PCI-Express Roundup: Mainstream Video Card Mania!

Videocards/VGA Reviews by JNav89GT @ 2004-12-25

PCI-Express if firmly upon us, Intel has seen to this and AMD will be joining the fray shortly. A few select individuals have been able to obtain high end samples of PCI-Express cards, however for most people these cards are simply priced out of their reach. This leaves the mainstream segment, and as this name suggests, the mainstream cards are targeted at the average consumer. So will "average" do for you? Let's find out!

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The Cards!

I was able to evaluate in the short term a Gigabyte PCX5900, an Abit RX600, and an ATI Radeon X700Pro. The Gigabyte and the ATI card I purchased myself, the Abit card was kindly donated by Abit for our testing purposes. I had really wanted to include some NVIDIA 6600 series cards, but at this time I could not obtain samples. So I choose to do a part 1 of this article with present cards, and add a part 2 to after I receive some 6600 series cards. I hope the readers can forgive me here, but I wished to arm those making an immediate purchase with some information that I could provide.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at the present contenders.

Gigabyte PCX5900

Madshrimps (c)

Based on the NVIDIA 5900 GPU, the PCX5900 is the PCI Express equivalent of what the FX5900 was for their AGP variant. The price point for this card is currently in the $170-200 range. I had purchased this card from a U.S. Reseller when PCI Express boards were first introduced and it has served me fairly well.

The card features 350MHz Core/550MHz Memory speed (in BGA layout), 256bit memory bus/path, and 4x2 or 8x1 configuration of rendering pipelines depending on application.

CineFX technology and a technology called "Ultrashadow" promise good performance in texture and shader intensive applications. Please
refer to Nvidia's website and this nice write-up at Xbit labs on the 5900 GPU for more thorough specifications. For reference, the 5900 Series GPU was designed by Nvidia for AGP support only and through some clever engineering and a HSI bridge chip, the processor can be used in PCI Express applications.

The HSI chip has been known to limit front side bus overclocking on occasion, and in my experiences I have "only" been able to clock my P4 boards with PCI Express to 240fsb when using this graphics card. This is not an isolated case, and many others have had similar problems. Theories center on the PCI Express bus not holding a proper lock with current Intel boards and the bus then running "out of spec". As with older AGP cards on non-locked buses, certain models will tolerate only being out of specification so far before they become cranky.

Abit RX600 Pro Guru 256mb

Madshrimps (c)>Madshrimps (c)

The Abit RX600 Pro Guru is based around the ATI Radeon 600 series GPU and was kindly donated by Harry at Abit USA. On paper the R600 core is at somewhat of a disadvantage in comparison to the 5900 due to only 4 rendering pipelines and a 128bit memory bus. This is not Abit's fault, but more of a limitation of the GPU.

Default clocks of 400MHz Core and 500MHz memory (in TSOP layout) get the Abit treatment, and courtesy of a "turbo" jumper can be instantly increased to 500Mhz Core and 500MHz memory for a reported 25% overclock, all without voiding your warranty. Abit didn't stop there and chose to include a nifty blue backlit LED fan on the GPU to help the aesthetics of the card itself. Nicer styled heatsinks extend over the memory as well on the GPU side of the card.

What sets this card apart from the crowd, in addition to the prior mentioned features, is the inclusion of µGuru technology on this card. Through the µGuru software, you have hardware control and monitoring of the video card. Particularly exciting to me was the ability to adjust core and memory voltages with this program. Overclocking can also be done via sliders in the tool, but the voltages are what peaked my interest the most as add on programs such as ATI Tool have overclocking covered already.

ATI X700 Pro 256mb

Madshrimps (c)

The ATI X700Pro 256mb promises to enter the mainstream market and make some waves. Being touted by ATI as a "Gamers" card, the Radeon X700Pro is a new native PCI Express GPU design that features 0.11u die manufacture ring process, 8 pixel pipelines, and a whopping 6 vertex shaders (as many vertex shaders as a high end card currently). This particular card was purchased in an effort to bypass the overclocking limitations in regards to the front side bus and system overclocking with these new Intel 915/925 Chipset boards.

I needed a better card for my Crucial DDR2 Review and this card allowed me to scale my FSB to the suspected limit of my motherboard. The inclusion of 256mb of high speed DDR3 memory is an added plus and most mainstream cards seem limited to 128mb of memory due to cost considerations when higher speed DDR/DDR3 is being used.

The limiting factor that keeps this card in the mainstream and probably from cutting into sales and performance territory of its higher end brethren is the 128bit memory bus. What remains a valid question is how much this will hurt performance? Pricing for this card straddles $200 give or take $30 depending on where you get it from, and occasionally this card is offered in a 128mb Variant which to be honest may not make any real difference in benchmarks, however without a 128mb Sample I cannot say for absolute certain.

So now that we have discussed some of the basic attributes of these cards, lets install them and wring them out a bit ->
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