Sometimes it's easy to get lost in the high performance market. With games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion capable of bringing even the highest powered desktop systems to their knees, the desire to see just how beautiful we can render a game is quite strong. For professional gamers, it isn't about the attention to detail, but the rendering speed. Everyone who is the least bit interested in realtime 3D graphics can easily get excited about what the latest and greatest hardware can do for their favorite games and simulations.

But the vast majority of us can't afford to drop over $1000USD on graphics hardware. Instead, we must approach our love for graphics in one of two ways. Either we need to determine the minimum level of graphical quality we are comfortable having, or we must look for the fastest card we can afford within a certain price range. What ever perspective one might have, the end result usually ends up somewhere near the topic of this article: midrange graphics cards.

The current landscape of $200 - $300 graphics cards is quite well suited to the enthusiast who wants good performance and quality for a reasonable amount of money. As such, we will be taking a look at this market segment as it stands. This really does seem to be the sweet spot in terms of bang for the buck right now. We won't be able to run Oblivion with all the options enabled, but all the games we test will look good and play well. We won't be surprised to see a few more entries into this market before the end of the year, but we are certainly over due for a good hard look at anything but the high end.

Over the past year, we've seen the 6600 GT fall in relative performance from one of the greatest midrange cards we've seen to something more like a minimum requirement for passable graphics. Likewise, the modder's darling X800 GTO is starting to struggle to various degrees (depending on how far any given card could be pushed). These two cards (among others) are included in our test as references.

This week we did run into a little bit of a snag in our testing for this article: the price of the ATI X1900 series dropped quite a bit. Not only did the price drop for the X1900 GT end up adding quite a bit of value to the card, but the X1900 XT dropped low enough in price to put it in competition with the 7900 GT at just over $300. This week has been spent testing more cards and a few extra senarios in order to cover all the bases and truly find out what cards are the best to buy in the mid range market segment. With a variety of overclocked NVIDIA cards available and price cuts on many ATI parts, things just got a whole lot more complicated. As the high end desktop graphics market used to top out at $300, we understand that even a mid range graphics card is still a significant investment for most people. It's important to be armed with the best and latest information when making purchasing descisions in such fast paced, high tech markets.

We hope to shake out the best options in the current line up as well as help those looking to upgrade from a previous generation of midrange graphics see how their card stacks up. Let's take a look at the cards we have included and why.

The Contenders
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  • Sharky974 - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    I tried comparing numbers for SCCT, FEAR and X3, the problem is Anand didn't bench any of these with AA in this mid-range test, and other sites all use 4XAA as default. So in other words no direct numbers comparison on those three games at least with those two Xbit/FS articles is possible.

    Although the settings are different, both FS and Anand showed FEAR as a tossup, though.

    It does appear other sites are confirming Anand's results more than I thought though.

    And the X1900GT for $230 is a kickass card.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    The real problem is that virtually every level of a game can offer higher/lower performance relative to the average, and you also get levels that use effects that work better on ATI or NV hardware. Some people like to make a point about providing "real world" gaming benchmarks, but the simple fact of the matter is that any benchmark is inherently different from actually sitting down and playing a game - unless you happen to be playing the exact segment benchmarked, or perhaps the extremely rare game where performance is nearly identical throughout the entire game. (I'm not even sure what an example of that would be - Pacman?)

    Stock clockspeed 7900GT cards are almost uncommon these days, since the cards are so easy to overclock. Standard clocks are actually supposed to be 450/1360 IIRC, and most cards are at least slightly overclocked in one or both areas. Throw in all the variables, plus things like whether or not antialiasing is enabled, and it becomes difficult to compare articles between any two sources. I tend to think of it as providing various snapshots of performance, as no one site can provide everything. So if we determine X1900 GT is a bit faster overall than 7900 GT and another site determines the reverse, the truth is that the cards are very similar, with some games doing better on one architecture and other games on the other arch.

    My last thought is that it's important to look at where each GPU manages to excel. If for example (and I'm just pulling numbers out of the hat rather than referring to any particular benchmarks) the 7900 GT is 20% faster in Half-Life 2 but the X1900 GT still manages frame rates of over 100 FPS, but then the X1900 GT is faster in Oblivion by 20% and frame rates are closer to 40 FPS, I would definitely wait to Oblivion figures as being more important. Especially if you run on LCDs, super high frame rates become virtually meaningless. If you can average well over 60 frames per second, I would strongly recommend enabling VSYNC on any LCD. Of course, down the road we are guaranteed to encounter games that require more GPU power, but predicting what game engine is most representative of the future requires a far better crystal ball than what we have available.

