by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
10/09/2007 | 08:48 AM
An important characteristic of every graphics card, the amount of graphics memory determines the card’s ability to store a large number of textures and other data on itself avoiding the need to access the system memory or hard disk. Each access has a negative effect on the overall performance because the speed of accessing graphics memory is usually faster even with inexpensive graphics cards than the speed of accessing system memory, let alone disk memory. Thus, it is very desirable to store all the textures and other data in the graphics card’s local memory in order to achieve maximum performance in games.
Today, top-end gaming graphics cards come with 512MB to 1GB of graphics memory. Such solutions usually have a 256-bit or wider memory bus, from 16 to 32 texture-mapping units, and from 16 to 24 raster operators. For such devices the amount of graphics memory can be a significant performance-determining factor, especially in high resolutions with enabled full-screen antialiasing, but is it the same for cheaper and less advanced solutions?
Graphics cards weaker than ATI Radeon HD 2900 and Nvidia GeForce 8800 usually have 8-12 (occasionally, 16) TMUs and ROPs and a 128-bit memory bus, and the memory is also clocked at a rather low frequency. These factors may have a limiting effect in games, negating the influence of the amount of graphics memory while the memory frequency plays a much greater part.
However, graphics card makers sometimes install quite a lot of memory on inexpensive cards, and it is often slow memory working at a reduced frequency in comparison with the standard version. They try to reach two goals at once by doing so: they make the product more appealing since an inexperienced user is likely to respond to big numbers, and they also get rid of their stores of slow memory chips. Is this approach justifiable for graphics cards priced at below $100? We’ll try to find out by benchmarking a new card called PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB DDR2.
PowerColor changed the packaging design dramatically for its HD 2x00 series. The company used to ship its products in medium-size flat boxes, but the new graphics card comes in an upright box that resembles the packaging of graphics cards from Gigabyte Technology:
The appearance isn’t original, though. Graphics card makers favor characters like the girl wielding a sword depicted here and often put them on boxes with their products. The packaging looks good but there is no trace left of the austerity that was typical of previous products from PowerColor.
Inside the wrapper there is a main box made from thick cardboard. Beside the graphics card proper, it contains the following:
There is neither an YPbPr splitter nor a HDMI adapter in the box, which is rather strange. Despite the proud slogan “Mesmerizing 3D graphics for true gamers” you can read on the box, the graphics card is more likely to be used in a multimedia PC than in a gaming station. As we already know, the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro isn’t brilliant in today’s games and can hardly satisfy a demanding gamer.
The Steam coupon gives you the ATI Steam Offer that provides free access to the Steam service to download and install free copies of Half-Life 2: Lost Coast and Half-Life 2: Deathmatch.
The user manual has long been changed by the company from a traditional detailed brochure into a huge folding poster that contains the basics of installing the card into the system. This should be enough in 99% of cases, but we’d like to see a full version of the manual even in electronic format.
Thus, the accessories to the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB are scanty, but that’s all right considering the price of the device. This card belongs to the below-$100 segment and good accessories would have affected its pricing negatively. Low price is in fact the factor that draws customers’ attention to PowerColor’s products.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB uses a different PCB than the ASUS EAH2600PRO we reviewed earlier. Both cards are marked out for two types of the reference cooler from ATI, but the PCB of PowerColor’s card is revision 1.0 while ASUS’ is revision 1.01.
The PCBs are the same size, but differ greatly in their wiring and component layout except for the memory chips and the GPU. Like on the ASUS card, some elements, probably belonging to the power circuit, are not installed, indicating that this PCB can be used in upcoming products from PowerColor based on ATI Radeon HD chips with higher power consumption. Thanks to its small size the card will easily fit into almost any existing PC case, including horizontal cases (with an adapter) and barebone systems.
The card carries 512 megabytes of GDDR2 memory in eight Hynix HY5PS121621CFP-25 chips (512Mb, 32Mb x 16, 1.8V). The memory is accessed across a 128-bit bus. The FP-25 suffix means a rated frequency of 400 (800) MHz which is in fact the frequency the chips are clocked at by the card. Thus, the not-very-fast memory subsystem of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro is further slowed down in the PowerColor version of the card – its peak bandwidth is 12.8GB/s as opposed to the original card’s 16GB/s. This is going affect the card’s gaming performance and can hardly be made up for by the double amount of memory. The memory is also unlikely to overclock to the level of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro due to the use of 2.5ns chips.
