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Putting the Vroom in Gaming – The Latest Video Card Chipsets

Putting the Vroom in Gaming – The Latest Video Card Chipsets

If your idea of fun is sitting down at the PC for a head to head deathmatch with Quake III Arena, your video card could be the difference between getting to the next level and staring at "Game Over".

While the number of video card chipset makers has been shrinking in recent years because of mergers and the rise of integrated motherboard chipsets that include video, development of high-performance video chipsets continues. The major players left in the field include ATI, nVidia, and Matrox.

NVidia is the last major survivor of the once-thriving OEM chipset business; nVidia makes no video cards for either the retail or OEM video card business, but provides chipsets to a huge number of video card makers, including CardExpert, Creative Labs, Elsa, Guillemot (Hercules), VisionTek and many others, including many of the popular Taiwan-based motherboard/peripheral makers. NVidia products are also used in major desktop and notebook computers. ATI makes both chipsets for use in desktop and notebook computers and its own ATI-branded and OEM video card products. The third major videocard player, Matrox, is emphasizing business graphics (2D), dual-monitor and desktop video features in its latest product, the Millennium G450; while it also works with 3D software, its performance is nowhere near the nVidia/ATI products.

One name is conspicuous by its absence: 3dfx. The one-time graphics powerhouse sold its technology to nVidia in December 2000 and closed its doors. If you own a Voodoo 3, 4, or Voodoo 5-series card made by 3dfx, you can still download drivers from www.windrivers.com. Users of older 3dfx-chipset cards made by various OEMs can also download drivers from the card manufacturers' websites, but 3dfx's long line of graphics cards and chipsets may be history; while some of 3dfx's technology improvements may be retained, ongoing driver support for current and past products appears unlikely.

ATI's newest video card chipset is the ATI RADEON; it's left the long-time ATI Mach series of chipsets behind in more ways than just the name. While previous ATI Mach-series videocards provided excellent 2D acceleration, they usually lagged behind the leaders in 3D acceleration, which is the most significant feature for today's games. The ATI RADEON provides both excellent 2D and 3D performance with hardware T & L (transform and lighting) and other advanced 3D features. The RADEON products are available in 32MB or 64MB DDR SDRAM or a 32MB SDRAM version. The 32MB SDRAM version is the only version available as both a PCI or AGP 2x/4x card; all DDR SDRAM versions are available as AGP2x/4x only. All desktop RADEON cards use the same chipset, but differ in memory size, speed, and other onboard features.

ATI also makes the new Mobility RADEON for notebook computers; however, the Mobility RADEON leaves out features such as hardware T&L and the second rendering pipeline to reduce power and space requirements.

NVidia's approach to 3D acceleration uses a "family" approach in keeping with the diverse needs of card and system OEMs. The GeForce 2 comes in four desktop "flavors":

  • GeForce 2 MX

  • GeForce 2 GTS

  • GeForce 2 Pro

  • GeForce 2 Ultra

There is also a mobile version, the GeForce 2 Go, designed to bring high-performance 3D graphics to notebook computer users.

All GeForce 2 desktop chipsets support second-generation 3D features such as T&L and per-pixel shading, AGP 4x, and support digital and analog VGA displays; all use DDR SDRAM.

The GeForce 2 MX also supports dual monitor displays; depending upon the board, the user can combine analog VGA CRTs, digital flat panels, and TVs. The GeForce 2 MX also features enhanced image sharpness on both CRT and flat-panel LCD displays and supports the PCI bus. However, it uses a slower 64-bit memory bus, while other members of the GeForce 2 use a 128-bit memory bus. This chipset is suitable for 3D gameplay on a budget, but other members of the family should be the choice if you're a serious gamer.

The GeForce 2 GTS runs about 1/3 faster than the GeForce MX. It also supports the PCI bus. It uses 32MB of 333MHZ DDR SDRAM.

The GeForce 2 Pro is similar to the GeForce 2 GTS, but supports 20% more bandwidth.

The GeForce 2 Ultra is the top-end member of the GeForce 2 family, and performs at up to double the speed of the GeForce 2 GTS. It is available for AGP bus only and uses 64MB of fast 460MHz DDR SDRAM.

All GeForce 2-family chipsets use the same nVidia drivers, making upgrades to a faster card easy.

Because nVidia doesn't make video cards, but only makes chipsets, you can purchase cards using the same nVidia chipset from a variety of vendors. To make the best choice among cards using the same chipset, look for active heatsinks, good software bundles, and faster memory to make overclocking easier.

Whose chipsets are better? Reviewers are divided on the "who's better" question, but both nVidia and ATI's current 3D chipsets are great performers. Many regard the GeForce 2 technology as something based on raw power, while the RADEON achieves its success through efficient design (particularly when making use of Direct X 8 specific features). We suggest looking at your budget, your balance of 3D gaming vs 2D business graphics, whether or not you need analog/digital or dual-monitor support and whether you are installing an AGP or a PCI card. While the very expensive GeForce 2 Ultra has performance unexcelled by any ATI board, ATI's RADEON offerings compete very nicely with the other members of the nVidia family and at very competitive pricing.

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