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

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.

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TOPICS: Hardware, Processors
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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

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12 comments
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  • Buy an older top-end card...

    - Just before the 8800 was released (it delivered as my card was being shipped), the 7600 (I think) was the "mid-range" card from nVidia, and a 7600GS (or whatever the mid-level letters are) was about $230.
    - Instead I got a top-of-the-line older 6600XT for $100. Twice the pixel engines, three times the memory BW ... everything across the board simply blew the newer card away. I've been perfectly happy with how well it works.
    - I wouldn't be surprised if this still applies. Take one step back, get top end for that line, and get better performance than "mid range" for the "high end" card.
    - Can't address ATI ... stopped buying them years ago because they wouldn't support Linux. Might have to change that tune (grin)...
    knowbody
  • Ability to use the card.

    Putting on a high performance card on a pc that can't make it work is a waste of money. Just as operating systems can be associated with hardware requirements, anyone discussing the right card to buy should mention the minimum specs for the machine on which it's expected to run.

    Agreed?

    I suspect that it'll turn out that a midrange card is sufficient for most computers in use. With some discussion about whether cheap does as much on everything but games.

    But facts would help.
    Anton Philidor
    • Mid Range/High End Only for Games

      Mid range and high end cards only benefit games. A modern low end card is sufficient for just about every task other than gaming.

      Also, with most games, the graphics card is the bottle neck, not the processor. So a mid-range processor, 2GB of RAM, and the best graphics card you can afford is the best bet for gamers.

      For facts see:
      http://www.tomshardware.com/2007/07/24/hd_2600_and_geforce_8600/
      and
      http://www.tomshardware.com/2007/09/05/the_best_gaming_video_cards_for_the_money/index.html
      t_mohajir
      • Agreed

        I have to agree with you on this. It is better to have a mid range cpu and a higher end graphics card for a gamer than the other way around. In most cases, the GPU will more than make up for the cpu when it comes to a good gaming experience.
        soonerproud
      • ... and screensavers?

        Some screensavers have elaborate enough graphics that the card provides a benefit. But there are limits to the possible benefit, even for the most discerning.

        An observation that a card improves some games and not others may mean that screensavers will run better as a result of using the card.

        Better referring to cheap cards, not inadequate onboard graphics.
        Anton Philidor
  • RE: The trouble with mid-range graphics cards - they're not mid-range

    This is precisely why I skipped buying this current generation of mid ranged cards from both Nvidia and ATI. The 7600 GT still performs on par with these cards so it was not worth paying $150 + to move side ways.

    Now if Nvidia or ATI were to release their next set of mid ranged cards at or near the performance of the 2900XT or the 8800GTS, then I would consider spending my hard earned cash to buy one of those cards.
    soonerproud
    • Agreed

      I have a 7600GT and a X1650 Pro from ATI, both cards rock and do very well. The processors on both cards are on par and the systems that I use are weak. The Radeon X1650 Pro from ATI is on a Pentium 4 2.0 and RAM seems to be the most limiting factor on games. Performance wise it does pretty well with a few exceptions.
      nucrash
  • 8600GT Woes

    I'd have to agree, I suppose. I picked up an 8600GT for my desktop at home, an older P4 3.06 that was still using the integrated ATI graphics. That machine is still running Windows XP, but I intend to move it to Vista Real Soon Now so I looked for something that had at least rudimentary DX10 support.
    When there aren't compatibility issues between the driver and older games, it works pretty well. Not great, as I can still drag my system down with modest resolution (1280x1024) and FSAA and AF enabled with games like Neverwinter Nights(one of the aforementioned compatibility offenders) and Battle for Middle Earth.
    As I just don't want to spend the kind of money that an 8800GTS requires, I think the next system will use a maxed out 7600GT.

