4700 and 4800 series had the technical ability to output 7.1 audio (192kHz/24 bits per sample) with a bit rate up to 6.144Mbps in AC3, DTS, Dolby True HD, DTS HD, DTS HD Master Audio, LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation) and other advanced formats, they did not support a protected audio path and could not reproduce lossless audio tracks in formats other than LPCM due to limitations on the side of software players. The lack of PAP means that Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio cannot be transferred for decoding to an external receiver while the software limitations make it impossible to output the highest-quality audio by the computer itself. Nvidia’s GeForce 210 and GT 220 have the same limitations.

The newest ATI Radeon HD 5700 and 5800 series cards offer full support for PAP and bit-streaming of Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio to an external receiver whereas the capabilities of the GeForce 210 and GT 220 correspond to what the previous-generation Radeons could do. Technically, the new GeForce cards can output 7.1 audio (196kHz/24 bits per sample) with a bit rate up to 6.144Mbps in various formats via HDMI but the lack of PAP and the software limitations make it impossible to reproduce lossless audio streams (in all formats other than LPCM) recorded on Blu-ray discs. On the other hand, the audio output capabilities of the GeForce 210, GT 220 and Radeon HD 4000 are satisfactory for 90% of HTPC users. Only the few owners of external receivers are going to complain at the lack of PAP in Nvidia’s new products.

Summing it up, Nvidia’s new entry-level cards seem to be good enough for their class, but you cannot expect anything from them in 3D applications. The GeForce 210 and GT 220 are designed for home HTPCs as their enhanced HD video processing capabilities and HDMI 1.3a support clearly indicate. Now let’s take a closer look at the actual products.

Packaging, Design, Specifications

Gigabyte GeForce 210

The Gigabyte GV-N210OC-512I was the first new GeForce to come to our labs, so we will discuss it first, too.

The card comes in a small white-and-green box and, as usual, Gigabyte could not but mention the gold-plated HDMI connector.

This connector works exactly like an ordinary one, though. The graphics memory type is indicated incorrectly: although GDDR2 memory indeed existed and was even installed on the GeForce FX 5800, it was but a variation of ordinary DDR SDRAM. The GV-N210OC-512I is equipped with DDR2.

The accessories are up to the product’s pricing including a user manual, a disc with drivers, and a low-profile mounting bracket.

 

The graphics card looks like that:

Designed in the low-profile form-factor, it is very small and can be easily installed into most compact system cases. The only prerequisite is that the computer had a PCI Express x16 slot. If your system case does not allow installing cards with full-size mounting brackets, you can just turn the VGA cable off, remove the default bracket and install the low-profile one included with the card. You will still be able to connect two displays then, for example a PC monitor and a plasma panel, using HDMI. The use of a cable for the VGA connector may have a negative effect on image quality but this problem is hardly a great concern in our age of digital interfaces. Besides, you can connect a monitor with analog input to the DVI-I port using an appropriate adapter.

The card’s reverse side is populated sparsely. Besides a number of smaller details, there are power circuit components, an SST25VF512A flash memory chip, and a couple of graphics memory chips there. The power circuit consists of two simple single-phase voltage regulators controlled by uPI Semiconductor’s uP6161 and uP6101 chips. The former seems to be responsible for the GPU whereas the latter can often be found in graphics memory power circuits.

The card does not have a connector for additional power supply. It is quite satisfied with what it can get from the power section of the PCI Express slot.

Despite the low power consumption of the 40nm Nvidia GT218 core, the card is equipped with an active cooling system. There is a 40mm fan installed on a small heatsink. The fan uses a 3-pin connection with a tachometer. The heatsink is fastened to the PCB with two spring-loaded plastic clips. It can be easily removed if necessary. So, we took it off and saw this:

As you see, the card is very simple and could be made even shorter. The memory subsystem consists of DDR2 chips manufactured by Hynix and marked as HY5PS1G1631C-FP25. Four such chips make up a local graphics memory bank with a capacity of 512 megabytes and a 64-bit memory bus. According to the manufacturer’s specifications, these chips have a capacity of 1Gb (64Mb x 16), a voltage of 1.8V, and a rated frequency of 400 (800) MHz. Nvidia specifies a memory frequency of 500 (1000) MHz for the GeForce 210, so the Gigabyte card is down-clocked. Considering the 64-bit memory bus, the memory bandwidth is reduced from 8 to 6.4GBps. There is no talking about running modern 3D games on the GeForce 210, but this card is not actually designed for such work. It is meant for non-gaming HTPC platforms.

