Budget Video Card Comparison - November 2000by Matthew Witheiler on November 27, 2000 3:20 AM EST
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Rather than produce new cores for each budget card on the market today, NVIDIA, 3dfx, and ATI have all chosen to make less costly versions of their upper end products. Essentially taking higher-cost parts and decreasing their complexity, companies are finally starting to produce the cutting edge, low cost chips necessary to power low cost video cards. This idea of taking a higher performing chip and "crippling" it to reduce cost is not so revolutionary: a very similar method is employed by Intel when differentiating their Celeron and Pentium III cores. In the case of Intel's chips, Coppermine cores that have "bad" cache blocks are designated as Celeron parts, while Coppermine cores with fully working 256K of cache are thus labeled Pentium III processors.
In a similar fashion, NVIDIA, 3dfx, and ATI have all found ways to lower the cost of the cards they produce. Each manufacturer utilizes different methods in order to decrease the cost, but the same result is achieved: a lower cost product. Although modifications of the graphics processor core differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, there is on constant in the current field of budget video cards: SDR memory.
As short as a year and a half ago, nearly every video card featured the same basic memory type. Sure, there were different types of this memory used, mainly SDRAM and SGRAM, but all of it shared the same common principal: they could only transfer data one time per clock cycle. The introduction of the GeForce 256 DDR changed all that.
NVIDIA's GeForce 256 DDR essentially revolutionized the graphics card industry. It is not that other manufacturers had not been working with double data rate memory, memory that can transfer data on both the rising and falling edges of a clock cycle, it is just that NVIDIA beat them to it.
Although the benefits that arose from using DDR memory were extensive, so were the costs. Even though we have gotten word time and time again that DDR memory only costs 3% to 5% more to manufacture than SDR memory, the price to consumers has been much greater. The memory manufacturers are able to sell DDR memory at such high prices simply due to the fact that card manufacturers are willing to pay it. Since in many cases the memory bus becomes a limiting factor before the actual processor does, switching from SDR memory to DDR memory (effectively doubling your memory bandwidth) usually results in massive performance gains. However, as we say again, at a price.
It is therefore no surprise that all the cards we will be examining today utilize cheaper SDR memory. And while you may have heard of budget cards coming with more powerful DDR memory, things may not be as they appear. More on that later, but for now, let's take a look at the cards that are currently considered the budget gamers best choice, an arena dominated by the same three powerhouses present in more expensive video card markets: 3dfx, ATI and NVIDIA.