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NVidia or ATI? The Next King of the Video Card Hill

Newsletter 2

March 17, 2003

Even if you are only a casual computer hobbyist, you have probably been seeing all the advertisements wanting you to pre-order a NVidia GeForce FX card which have been running since Christmas. Conversely, you probably haven't been able to ignore how ATI has been advertising its Radeon 9700 card all over the Web and declaring its virtues as the only DirectX 9.0 card on the market.

As the months slipped quietly by, the high end video card market held its breath waiting for NVidia's ATI 9700 killer to ship. Apparently, the only GeForce FX cards that shipped during this lull were "reference boards".
Several sites reviewed these reference boards and concluded that the GeForce FX had a slight edge in some speed tests over the Radeon 9700. However, most of these reviewers also concluded that NVidia's drivers were not finalized, so they weren't really sure what speed a retail GeForce FX 5800 Ultra would have.

So what's a reference board? You should also keep in mind that a "reference board" is produced by NVidia for testing and is not the board you will buy from a retailer. It would not surprise us that performance gains of 20% or more will be realized in the production versions of the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra.

Needless to say NVidia has been plagued with production problems that have caused numerous shipping delays for its new flagship DirectX 9.0 cards. This was pretty much the state of the video card "battle" from December 2002 until February 2003. ATI was having a hay day selling the "fastest" video card available while NVidia fans were either pre-ordering or holding their breath waiting for NVidia to overcome its production problems.

However, the video card battle was kicked up a notch in the second week of March when both video card giants announced new forth coming DirectX 9.0 video cards.

What's with DirectX 9.0? Do I need it? Per Microsoft, "When coupled with a DirectX 9.0 compatible video card and driver, you may see a visual improvement in games that were designed with DirectX 9.0 in mind."

In other words, in order to get the performance from your new DirectX 9.0 video card, you will have to play a game that actually uses the advanced 3-D rendering functions of DirectX 9.0 (currently there are a handful of games that support DirectX 9.0.).

What if I don't have a DirectX 9.0 3-D card? You can still download and install DirextX 9.0 and Microsoft says that in some cases it will improve the performance of your current games.

For more information on DirectX 9.0, visit Microsoft's DirectX page.

NVidia's New Video Cards

On March 6th, NVidia announced that in addition to the GeForce FX 5800, it would produce two new mainstream GeForce FX chipsets, the GeForce FX 5600 and the GeForce FX 5200.

Per NVidia, the specs of its new graphics cards:

The GeForce FX 5600 GPU—Delivering cinematic graphics for the mainstream market, the GeForce FX 5600 GPU incorporates the full GeForce FX feature set, including Intellisample 2.0 for stunning quality enthusiast gaming. The GeForce FX 5600 GPUs deliver 30% more performance at half the price of the GeForce4 Ti 4600.

The GeForce FX 5200 GPU—The industry’s first value DirectX 9.0-class GPU, the GeForce FX 5200 GPU delivers GeForce FX cinematic computing and market-leading performance with best-in-class features and reliability for as low as $79 USD MSRP.

Availability - Available in April 2003, the GeForce FX family of cinematic graphics processors is being offered by a record number of add-in-card partners, including Abit Computer, AOpen, ASUSTeK, BFG Technologies, Chaintech, Creative, eVGA.com, Gainward, Leadtek Research, MSI, Palit Microsystems Inc., Pine XFX and PNY Technologies.

ATI's New Video Cards

Per ATI, the specs of its new graphics cards:

RADEON 9800 - A 256-bit memory interface and eight powerful pixel pipelines provide the brute force and finesse to deliver real-time, Hollywood-caliber graphics - even for the most demanding next-generation games - and sets it apart from anything on the market.
Programmable shader engines, full speed, full floating-point precision and support for the latest Microsoft(R) DirectX(R) 9.0 and OpenGL(R) feature sets ensure games look great even at breakneck speeds. RADEON 9800 products illustrate an important point - you don't have to sacrifice performance for image quality.

RADEON 9600 - The RADEON 9600 series brings cinematic realism and unprecedented power to the performance segment, where customers are looking for the most advanced features and performance, at a more affordable price.

Driven by its full floating point architecture featuring quad pixel pipes and dual vertex engines, the RADEON 9600 series of visual processors deliver amazing performance, full support for the latest Microsoft(R) DirectX(R) 9.0 and OpenGL(R) feature sets and advanced anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering technologies. The first of ATI's products to be developed using an advanced 130 nanometer production process, the RADEON 9600 products offer an excellent entertainment value.

RADEON 9200 - Powered by an advanced quad-pipe rendering architecture, the RADEON 9200 series delivers a dazzling visual experience with the highest performance in its class. With a full suite of performance and image quality-enhancing technologies including full support for the AGP 8X and Microsoft(R) DirectX(R) 8.1 standards, and streaming video de-blocking capabilities, features unique in this segment, RADEON 9200-based products deliver sharp, clear graphics and video imagery. RADEON 9200 products offer an unbeatable value, with prices right for the most price-conscious consumer.

Availability - All the major gaming-focused system integrators have also chosen the new RADEON products. ABS Computers, Alienware Corp., CyberPower, Falcon Northwest, iBuyPower, MDG, and Voodoo PC will include RADEON 9800, RADEON 9600 and RADEON 9200 products in their current and upcoming systems.

ATI and its board partners, which include Connect3D, FIC, Gigabyte, Hercules, Hightech, PowerColor, Sapphire, Tyan, Visiontek, Wistron and YUAN, will announce and ship products based on RADEON 9800, RADEON 9600 and RADEON 9200 technologies starting this month.

So should you wait for the new cards to come out? This is the $1 million question. This answer to this question actually depends on the answer to the following questions.
Which card is actually the fastest production card? When will the new cards actually ship? What will the cards cost? What different features will the card manufactures add? Will the drivers be stable? Will you actually get any benefit out of a DirectX 9.0 compatible before you want to replace it?

No one knows the anwers to these questions. For those of you that are having trouble waiting for these questions to be answered, here's some food for thought.

InfoHQ video card buying philosophy for the patient gamer.

1. Never pay more than $200 for a video card. A $150-$200 video card will run any 3-D game available on the market and will probably perform well enough for at least 2 years of use.

2. Only performance gamers should shell out more than $200 for a video card. If you aren't a performance gamer then your money would be better spent on a more expensive system. Of course if you aren't on a budget, then feel free to shell out for the latest and greatest.

3. Is there a game that will not be playable unless you own a DirectX 9.0 video card? I would say the chances are slim. What software house wants to alienate over 90% of PC owners?

4. Consider buying available video cards instead of waiting. ATI's 9000 series video cards and NVidia cards based on the TI 4000 chipsets have been steadily falling in price.
I've seen a new ATI 9700 PRO selling for $280 and a TI 4600 card selling for $220. Keep your eyes on these cards as they should continue to drop in price as the new cards are released. Use price search engines like our sponsor DealTime to keep track of the latest video card prices.



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