The GT218 die is small at only 57 square millimeters. Its parameters are far from impressive, too. It has only 16 unified shader processors, 8 texture processors and 4 raster back-ends. With such modest hardware resources the GT218 could hardly serve as a fast PhysX accelerator, so it is not declared to support the latter technology. The best that this Nvidia product can do is to offer hardware acceleration of HD video decoding, especially as Nvidia’s PureVideo engine in its fourth generation has finally caught up with AMD’s UVD 2.2. It must be noted that Nvidia’s new entry-level GPUs still lack a full-featured audio core. They receive an audio stream from an audio card installed in the system via PCI Express. This implementation is better than the S/PDIF connection that was utilized earlier, though.

The reference GeForce 210 has a main domain frequency of 589MHz and a shader domain frequency of 1402MHz and the letters OC in the Gigabyte card’s name show up here: the GV-N210OC-512I has clock rates of 650 and 1547MHz, respectively. The practical purpose of this pre-overclocking is unclear because the gaming performance of the GeForce 210 will anyway be too low. These parameters are also unimportant for video decoding.

Display devices are connected to the GV-N210OC-512I via three connectors: DVI-I, HDMI and D-Sub. The latter is connected to the card via a short cable and can only be used together with the full-size mounting bracket. Theoretically, this graphics card can make a good buy for an HTPC which is not going to run heavy 3D games.

Gainward and Gigabyte GeForce GT 220

Based on the more advanced GT216 processor, the GeForce GT 220 occupies the next step in Nvidia’s line-up of DirectX 10.1-compatibles. This model is represented by two products in this review: a Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI and a Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB.

The box with the Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI is larger than the box of the above-discussed Gigabyte GV-N210OC-512I, but is designed in the same way. The only addition is the text about the use of an 80mm fan.

This time around, the memory type is indicated correctly. The card indeed comes with DDR3. Inside the box there is a foam-rubber tray that protects the graphics card from any hazards during transportation and storage. The accessories are even fewer than those included with the Gigabyte GV-N210OC-512I: a user manual, an installation guide, and a disc with drivers.

We found no cables or adapters in the box.

Gainward’s version comes in a miniature box that is as compact as the Gigabyte GV-N210OC-512I’s. The company’s traditional picture of an angel, this time in orange tones, is used in the box design.

There is more useful information here than on the Gigabyte card. Besides the type and amount of graphics memory, you can learn what connectors the card has, what DirectX version it supports, and what tech process its GPU was manufactured on. Besides the graphics card, packed into a blister wrap, the box contains a quick installation guide and a disc with drivers.

As you can see, neither card comes with gorgeous accessories as both belong to the bottom market segment. They do not need any adapters, though. You don’t have to connect an external power cable while each card has a full selection of native connectors including HDMI. Now, let’s see how they are designed.

The two versions of the GeForce GT 220 from Gigabyte and Gainward look completely different. The single thing they share is that both use non-reference PCBs and coolers and both are very compact. The full-height form-factor does not allow using these cards in low-profile system cases.

 

 

The Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI differs from Nvidia’s reference sample more than the Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB which deflects from the reference design in details only. The Gigabyte version obviously has a more advanced cooling system with an 80mm fan installed on a rather massive heatsink. The Gainward is equipped with a smaller heatsink and a 60mm fan.

 

Each heatsink is fastened to the PCB with four spring-loaded screws, but Gainward’s cooler also has two plastic bars that prevent misalignment. The graphics core of the Gigabyte card does not have this kind of protection. It was easy to take the coolers off. Here is what we saw then:

 

Gainward’s card is populated more uniformly. The top right part of the Gigabyte’s PCB is almost empty. The Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI’s 2-phase GPU voltage regulator uses low RDS (on) MOSFETs and is controlled by an uPI Semiconductor uP6205. The memory voltage regulator has only one phase with three MOSFETs and is controlled by an uP6161 chip.

The power system of the Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB follows a 2+1 design, too, but the controllers are located on the reverse side of the PCB while the regulators are placed on both side of the PCB. The GPU and memory voltage regulators are controlled by uP6210 and uP6161 chips, respectively.

Each card carries 8 DDR3 memory chips: Hynix H5TQ1G63BFR-12C on the Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI and Samsung K4W1G1646E-HC12 on the Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB.

