Introduction

Figuring out what sort of computer hardware to get for your next upgrade can be a tricky task, and if you are looking to get something for someone else it can be even more difficult. Some components have universal application, in that no matter what you will do with the computer they can improve performance. For most components, however, individual usage patterns will dictate how much benefit you will get from an upgrade. Processors, displays, and memory typically fall into the "universal upgrade" category; meanwhile hard drives, graphics cards, power supplies, cases, and other accessories may or may not help performance.

Today we will be taking a look at graphics card upgrades, so before we even get to the recommendations the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether or not you really need a faster graphics card. There are basically three areas that can benefit from having a better graphics card, with the fourth on the way in the near future. Starting with the future, you have Windows Vista, which will require a DirectX 9 capable graphics card at minimum in order to enable the Aero Glass user interface. Vista is scheduled to launch in the very near future, and we will take a closer look at the performance requirements in a separate article. Of the other three areas, one that we won't pay attention to here is the use of graphics cards for professional applications, simply because that is beyond the scope of this article. The remaining two areas of potential interest are video decoding/acceleration and computer gaming.

Video decoding support involves several things. First, you have performance oriented improvements - can the GPU reduce the CPU load during video playback? Second, you have the quality aspects - does the GPU make the resulting video output look better? Finally, video aficionados will definitely want to worry about HDCP support, not just for their graphics card but also for their display. We recently took a look at several of these areas in our HDCP Roundup and the HDCP H.264 decoding articles, while in the past we have looked at quality comparisons between NVIDIA's PureVideo and ATI's AVIVO. We will be taking a closer look at comparing the quality and performance of HDCP enabled graphics cards again in the near future, but for now we refer interested readers to the referenced articles.

We do need to insert one word of caution for people considering any new graphics card with the intention of using it for viewing HDCP content. If you have a display that requires a dual-link DVI connection, you're going to run into some problems. Basically, HDCP was architected to only support single-link connections, so you are going to be limited to viewing content at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080. What's worse is that as we understand it, HDCP is not supported over a dual-link connection at all, so if you have something like a 30" LCD and you want to view HDCP content, you will need to use a single-link cable. Welcome to the bleeding edge....

That leaves the final category and the one that the majority of people are most interested in: gaming performance. That is not to say that everyone worries about gaming performance, but rather that anyone who is seriously looking at a faster graphics card is likely to be doing so more for gaming than for anything else. If you don't play games, there is a very good chance that you don't need to worry about getting a faster graphics chip into your computer right now. End of story. Windows Vista and video decoding support might make a few more people look at graphics card upgrades, but for this Holiday Shopping Guide we will focus primarily on gaming performance.

As with our recent Holiday CPU Guide, we have quite a few price segments to cover, ranging from Ultra Budget GPUs through Extreme Performance GPUs. We also have to worry about multiple GPU combinations courtesy of CrossFire and SLI. With numerous overlapping products from both ATI and NVIDIA, it is important to remember that we will be classifying products based off of price rather than on performance, so in some cases we will have less expensive graphics cards that can outperform more expensive models. Finally, let's not forget that there are still a few AGP users hanging around, so we will mention those products were appropriate.

Integrated Graphics Solutions
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  • justly - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    I apoligize for straying from the video topic, but I really get annoyed at the all to often trash talk about VIA and SiS chipsets.

    I understand that this is a GPU article so I can see Anandtech not recommending SiS or VIA integrated graphics based on their lack luster video capabilities. My question (or maybe I should call it a complaint) is how can Anandtech claim SiS and VIA boards are not stable or reliable? The last reviw (that I can remember) of a SiS based board was over a year ago, even then I dont think it was a production board. Coverage of VIA based boards isn't much better but at least Anandtech does give VIA some budget coverage.

    I can fully understand if Anandtech doesn't want to recommend VIA or SiS to their enthusiast crowd due to poor overclocking, or being "a bit more quirky" as your article states.
    I'm not going to read all the way through old articles just to try and figure out what these stability and reliability issues mighy be (mainly because most of the articles are so old that a BIOS update could easily have made any stability issues invalid). Well I lied a little, I did briefly look through the VIA board articles within the last year and found no stability issues at stock settings. In fact, the only stability issues I saw mentioned in an article happened when "we tried to exceed the SPD settings of our DDR memory modules" but the next line reads "We did not experience these same issues with our DDR2 memory modules" (and that article is 1 week shy of 9 months old).

    I hope Anandtech decides to either stop repeating these claims of unstable, unreliable and quirky boards based on VIA & SiS or start reviewing these boards and show its readers why they deserve these remarks.
    Then again if the only thing we as readers get from reviews of these chipsets/boards is complaints about how budget boards are not able to overclock, or the lack of a tweakable BIOS in a sub $60 board then blame the board not the chipset as most people are already aware that budget boards are like this reguardless of what chipset they use.



    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    I know of at least one attempted SiS board review in the past year that was canned because our reviewer could not get the board to function properly (after several BIOS updates and two boards, IIRC). Motherboards (and chipsets) are such an integral part of any computer that I would never skimp in that area. Then again, maybe I'm just too demanding of my computers?

    If you read user reviews of VIA/SiS boards you typically see a pattern that indicates the boards are overall "less reliable" - periodic instabilities and far higher failure rates. Some people report no problems and love the low prices, while others try to do a bit more with their systems and encounter difficulties.

    If you just want to use a computer for office tasks, just about any system will be fine... but then again, if you're doing office work and your computer crashes, you probably won't be too happy. Anyone planning on running a higher-spec GPU should avoid cheaper motherboards IMO, as running a $300+ GPU in a <$75 board is just asking for problems. (For the same reason, I recommend $75+ PSUs for anyone running a CPU+GPU that cost more than $400 combined.)

