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Mainstream Graphics

The $500 Gaming Machine
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The image shows a GeForce 6600GT, while we chose the 6600 non-GT, which looks alike.

The right video card is the one of the most critical parts to consider in a gaming system. In fact, one of the reasons why we chose a motherboard with both AGP and PCIe was to free up some more money for the video card. Right now, for the budget, the NVIDIA GeForce 6600 based on AGP is probably the most cost-efficient performer providing most economical support for DirectX9.0 and SM 3.0 (as well as OpenGL 1.5).

The best bargain we could consistently find was a model from eVGA, the 256-A8-N340-TX GeForce 6600 with 256 MB of graphics memory and based on AGP, all for under $120. There are other cards in this GPU chipset family that can be had for less, but they are almost all equipped with 128 MB of RAM only, which we thought was a bit too slim and could leave you almost immediately wanting more. While 512 MB is overkill for even some of the hungriest game titles currently, 128 MB can become a limiting chokepoint. Thus, 256 MB is currently in the sweet spot with today's titles.

The upgrade path for AGP is the most limiting aspect as it will be fading over to PCI Express over the next few years. But new video cards are still be cranked out and you will have options for upgrading. Moreover, AGP cards tend to be very budget-oriented which works in our favor over the new PCIe slot-based cards.

It is important to note though, that almost all new cards being developed now are being engineered natively to PCIe and over time manufacturers will begin to stop bridging them back to AGP using bridge chip solutions. Fortunately, our choice of motherboard supporting both AGP and PCIe allows us to start out with the economical AGP solution, but gives us a smooth upgrade path to PCIe down the road.

This particular example from eVGA lacks aggressive cooling, so it probably won't prove to be an excellent overclocker. But, if you are inclined, third-party cooling is available and could be a very economical project down the road to squeeze every last bit of performance out of this card. There's no denying that a card with this memory and GPU at under $120 is a great bargain.

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