 

The memory chips have identical specs, however: a capacity of 1Gb (16Mb x 64), a voltage of 1.5V, and a rated frequency of 800 (1600) MHz. Each graphics card has a local memory bank with a capacity of 1 gigabyte and a 128-bit memory bus. The reference GeForce GT 220 has a memory frequency of 790 (1580) MHz and the Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB has the same. Unlike them, the Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI has a slightly pre-overclocked memory frequency of 800 (1600) MHz. The resulting difference in memory bandwidth is negligible, though.

 

 

Both cores have the same marking, but the sample installed on the Gainward card is somewhat younger. It was made on the 21st week of this year while the GPU of the Gigabyte card was manufactured on the 25th week. Note that the graphics core of the Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB has a plastic protective frame. The GT216 die is compact at less than 100 sq. millimeters but its specs are far from impressive, either. As we noted above, the GT216 is in between the G94 and the G96 in specifications, having 48 shader processors, 16 texture-mapping units and 8 RBEs. These resources are too scanty for modern heavy applications like Crysis Warhead or S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, but should be enough for simple games, high-definition video and PhysX acceleration.

The reference GT216-based card has main and shader domain frequencies of 625 and 1360MHz, but both reviewed versions are pre-overclocked: the Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI is pre-overclocked to 720/1566MHz and the Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB, to 645/1403MHz. The GeForce GT 220 can be used for playing undemanding games, so this overclocking may prove to be of some practical worth.

Both cards have the same connectors: DVI-I, HDMI and D-Sub. They do not support SLI and have no connector for S/PDIF. As we said above, the new 40nm GPUs from Nvidia can receive audio via PCI Express. This implementation of audio-over-HDMI is not as handy and universal as the integrated audio core of the Radeon HD series GPUs, but it is better than Nvidia’s previous implementation which was limited to the capabilities of the S/PDIF interface.

Overall, the Gigabyte GV-N220OC-1GI and Gainward GeForce GT220 1024MB seem to be equals in terms of specifications and performance even considering the pre-overclocked frequencies of the former card. The Gigabyte card has a better cooler, though. The large heatsink with an 80mm fan brings a promise of lower noise and higher cooling performance. Like every theoretical supposition, this one needs checking out in practice. That’s what we are going to do in the next section of the review.

Nvidia GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220: Power Consumption, Temperature, Noise

Low power consumption and noise are important parameters for the product class the reviewed graphics cards belong to, so we had to check out both. First, we measured the power consumption of our GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220. Using our old method, we obtained the following data:

The new cards are quite economical but, notwithstanding the simpler architecture, the GeForce GT 220 consumes somewhat more power under load than the Radeon HD 4550. On the other hand, it is clear that neither of these cards is going to have power-related problems if installed into an inexpensive desktop PC or an HTPC. A low-wattage PSU will suffice perfectly. There should also be no cooling-related issues. With power consumption like this, the GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 can do along with passive coolers even.


* - proprietary cooling system
** - passive cooling system

The GeForce 210 is undoubtedly a cold device, but neither version of the GeForce GT 220 is impressive from this point of view. Although the Gigabyte version employs a heavier heatsink and an 80mm fan, they have the same GPU temperature. The GPU temperature of 75°C is quite normal for any modern graphics card, though. You can put up with it, especially if the device is not noisy. Let’s check out the noise factor now.

Next we measured the noise with a noise-level meter Velleman DVM1326. The reference point for our noise measurement tests is 43dBA which is the level of ambient noise in our test lab as measured at a distance of 1 meter from the testbed with a passively cooled graphics card inside. When we installed the tested graphics cards, we got the following results:

Well, our noise-level meter could not detect any sound of the tested graphics cards in the noise from the other system components even at a distance of 1 meter from the working testbed. So, they are very quiet, although we can’t claim that they are absolutely silent. We don’t use the quietest components possible in our testbed (particularly, the PSU is far from silent), so you may hear these graphics cards if you install them into a noise-free HTPC.

We want to end the theoretical part of this review here and move on to practical tests. The products we are discussing are designed for multimedia computers in the first place, so we will show you how good they are at decoding and post-processing high-definition video.

Multimedia Functionality

Low heat dissipation and power consumption are the traditional virtues of entry-level graphics cards, making them suitable for HTPCs. Nvidia’s GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 are no exception. Considering their modest pricing, you may want to prefer them to using a mainboard-integrated graphics core, especially if you want to improve your video playback quality.

