GeekTech: When It Comes to Graphics, Keep it Discrete

Explaining the different graphics options to someone building or buying their first new PC used to be a fairly straightforward proposition. It went something like this: For the best performance and features, pay the extra money for a discrete graphics card with a chip from ATI or NVidia, because, in brief, integrated graphics suck. Period.

Today, things are a bit more complicated. It's not just that integrated graphics have improved; they have, and they're fine for many tasks. But don't kid yourself--they're still pretty lame. There are also way too many discrete graphics chip choices out there: For example, ATI's site currently lists a whopping 13 different chips. However, what really confuses the issue is that both major graphics vendors now offer chips that purport to combine the best aspects of integrated and discrete graphics technologies for new, highly affordable PCI Express-based cards.

Say what?

It's true. NVidia was first out of the gate with a new technology it calls TurboCache, and ATI recently launched chips that use what it calls HyperMemory.

Each technology uses a graphics chip with special memory management features that can take advantage of the bidirectional speed of PCI Express to access system RAM. Combined with a small amount of on-board memory (anywhere from 16MB to 64MB, depending on the card), new boards that incorporate these technologies offer better performance and more features than integrated graphics systems, according to their makers. The new cards are cheaper than most stand-alone cards due to their smaller on-board memory capacities. Both chips support DirectX 9; NVidia's also supports DirectX 9's Shader Model 3.0, while ATI's supports Model 2.0.

In light of these new technologies, have I changed my advice to those who are graphically challenged? Not one bit.

Faster Than Slow

ATI just launched its HyperMemory-based chips, so we haven't had the opportunity to test any of its products yet. The company is playing catch-up with NVidia, which launched its TurboCache technology a few months back. NVidia is now shipping GeForce 6200 chips based on the technology, and its partners are selling boards based on those chips.

We recently tested two boards based on the NVidia 6200 with TurboCache--one with 16MB of included memory and one with 32MB. NVidia says the 16MB cards sell for about $80; cards with 32MB sell for about $100; and cards with 64MB (which we didn't test) will run you about $130. You'll find TurboCache boards for less than these prices online. However, you can also easily find sub-$100 PCI Express graphics cards with a 128-bit memory bus that is superior to the 64-bit version, an actual 128MB of memory onboard, and DX9 support.

To take advantage of TurboCache, a computer needs at least 512MB of system RAM and a PCI Express 16-x slot-compliant motherboard. In this setup, NVidia says the 16MB and 32MB models are supposed to act like cards with 128MB of memory; while the 64MB card should act like one with 256MB.

In our tests of the 16MB and 32MB cards we saw acceptable performance on most graphics tasks, plus decent frame rates at midrange to low resolutions on some older games. However, despite NVidia's claim that these cards can support the latest games at resolutions of up to 1024 by 768, in our tests games such as Far Cry and Doom 3 were largely unplayable at those settings.

For example, in our Far Cry test running at 1024 by 768 the 32MB board managed about 25 frames per second, while the 16MB test board netted a mere 15 fps. In our Doom 3 tests at the same resolution the 16MB unit offered up just 12 fps and the 32MB card pushed 19 fps. (PC games are playable at around 30 fps, but they look best when they run closer to 60 fps.)

Sure, those speeds are better then what you'll likely get from most integrated graphics setups, but that's not saying much.

What do game developers think of integrated graphics, which are largely the domain of chip-set giant Intel? Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney calls Intel "The bane of game developers," and notes that its products "are not acceptable for gaming today."

If you'd like to read about additional tests on boards using the GeForce 6200 with TurboCache, check out the reviews at Tom's Hardware and AnandTech. The review at Tom's hardware includes tests of an Intel 915-based system that uses Intel's GMA 900 graphics processor. On Tom's site there's also a useful (but frightening long) article called "How Much Graphics Power Does a PC Really Need?" by Lars Weinand.

Planning Ahead

Somebody will undoubtedly write me to point out that if you're looking to do graphics on the cheap, you're probably not on your umpteenth playthrough of Doom 3. This is undoubtedly true, and for some folks a TurboCache or HyperMemory-based board might provide just enough performance for today. But remember, today's high-end games are a peek at where mainstream computing and graphics requirements are going.

True, the next version of Intuit's Quicken may not tax your graphics card, but I guarantee you that the next version of Microsoft Windows will. PC World's Scott Spanbauer has looked at several early betas of the operating system, and in "Your Next OS: Windows 2006?" he notes that "Explorer's attractive displays of files and properties come courtesy of Longhorn's new graphics subsystem, code-named Avalon, which will hand much of its work to the PC's graphics subsystem."

Longhorn isn't due for some time (2006 at last check), but chances are if you're building a new PC or upgrading your current PCI Express-based computer now you'll still be using this machine when Microsoft gets around to launching its next, graphics-heavy OS. Wouldn't you hate it if your year-old PC didn't have the chops to run it?

I understand that not everyone is willing or able to buy a top-of-the-line $550 graphics card. In fact, I'm not willing to do that either; bragging rights just aren't worth it to me. But I do think anybody who cares about graphics in the least should spring for a midrange card.

Plunk down $200 for a conventional graphics card with at least 128MB of memory (and that 128-bit memory bus) and support for DirectX 9 and you will not be disappointed. My current favorites in this price range are cards based on NVidia's GeForce 6600 GT chip. Not only will you enjoy good performance today, but you'll also have enough juice to run tomorrow's apps.

Oh, and don't forget: Integrated graphics still suck.

Tom Mainelli isn't ashamed to admit that he's still running an ATI Radeon 9500 graphics card at home. Okay, maybe he's a little ashamed. Drop him a line.

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