A more comprehensive set of video benchmarks is available from a company with the unlikely name of MadOnion. Previously called FutureMark, this vendor produces a professional-level set of DirectX 8-based video benchmarks called the 3DMark200l Benchmark. A free copy similar to the one we use is available for downloading from FutureMark’s Web site (www.futuremark.com), if you have the time. It’s a 40-MB file, so even with a broadband Internet connection it takes a while to download. The Professional version of 3DMark200l adds a few features, like the Result Browser that enables you to examine several cards’ results sideby-side.
The 3DMark2001 Benchmark does have a frame-rate test. In fact, it has several, with “demo” games of varying complexity programmed to simulate a variety of gaming scenarios. The benchmark also automatically captures rendered images from the video card during the testing. A set of reference images is included, so you can compare the captured images with the reference images and check for artifacts and aliasing, as well as color anomalies.
In fact, the 3DMark2001 Benchmark performs 20 different tests, and can be set to run once, continuously, or a specified number of times.
A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL
Of the three cards we tested, two have chipsets from Nvidia. In the past year, a number of popular chipset and video card vendors have gone belly up. Diamond Multimedia was acquired by S3 (now SONICblue) and, while still in business, is out of the video card market. 3dfx, which once had a good share of the market with its Voodoo cards, bought STB, and then went under itself.
Matrox Graphics is still in business, as is ATI Technologies. Both of these are Canadian companies, with ATI having the greater share of the market. Right now, Matrox builds its own cards using only its own chipsets. ATI supplies many of the video chipsets used in laptops, but until recently reserved its RAGE and RADEON desktop chipsets for its own branded products. The company has recently announced that it will start to supply video chipsets to other vendors, hoping to eat into some of Nvidia’s popularity in the OEM market.
Nvidia doesn’t actually produce video cards, only the chipsets for them. The very latest video chipset from this vendor is its GeForce3. At the moment, however, GeForce3 cards are hard to come by, and expensive when you can find them. The GeForce3 chipset builds on the GeForce2′s hardware handling of transform and lighting (T&L) by providing programmable vertex shading and pixel shading. By allowing a software developer to determine, from within the application, exactly how this will take place, the GeForce3 promises to deliver outstanding performance and even more realistic 3D graphics. In fact, Microsoft has selected the GeForce3 chipset to provide the graphics in its upcoming XBox game console.
The downside of the GeForce3 is that software has to be specifically written to take advantage of these new features. Otherwise, the performance is pretty much along the level of the less expensive GeForce2 Ultra. Most games written to take advantage of the GeForce3 won’t be out for several months. Given Nvidia’s past history, it’s likely that by that time, a newer version of the GeForce3 will be available. That’s why we tested cards with the more affordable GeForce2 chipset.
INEXPENSIVE IS NICE
The GeForce2 chipset actually comes in three versions, each providing a higher degree of performance. At the entry level is the GeForce2 MX. This is designed for less expensive video cards, but still offers hardware T&L and the GeForce2 architecture. A step up in performance is the GeForce2 GTS. At the top of the line is the GeForce2 Ultra.
One entry-level card, using the GeForce2 MX chipset, is the $99 MagicVideo 3DMX from I/OMagic. This vendor has a large presence at retail–with products ranging from a high-end MP3 jukebox to CD-RW and DVD drives. We had some initial problem with the 3DMX, simply because it did not come with DirectX 8 drivers, which the 3DMark2001 benchmark requires to run. After downloading the Nvidia reference drivers from Nvidia’s Web site, we were up and running.
For the very reasonable price, the MagicVideo 3DMX is a pretty basic card. It has only a DB-15 VGA output. While it does come with 32 MB of video RAM, this memory is SDRAM, rather than the faster DDR RAM. There’s also no DVD player included, though the one that came with our DVD drive worked just fine.
At the same time, the MagicVideo performed very nicely, both on the 3DMark200l tests as well as when actually playing real games. It doesn’t have some of the fancy features that the other cards we tested offer, but for the price, it’s a great way to upgrade a video card that’s a year or two old.
PLAY IT TO THE MAX
On the other side of the performance and feature scale is the Hercules 3D Prophet II Ultra. As this is written, the price on the card is still around $400, but as more GeForce3 cards become widely available, you can expect the price to drop precipitously. Hercules was one of the first companies to produce a graphics card for then new IBM PC. Over the years, the company fell into financial difficulty and eventually went belly up. Canadian card vendor Guillemot bough the rights to the name, and relaunched Hercules with a line of new products to great success.
The most obvious feature of the Hercules 3D Prophet Ultra is the GeForce2 Ultra chipset, which has a fan mounted on the RAMDAC to keep it at a comfortable operating temperature. That’s especially necessary, as the card comes with a utility called 3D Tweak that lets you overclock the chip for increased performance. Performance is hardly sluggish to start with, as the Ultra has a core clock speed of 259 MHz compared to the 150-MHz speed of the GeForce2 MX. Also included on the 3D Prophet Ultra is 64 MB of fast DDR RAM.
At this price level, you expect a premium card, and the 3D Prophet Ultra delivers. It has outputs for VGA (a standard DB-15 connector), DVI (the digital video interface that some flat-panel LCD displays use), as well as an S-Video output. Hercules even includes a copy of PowerDVD for playing DVD discs (if your PC has a DVD drive.)
If you’re an avid game player, looking for a game-oriented upgrade but not yet ready to spring for the GeForce3, take a close look at the Hercules 3D Prophet Ultra.
IT’S IN THERE
The third member of our trio is from ATI Technologies and uses that vendor’s newest RADEON chipset. The RADEON is very similar in features and performance to Nvidia’s GeForce2 chipset, and the RADEON ALL-IN-WONDER fell somewhat between the MX and Ultra-based cards in much of our formal testing, though with 32 MB of fast DDR RAM, it provided excellent game play on real-world games.
Where the $299 card really shines, however, is in the video features it provides. The name that ATI uses–ALLIN-WONDER–is appropriate. For starters, the card provides a multitude of video inputs and outputs, including S-Video and composite, as well as video capture and audio I/Os. All of these are available on an extension cable as well, so you don’t have to hunt around on your PC’s rear panel to make use of the card’s features. A standard DB-15 VGA is not offered. Instead, an adapter is included that connects to the DVI jack to provide analog output to a standard monitor. This works just fine.
Also central to the card is a cable-ready TV tuner. Attach an external antenna or connect it to your cable outlet, and you are ready to surf through any unscrambled channels on your cable system. The software that is included with the ALL-IN-WONDER really lets you get use out of the card’s features. This bundle includes an interactive program guide that you can update weekly over the Internet, and automatic recording software that turns the ALL-IN-WONDER into a personal digital recorder. There’s also software to perform video capture and editing, as well as a copy of ATI’s DVD Player.
PLENTY TO CHOOSE FROM
If none of the above cards strike your fancy, there are plenty of others to choose from. Nvidia-based cards are available from other vendors including ELSA, VisionTek, and Creative Labs. Matrox has cards with its own chipset, and ATI offers more basic cards, including the RADEON VE. Whatever your budget constraints, you are sure to find a choice that will let you enjoy many of the benefits this newest generation of video cards has to offer.