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VGA Charts 2008: 101 Configurations Tested
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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!

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  • 11 Hide
    rocky1234 , September 15, 2008 6:58 AM
    Not to nit pick but ummm where is the Radeon 4870x2 2GB card in those charts or did I miss it you know the one with 2GB memory umm 800x2 shaders GDDR5 memory 3.6Ghz rated at & 750 core x2 whatever.
Other Comments
  • 1 Hide
    chise1 , September 15, 2008 6:17 AM
    Thanks guys!
  • 2 Hide
    amdfangirl , September 15, 2008 6:30 AM
    Very good! Thanks guys!

    If only you tested F@H PPD...
  • 11 Hide
    rocky1234 , September 15, 2008 6:58 AM
    Not to nit pick but ummm where is the Radeon 4870x2 2GB card in those charts or did I miss it you know the one with 2GB memory umm 800x2 shaders GDDR5 memory 3.6Ghz rated at & 750 core x2 whatever.
  • 0 Hide
    c0d3r , September 15, 2008 7:02 AM
    So totally Awesome :D  Gooood Job THG! What wud i do without u !
  • 8 Hide
    Mathos , September 15, 2008 7:04 AM
    Just curious. Why is it you're using catalyst 8.6 for the ATI cards which doesn't have proper support for the 4000 series cards, instead of 8.7 or 8.8? Yet for the Nvidia cards, you use the most up to date drivers.
  • 1 Hide
    cangelini , September 15, 2008 7:22 AM
    Rocky1234Not to nit pick but ummm where is the Radeon 4870x2 2GB card in those charts or did I miss it you know the one with 2GB memory umm 800x2 shaders GDDR5 memory 3.6Ghz rated at & 750 core x2 whatever.


    As mentioned in the charts introduction, these numbers take hours upon hours to compile, which means setting cut-offs for the product submissions and drivers. Unfortunately, the X2 didn't make it. However, there are results for a pair of 4870s in CrossFire, which is a roughly equivalent configuration. You'll also notice that there are no 4600-series Radeons. Again, same issue.
  • 4 Hide
    ossie , September 15, 2008 7:37 AM
    Why do I have the impression that at THG is a persistent confusion between power and energy?
  • 0 Hide
    JeanLuc , September 15, 2008 8:45 AM
    Great job, I'm always pointing people to the charts now they can compare the latest hardware.

    The charts also show the difference between games they are coded well and ones that aren't. Compare Crysis (very high quality) and HL2 Ep2 at 1920 x 1200 4xAA 8xAF, on Crysis even the best hardware left begging for mercy at around 24fps, yet HL2 EP2 which looks just as good (graphically speaking) IMO will run at 30 FPS on a 8600 GTS (yes an 8600 GTS!) and X1800XL. A small portion of the difference can be put down to DX10 but not all of it.
  • 3 Hide
    Anonymous , September 15, 2008 9:36 AM
    Wonder why you insist on using catalyst 8.6 - a 3/4 months old driver, out *before* the whole HD4xx0 series and not really supporting it. And by the time the 48x0 cards were released you also had a better driver with actual support the the cards (and some 10% performance boost).
  • 6 Hide
    buzzlightbeer , September 15, 2008 9:51 AM
    OMFG they did it again, why oh why did they use 8.6 drivers didnt they learn from all the annoyed people from the last test
  • -4 Hide
    Anonymous , September 15, 2008 10:22 AM
    ATI fanboys have only a reason to whine, if and only IF Tom's used a more recent Nvidia drivers than ATI's (something i don't know)

    Otherwise just shut up
  • 2 Hide
    randomizer , September 15, 2008 10:55 AM
    As a suggestion for permalinking chart comparisons, add an option for permalinking that doesn't contain HTML code. Some forums don't allow posting HTML. Also, using the URL in the browser address bar doesn't work because it contains square brackets, and I think the software tries to parse part of the URL as BBCode and this breaks the link. Otherwise it's just because it's non-standard in a URL. For example:

    http://www.tomshardware.com/charts/gaming-graphics-charts-q3-2008/compare,794.html?prod[2113]=on∏[2118]=on

    The link breaks because of the []. It should point to http://www.tomshardware.com/charts/gaming-graphics-charts-q3-2008/compare,794.html?prod%5B2113%5D=on&prod%5B2118%5D=on (permalink with HTML removed).
  • 1 Hide
    Pei-chen , September 15, 2008 11:07 AM
    I think for stability reason and to act as control, Tom's won't overclock the CPU but for a lot of these cards, 2.93GHz isn't enough. An e8600 would do a better job, let alone an overclocked 4.5GHz e8600.
  • -1 Hide
    JAYDEEJOHN , September 15, 2008 11:08 AM
    Glad to see you mentioned the cpu restrictions. At 3Ghz, its simply not enough for todays cards, especially in CF/SLI. Great to see this, this is a long awaited achievement which only puts a + in the Toms site. Great going
  • -1 Hide
    JAYDEEJOHN , September 15, 2008 11:15 AM
    jaydeejohnGlad to see you mentioned the cpu restrictions. At 3Ghz, its simply not enough for todays cards, especially in CF/SLI. Great to see this, this is a long awaited achievement which only puts a + in the Toms site. Great going

    Some people are under the impression todays cpus are good enough at their stock speeds. We need more truth about this out there so people understand. I wish for newer updates with newer drivers as they come down the chute, especially when the cards are out and for sale. I hope it isnt too long before we see an update
  • 7 Hide
    randomizer , September 15, 2008 11:34 AM
    My E6600 @2.7GHz is sufficient I tell you!
  • 0 Hide
    swampthug , September 15, 2008 11:57 AM
    Okay, how does the single most powerful graphics card not make the 'cut-off'? If you've already spent 500 hours doing these benchmarks then what's the problem with spending a couple more? Man, that's annoying. How can you say the 4870 crossfire is similar enough to the 4870 x2 to justify not testing? The x2 has 2x the amount of GDDR5 memory. Stupid...
  • 4 Hide
    spaztic7 , September 15, 2008 11:57 AM
    cangelini


    I disagree that 2 4870 = 1 4870x2. You do see a slight bump in performance with a 4870x2 over 2x4870. Then 4600 just came out, so you have an excuse for those, but not the 4870x2. Although I doubt my comments will be taken seriously and nothing will come of it, I am just amazed that THG refuses to use a 4870x2. It’s almost like you guys are biased against that card.

    It just makes me mad... >:|
  • 8 Hide
    kitsilencer , September 15, 2008 12:10 PM
    Ah, the long looked-for update. A little late, but much welcomed all the same. Thanks.
  • -5 Hide
    phantom93 , September 15, 2008 12:12 PM
    al the 4860x2 is, is crossfire 4870s with more ram.... not gonna give out much more then reg crossfire 4870s.....

    TH had their reasons for doign what the did.
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