As we already noted above, the fourth-generation PureVideo engine enables the new GPUs to offer full hardware acceleration for decoding all HD video formats including MPEG 2 HD, MPEG 4 AVC (H.264), VC1, and WMV HD without any limitations (as was the case with earlier GeForce series products). Besides, they support MPEG-4 Part 2 Advanced Simple Profile, DivX version 3.11 and higher, Adobe Flash video 10.1, etc. Unfortunately, the new GPUs do not support Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio bit-streaming, which means that owners of top-end audio systems with receivers won’t be able to output lossless audio via HDMI using GeForce 210 and GT 220. These cards, like the competing ATI Radeon HD 4500/4600, can output lossless audio in LPCM format, though.

Video Playback Benchmarking Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the decoding performance and playback quality of our today’s testing participants on the following platform:

We also used the following additional testbed:

The following graphics cards and integrated graphics processors took part in our tests:

We used the following tools to estimate the video playback quality in standard (SD) and high-definition (HD) resolutions:

The driver settings remained the same. However, according to the HQV HD suite requirements, the noise suppression and detail levels for Nvidia GeForce graphics cards were set to the maximums.

Unfortunately, Windows 7 doesn’t support HD DVD playback using CyberLink PowerDVD player. That is why we used an additional testbed with Windows Vista OS and traditional HQV HD test to estimate the HD playback quality.  Moreover, since absolutely all graphics accelerators participating in our today’s test session demonstrate extremely low results in the HQV test, we also estimated the DVD playback quality in Windows Vista.  As a result, you can see the results obtained at different time, on different computer systems and with different drivers on the diagrams. Although in this case you can argue about the fairness of such comparison, since the HQV HD results may vary depending on the driver version, we believe that by providing the HQV HD data we show the maximum potential of the participating GPUs very well.

Since the owners of high-end sound systems will be extremely interested in the results of lossless threads playback, we also included DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital TrueHD (where available) in order to increase the CPU load in all played movie fragments.

Keeping in mind that all tests are run under Windows 7/Windows Vista OS without disabling background services, the CPU utilization peaks shouldn’t be regarded as critical. It is much more important how much time it takes the CPU on average to complete the task. Note that the CPU utilization may vary. Therefore, 1-2% difference is not indicative of any advantage of a certain graphics accelerator over the competitor.

To estimate the CPU utilization during full-HD video playback (1920x1080) and full-HD video with enabled “picture-in-picture” (PiP) or Bonus View (according to Blu-ray disc Association classification) feature, we used the following movies:

Like in a number of our previous articles, we decided to give up tests with free online media content (MKV rips of well-known shows), because its decoding is currently not supported by existing commercial software.

Video Playback Quality

The HQV benchmarks from Silicon Optix are one of the very few available methods of evaluating the playback quality of Blu-ray, DVD and HD DVD movies. They have one drawback, however. The tester’s perception is subjective while the notion of an ideal picture is rather vague. Results may also vary depending on what versions of drivers and software you use. So, considering the subjective nature of this test, you should not view the HQV and HQV HD results as the ultimate truth.


Click to enlarge

Although DVD is becoming obsolete, not all modern GPUs can decode it with ideal quality.

The Nvidia GeForce GT 220 turns in a good score of 104 points. It has problems with antialiasing and artifacts resulting from noise suppression algorithms. The jaggies are not conspicuous, and the noise suppression and level of detail can be adjusted. Thus, the DVD playback quality of the GT 220 is high, although a bit lower than that of its direct opponent ATI Radeon HD 4600.

The GeForce 210, the junior DirectX 10.1 product from Nvidia, has a score of 50 points which is the lowest we have ever had in our practice of using HQV. The new GPU produces a jagged image in every test and delivers other types of image artifacts. We only hope that the next driver update will teach the GeForce 210 to correctly process video streams.

Standard-resolution video is dying out. Web services like YouTube already provide the option of watching video at 1280x720 whereas popular TV channels are already broadcasting or going to broadcast in HD. HTPC users are going to have Full-HD TV-sets with a resolution of 1920x1080. As a result, it is highly important to ensure high-quality playback of high-definition video.

As you know from our tests, nearly every top-end graphics card boasts exceptional quality of HD video playback (considering the problems with HQV HD + Windows 7 + CyberLink PowerDVD 8/9, we use data from other reports).

