Firstly, the 2.93 GHz clock speed of the Core 2 Extreme X6800 is no longer sufficient to properly drive the GTX 260 SLI or GTX 280 SLI. With many of the games, lackluster multi-card optimizations mean that lower frame rates are achieved versus just a single card. The overall results thus do not show an improvement, although there are perceptible gains at 1920x1200 pixels with anti-aliasing. Greater frame rates are achieved by the SLI packages in Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Mass Effect (UT3 Engine) and World in Conflict. When using the HD 4870 CrossFire, it is not quite so bad, although here a more powerful CPU will help enable better 3D performance.
This lays to rest those claims made by AMD and Nvidia that powerful CPUs are no longer needed. To really get the best from the new cards, you need a lot of host processing power. Whereas AMD surely wants to increase its own CPU sales, Intel also profits from high-end GPUs. If you want to realize the true 3D potential of the GTX 260, GTX 280, and HD 4870, you will soon need to start using a quad-core chip. A slightly faster dual-core CPU isn’t going to buy you a lot of extra scaling, as you can officially only purchase chips running between 3.2 GHz and 3.33 GHz, and the additional 300 to 400 MHz clock speed of the test CPU is not going to significantly change the 3D results.
As far as single cards go, today’s GeForce GTX 260, GTX 280, Radeon HD 4850 and HD 4870 models cannot be beaten. With the exception of Crysis, all current 3D titles run smoothly—even at the highest test resolutions. Why Nvidia is lacking optimization in World in Conflict is unclear; the new 4800 models from AMD run better, despite the fact that the game is sponsored by Nvidia.
The absolute minimum for gaming is a Radeon X1600, HD 2600 or HD 3650, or a GeForce 7600, 8600 or 9600; graphics cards with x200, x300 or x400 in the name are barely sufficient to provide higher image quality or resolutions above 1024x768. Since big 3D processing power is now available at very mainstream prices, a Radeon HD 3850, HD 3870, GeForce 8800 GT or 9600 GT is the minimum you should target if you wish to play using Vista, DirectX 10, and a 1280x1024 resolution.
The SLI and CrossFire performance of older GPUs scales relatively well. You can see up to a 60% increase in the overall results. However, do not let yourself be fooled by the results. In order to achieve these values, you need a pretty good CPU and a single GeForce 8800 GT or Radeon HD 3850 will put a double-card config of HD 2600 or GeForce 8600 cards to shame. Had this level of performance existed when the GPU products started being launched, SLI and CrossFire would be more common. This will happen to the GTX 280 SLI, GTX 260 SLI, and HD 4870 CrossFire when the necessary CPU performance is available for purchase. That will bring about a possible increase in performance of 60%, and the GTX 300 and HD 5000 will be in the shops.
The times of AGP, Shader Model 2, GeForce 5, X800, X850 and GeForce 6 are past, and even the GeForce 7 and Radeon X1900 are slowly running out of steam. The prices, even for used cards, are being turned on their heads. For a decent Radeon HD 3850 with AGP, you would expect to pay around $130, while similar PCI Express models are available at around $100. Since Nvidia has not announced new graphics chips with the AGP interface, it would be better to invest in a PCI Express system at this point. Anything above $50 is too much to pay to give an old AGP PC a new lease on life.
Don’t allow yourself to be confused by the names of the various models—changing from an 8800 GTX, 8800 Ultra or 8800 GTS 512 to a 9800 GTX or GTX+ doesn’t make sense. A change from a GeForce 7600 or 8600, or a Radeon X1600 or HD 2600 to a GeForce 9600 GT, on the other hand, is of great benefit. Anyone with an HD 3870 X2 who moves over to an HD 4850 or HD 4870 is going to see little change. It’s no better with Nvidia: the GeForce 9800 GX2 is very powerful, which means that the GTX 260 and GTX 280 have little extra to offer.
Dual chip cards like X2 and GX2 should be approached with caution. While the performance of the current 3800 and 9800 chips is so powerful that the cards will easily survive more than two GPU generations, game driver optimization are usually neglected long before then. A good example of this is the GeForce 7950 GX2, which would still have enough power, but is almost always beaten by the 7950 GT SLI. If it is possible, it is better to use two individual cards. They are almost always clocked higher, have less in the way of temperature problems and are almost always quieter. Plus the driver optimization are better for individual cards. When the optimization of GPUs as SLI or CrossFire is not continued, you can still put the individual cards into two old computers.
Nvidia recommendations: Our budget option would be the GeForce 9600 GT or 8800 GT. These need a good case cooling system, though, as the default fan on the card is very small and the GPU generates a lot of heat. The GeForce 9800 GTX doesn’t have much of an advantage over the GeForce 8800 GTS 512, which is a little cheaper. The GeForce 8800 GTX is getting a lot of attention thanks to its very low price, but the 768 MB and 384 bit memories only come into play at 1680x1050 pixels with anti-aliasing. The newer and more efficient GeForce 8800 GTS 512 model is a better option, and also provides HD video support. The GeForce GTX 260, with a price of $260, is interesting, but very loud in 3D mode. The GTX 280 is still too expensive; the odd bit of extra performance is not worth $420, but when the price drops to under $350, then it will be a real option.
AMD recommendations: The power-saving wonder child for mainstream 3D requirements is the Radeon HD 3850. If you want a slightly cooler housing, go for the HD 3870 with a 2-slot fan. The Radeon HD 4850 is an extreme budget recommendation, but you need to be prepared for high internal temperatures if you purchase the reference model with a single-slot fan. A good case cooling system and powerful CPU is required for all new models from both AMD and Nvidia. The Radeon HD 4870 is not as loud as the GeForce GTX 260 or GTX 280, but does make a considerable amount of noise in 3D mode. The default VGA BIOS setting allows the graphics chip to heat up to 80 degrees in 2D mode. This makes things quieter, but heats up the PC’s interior.
Editor’s Note: Now that you’ve read all about our benchmarks, configurations, bugs, and results, go check out the scores for yourself and compare your graphics card against everything else on the market. Or, if you’re looking to buy, use our results to help guide your decision!