    Ah, well. Live and learn :)
    neoanderthal
  • RE: The trouble with mid-range graphics cards - they're not mid-range

    how the breakdown works out (just an example as same applies to ati):
    home or business card:
    nvidia 7100 / 7300 - display to screen only

    home gaming or business designing:
    nvidia 7600 - play dvds and light games at low resolution (diablo2 / couterstrike)

    gamers:
    nvidia 7800 / 7900 / 7950 (single) - play dvds and medium games at medium to full resolution (nfsu2 / bf vietnam)

    gamers with money:
    nvidia 7800 / 7900 / 7950 / 8800 (sli) - play dvds and heavy games at full resolution

    true gamers (cost is irrelivant)
    nvidia 7950 / 8800 (sli / quad sli) plus physx card - do it all without breaking a sweat
    w3nd13
    • Easy video adapter model number breakdown

      w3nd13:

      You're pretty much correct in what you posted, though I disagree with your opinion on business-level cards and DVD playback. I have one older machine with a Radeon X1300PRO. It does a pretty good job of playing DVDs, though yes, there are some screen artifacts and occasional frame skips. Better-quality AGP cards are rare and expensive. :(

      Desktop video adapter model breakdowns:

      The easiest way to tell the various adapter levels apart, at least for the more modern ones, is to look at the [b]second[/b] digit in the four-digit model number. Hence, a 1-4 usually denotes a "business" or entry-level adapter. 5-7 is good enough for mild gaming and HTPC purposes, especially the fanless models for the latter applications. The 8 and 9 series cards are for hardcore gamers and aren't generally recommended for HTPCs due to excessive fan noise and heat.

      The next place to look is at the suffix attached to the four-digit model number. For ATI cards, the ascending performance order (is:

      SE > GT > Vanilla > GTO > PRO > XL > XT > XTX

      For nVidia cards:

      TC > VE > XT > LE > Vanilla > GS > GT > GTX > Ultra

      Notebook adapters are similar. But Mobility Radeon and nVidia GO adapters (in general) tend to have lower performance than their desktop equivalents, mainly due to internal bus limitations. There [b]are[/b] exceptions, such as with the high-end Alienware gaming notebooks.

      Adapters to avoid:

      ATI Turbo, SE, "Vanilla" (no suffix)

      nVidia "TC" (TurboCache), VE, XT, LE, "Vanilla" (no suffix)

      Most of the above will use system RAM to bolster their performance, and most come with only 128Mb of their own slower GDDR2 memory, some with only 64Mb.

      Also, don't waste your time (and money) on a mid-level adapter that boasts 512Mb RAM. Those use GDDR2 RAM instead of the faster GDDR3 RAM that's on 256Mb mid-level cards. Neither Windows XP nor Vista will address the upper 256Mb of RAM, so it goes unused.
      M.R. Kennedy
  • the breakdown

    how the breakdown works out (just an example as same applies to ati):
    home or business card:
    nvidia 7100 / 7300 - display to screen only

    home gaming or business designing:
    nvidia 7600 - play dvds and light games at low resolution (diablo2 / couterstrike)

    gamers:
    nvidia 7800 / 7900 / 7950 (single) - play dvds and medium games at medium to full resolution (nfsu2 / bf vietnam)

    gamers with money:
    nvidia 7800 / 7900 / 7950 / 8800 (sli) - play dvds and heavy games at full resolution

    true gamers (cost is irrelivant)
    nvidia 7950 / 8800 (sli / quad sli) plus physx card - do it all without breaking a sweat
    w3nd13
  • Mid range cards

    To me, going midrange means price, not chipset. I built a Vista machine a few months ago, and went with a 1950Pro Ultimate Edition, since it had decent performance and mature drivers. By the time that DirectX 10 becomes the norm, the 2900/8800 cards will be available for a more reasonable price and the early driver issues will be solved. I have learned over the years to avoid the cutting edge in video cards, as the driver issues we see today with NVidia and ATI are nothing new.

    As for the 8600/2600 class cards, their performance is no better than my card, and they cost more to boot. Not a good combination in my book.
    itpro_z