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Q3 2006 Midrange GPU Shootout

Q3 2006 Midrange GPU Shootout

The Midrange Contenders

The Midrange Contenders

We decided to narrow down our contenders into the following price categories in order to differentiate and judge them fairly, based on their performance, features and price. There's also a short refresh of the various chipsets, in case you have forgotten them. You can also click on the related links for more in-depth coverage of a specific card.

US$151 - US$250 Category

The two contenders here are the heavyweights of the midrange segment. First, from ATI, we have the Radeon X1800 GTO, a stopgap reinforcement that was meant to counter NVIDIA's GeForce 6800 GS (incidentally we did not include this card in our roundup because we wanted to compare the present generation of cards) but which found itself eventually lined up against the then newly launched GeForce 7600 GT. From our unscientific survey of local retailers, the Radeon X1800 GTO is not easily available in local stores. Of the five stores that we patronized, only three carried the Radeon X1800 GTO. Probably as a result of this, the prices of this card can vary from S$369 to S$429. Naturally, there were more variety and models online (though not by much more) and the average price of US$200 seems more reasonable too. It could be that the local price is more 'sticky' and less affected by official price cuts mandated by ATI due to the relatively small number of retailers carrying it (and hence the lower turnover rate). Another thing to note is the presence of a Rage Theater ASIC onboard, which adds VIVO functionality, a feature that is not present on most standard GeForce 7 series cards, but it's standard on all Radeon X1800 GTO models.

NVIDIA's GeForce 7600 GT was launched with much fanfare at this year's CeBIT and going by the many variants and models released since, it has gained much traction with both the manufacturers and consumers. The designated successor to the popular GeForce 6600 GT, the 7 series version shared many similarities with its predecessor, from the positioning to the attractive price performance ratio. The streamlined core also meant lower cost and consumers can now enjoy dual-link DVI outputs from this new card. While the memory bus width remained at 128 bits, the faster core and memory speeds ensured that it stays competitive. The association with the best-selling GeForce 6600 GT also helps and the GeForce 7600 GT is one of the more popular cards in retail now, with offerings from many brands. Prices therefore tend to be quite competitive and while they may differ in clock speeds and cooling approaches, a typical GeForce 7600 GT can be had for around US$173.

US$100 - US$150 Category

ATI's intended midrange representative of the Radeon X1000 series was the Radeon X1600 XT. At its debut, we found its performance in 3DMark05 quite startling, due to the heavy emphasis on shader processing prowess of this chipset. No doubt ATI felt that the trend in PC games justified their decision but in quite a few games, the new midrange Radeon was not that much faster than the GeForce 6600 GT as developers failed to follow the lead. We also took issue with the noisy cooler on the reference model and a couple of other retail models, though that has improved somewhat with subsequent models from the usual vendors, especially with the passively cooled versions. Beware of the all-passive models as they can generate a fair bit of heat though. Performance took a slight boost with newer drivers while the US$129 average retail price of this card puts it lower than the typical GeForce 7600 GT and improves its price performance ratio. Unfortunately, NVIDIA has already planned a rival for this card in the form of the GeForce 7600 GS.

So we come to the lesser known GeForce 7600 GS, which we felt has been overshadowed by the faster GeForce 7600 GT. The recent introduction of the GeForce 7300 GT has also added more competitive pressure on this particular chipset. However, in its price range, it has an excellent price advantage over the Radeon X1600 XT, especially coupled with its more than decent performance. While we feel that the GeForce 7600 GT looks to be more popular, there is no lack of GeForce 7600 GS cards in stores here and over the Internet. Its attractive pricing of around US$119 on the average already gives it the edge over the Radeon X1600 XT.

US$80 - US$99 Category

Finally, we move to the lower tier of the midrange, where some of these cards may possibly be considered as low-end by more exacting users. For less than a hundred bucks, these cards should allow you to play most modern games comfortably at minimal settings. This means a maximum resolution of 1024 x 768 and depending on the game and exact specifications of the card, disabling some of the eye candy options in the game might be required. And then, you may just get a barely passable gaming experience. However, if you mostly dwell on MMORPG, adventure, turn-based and yesteryear games, this segment of graphics cards can serve you very well.

First up, we have the lower clocked member of ATI's Radeon X1600 series, the Radeon X1600 PRO. The drastic drop in memory clock speeds in particular, has a massive and detrimental effect on performance. Whether the unique features of the Radeon X1000 series, like Avivo technology and Shader Model 3.0 support are attractive enough on their own to convince users to buy into the technology when faced with these mediocre benchmark scores is debatable. For those who are interested, the Radeon X1600 PRO hovers around the US$100 mark though there a couple of models that cost less than that.

As for NVIDIA, its latest lower midrange darling seems to be the GeForce 7300 GT. This new chipset reuses the G73 core found on the higher GeForce 7600 series but with some pipelines disable to distinguish between the two. However, this is balanced by potentially high clock speeds. NVIDIA has allowed manufacturers to customize the configurations of their GeForce 7300 GT and we have seen special editions capable of beating the GeForce 7600 GS, along with cheaper ones that have clock speeds of only 350MHz compared to the 575MHz of the fastest ones. Therefore, the prices for the GeForce 7300 GT can vary quite drastically, though at the moment, we have only seen limited models so far locally at S$155, as this is a relatively new product. From what we found, the average price for this from online retailers is around US$85 and you'll probably get a 256MB variant using DDR2 memory. In our comparison, we've a GeForce 7300 GT DDR2 TurboForce card that's clocked at 450/800 MHz DDR and is available within this stipulated price bracket. Furthermore, its clock speeds present itself as a sweet spot between the lowest and highest clocked GeForce 7300 GT cards and should represent this category of cards quite well.