    Basically, I just can't recommend a questionable motherboard that saves a person $10-$20. The fact that the companies aren't out there promoting their products says something. If they're not proud enough of their work to try hard to get reviews at reputable sites, perhaps it's because they know their boards won't pass muster.

    I actually had a company representative complain to me once about my stress tests being "unrealistic". He asked, "How many people actually try to run Folding@Home and a bunch of gaming benchmarks in sequence?" Basically, the system would crash if I used my script to benchmark games at various resolutions without rebooting in between each run. It's true that a lot of people might never stress a system to that level, but when I've looked at dozens of computers that handle that workload without problems, a system that crashes/locks in the same situation is clearly not as "stable or reliable" as competing solutions. All things being equal, I would recommend a different PC at the same price.

    That's basically how I see the VIA/SiS situation. $10 is about 100 miles of driving, a trip to most restaurants, a two hour movie.... It's not worth the risk just to save $10. If it is, maybe a new computer isn't what you really need; a used PC would probably be just as good and likely a lot cheaper (and possibly faster as well).
    Reply
  • justly - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    I agree with most of what you say, no one wants a system that crashs.
    One thing I do notice though, is that most of your arguments can be atributed to low priced boards, yet the comments I find annoying are the generalizations about chipsets. Do you actually believe a $50 nvidia based board is significantly more stable or reliable than any other chipset? and if you do, couldn't this just be a side effect of being a more popular chipset thus less work programming a bios? I'm sure this isn't what you meant, but going by your comments about motherboard pricing, if I found a $100 SiS based board it should be more stable and reliable than a $50 nvidia board.

    You also want me to read "user reviews"? this doesn't sound like a good way to judge reliability to me. Most user reviews are either in enthusiast fourms like the ones you have here, these usually only rewiew overclocking abilities, or on retail sites like Newegg, and to be honest most of the bad reviews I see there look more like PEBKAC.

    You really haven't cleared up why VIA or SiS chipsets should be considered unreliable or unstable, although your dislike of budget boards is quite evedent.

    I'm not trying to deny you your opinion, I'm just asking that you refrain from singling out specific chipsets if what you are really having a problem with is all budget boards, if there actually is a chipset specific problem please try to get a review published indicating what the problem is.

    BTW if the board that wouldn't function, and had the review canned was a production board I feel sorry for the person that bought it without a proper warning from a review site that knew it was flawed (you don't want to know what I think of the review site that would let this happen).
    Knowing what to expect from a product can help a budget builder as much as it can help an overclocker.
    Reply
  • Sunrise089 - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    I tend to view guids like these through the eyes of my own system, and having a 7900GT at 500/1500, there is little reason to upgrade if I'm going to continue to play games at 1280x1024. However, 22" (widescreen) LCDs have also become a lot cheaper, and with my poor eyes, the 1650x1050 or so resolution will probably work pretty well. That leads me to the great situation I'm apparently in - it looks like my card will fetch around $200 if I sell it, and I have the option of either a perhaps slightly faster X1950pro for $199, basically making it a free change but only slightly faster, or a X1950XT 256meg for only $249. That's a lot of additional card for only $50, and pretty tempting. I cannot see why the $249 part doesn't get the nod for your pick over the 7950GT though. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    Despite the fact that they are separated by quite a few cards in the table, the X1950 XT 256MB and the 7950 GT give relatively similar performance. The XT is probably 10-15% faster depending on game, but that's not really enough to mean the difference between one resolution and another in my opinion. You also get 512MB of RAM with the 7950GT, and it tends to overclock better than the XT resulting in performance that is basically equal.

    However, you're right that it is still worth considering, and so I added it to the final table. This is particularly true for people that don't like NVIDIA hardware for whatever reason - just as the 7950GT is worth considering for people that don't like ATI's drivers. Honestly, I'm still unhappy with ATI's drivers overall; they NEED TO DITCH .NET! What's next, writing low level drivers in C# or Jaba (that's big, fat, slow Java for the uninformed)? I know the .NET stuff is just for the UI, but it still blows, and I get about a 45 second delay after Windows loads while the ATI driver starts up. If I weren't running CrossFire, I might not have as many issues with ATI's drivers, though.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    As a side note, Neverwinter Nights 2 appears to require/use .NET 2.0, and for those who have played the game that probably explains a lot of the performance issues. I'm not sure if CrossFire/SLI support is working yet, but I do know that my CrossFire X1900 XT config can't handle running with antialiasing, and/or water reflections/refractions at resolutions above 1280x1024. Seems decent without the AA and water stuff at 1920x1200 with the latest drivers and patch, though. Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    Something seems to be missing from this part of the last paragraph on page 8.

    quote:

    As another example, we wouldn't recommend upgrading from a GeForce 6800 GT to a GeForce 7600 GT, because even though the latter is faster fair so fundamentally similar in terms of performance.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    Weird speech recognition there, I guess. I'm pretty sure it was supposed to be "they are" instead of "fair so"... but I can't honestly remember if that's what I said or not. LOL Reply
  • gerf - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    quote:

    (which is preferred for LCDs were possible)
    On the second page, were should be "where."

    BTW, good article. Laptop integrated's good enough for me though (ex-gamer).
    Reply
  • Noya - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    Chart of best values jumps from about $100 w/rebate to $200+, while a highly overclockable 7900gs can be had for $145 after rebate (about $35 over a 7600GT). Reply

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