iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Graphics Card Buyer's Guide

Version 1.2, 29.02.2008

GPUs, models, and vendors

Major GPU vendors

Today it's easy to choose a GPU vendor for a graphics card. In fact, there are only two major vendors in the market of discrete GPUs: NVIDIA and AMD (that manufactures cards under ATI's trademark). These two companies produce most GPUs for discrete graphics cards today, and you should only consider their products, when you choose a gaming graphics card.


Not long ago you could find rare graphics cards based on GPUs from other vendors, e.g., S3 Graphics, a division of VIA Technologies. They were not a global success and were sold mostly in the Chinese market. These products should only be considered from the historical point of view, although this vendor still designs modern GPUs and even announces new products from time to time (by the way, it plans to announce DirectX 10 GPUs this summer). Perhaps, the future will introduce the third major player to this market. But this will hardly happen before (and if) CPU and GPU are merged into a single device.

The most interesting graphics card series (at the time of publication) are ATI RADEON X2000 and NVIDIA GeForce 8. Top cards from these series offer ultimate performance and features, they are the first graphics cards in the market supporting DirectX 10. These solutions were too expensive in the beginning of the year, there were only High-End products. But now they are present in all market segments. Another important point - it's sometimes more expedient to buy an old High-End solution instead of a new Mid-End card. Even though a new card supports more features, the old solution may be faster in real games. Here is a good example: RADEON HD 2600 XT and RADEON X1950 PRO. The first card is a new product, so it seems to be a better choice, but X1950 PRO is faster and more expedient in most games.

The choice between ATI and NVIDIA is not simple. Each price range has its own leaders, so it's hard to point out the best vendor. Besides, each graphics card series has its pros and cons. For example, GeForce 7 does not support multisampling for FP16 buffers (e.g., it can't use AA simultaneously with HDR rendering). ATI offers traditionally slower performance in some OpenGL applications and the lack of texture fetch from vertex shaders, which is sometimes (rarely) used in games, for example in air combat simulators. In return, the latest ATI X1000 solutions evidently have more pixel shader power, which may have a positive effect on performance in modern games. And GeForce 8 offers unsurpassed quality of texture filtering and antialiasing. In general, there is difference, but it's sometimes implicit. You should choose graphics cards for your specific needs, based on PC hardware reviews.

Choosing a model

If you are not ready to pay any price for performance and prefer reasonable expenses, there is no point in pursuing High-End solutions. The best choice would be Mid-End (or Upper Mid-End) graphics cards, able to provide comfortable framerates and high-quality image in all modern games at decent, if not maximum, settings.

You can choose a model of the preferred price range based on information from our 3Digest/i3D-Speed and graphics card references. As the latter are too large, they are published as separate articles and updated regardless of this guide:

NVIDIA GeForce Reference

But since these references list only theoretical features of all existing modern graphics cards, it would be hard to draw final conclusions based on them. Still it's very convenient to make your choice based on the 3Digest (it has been recently renamed to i3D-Speed). This large monthly review sums up and compares graphics cards performance in the latest games and describes quality issues. It also provides necessary screenshot galleries and lists games bugs.

What's more important - 3Digest provides graphics card ratings, which show relative performance with price taken into account ("usability ratings"). According to ratings, you will be able to find the most expedient solution with the best price/performance/features ratio. Our recommendations on how to choose GPUs and cards using the 3Digest/i3D-Speed are published in the last part of this guide. We'll periodically update them to keep up with the rapidly changing market.

Choosing a vendor

AMD and NVIDIA do not sell ready graphics cards. That is done by their partners, including ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, Sapphire, Foxconn, BFG, Gainward, Leadtek, Chaintech, Palit, XFX, and many others. All of them, including smaller market players, manufacture and sell graphics cards based on GPUs from the two companies mentioned above. All these solutions have their pros and cons, important or not. Let's find out what you should pay attention to and what you may ignore, considering all the previous information on graphics cards.

In the past graphics cards used to have drawbacks because most vendors were designing and manufacturing cards on their own. Sometimes they made mistakes, so users had problems with stability, image quality, overheating, etc. Now that most graphics cards copy reference designs, most problems are gone. Now you can mostly stumble upon bad coolers or slower memory chips. But this usually happens in the Low-End and Lower Mid-End markets, being quite rare in the High-End world.

The absolute majority of High-End graphics cards (RADEON X1900XT - X1950XTX, GeForce 7800 GTX - 8800 GTX) are manufactured at certain plants by orders of AMD and NVIDIA. Their partners buy ready graphics cards and sell them under their trademarks. These companies sometimes change cooling systems, use their labels, complete bundles, etc. Even coolers are rarely modified on expensive cards - all vendors mostly offer identical products with different labels. Sometimes there are clock rates differences, if NVIDIA or AMD grant permission for overclocked modifications.


As you can see, these products differ only in cooler labels. And this is about all High-End products! In due time RADEON X800 and GeForce 6800 were the top - manufactured only by ATI and NVIDIA orders. All other companies just had to buy ready cards. Same with RADEON X1800 and GeForce 7800. And only when descend to Low-End, ATI and NVIDIA start selling GPUs to their partners, so that they can manufacture cards on their own. Of course, this does not happen with every solution. Some just disappear (like RADEON X1800 XT and GeForce 6800 Ultra), being replaced with newer models, and no vendors produce them on their own.

So, High-End cards are nearly identical. There is only a few improved models. But the situation with cheaper cards is more diverse. Low-End solutions, especially OEM ones (boxless, in anti-static bags) require special attention. In this case you are advised to read reviews on our web site and threads about certain graphics cards in our forum. You should pay special attention to installed memory, if it's not covered by heat sinks. That's where budget solution vendors often try to save money. However, you can rarely come across cards with memory that is faster than necessary.

Even though all top graphics cards are identical and are manufactured at the same fabs from the same components under control of GPU vendors, some of them still have increased clock rates. Such products are just tested by graphics card vendors in their laboratories after they are bought from GPU vendors. Labs select graphics cards that can operate at increased clock rates. Graphics cards that failed tests are used as regular products with standard clock rates, while selected cards are sold under a different name.

It's actually impossible to advise you a certain vendor, because much depends on a given graphics card. We can only give basic recommendations. You should buy retail products, because OEM ones may differ from official specifications by reduced clock rates, etc. - this often happens with cheaper graphics cards. On the other hand, it's also wrong to blindly distrust OEM products. Some of them are quite decent and have reference features at lower prices.

You shouldn't buy the first product you see. Before you buy a card, you should study its reviews (e.g. on our web site), and see how it looks along with its bundle. Thus you will be sure you'll get what you want. Special attention should be paid to features listed on the box. Vendors often provide model names, modifications, clock rates, and other technical specifications mentioned in this guide.

Speaking of those almost identical expensive graphics cards (Upper Mid-End and High-End) manufactured at the same fab, it's preferable to choose solutions with improved non-reference cooling systems, because they are often better in terms of efficiency and noise. In other respects, you should be guided by price, bundle, and warranty in the first place.

Here you can find reviews of graphics cards from all vendors:
AMD(ATI) based graphics cards
NVIDIA based graphics cards

Next: Implicit peculiarities of choice

Alexei Berillo aka SomeBody Else (sbe@ixbt.com)

April 8, 2008

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