The GPU of the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB card has a standard configuration with 120 shader processors grouped into 24 blocks by 5 ALUs, 2 texture processors equivalent to 8 traditional texture-mapping units, and 1 raster processor equivalent to 4 traditional ROPs. The graphics core is clocked at 600MHz, the standard GPU frequency of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro. The PowerColor card is not cut down relative to the reference card in this respect.
The graphics card has two universal dual-link DVI ports capable of outputting to two monitors at 2560x1600 resolution. The card can also output video and audio in digital format via a special HDMI adapter. For analog devices the card offers a universal port supporting S-Video, composite and YPbPr connections. Like the ASUS EAH2600PRO, the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro doesn’t have a CrossFire connector, relying on data transfers via PCI Express instead.
The GPU is cooled by a humble aluminum heatsink with a small 11-blade fan.
The cooler can’t have high performance as it doesn’t even have a profiled cap, but this is unimportant considering the low heat dissipation of the graphics core clocked at a lower frequency than in the Radeon HD 2600 XT. The cooler is unlikely to have astonishing noise characteristics, yet it shouldn’t be loud, either. We’ll check this out in the next section.
We measured the level of noise produced by the PowerColor card with a digital sound-level meter Velleman DVM1326 using A-curve weighing. At the time of our tests the level of ambient noise in our lab was 36dBA and the level of noise at a distance of 1 meter from the working testbed with a passively cooled graphics card inside was 43dBA. We got the following results:
The fan is rotating at a constant speed irrespective of the operation mode, and the speed is high enough for it to produce some noise. It sounds like a quiet hiss, which is barely audible within our testbed. But if installed into a multimedia system with a noiseless PSU and a low-noise CPU cooler, the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro is likely to be heard distinctly. So if you are building such a system and want to use this card in it, we recommend replacing its cooler with something less noisy.
Besides noise, we measured the power consumption of the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB using a special testbed with a modified Intel Desktop Board D925XCV equipped with measuring shunts. In 3D mode the cards were loaded by the first SM3.0/HDR test from the 3DMark06 suite running in a loop at 1600x1200 with 4x FSAA and 16x AF. The Peak 2D mode was emulated by means of the 2D Transparent Windows test from PCMark05. We got the following results:
So, the peak consumption of the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB DDR2 is barely higher than 30W, which is very low. The card’s +12V line was loaded the most in every operation mode; the load on the +3.3V line was constant at 1.62-1.63W.
It’s clear there will be no power-related problems with any version of Radeon HD 2600 Pro. Such cards are very economical, being a perfect choice for compact multimedia systems with low-wattage power supplies.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB showed ambiguous overclockability, just like the ASUS EAH2600PRO had done before. Its GPU could easily work at 660MHz, the highest frequency you can set with the Catalyst driver, but its 2.5ns memory refused to run at a frequency higher than its default 400 (800) MHz. We couldn’t increase its clock rate even by 50MHz without the card hanging up during the tests, so we decided not to perform the full cycle of tests over the overclocked card.
Perhaps some other sample of the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB can be made to work at higher frequencies, but the slow memory has low overclockability to start with.
To test the performance of PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB we assembled the following standard test platform:
Since we believe that the use of texture filtering optimizations is not justified in this case, the AMD and Nvidia graphics card drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of tri-linear and anisotropic texture filtering. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering - Adaptive antialiasing for AMD Catalyst and Transparency antialiasing (multisampling) for Nvidia ForceWare. As a result, our AMD and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:
We selected the highest possible graphics quality level in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way. Performance was measured with the games’ own tools or, if not available, manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.1. We also measured the minimum speed of the cards where possible.
Just like with other ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics card models we again gave up 1920x1200 and 1920x1440 resolutions, because these mainstream solutions will almost definitely be unable to ensure acceptable performance level in them. Therefore, we only ran the tests in 1280x1024/960 and 1600x1200 resolutions. We used “eye candy” mode everywhere, where it was possible without disabling the HDR or Shader Model 3.0. Namely, we ran the tests with enabled anisotropic filtering as well as MSAA 4x. We enabled them from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of Catalyst and ForceWare.
PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB will be competing against the following graphics accelerators participating in our test session:
For our tests we used the following games and benchmarks:
First-Person 3D Shooters
Third-Person 3D Shooters
Even with a much lower memory frequency the PowerColor is almost as fast as the standard ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro, which is an indication of some other limiting factor, perhaps the number of rasterization subunits. Note that neither version of Radeon HD 2600 Pro can provide an acceptable speed in this test.
We can see the same in Call of Juarez: although the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB has two times the amount of memory of the standard model, and the game is quite a resource-consuming application, it does not have any advantages in this test. You can’t enjoy Call of Juarez fully on an inexpensive graphics card like ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro or Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT.
Of course, the results in the DirectX 10 version of Call of Juarez are no good as the average frame rate of graphics cards of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro class is as low as 5fps at 1280x1024.
It’s only in closed environments that the average speed of the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB is above the allowable minimum of 25fps. Alas, the card is too slow in open scenes to allow using 4x FSAA.
It’s somewhat better if you prefer HDR to 4x FSAA: the average speed of the PowerColor card is higher than 25fps at 1280x1024. There is, however, no reserve of speed and you have just a minimum of playing comfort. We couldn’t observe any noticeable difference between the two versions of Radeon HD 2600 Pro in this test.
The amount of memory the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB is equipped with has no effect on its performance in F.E.A.R. Its result is good enough for its class, and you can play the game at the highest graphics quality settings and at a resolution of 1280x1024, even though without any reserve of speed.
The PowerColor is a little but slower than the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro that has the standard GPU and memory frequencies. The difference isn’t critical, though. Both versions are not too fast, but deliver over 25fps. Your gameplay should be normal at such a speed theoretically, but you should consider faster solutions like Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS or the outdated, but still robust, ATI Radeon X1950 Pro, in order to have comfortable gaming conditions.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB is lagging behind here, but it’s not really important as its average frame rate is only 15-17fps. You should have an Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS or something better for playing this game comfortably.
The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. This is the reason why we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.
The results are even lower in this game. You can’t play it with the dynamic lighting enabled. Disabling it is the only way to increase the speed of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro to a more or less acceptable level.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB is a little slower than the Radeon HD 2600 Pro that is equipped with 256MB of memory clocked at 500 (1000) MHz. But the overall performance is too low for playing the game normally, just as is the case in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Prey.
We try to get the highest possible image quality from each game, but Splinter Cell: Double Agent cannot use FSAA and FP HDR simultaneously. That’s why the game was tested with anisotropic filtering only.
The PowerColor gains nothing in Splinter Cell: Double Agent, just like in the other games, from having 512 megabytes of slow memory because the game relies on special effects created by means of complex math1ematical computations in pixel shaders. Alas, we don’t see a playable frame rate even in the lowest of the popular resolutions employed by today’s gamers.
The current version of the game doesn’t support FSAA, so we performed the test with anisotropic filtering only.
Gothic 3 depends more on the texture rather than shader processors, which explains the low performance of each version of Radeon HD 2600 Pro. The average speed is only 15fps at best – not enough even for minimum gaming comfort. The PowerColor version is a little behind than the standard card but this doesn’t matter much as both are very slow.
The game offers FSAA starting with version 1.04, but its support for HDR is still deficient, so we are benchmarking the cards in the eye candy mode only.
The game depends a high texturing speed from the graphics card, and the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro is slow as a consequence. The ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 can barely catch up with the GeForce 8600 GT and loses to it in terms of minimum speed.
The game loses much of its visual appeal without HDR. Although some gamers argue that point, we think TES IV looks best with enabled FP HDR and test it in this mode.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB feels all right in Oblivion although it is slower than the standard ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro by 8-9% at 1280x1024. The PowerColor allows playing the game at the maximum graphics quality settings, even though the minimum of speed might have been higher.
In open scenes of this game the gap between the cards is the same in percentage terms, but the absolute speeds are lower. The Radeon HD 2600 Pro with a memory frequency of 500 (1000) MHz ensures a higher level of comfort.
The PowerColor is 8-9% behind the reference card just as it was in TES IV. Both cards allow playing at 1280x1024 but with minimum comfort whereas the senior model, ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4, provides a comfortable average speed even with a surplus.