The Nvidia GeForce GT 220 scores the maximum amount of points in HQV HD, being about as good as the ATI Radeon HD 4600/4700 and even outperforming the new ATI Radeon HD 5700. The GeForce GT 220 is not ideal, though. We noticed some artifacts in the mast in the HD noise reduction test while the bottom bar in the jaggies test had a barely visible jagged pattern.

Like in HQV test, the Nvidia GeForce 210 has very low results in HQV HD. In fact, the 210 model can only compete with Intel’s GMA 4500/GMA 4500 HD.

Note that we are pretty liberal about the Film Resolution Loss Test - Stadium. Some GPUs, including the GeForce GT 220, that receive 10 points for that test had absolutely no moiré but had some slight flickering. It was barely noticeable in most cases, but if you feel like fault-finding, you should subtract these 10 points from the total score because, according to the HQV HD instructions, flickering means 0 points.

CPU Utilization during HD Video Playback: Blu-ray Playback

Nvidia’s DirectX 10.1-compatible GPUs can offload the CPU when decoding VC-1 much better than their DirectX 10 predecessors. Nvidia seems to have focused on video processing when developing these new GPUs. The fourth-generation PureVideo engine is indeed much better than the earlier generations.

The average CPU load is acceptable with both the GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 but the peak CPU load can be 30% or higher with the junior model. That’s not a good result for a graphics card designed for quiet, low-performance and inexpensive computers.

As opposed to VC-1, the new cards are not much better than their predecessors at decoding MPEG4 AVC/H.264. The GeForce 210 is even the worst performer with the Death Race fragment.

Nvidia’s GeForce series GPUs traditionally require less CPU resources to decode MPEG2 HD streams, and the new GeForce cards are even better than the previous-generation products as well as AMD’s Radeon HD 4500/4600 series.

Summary

Although Nvidia released its 40nm chips for desktop PCs simultaneously, their positioning and impressions they leave differ greatly if you consider them as solutions for HTPCs.

The Nvidia GeForce GT 220 boasts a very high quality of DVD and Blu-ray playback and effectively offloads the CPU when decoding video. The graphics card is modern enough and is compatible with video transcoding software, which is a nice bonus for people who want to watch video on devices other than the PC. We hope Nvidia’s partners will release a GeForce GT 220 with passive cooling system because an active cooler is not a good choice for an HTPC.

The Nvidia GeForce 210 with the current driver, on the contrary, cannot be recommended even as a replacement for an integrated graphics core. The new card cannot play Blu-ray and DVD with high enough quality and does not support GPGPU/CUDA technologies (which means it cannot be used for video transcoding). Purchasing a GeForce 210 will only make sense if you can’t find a GeForce GT 220 or Radeon HD 4500/4600 and you have a PC with a weak CPU and a Blu-ray drive. In fact, the advantages of the 210 model are limited to hardware decoding of HD video and to the physical ability to output video content on a display device.

Gaming Performance

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the performance of GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 graphics cards using the following universal testbed:

The graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

Since GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 graphics cards are not fit for contemporary games we decided not to overclock them and run the tests at nominal GPU and memory frequencies only, as set by Nvidia. The list of benchmarks has been shortened this time:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Simulators

Strategies

Semi-synthetic benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it. We made a few exceptions for selected games if that was necessary. We are going to specifically dwell on each exception like that later on in our article.

We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1280x1024, 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. Everywhere, where it was possible we added MSAA 4x antialiasing to the standard anisotropic filtering 16x. We enabled antialiasing from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers.

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 3.0.2. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average of the three for the performance charts.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Crysis Warhead

We could not expect any miracles from the GeForce GT 220, let alone the GeForce 210, in modern 3D games. Indeed, you can see that their performance is awfully low even at 1280x1024, the junior model only yielding a few frames per second. A pretty slideshow is all these cards can deliver in Crysis Warhead.

Far Cry 2

Despite the rather modest system requirements of Far Cry 2, the GeForce GT 220 cannot offer a playable speed at 1280x1024. The GeForce 210 is even worse, proving that it is not a gaming card at all. You can of course try to lower the level of detail and possibly get a comfortable frame rate on a GeForce GT 220, but why deprive yourself of all the visual treats the game developers have implemented for you? We guess you should instead consider a faster card, an ATI Radeon HD 4670 at least.

