||Video Fanboy Walks the Talk
December 26, 2001 Paul Sullivan
Summary: People can get quite fanatical when discussing their favorite video cards! After dousing the flames from his last fanboy article, Paul takes a closer look at the video card competitors, and takes on the challenge to examine his own fanboy roots.
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 4 )|
Put Up Or Shut Up
Over the course of the years, I have been a well documented fan of ATI cards, feeling that they have held up well against the competition in terms of quality and value. I've fought the good fight from multiple angles - early on as a dutiful hardware reviewer who focused heavily on facts and benchmarks and later as an Op/Ed writer who focused more on opinions. On both counts, I've been able to support my preference for ATI products over those from other companies, including 3DFX, Matrox and Nvidia. However, my last Fanboy article had people fuming!
I got a big chunk of emails telling me that I was speaking from complete and total ignorance because I did not have a 'modern' Geforce 3 product to compare my ATI cards to. I was taken to task (by a whole pile of rabid Geforce fanboys, I might add) for testing ATI cards with the latest drivers but not doing the same with Nvidia based cards. How dare I try to write an opinion piece with such a hardcore ATI bias when I was so unwilling to give the latest Nvidia offerings so much as a look!
I sifted through the hate mail and pondered the few actual points that people were making and realized that at the heart of all that anger, they did indeed have a valid argument. Even though I'm not a hardware reviewer anymore and the requirements for editorials are vastly different than reviewers, I realized that in order to have any semblance of credibility (and stop the massive flood of angry mail) I needed to work on putting any biases to the side and actually try to write from a position of experience. I'm a fairly open minded guy actually, so instead of closing my mind up and refusing to listen to the opinions of others, I wanted to Walk The Talk and be fair.
Walkin' The Talk<% print_interactive_ad(); %>
I have had in-depth hands-on experience with the original Geforce 3 Reference card direct from Nvidia. However, at that time I had a different motherboard, processor and memory and even a different monitor. In addition, I had only used the 11.x and 12.x series of drivers, as provided by Nvidia. Not only that, but Nvidia had come out with a refreshed line of cards called the Titanium and a flood of new driver releases that upped the ante substantially.
First, 2D text quality is very important to me. I make part of my living as a writer, so naturally, I need to be able to sit in front of my 21" Viewsonic P225 monitor for hours on end putting together articles, taking screen shots and editing spreadsheets, for instance. I did some searching and found right off that FiringSquad's own Tuan Nguyen had just completed a review of the Leadtek Ti 500 in which he praised mightily the 2D quality of the top of the line Nvidia offering. Since 2D was one of my biggest concerns about the older Geforce lines, I decided to put this Leadtek card at the top of my list for procurement and set about trying to find one at the retail level.
Living in one of the modern day technology corridors of awesomeness, I felt I had a pretty good shot of finding one, but it was a much tougher task than I thought it would be. After a dozen phone calls, I finally found a store that had an actual Leadtek Ti 500 retail kit in stock. I didn't care about the bundle, nor the included driver tweaks. I just wanted to get my hands on the same type of component that any other buyer would be able to get from walking in off of the street. So, debit card in hand, I bobbed and weaved my way through insane traffic and arrived at yonder store. My eyes met the box and I was locked in for the purchase, price being no object. Well, no object until I actually saw the $350 price tag and realized that the almost 9% sales tax would juice that up even further. I steeled myself and asked the clerk to ring up the purchase. We chatted about how they had a shipment of 25 and only had four left, well, three after this purchase. Said they were flying off the shelf. Darn Dot Com Boom... I realized that an open mind was an expensive "flaw" to have. Maybe I should try being a stuck up snob who's mind is closed to change, like so many Media Boyz I know. Nope, I grasped back onto my resolve and decided that some of us had to fight the good fight! Still dazed, I headed home to play with this new toy.
SIDEBAR: I wonder if the directive to improve 2D image quality and overall color saturation and vibrancy is something that Nvidia has put forth, or if it is something that each card manufacturer decides on their own?
| Plug N' Play||Page:: ( 2 / 4 )|
The Installation Experience
As we techno-geeks are taught, I set Windows 98 SE to a standard VGA card and shut down the machine. I carefully opened the case, slid out the ATI Radeon card and slid the Leadtek Ti 500 into my Asus A7 Pro motherboard with the 1009 BIOS. Fastened the screw, plugged in the monitor cable and fired up the machine. I put the Leadtek CD into the drive and let the system find the drivers and install the software. So far, so good. The system rebooted and I was greeted with a standard 60hz screen. So, I went about setting all the refresh rates for all the resolutions and color depths and was on my way to visual bliss. Well, sort of.