    For what it's worth, I would still personally purchase an overclocked 7900 GT over an X1900 GT for a few reasons, provided the price difference isn't more than ~$20. First, SLI is a real possibility, whereas CrossFire with an X1900 GT is not (as far as I know). Second, I simply prefer NVIDIA's drivers -- the old-style, not the new "Vista compatible" design. Third, I find that NVIDIA always seems to do a bit better on brand new games, while ATI seems to need a patch or a new driver release to address performance issues -- not always, but at least that's my general impression; I'm sure there are exceptions to this statement. ATI cards are still good, and at the current price points it's definitely hard to pick a clear winner. Plus you have stuff like the reduced prices on X1800 cards, and in another month or so we will likely have new hardware in all of the price points. It's a never ending rat race, and as always people should upgrade only when they find that the current level of performance they had is unacceptable from their perspective.
    Reply
  • arturnowp - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    I think another advantage of 7900GT over X1900GT is power consumption. I'm not checking numbers of this matter so I am not 100% sure. Reply
  • coldpower27 - Saturday, August 12, 2006 - link


    Yes, this is completely true, going by Xbitlab's numbers.

    Stock 7900 GT: 48W
    eVGA SC 7900 GT: 54W
    Stock X1900 GT: 75W
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    Speech-recognition + lack of proofing = lots of typos

    "... out of a hat..."
    "I would definitely weight..."
    "... level of performance they have is..."

    Okay, so there were only three typos that I saw, but I was feeling anal retentive.
    Reply
  • Sharky974 - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    Not too beat this to death, but at FS the X1900GT vs 7900GT benchmarks

    X1900GT:

    Wins-BF2, Call of Duty 2 (barely)

    Loses-Quake 4, Lock On Modern Air Combat, FEAR (barely),

    Toss ups- Oblivion (FS runs two benches, foliage/mountains, the cards split them) Far Cry w/HDR (X1900 takes two lower res benches, 7900 GT takes two higher res benches)

    At Xbit's X1900 gt vs 7900 gt conclusion


    "The Radeon X1900 GT generally provides a high enough performance in today’s games. However, it is only in 4 tests out of 19 that it enjoyed a confident victory over its market opponent and in 4 tests more equals the performance of the GeForce 7900 GT. These 8 tests are Battlefield 2, Far Cry (except in the HDR mode), Half-Life 2, TES IV: Oblivion, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, X3: Reunion and both 3DMarks. As you see, Half-Life 2 is the only game in the list that doesn’t use mathematics-heavy shaders. In other cases the new solution from ATI was hamstringed by its having too few texture-mapping units as we’ve repeatedly said throughout this review."

    Xbit review: http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/video/display/pow...">http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/video/display/pow...
    Reply
  • Geraldo8022 - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    I wish you would do a similar article concerning the video cards for HDTV and HDCP. It is very confusing. Even though certain crds might state they are HDCP, it is not enabled. Reply
  • tjpark1111 - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    the X1800XT is only $200 shipped, why not include that card? if the X1900GT outperforms it, then ignore my comment(been out of the game for a while) Reply
  • LumbergTech - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    so you want to test the cheaper gpu's for those who dont want to spend quite as much..ok..well why are you using the cpu you chose then? that isnt exactly in the affordable segement for the average pc user at this point Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    Did you even bother reading the article, or did you just skim through it and look at the graphs and conclusion? May I suggest you read page 3 of the review, or in case that is too much trouble, read the relevant excerpt-

    quote:

    With the recent launch of Intel's Core 2 Duo, affordable CPU power isn't much of an object. While the midrange GPUs we will be testing will more than likely be paired with a midrange CPU, we will be testing with high end hardware. Yes, this is a point of much contention, as has always been the case. The arguments on both sides of the aisle have valid points, and there are places for system level reviews and component level reviews. The major factor is that the reviewer and readers must be very careful to understand what the tests are really testing and what the numbers mean.

    For this article, one of the major goals is to determine which midrange cards offers the best quality and performance for the money at stock clock speeds at this point in time. If we test with a well aged 2.8GHz Netburst era Celeron CPU, much of our testing would show every card performing the same until games got very graphics limited. Of course, it would be nice to know how a graphics card would perform in a common midrange PC, but this doesn't always help us get to the bottom of the value of a card.

    For instance, if we are faced with 2 midrange graphics cards which cost the same and perform nearly the same on a midrange CPU, does it really matter which one we recommend? In our minds, it absolutely does matter. Value doesn't end with what performance the average person will get from the card when they plug it into a system. What if the user wants to upgrade to a faster CPU before the next GPU upgrade? What about reselling the card when it's time to buy something faster? We feel that it is necessary to test with high end platforms in order to offer the most complete analysis of which graphics solutions are actually the best in their class. As this is our goal, our test system reflects the latest in high end performance.
    Reply

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