This game having a frame rate limiter, you should compare the minimum frame rates in the first place because it is the minimum speed that determines your playing comfort in Command & Conquer 3.
You can’t play the game normally on the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro as it gives you a frame rate of 14-15fps with slowdowns to 9fps. Note, however, that the Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT isn’t brilliant here, either. The GeForce 8600 GTS and Radeon X1950 Pro are the only cards to ensure comfortable gaming conditions at 1280x1024 and with enabled FSAA.
Like in most other games, the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB is slower than the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro due to its lower memory frequency. Both these cards are far from the acceptable minimum of speed.
We test this game in the pure speed mode with enabled anisotropic filtering.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB seems to have good results in this game if you don’t count in its low minimum of speed we have already noticed in other tests. We wouldn’t make a final verdict on the performance of ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro cards in this game because the integrated performance test may not be an accurate representation of the actual gameplay process.
Modern games with DirectX 10 support are usually too heavy even for such monsters as ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT and Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS/GTX. Entry-level solutions like the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB support the new API just nominally.
The overall score of the PowerColor card is such as you could expect it to get after viewing the results of the previous tests. It is somewhat slower than the ordinary ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro – the reduced memory frequency proves to be a weightier factor than the doubling of its amount.
It’s all predictable in the first and third tests but the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB makes a sudden rush in the second test, outperforming the reference card by 20%! Unfortunately, RivaTuner cannot track the graphics memory usage in the Windows Vista environment, so we don’t know how much data is used in the second test. It can be over 256 megabytes due to the dynamically generated vegetation (and shadows) which determines the victory of the PowerColor card.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB is on the losing side in 3DMark06, too. The gap is wider now at 308 points, and the value of each point is higher here than in 3DMark05.
The individual groups of tests do not allow to pinpoint the reason: it’s about 10% in both groups.
The first test of the SM2.0 group makes no difference between the two versions of Radeon HD 2600 Pro, but the second test agrees with 3DMark05 that the 512MB version is considerably faster. There’s nothing wrong about that since the second SM2.0 test is just a more complex modification of the second game test from 3DMark05.
The PowerColor card loses to the reference ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro by 10% in both SM3.0/HDR tests. Thus, it is only in one test that the 512 megabytes of graphics memory give the PowerColor an advantage. For the other tests the memory frequency proves to be a more important factor.
The PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB DDR2 is a nice product overall, but we should point out some of its drawbacks, particularly not very rich accessories and a rather noisy cooler.
The accessories do not include an adapter to connect HDTV devices via YPbPr and a DVI → HDMI adapter, although the Radeon HD 2600 series is often bought for use in a multimedia PC which would require the unique adapter from ATI.
The card is not quiet. Although it has a low power draw, its small fan has to work at high speed to cool its very modest heatsink. This is not a big problem as the level of noise is low and you can barely distinguish the card amidst the noise from the other system components. But if you’ve got a multimedia system equipped with a silent PSU and a low-noise cooling system, the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB may prove unpleasantly loud in it, spoiling one of the main advantages of this kind of PC systems.
The PowerColor card has no significant advantage in games from having as much as 512 of graphics memory. In some tests it had the same speed as the ordinary ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro and in others it would be from 3% to 8-10% slower due to the lower memory frequency (400 (800) MHz instead of 500 (1000) MHz). It’s only in two 3DMark tests, which are in fact variations of the same test, that the PowerColor was better than the reference card, but this achievement has no practical value.
Anyway, the performance of graphics cards on the ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro class is just too low for modern games. It is in few cases that they can deliver an acceptable speed, usually in resolutions not higher than 1280x1024, so larger amounts of graphics memory are not indeed called for. However, the PowerColor HD 2600 Pro 512MB DDR2 doesn’t look any slower than the 256MB version. It copes with HD video decoding just as easily and behaves in games in the same manner, so the customer’s choice should be determined by the price factor alone. If the PowerColor costs no more than those versions of ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro that have a memory frequency of 500 (1000) MHz, the described card can be your choice. Also note that the card is unlikely to overclock well due to the use of slow GDDR2 memory chips with an access time of 2.5 nanoseconds.