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- Even faster than the GeForce3, with added 3D image quality.
- old games don't take advantage of the new features.
Graphics card development continues apace, and nVidia's latest offering adds performance and features over the previous generation of GeForce3 cards. Although the new GeForce3 Ti500 is undoubtedly faster than its predecessors, nVidia is keen to point out that the greatest advances are in image quality. If this sounds familiar, it's because that's exactly what the company said when the original GeForce3 was released.
A modern graphics card and a fast CPU will deliver a pretty good gaming experience with all but the very latest titles. The ability to run games at high resolutions will give you an advantage by letting you identify objects from further away, for example. However, you're unlikely to experience unacceptable frame rates unless you try to run a recent game at high resolution with high image quality settings as well -- with anti-aliasing turned on, for example.
The GeForce3 Ti500 is one of nVidia's new Titanium series of GeForce3 processors, and is rated at 960 billion operations per second, with a fill rate of 3.84 billion pixels/sec. The processor has a core clock speed of 240MHz and is supported by 64MB of 250MHz DDR RAM, giving a memory bandwidth of 8GB/s. A slightly less powerful version, the GeForce3 Ti200, has a core clock speed of 175MHz and uses 200MHz DDR memory, and will feature on lower-priced cards. Finally, there's a mainstream GPU called the GeForce2 Ti, which is aimed at mass-market cards.
The reference Ti500 board we tested had VGA, DVI and S-Video outputs, allowing you to use pretty much any available display. In addition to all the 3D features, the GeForce 3 Ti500 also provides full-motion video acceleration for DVD playback.
The Titanium range adds two new technological strings to the GeForce3's 3D bow -- shadow buffers and 3D textures. Shadow buffers are aimed at giving realistic shadows to objects by using a dedicated buffer to map where shadows fall. When a scene is rendered in the Z-buffer, the positions of all light sources are used to project light against all objects. The resulting illumination levels are then mapped back onto the pixel shading for the scene, hopefully giving a realistic shadow effect. This includes self-shadowing where, for instance, a character's arm will cast a shadow across his or her own chest.
By contrast, 3D textures are designed to mimic material properties like marbling or wood grain realistically. Traditional 2D textures simply describe an object's surface, whereas 3D textures can also define its interior. For example, the veins of colour that run through a marble statue can only be described by a 3D texture, because the veins run through the centre of the statue and emerge on the other side. Similar arguments apply to wood grain.
As with any new graphics effects, it will be a while before many games are able to use the new features. There are always a few 'pump-primer' games developed using early versions of a processor, but until games created using the final version of the development kit are released, you're not going to see any increase in image quality.
Although nVidia claims that the GeForce3 Ti500 delivers '1.5X GeForce3 performance at the same price', our tests suggest that this is something of an overstatement. Running MadOnion's DirectX 8-based 3DMark 2001 benchmark under Windows XP on a 1.33GHz Athlon PC with 256MB of DDR RAM and Via's KT266 chipset, the new chipset delivered an 8.5 percent improvement over the GeForce3. The only pricing we've seen announced so far is from Hercules, whose Ti500-based 3D Prophet III Titanium 500 costs £329.99 (Hercules' Ti200-based product costs £249.99 and the GeForce2 Ti-based card sells for £179.99).
nVidia currently has the 3D graphics market pretty much sewn up. It does have competition, notably from ATi and its new Radeon 7500 and 8500 chips. However, the fact that nVidia cards are widely bundled with new PCs gives the company a massive market advantage. The company clearly isn't resting on its laurels, though, and cards based on the GeForce3 Ti500 represent the current leading edge in 3D acceleration.