3D graphics cards group test review

3D graphics card (AGP)
Photo of 3D graphics cards group test
£249

The Geforce 2 is the second generation of Nvidia’s famous GPU, logically enough, and the GTS stands for Giga-Texel Shading, which basically means the card can render over a billion texels (texture cells) per second. That’s fast, very fast.

And Creative is one of many companies to produce a card based on the GTS engine. It’s impressively spec’d, boasting 32MB of DDR RAM and four dual texture pipelines which produce the high performance figures.

Transform & Lighting along with Full Screen Anti-Aliasing are incorporated. The T&L engine has been improved from the original GeForce, so it’s even faster, and the smooth images that the GeForce 2′s FSAA provides are quite remarkable, particularly at higher resolutions.

Unfortunately that’s also where the frame rate falls due to FSAA. Without it, the 3D Blaster ran Quake III very nippily, as you would expect. At 1024 x 768 and above FSAA rendered the frame rate untenable, but on the lower resolutions it’s not a problem. Sadly it’s the higher resolutions where it really shines.

The Creative drivers that come bundled with the card gave us no problems, produced these impressive frame rates, and included a control panel called BlasterControl. This can be used to easily overclock the card (though caution is the order of the day here) and easily adjust Direct 3D and OpenGL graphics settings, like the quality of Mip-mapping you want to use, for example.

Also included by way of a software bundle is a game, Rage Rally. And that’s your lot – this is a serious gaming card for serious gamers. It provides excellent frame rates and good FSAA at lower resolutions, and was predictably the fastest card in the roundup. But you do pay a price for this performance.

Nvidia’s GeForce chips are the talk of the town these days thanks to their performance, but hushed whispers in the background somewhere also speak of their somewhat outrageous prices. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong but they’re hardly a wallet-friendly range…

Until now, that is. This card is based around a Geforce 2 MX processor, which is basically a cut down version of the Geforce 2. It runs at a slightly slower clock speed (175MHz instead of 200MHz) and it only has two rendering pipelines as opposed to the four that the real deal sports. The Prophet II MX is outfitted with 32MB of RAM, although it’s only SDR (single data rate) rather than the faster DDR (go on, guess…).

The fairly small card itself comes with no extra trimmings, with just a plain monitor output and no other features, and the bundle consists of the driver disk and a few games demos. Of course, to get the price of a GeForce powered card down to near a hundred quid, a lot of sacrifices are going to have to be made. So how does this MX chip actually perform?

The good news is, pretty impressively, but with a catch. It produced a very good score under 3DMark 2000, plus the Quake 3 frame rates actually edged out the Radeon, of all things! But, and it’s a big but, this was only true at the lower resolutions. Crank it up to 1024 x 768 (or, God help you, beyond that) and put the high quality details on, and the frame rate drops drastically.

Price-wise though, this is a great card. It has a good 3D graphics feature set (including T&L support), and as long as you don’t push it too hard it’s a great budget solution.

There’s one striking difference between this card and the others on review here. This isn’t an AGP card, but rather a PCI device. In other words, it’s aimed at those with older machines that don’t have an AGP slot.

And as you would expect, it’s not an expensive card, priced at the fifty quid mark. For the money you get a half-length PCI card powered by Nvidia’s 128 bit Vanta chip with 16MB of memory onboard. A big fan sits on top of the GPU and should keep it well cooled.

The package is minimal as with many of Pine’s budget PC card offerings; all you get is a CD with the drivers on and a small instruction pamphlet with the tech specs and very brief (and not too helpful!) installation instructions.

Technically speaking, for a PCI card the Vanta is reasonably well decked out. The 16MB of memory runs at 125MHz, the chip’s RAMDAC clocks at 250MHz and it does provide 32-bit colour graphics (including a 32-bit Z-Buffer).

Installation went without a hitch and when it came to testing the performance, we had some mixed results. The 3DMark 2000 test didn’t actually run properly in all the modes so it’s difficult to gauge the performance from that, although Quake III Arena ran without a hitch.

And at a very reasonable speed in normal, 640 x 480 mode, too. However, when the graphics were cranked up to high quality, the poor Vanta began to creak considerably, just about maintaining a semi-playable frame rate. When the resolution was boosted too, the whole house of cards fell down.

The Vanta can handle moderately detailed 3D pretty well; just don’t push it too far. It’s a sound budget solution for those still stuck in the PCI graphics world.

Certainly the biggest card in this round up, the Voodoo is much longer than the standard AGP graphics card. It also looks rather imposing, featuring two graphics processing units, with a fan resting on top of each. It certainly looks like a monster power-house of a card… but is it?

It has an undeniably impressive specification with the two graphics processors and 64MB of SDR RAM, plus it has very impressive support for Full Screen Anti-Aliasing.

A big bone of contention in the graphics card world has been whether the FSAA that the Voodoo cards offer is better than that of the GeForce 2. And to be honest, it is. Particularly at the higher resolutions, the Voodoo 5 is less prone to slowdown and produces a slightly smoother image (which, after all, is what this FSAA game is all about).

The Voodoo 5 5500 also offers a further feature that the Geforce 2 doesn’t; the T-buffer. This allows for all sorts of graphical trickery like realistic motion blur, focusing on foreground or background objects, along with more realistic shadows and reflections.

However, having sung its praises, the benchmarks for normal, non-FSAA operation tell another story. The Creative card clearly out-benches the Voodoo here. In fact the Radeon sneaked past the Voodoo on some of the Quake 3 benchmarks too, showing its power.