Right off the bat, I noticed that the 2D on this card was incredible compared to other Geforce offerings I had tried. It looked about as crisp as my Radeon, even in the highest resolutions! I had defaulted to 1600x1200 for initial testing and found the 2D to be bright and sharp, with excellent color saturation. All this on a standard 15 pin cable - no BNC in the house. Not bad at all. So, I went to the mode I had been using on my Radeon, which was 2048x1536x32. Oops. We had a problem.
It turns out that this card only supports 2048x1536x32 at 60hz! That can't be right! So, I look at the box, and sure enough, it says it right there. Crud. It would work at 2048x1536x16 at 75hz, but what self respecting image editor would run in 16 bit color? What to do, what to do...? I decided that I would step down to the next best 4:3 ratio resolution, 1920x1440x32 at 75hz. Made the switch (just love Quickres) and then made the adjustments so that the screen was edge to edge and all was right with the world. In fact, this resolution was much easier on the eyes than the 2048x1536 mode I had used with the Radeon. Text was just that much bigger and was easier to read. Menus were the very same way, and through testing I found that I could still fit everything I wanted on screen at one time with no problem at all. I could easily view two pages in my word processor at 100% zoom in page layout mode. I could have one word processor window open on the left and one browser window opened on the right and do research on web sites as I wrote. I could still do all the important image editing stuff in Paint Shop Pro and could actually read the text on some of my favorite gaming sites without squinting. Don't know why the 128x96 pixel step-down made such a difference, but it did, and I realized that this small limitation was actually a blessing in disguise. (To be fair, I tested my Radeon card at 1920x1440 and found it too was preferable to 2048x1536.)
A Few Stumbles Along The Way
With that settled, I set about running this card through its paces. Right off, I found two problems. There was some serious application instability that caused some error screens. Also, there were reboots at odd times during benchmarking. Putting on the old thinking cap, I decided to take two steps. First, I would remove all of the WinFox and other extra video software from the system and install the 21.83 WHQL reference drivers straight from Nvidia. Second, I would do a complete BIOS reset, as it came back to me that I had tweaked the BIOS for maximum performance with my Radeon. Took care of business and rebooted the machine.
From that point forward, things were about as rock solid as I could have wanted them to be. They were not perfect, but no card I have ever used has been perfect, so a few issues are expected to be the norm. The Nokia monitor testing application, which was years old, could cause some screen corruption when testing certain modes, but 3D Mark 2000 and 2001 worked fine, as did all the Ziff Davis benchmarks and torture tests. I noticed that my 2D scores were about 20% faster than my Radeon had been with the 7199 drivers, which was a major surprise. In the past, 2D speed was not something that I had expected in my Geforce cards Very cool.
Of course, there were still some glitches with D3D apps like Unreal Tournament and Links 2001, but I had expected those from an Nvidia card. UT and Links 2001 only showed D3D resolutions up to 1280x1024. To get 1600x1200 on UT, I had to set that resolution in OpenGL mode, restart the game and switch it over to D3D, at which point the 1600x1200 stuck. I could still only see 1280x1024 in the list box, but 1600x1200 was working. With Links 2001 I had to set it to software mode, then pick 1600x1200, then restart and switch back to D3D and again, 1600x1200 stuck and I could play with no issues. Minor problems, but still, it was annoying.
SIDEBAR: As much work as Nvidia has put into their drivers, it seems kind of lame that they have not come up with a good reference driver dialog that contains all the hidden settings for Geforce cards. We really shouldn't have to have Geforce tweaking programs to get the most from our cards.
| Observations||Page:: ( 3 / 4 )|
It seems like Geforce cards had always had trouble with the Unreal Tournament engine. From the very first time I tried it with my old Hercules Geforce DDR, there were issues. However, during this round of testing, I could only find two issues remaining. The first was the resolution switching problem, and the second was one that plagued all the Nvidia cards I'd ever tested. Below is a 1600x1200 screen capture resized to a more web-friendly 800x600 size. It clearly shows the odd texture voids in the redeemer weapon. There should be no holes located at the end of those two pipes, but for some reason, they are always there on Geforce cards that I've tested.
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With the exception of the two issues I've mentioned, all other problems seemed to have been resolved with the UT engine. Color saturation is outstanding, lighting effects appear to be rendered accurately. Transparency and smoke effects seemed spot on as well. All things considered, UT has never looked better on the Geforce, something I'm pretty jazzed about being such a huge UT fan.
Kyodai and Links 2001<% print_interactive_ad(); %>
Below are two screen shots of Kyodai, a fantastic shareware tile game. The left shot is how the game appears on the Radeon, which does not seem to handle Emboss Bump Mapping, while the right shot is of the same game on the Leadtek, which renders Emboss Bump Mapping properly. The difference is pretty impressive and another nice touch I stumbled upon when testing the games that I normally play on the Ti 500.
While Kyodai may look a lot better thanks to the Emboss support, I found that Links 2001 suffered from some serious visual artifacts with the Leadtek card. I did not notice this type of problem with any other title, but it was downright annoying with the latest Links release, so much so that it makes it almost impossible to play. Since the game works flawlessly with the Radeon, I have to chalk this up to buggy Geforce drivers.
