Introduction

Figuring out what sort of computer hardware to get for your next upgrade can be a tricky task, and if you are looking to get something for someone else it can be even more difficult. Some components have universal application, in that no matter what you will do with the computer they can improve performance. For most components, however, individual usage patterns will dictate how much benefit you will get from an upgrade. Processors, displays, and memory typically fall into the "universal upgrade" category; meanwhile hard drives, graphics cards, power supplies, cases, and other accessories may or may not help performance.

Today we will be taking a look at graphics card upgrades, so before we even get to the recommendations the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether or not you really need a faster graphics card. There are basically three areas that can benefit from having a better graphics card, with the fourth on the way in the near future. Starting with the future, you have Windows Vista, which will require a DirectX 9 capable graphics card at minimum in order to enable the Aero Glass user interface. Vista is scheduled to launch in the very near future, and we will take a closer look at the performance requirements in a separate article. Of the other three areas, one that we won't pay attention to here is the use of graphics cards for professional applications, simply because that is beyond the scope of this article. The remaining two areas of potential interest are video decoding/acceleration and computer gaming.

Video decoding support involves several things. First, you have performance oriented improvements - can the GPU reduce the CPU load during video playback? Second, you have the quality aspects - does the GPU make the resulting video output look better? Finally, video aficionados will definitely want to worry about HDCP support, not just for their graphics card but also for their display. We recently took a look at several of these areas in our HDCP Roundup and the HDCP H.264 decoding articles, while in the past we have looked at quality comparisons between NVIDIA's PureVideo and ATI's AVIVO. We will be taking a closer look at comparing the quality and performance of HDCP enabled graphics cards again in the near future, but for now we refer interested readers to the referenced articles.

We do need to insert one word of caution for people considering any new graphics card with the intention of using it for viewing HDCP content. If you have a display that requires a dual-link DVI connection, you're going to run into some problems. Basically, HDCP was architected to only support single-link connections, so you are going to be limited to viewing content at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080. What's worse is that as we understand it, HDCP is not supported over a dual-link connection at all, so if you have something like a 30" LCD and you want to view HDCP content, you will need to use a single-link cable. Welcome to the bleeding edge....

That leaves the final category and the one that the majority of people are most interested in: gaming performance. That is not to say that everyone worries about gaming performance, but rather that anyone who is seriously looking at a faster graphics card is likely to be doing so more for gaming than for anything else. If you don't play games, there is a very good chance that you don't need to worry about getting a faster graphics chip into your computer right now. End of story. Windows Vista and video decoding support might make a few more people look at graphics card upgrades, but for this Holiday Shopping Guide we will focus primarily on gaming performance.

As with our recent Holiday CPU Guide, we have quite a few price segments to cover, ranging from Ultra Budget GPUs through Extreme Performance GPUs. We also have to worry about multiple GPU combinations courtesy of CrossFire and SLI. With numerous overlapping products from both ATI and NVIDIA, it is important to remember that we will be classifying products based off of price rather than on performance, so in some cases we will have less expensive graphics cards that can outperform more expensive models. Finally, let's not forget that there are still a few AGP users hanging around, so we will mention those products were appropriate.

Integrated Graphics Solutions
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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    Fair enough - I added a Midrange Overclocking for you. It's still more like $165 according to the prices I found at Newegg and ZipZoomFly, unless you're seeing something cheaper? Reply
  • Noya - Saturday, December 16, 2006 - link

    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82... Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 16, 2006 - link

    Got a better one for you: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82...">Sapphire X1900 GT v2

    Sure, it's the slower clocked version of the GT, but no rebate and $141 shipped is quite tasty. This wasn't available two days ago, I can say that for sure.
    Reply
  • TechLuster - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    The 7600GT (and GS as well I think) has 8 ROP's, not 6. Jarred, you may want to fix this.

    And, though I have no resource to back this up, I have a hunch that the 6600GT has 8 (not 4) also.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    You're correct on the 7600 GT, but there are quite a few places that agree 6600 has 4 ROPs, like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Render_Output_unit">Wiki for example. Reply
  • TechLuster - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    According to this article

    http://www.hardwarezone.com/articles/view.php?cid=...">http://www.hardwarezone.com/articles/view.php?cid=...

    the 6600GT has 8 ROP's. Perhaps the Wiki is referring to the vanilla 6600, but I still doubt that NVIDIA broke with the 1:1 pixel pipe:ROP ratio with any version of the 6 series.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    I know some places say 8 ROPs, but I think more say 4.

    http://techreport.com/reviews/2004q4/geforce-6200/...">TechReport
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GeForce_6_Series">Another Wiki Link
    http://www.legionhardware.com/document.php?id=536">Legion Hardware
    http://www.behardware.com/articles/514-1/nvidia-ge...">BeHardware - why 8 ROPs isn't necessarily a good idea

    Basically, the way I see it is that it probably doesn't matter too much either way - X1900 and 78/7900 have both shown that 16 ROPs for more pixel shaders is fine - and the idea was to make a more budget oriented part. One of the ways to do that is to cut unnecessary extras like additional Render Output Pipelines. As for 6600 vs. 6600 GT, those are the same chip with different clock speeds, so they have the same number of functional units.

    Even if 6600 does have 8 ROPs (I can't find anything official from NVIDIA), the important thing is that a 6600 GT is now slower than a lot of the newer ~$100 cards. :) But hey, if someone gets a specific answer from NVIDIA, I can update. I can also fire off an email just to verify, but it might take a bit to get an answer (if they answer at all).
    Reply
  • microAmp - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Not sure if this is worth a mention in the article or not, but Dell.com currently has 15% off which can be used on the XFX 8800 GTS/X cards. If you can dig up a another coupon, Dell sent me one via email for 10% off, the deal can be even sweeter.

    I got the 8800 GTS for $382.50 and free shipping. Sweet deal for others not living in Texas like me. About $420 with tax.

    Only reason I mention this is because you mention using MIR on the EVA 8800 GTS.
    Reply
  • LoneWolf15 - Thursday, December 14, 2006 - link

    I did the same thing. Mine came out to $404 after tax here in Michigan.

    XFX also has a double-lifetime warranty; that is, a lifetime warranty which applies to the first owner, and a second owner, should the first resell the card. You have to make sure you register the card, but it's a neat feature.
    Reply
  • SonicIce - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    So I guess it's RIP AGP. :( Reply

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