In terms of bundle, the card doesn’t come with much; just a few games demos. It seems like decent software/game bundles are very much a thing of the past!

It can’t be denied that the Voodoo 5 5500 produces a fantastic image quality with its FSAA rendering, and when games support the T-buffer technology it will look even better. With a commendable price tag as well, it would be a clear winner if only its ‘normal’ benchmark scores had come in a bit higher.

Choosing which graphics card is right for you comes down to how much you want to panic your bank manager, really. You can either go for a higher end card and splash out the two hundred plus notes, or think a little more sensibly.

For those willing to spend, the Creative, Radeon and Voodoo cards are the choices. If what you’re after is the fastest frame rates in 3D games, like Quake III Arena which was our benchmark game in this group test, then the best choice is the Creative Geforce 2 GTS.

It must be said that the Radeon is very much a force to be reckoned with though. It’s slightly cheaper and offers great all round performance, including frame rates that come close to the Creative card. If you’re not a total 3D shooter frame rate-counting nut it’s a better choice than the Creative board.

Finally, the Voodoo 5 5500 is capable of producing some fantastically clear 3D graphics using its FSAA, which is superior to Nvidia’s own in our opinion. It’s a shame that the frame rates let it slip a little. If you have a powerful system which can cope with running the FSAA then your games won’t look better with any other card.

While it may be a cut-down board, the 3D Prophet II MX is an excellent buy, and as long as you don’t push the resolution too high it handles things really well. For the money, this is a great upgrade for those who have an older, under-performing AGP graphics card. In terms of power per pound it’s the winner here.

For those still running PCI based video systems, the Pine Vanta card is certainly worth thinking about. It ran Quake III Arena well enough on our test system at 640 x 480 and it’s very cheaply priced. However, to run today’s cutting edge games at 800 x 600 or above, you’re really looking at a more serious, expensive upgrade.

“Graphics! Get your luvverly graphics ‘ere… going cheap; 32MB of gigatexel rendering pleasure, just ‘alf a donkey to you, madam…”

The world of graphics cards is as fast moving as the frame rates of the latest 3D games. Keeping pace with all the latest developments can be tricky, as new technologies and boards come out almost every quarter.

However, the market has been simplified recently in some respects, in that Nvidia’s dominance of the sector (particularly the top end) means that the choice is now primarily between Nvidia-powered cards and 3Dfx (which used to be the biggest force in 3D graphics accelerators).

These two may be the main players, but they aren’t the only choices, as you can see from our group test entrants. ATI also has a new high performance model out, plus Pine is represented with a budget offering for those still running PCI graphics in older motherboards.

We’ve benchmarked all the cards here and compared them in terms of features, price and technological capabilities. Of particular interest was Full Screen Anti-Aliasing, a new technology which smoothes out jagged edges in 3D graphics, giving the visuals an extra edge (or rather, taking it away) of realism.

We chose a mid-range Pentium III 450MHz system as our benchmark machine, as this can benefit from the high-end performance of cards like the GeForce2 GTS and also sits well with the lower end, budget boards.

So without further ado, click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

The results shown below are from our benchmark tests. The first graph shows the results from the 3DMark 2000 test (you can find out more about this very thorough benchmark here). Note that the Pine card failed to complete all the 3DMark 2000 tests, so a final, total benchmark score could not be recorded here.

3DMark 2000 performance results

The second graph, below, shows the results of our Quake III Arena test, in which we ran the game in various different resolutions and detail levels, recording the frame rate (the number of times the on-screen image is updated) each time.

Quake III Arena performance results

 Note: these tests were performed without independent verification by the 3DMark 2000 Licensor, and the Licensor makes no representations or warranties as to the result of the test. 3DMark is a trademark of Madonion.com Ltd. in the US and other countries.

Is it a graphics card or a washing powder? Much as the idea of a 32MB Persil and other such nonsense is an enticing one, we think the former. The Radeon (which we reviewed as a stand-alone product here) is ATI’s new champion card, which the company hopes will help it corner more of an increasingly Nvidia-dominated graphics market.

The hype for the Radeon was pretty impressive, and we’re pleased to report that it certainly isn’t a disappointing card. It looks relatively unassuming, being a standard length AGP card with just the one monitor output. There’s actually a fan on top of the GPU rather than just a heatsink, so that should help with cooling.

In terms of features it’s very impressive. Along with all the standard sort of malarkey that all 3D cards supports these days, the Radeon also turns its hand to hardware Transform and Lighting (or T&L) and S3 Texture compression, along with bump mapping and Full Screen Anti-Aliasing (or FSAA) which both go a long way to making a more realistic, smoothed out 3D image.

However, it must be said that the FSAA (which smoothes out an image’s jagged edges) comes at the price of a substantial frame rate hit, which will put all but the hardiest of ninja PC systems off their stride. Still, the option’s there should you prefer prettiness over speed.

Under our benchmarks, the 32MB DDR-powered Radeon acquitted itself with considerable aplomb. The 3DMark 2000 score was fairly strong and the Quake 3 benchmark produced some very solid figures, particularly in high quality, high resolution modes, where the frame rates didn’t dip by much at all.

With added video capture and a built-in TV tuner, the Radeon is a good all rounder which performed extremely well on the games side. In terms of speed it was up there with the fastest cards benched here, including the powerhouse Geforce 2 GTS. Be warned though; there are still some issues with the drivers, which are quite flaky with some games. Let’s hope newer versions of the drivers iron these problems out.

Company: Creative

Contact: 0118 9344744