SIDEBAR: These are not the only games I play, mind you. It's just that I found problems with these titles, and other games like Akimbo, while running the card through its paces. I'm as much into brain-dead shooters and other titles as the next guy, but there are times when I need those 'calm' games to 'unwind' every now and then...
| Conclusions||Page:: ( 4 / 4 )|
The Leadtek WinFast Titanium 500 TD really surprised me. It is very, very fast and at just under $400 after tax, it had better be. But what got me was how much the Geforce line has grown over the last six months or so. When I used Nvidia cards before, the color saturation was poor, the 2D was weak and slow and the drivers were very buggy. But now, with a real hands-on look at the latest in Geforce technology, I'm pretty impressed.
The 2D is 'different' from the ATI card, but seems to be every bit as good in most situations. Yeah, the 2048x1536x32 at 60hz limit is kind of annoying, but in reality, it is a resolution I am not going to use much, if at all, so I'm not letting it get me down. 1920x1440x32 is plenty of screen real estate for all but the most needy techno-geeks and I have to say, this Leadtek card has held up very well at these high resolutions and color depths. I have never seen a Geforce card that can hold a candle to the ATI in terms of 2D quality, much less match it, and the fact that the 2D on this card is actually faster is a real boon. I don't even get those annoying scrolling artifacts in the Music Match song libraries when I use my Logitech Universal Scroll feature. I thought it was a bug in Music Match, but it seems like it was a bug in the ATI drivers. Go figure.
No matter what anybody says, however, the Geforce cannot even come close to the quality of ATI's DVD playback. Same machine, same drives, same software, the ATI simply trounces the Geforce in DVD playback. PowerDVD, WinDVD - it did not matter. ATI is the DVD playback king on the PC, bar none. I'm not a big DVD guy really, and in fact, don't even own a DVD player other than the one in my PC that I got sometime back for testing purposes. But if you are a huge fan of DVD's and want to watch them with the utmost clarity on your PC, go ATI all the way and blow past the Geforce line.
I went into this thinking that the Leadtek card would be fast, but would end up disappointing me to such an extent that I would just return the card and put my Radeon back in. However, having worked with the card for some time now, I've actually decided to keep the darn thing and let my Radeon sit on the shelf. All I really want is rock solid 2D, high quality colors and a whole lot of speed, and this bad boy delivers on all counts. I never thought I'd see the day when a Geforce based card would compete so well against my Radeon in terms of 2D quality and speed, and I surely never thought that the Detonator drivers would end up being so stable. No, they are not perfect, but they sure seem to be good enough for me, and that is really all that matters in the end.
I'm not a full-on convert just yet, mind you. I'm going to keep testing this bad boy until it cries uncle, and then document the results for a later article. So far, so good, but the pessimist in me will keep looking for larger and more critical chinks in the armor. Maybe it will overheat or maybe it will flame out in a blaze of motherboard busting glory - only time will tell. I do plan to get my hands on an 8500 once the driver dust settles and give it a serious once-over. Heck, I'm such an ATI loyalist that maybe I'll give it a twice or thrice-over just for good measure. It is not like money grows on trees you know, and I already have two Radeon's in the house, so unless I can score a loaner, I may have to wait until after the holidays to fork out more cash on a vid card. But rest assured, I'm all about being fair when it comes to ATI, so I'll be all over any opportunities I get to compare their best to Nvidia's best.
For now, I have to suck-it-up and admit that Nvidia and Leadtek have done a very good job of addressing many of the concerns I have historically had with Geforce products. They got some serious heat after their initial Geforce 3 release, not only for the price, but for buggy drivers and lackluster speed compared to the Geforce 2 Ultra. Luckily for consumers, they decided to shut their mouths, put the nose to the grindstone and answer the concerns head-on. They have come out with a faster product with much improved drivers at a pretty good cost point. Leadtek has done it one better by ensuring a great 2D experience and rich, vibrant colors in every mode. Now that ATI has some competition in the image quality arena, it's going to get very interesting out there...
UPDATE: Nvidia released a new, official 23.11 driver update, and sure enough, a few of the minor issues with Links 2001 screen artifacts and Akimbo stuttering are completely fixed. I've also been scanning forums and looking for solutions to the D3D resolution problem, so I'll keep you up to date in a future article. Nvidia sure seems headed in the right direction pretty darn fast, and now I am feeling pretty good about taking the costly plunge! Hopefully, I'll have even more good news to report while my trusty Radeon rests gently on the shelf...
SIDEBAR: Any other ATI fanboys been impressed with the latest Nvidia offerings? Or do you think that ATI is still the undisputed king of quality? If you had $300-$350 to spend on a card, which one would you get? Take a little time and let us know your thoughts in our Comments Section.