Left 4 Dead

The game runs on the Source engine and has an integrated benchmark, but the latter does not report the bottom speed information.

Games based on the Source engine seem to be the least resource-consuming 3D games of today, and the GeForce GT can deliver a comfortable average frame rate at every resolution up to 1920x1200. This is quite a surprise. The GeForce 210 is too slow even for Left 4 Dead, though.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters: Resident Evil 5

This game has modest system requirements, too. You can play it on a GeForce GT 220 at a comfortable frame rate and a resolution of 1280x1024 or 1366x768 (the latter is popular on HTPCs). The GeForce 210 is poor again, but you can’t expect anything from a graphics card with only 16 shader processors in today’s applications.

Performance in RPG: Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

Everything we’ve said about Resident Evil 5 refers to the Fallout 3 series as well. Yes, you cannot play at high resolutions on a GeForce GT 220 but lower resolutions are quire playable without lowering the level of detail. The GeForce 210, on the contrary, proves that it is no gaming card again.

Performance in Simulators: Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.

We use the in-game benchmarking tools that do not allow to measure the bottom frame rate. We also enable DirectX 10.1 support for ATI’s solutions.

Quite to our surprise, the GeForce GT 220 offers an average frame rate of 26fps at 1280x1024. Considering the specs of the card and the game’s system requirements, this is a very good result. The speed occasionally bottoms out below comfortable level, but you can still try to play the game on that graphics card.

Performance in Strategy Games: BattleForge

We enable DirectX 11 support for the Radeon HD 5x00 series in this game.

Nvidia’s entry-level products are no good for BattleForge but the Radeon HD 4670 is not much better, either. You need something faster, like a Radeon HD 4770 or better, for playing this game.

Performance in Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks: Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

We minimize the CPU’s influence by using the Extreme profile (1920x1200, 4x FSAA and anisotropic filtering). We also publish the results of the individual tests across all display resolutions to provide a full picture.

The GeForce 210 could not pass this test at the Extreme settings, but testing such a weak graphics card in 3DMark Vantage does not make much sense. Even the more advanced GeForce GT 220 can barely score 1000 points, falling behind both the Radeon HD 4670 and GeForce 9600 GT.

The individual tests agree that the GeForce 210 should not be tested in 3DMark Vantage because this graphics card can only yield 2-3fps at 1280x1024.

In the first test the GeForce GT 220 is almost as fast as the Radeon HD 4670 at 1920x1200 and beats the latter at the lower resolutions. It cannot repeat this feat in the second test, though.

Summary

As we had anticipated, the GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 can hardly be of any interest for a gamer. These graphics cards are just too slow in modern 3D games. The junior model can only run old or undemanding applications like Quake III: Arena or The Sims. The GeForce GT 220 is somewhat better. It offers a playable frame rate at low resolutions in some modern games, e.g. Left 4 Dead 2 and Fallout 3, yet it is overall inferior even to the Radeon HD 4670, let alone the more advanced products from AMD and Nvidia.

We did not have any stability or image quality issues with the tested cards during our tests.

Conclusion

Nvidia’s new entry-level solutions are far from ideal. Besides an expectedly low performance in games, the junior model, GeForce 210, does not work well with high-definition video, providing low image quality. This may be a temporary problem that will be soon solved in the next version of the GeForce driver, but with the current driver the GeForce 210 cannot even replace a modern integrated graphics core like the AMD 7 series with ATI Radeon HD 3000, Intel’s G45 (GMA 4500HD) or Nvidia’s GeForce 8300/9400M. We did not compare the gaming performance of the GeForce 210 with that of integrated chipsets, but its low results suggest that it wouldn’t be much better in such a comparison.

The more advanced GeForce GT 220 is not brilliant, either. However, it can make a worth alternative to AMD’s products in terms of multimedia capabilities which have been deficient in Nvidia’s earlier products.

As for the particular implementations of the GeForce GT 220, we like Gigabyte’s version more than Gainward’s, mostly because of the more advanced cooling system. Otherwise, these two cards are identical in their consumer properties and we don’t think that you should spend you time searching for a specific version of GeForce GT 220. All of them are going to be equally bad in games and good at decoding high-definition video. Here, the only factors that may affect your shopping choice are the size and noisiness of the cooling system. These factors are important for assembling an HTPC.

Nvidia GeForce 210 Summary

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Nvidia GeForce GT 220 Summary

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