The trouble with mid-range graphics cards - they're not mid-range

Summary:We all know that if you want power, you have to pay for it. The more you pay, the more performance you have at your disposal. Most people can’t push the boat out far enough to experience the apotheosis of a couple of HD 2900XTs or 8800GTXs and have to settle for something a little more, well, sensible. The problem is, graphics cards makers have rigged the system so that the term “mid-range” means virtually obsolete.

We all know that if you want power, you have to pay for it.  The more you pay, the more performance you have at your disposal.  Most people can’t push the boat out far enough to experience the apotheosis of a couple of HD 2900XTs or 8800GTXs and have to settle for something a little more, well, sensible.  The problem is, graphics cards makers have rigged the system so that the term “mid-range” means virtually obsolete.

If you’re in the market for a mid-range graphics card you’re going to be looking at cards that either have a Radeon HD 2400 or 2600-series GPU or a GeForce 8600-series GPU.  On paper, these DirectX 10 graphic cards offers stacks of performance and compare well to their higher-powered counterparts.  In reality, things are far from clear cut.

Consider the ATI Radeon HD 2600XT.  This GPU is based on the same unified shader architecture as that of the high-end HD 2900XT.  The advantage of the unified shader is that it is supposed to be far more efficient than the discrete shader architecture because you don’t have separate pixel and vertex shaders.  According to the specs released by ATI, the HD 2600XT has a third of the pixel processing power of the HD 2900XT, things are far from clear cut.  Sure, the HD 2600XT has roughly a third of the stream processors of the HD 2900XT (120 verses 320) and a third of the memory bandwidth (35.2GB/sec compared to 106GB/sec), the HD 2600XT is crippled when it comes to ROPs (Raster Operations Pipeline), having only 4 ROPs as opposed to the 16 that the HD 2900XT has.  No matter how much processing power a GPU has, without enough ROPs to output those pixels to the screen, the power is wasted.

Because of this shortage of ROPs, the HD 2600XT is fundamentally crippled, and to the point of being easily noticeable.  While the HD 2600XT delivers pretty good performance at lower resolutions (1024x768), at higher resolutions the performance is inexcusably appalling and it can be out-paced by cards such as the X1650XT.  DirectX 10 performance is equally abysmal.  DirectX 10 support is no guarantee of decent DirectX performance. 

Things are no better for NVIDIA – the 8600GTs performance is equally dreadful. 

This void when it comes to mid-range graphics cards is a problem.  Choose any other component that goes into the making of a PC – CPU, motherboard, hard drive, RAM, PSU, optical drive – and you’ll find a component capable of delivering mid-range performance at a mid-range price, but try to apply the same thinking to graphics card and you end up paying mid-range price for crippled hardware that delivers disappointing performance. 

It’s time for ATI and NVIDIA to start delivering better value for money.

Thoughts?

Topics: Hardware, Processors

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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