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Video Cards

Graphics adapters, or video cards, have been the central focus of the PC gaming industry ever since the first 3D accelerators came onto the market in the late 90’s.  As games made the transition from 2-D sprites to full 3-D maps and models, the increase in required computation went through the roof.  The original 3D accelerators were actually add-on cards that worked only in conjunction with a standard 2D card.  You’d connect the 2D card’s output to the input on the 3D accelerator, and the output from there would go to your monitor.  I remember purchasing my first voodoo2 3D accelerator by 3dfx.  The difference was like night and day for a demanding engine (at the time) like Quake II.

Today, the 3D video card market has changed substantially.  Both cards have been consolidated into a single card.  The market has been also consolidated into two rivals, much like the processor market.  Currently, Nvidia and ATI are the only to mainstream graphics card manufacturers.  While in previous years there was a big difference between the two, with their latest generation of cards the differences are minimal.

There are many factors that define a video card’s performance.  Modern cards are like mini-computers with their own Graphics Processing Unit (GPU).  Most cards also require a cooling solution to prevent thermal damage.  The clock speed of the GPU makes a big difference in its performance.  Higher end models will generally be ’overclocked’ versions of mainstream models with additional data pipelines.  Another specification is memory size.  Most cards are now 128 MB or 256 MB, with the latter being more expensive though the performance gain is negligible for most games.  I could ramble endlessly about pipelines, data bus bandwidth, and fill rates, but they’re all needless numbers unless you really want to pick a card that has superior stats.  The bottom line is, with both ATI’s Radeon X800 card and Nvidia’s GeForce 6800, the differences in performance and quality are so close that there’s no advantage.

My only advice here is to always aim for a card that’s close to the current top-of-the-line model but substantially cheaper.  You’ll find as you move down in the models the price will drop from $600 to $300 before you can say ’anisotropic filtering’. 

Speaking of which, many people are often confused about what anisotropic filtering and full-screen anti-aliening are.  These are your two main quality settings that can affect both quality and performance.  Higher levels of each will result in a great picture quality, but poorer performance.

Anti-aliasing (FSAA)

Full screen anti-aliasing (FSAA) is a standard feature on every new graphics card.  It’s a special computation that helps to eliminate jagged edges on 3D objects.  While it’s not necessarily noticeable for static images, it really comes to life when you start moving around.  High levels of FSAA will make distant objects appear to be smooth whereas low to no levels of FSAA will make them look jagged and rough.

Anisotropic Filtering

This is a complicated feature that generally relates to texture quality viewed at a distance and at an angle.  High levels of anisotropic filtering will allow players to view distant objects in focus without noticeable levels of blur or distortion.  There is a rather large performance drop using high AF so generally you should keep these settings towards the bottom end to save on performance.

Which to buy?

At this point in time it’s hard to say who has the better card.  Recent benchmarks pitting ATI and Nvidia’s high-end cards seem to indicate that the Radeon X800 XT is outperformed by the GeForce 6800 Ultra in almost every category.  However, those cards costs upwards of $600 and will always remain a niche card used by only a small percentage of the population.  In terms of their mainstream models, the standard X800 and GeForce 6800, the performance and quality settings are almost the same.  Considering that most gamers don’t even care how great the picture looks (the game content should be more appealing) you should always aim to have a card that simply performs well in terms of frames per second (fps, not to be confused with First Person Shooter).  Consult a benchmark online to see how well a specific card performs against a wide spread of popular games, and pick one that suits your price and performance category!