The mid range graphics card market has filled out significantly in recent months, and could now almost be described as overcrowded. The flurry of nVidia and ATI referenced designs in the £120 to £150 range is possibly more abundant than at any time in the PC’s history. For your average customer, it is also becoming increasingly confusing.
Now a few years back everything was very straightforward. The now defunct 3Dfx released chips such as the Voodoo 1, 2 and 3 and each progression was more powerful than the last. nVidia started out the same way too, with the TNT, TNT2, and GeForce 1, 2 and 3. But things started to go wrong with the GeForce 4, suddenly we were faced with a range of cards that, at one end of the scale were the most powerful in the industry’s history, and at the other, offered no more bang for your buck than an old GeForce 2
So to further muddy the mix in today’s market, we have the latest variation on the ATI design, the 9800SE. The 9800SE comes in two flavours, a more budget oriented card with 128bit memory architecture and a more expensive, more powerful offering with 256bit memory architecture. The 128bit version is similar to the PCB design of a Radeon 9500Pro, while the 256bit version is closer to the PCB of the Radeon 9700Pro.
Maybe now you can see my problem with the current labelling of graphics cards. More seriously, however, is that there is a significant power difference between the cards and with generic boxes regularly used, the customer can sometimes be unaware of what they’re actually getting.
This was the case with the card we received from PowerColor. We knew we were getting a 128bit card, even though the box itself referred to the card as 256bit. If this worries you, and it did worry us, you can check which card you are buying by looking at the card’s memory configuration. If it is aligned in an “I” shape you have the 128bit version, if the alignment is in an “L” shape you have the 256bit version. So at the end of the day, if the price of a so-called 256bit card appears too good to be true, it probably is.
So enough of the problems with the outside of the box, what’s inside? Well, the bundle is rather good. PowerColor includes a full copy of WinDVD4, a games pack including Splinter Cell, Warcraft 3, Big Mutha Truckers and the highlight, a boxed version of the latest in the Tomb Raider series, The Angel of Darkness. PowerColor has also included S-Video and composite cables, as well as a DVI converter.
Looking at the card itself, you will immediately spot there is no direct cooling provided for the memory chips, which is surprising, but at no time did I encounter any stability issues.