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Battle of the graphics chips

It’s hard enough to stay current with a game, but try keeping up with video-card design. Oh, wait — you don’t have to. Here’s a cheat sheet for what’s on the bleeding edge.

In the wonderful world of computer gaming, nothing is more difficult than staying on the bleeding edge of video-card design. While microprocessors usually go through several “modest” speed bumps annually, it’s not unusual for numerous video card chipsets from competing developers to appear in any given year.

Moreover, selecting a video card is not nearly as cut-and-dried a process as the choice of a CPU. When deciding on a processor, it’s simply a matter of deciding between Intel or AMD, and then picking the chip that offers you the best value for your budget in terms of performance versus cost. With video cards, however, it’s not so straightforward.

For instance, as I write this, the two undisputed chipset leaders are ATI and nVIDIA. But choosing a video card isn’t simple. nVIDIA creates the chipsets and reference-board designs for its products, then leaves actual board manufacturing to partners like ASUS, Gainward, Leadtek, and MSI. ATI, however, works with partners like Giga-Byte, Hercules, TYAN, and Visiontek, and also manufactures cards itself. Add the fact that there are multiple video card chipsets–from high-performance to value-oriented–in each line, and making a wise choice becomes even more perplexing.

Fortunately, for the sake of this article, we’re only concerned with the newest high-end offerings from ATI and nVIDIA. The question, then, is “What’s the fastest video card that money can buy?” To find an answer, we’re going to look at both the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro and the nVIDIA GeForce FX 5800 Ultra and see if there’s a clear winner between these two sizzling silicon behemoths.

Before we start, remember that when comparing video cards, performance is king. But it’s not the only factor worth considering. Visual quality is also of critical importance as is overall design. And, of course, there’s price. In this case, both frontrunners carry similar MSRPs–around $400.

In the performance arena, ATI cooks the competition. nVIDIA’s delay in releasing its GeForce FX 5800 Ultra positioned it against ATI’s Radeon 9800 Pro rather than its “older” 9700 Pro. That was a huge blow to nVIDIA in this leg of the GPU race. Industry leaders have gone belly-up under similar circumstances. Anyone remember 3Dfx?

As for hardware specs, space prohibits me from getting into all the nitty-gritty details, but here are the basics on both cards. ATI’s Radeon 9800 Pro’s core clock cranks at 378MHz and its 128MB of 256-bit DDR SDRAM pumps along at 338MHz. Meanwhile, nVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5800 Ultra operates at 500MHz for both the core clock and the 128MB of 128-bit DDR-II SDRAM memory.

What do these performance tests mean? Glad you asked. Employing Futuremark’s new 3DMark03 gaming benchmarks, ATI’s Radeon 9800 Pro bests nVIDIA’s card in 3DMark scores by a slight 3.4 percent margin with antialiasing (AA) and anisotropic filtering (AF) disabled. With both visual tweaks enabled at the 4X setting, however, the margin widens considerably. With AA turned on, the ATI card exhibited a 20.5 percent improvement over nVIDIA. When AA and AF were both enabled, the 9800 Pro showed an increase over the FX 5800 Ultra of 22.2 percent. Note that the tests are indicative of performance on a Pentium 4 3.06GHz system with 512MB of RAM and a resolution of 1,600-by-1,200.

These are the actual results:

ATI Radeon 9800 Pro

— 3,194 (AA and AF Disabled)

— 1,649 (4X AA)

— 1,493 (4X AA and 4X AF)

nVIDIA GeForce FX 5800 Ultra

— 3,088 (AA and AF Disabled)

— 1,368 (4X AA)

— 1,222 (4X AA and 4X AF)

As the benchmarks show, ATI’s Radeon 9800 Pro outperforms nVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5800 Ultra. While I didn’t include the results here, similar improvements are exhibited in actual game frame-rate tests. So, from a performance-only standpoint, the ATI card is the clear victor, especially when visual effects are cranked up.

On the subject of visual quality, both cards are ready for the forthcoming onslaught of DirectX 9-enabled first-person shooters like “Doom III” and “Half-Life 2.” Visual excellence is virtually identical and no clear winner emerges in this regard. Of course, that could change depending on who puts the greatest effort into consistently updating their video drivers.

When it comes to design, the Radeon 9800 Pro is simply the better product. While the ATI card uses standard cooling technology and takes up a single PC slot, nVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5800 Ultra is a massive beast that requires the AGP slot as well as the adjoining PCI slot in order to accommodate its huge cooling apparatus. Furthermore, besides demanding extra PC real estate, the nVIDIA card is overly boisterous; its annoyingly loud operation is reminiscent of a leaf blower in action.

In summary, ATI’s fire-breathing Radeon 9800 Pro outperforms nVIDIA’s capable GeForce FX 5800 Ultra on all counts. Not significantly, mind you. But when you consider that the cards sport nearly identical price tags and that nVIDIA’s offering is significantly more noisy and slot-greedy than ATI’s, the balance tips decidedly in favor of the Radeon 9800 Pro.

Obviously, not everyone can afford to spend $400 on a video card; you could take home a pair of next-generation game consoles for that price. Is there an alternative for the budget-conscious? Yes, indeed. The release of the Radeon 9800 Pro has reduced the price of its predecessor. If you have $300 to pop for a new card, ATI’s Radeon 9700 Pro is the clear choice.

If you only have $200 to invest, the choice goes to ATI’s current Radeon 9500 Pro or, possibly, the new Radeon 9600 Pro. Alternately, if you need video-editing capabilities or simply want to hook your game console(s) to your PC monitor, the best choice is the ATI All-In-Wonder 9700 Pro (currently priced at $400) or the new All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro (when it ships). If you need a new card now and the bucks are especially tight, you should consider nVIDIA’s low-end GeForce FX 5200 or 5200 Ultra cards at approximately $100 and $150, respectively. The entry-level market is the only area where nVIDIA currently seems to be leading.

As I mentioned earlier, things are ever-changing in the video card arena. By the time you read this, ATI and nVIDIA should both be offering 256MB versions of their high-end barn-burners, unless nVIDIA scraps those plans and moves on to its next-generation NV35 core technology instead. Of course, you can expect to pay extra for the added dose of DDR memory. But that’s OK. Game performance is a priority and it’s just money, right? Right!

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