The Ultimate GPU Guide
It is a very difficult task to write a Video Card buying guide that is "all encompassing". And is rather easier to simply pick cards that are fast and go on praising them without really paying attention to the other components, that they’ll be paired with.
This guide is very different from the ones that you may have seen before. It will not only take into account the video card, but will also factor in other components that make up a gaming computer.
The guide is divided in to 4 sections, the first two are lead-ins to the third which is all about the graphic cards. The fourth section has all the benchmark figures. They are all bunched together for easier access. Just open page 7 in a new tab or window. Viola! Instant access to the graphs as you read through the guide.
- Factoring in the PC: Looking beyond 'Graphics'
- The Political Factor
- Buying the card
- Performance Figures
Through out the guide I'll be using the term "Core" to refer to Core "i" series from Intel. I'll use the term "Core2" for Core2 Duo and Core2 Quad processors (again from Intel). Though ATi does not exist any more as (it became AMD sometime ago), I'll be using the name "ATi" to refer to cards made by what is now AMD (call me old fashioned, but I like to keep things simple: ATi vs Nvidia, Intel vs AMD).
I'll use the term PCI-e x16 to refer to the slot which is used to connect your graphics card to the mother board. This stand for Peripheral Component Interconnect Express. The x16 refers to the number of lanes that take data to and from the graphics card.
Also I did not include any AMD processors in my guide. The reason is that their prices locally do not justify their purchase. An AMD Phenom II 955 Black Edition processor is about PKR. 25,000 . Its Intel Equalent, is the Core i5. It is PKR. 5,000 cheaper and performs way better. AMD is also not well represented when it comes to motherboards.
Factoring in the PC: Looking beyond 'Graphics'
Your graphics card is just one of the (many) bits and pieces that make up your personal computer. Just like putting a Corolla’s Engine into a Ferrari’s chassis is not going to give you Ferrari’s performance, putting in the latest + greatest graphics card into an aging computer is not going to make crysis magically run like a dream with loads of eye candy.
It is a very good idea to factor in what you have, unless you are going the extra mile and upgrading the lot. (I’ll add a word about this as well)
The most important components that need to be factored in are:
- The Central Processing Unit (CPU)
- The Display
- The Motherboard
- System Memory
- The Power Supply
The Central Processing Unit (CPU)
If you have ever read a CPU review, you notice that most games are benchmarked at the lowest possible resolution. That is done to take out the graphics card as the limiting factor. Unless you have the the top of the line graphics card, two of these for good measure, the graphics card will becoming the limiting factor much before the CPU. Very few games are CPU intensive as compared to graphics card intensive. The ones that come immediately to mind are strategy simulations (real time), flight simulators (like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator in its latest incarnation).
So why is CPU selection important from a gamer's perspective?
- If you do happen to have very fast graphics cards, or have enough money (and the will) to spend on them, the CPU will eventually start to factor in.
- Having a fast processor will give a “better” gaming experience, in terms of consistency of frame rates.
- Windows 7 has better multithreading support as compared to Windows XP and thus will perform better with a processor that features more processing cores.
- New generation processors have integrated memory controllers, higher bandwidth to graphics cards. This really comes into play when you want to run discrete multi graphics card configurations.
So what is exactly a “fast” enough processor today? If you are not convinced that a quad core solution is the way to go, then a E8400 is good enough for casual/ mainstream gamers. If quad core is you weapon of choice a Q9550 is a very good solution.
However if your system is in for an upgrade nothing beats a core i5 or a core i7 solution. The only limiting factor being your pocket (err...i.e. the cash inside it).
There are several things going for a Core processor, even the youngest of the siblings the core i5-750.
- Integrated memory controller: Though not the triple channel variety found on the Core i7 “9” series, this is definitely the way to go. AMD has had this for ages and Intel has them now.
- Turbo boost:The processor would automatically speed it self up, significantly. Depending on the application running, this can either greatly speed up a single core, if the program is not multi core aware, significantly speed up two cores and noticeably speed up all four cores as well. You do not need a special motherboard, it is inherently built into the processor. The limiting factor is the processor’s thermal threshold. As long as it remains below that it will speed it self up. Provide better than bog standard cooling and this can significantly increase your chances of hitting higher speeds consistently.
- New architecture: Core i5, i7 processors are based on Intel’s Nehalem architecture. It has more instructions that speed up gaming, has better memory performance as well as a better tweaked Float Processor Unit (or FPU).
- Consumes less power for equalent performance: In the days of high electricity cost this will eventually start to factor in. As an example at 100% load, an equivalent Core i7-920 system and a Core i7-860 system (both nearly the same in terms of performance) will consume about 380 watts and 340 watts respectively. Over clock them to 4.2 GHz, the 920 jumps to 410 watts, the 860 jumps to a cooler 360.
What if you have the resources to go the extra mile? Or at least have an option of getting a core i5 versus a core i7-920 (The only two Core processors available locally)?
All things considered an i7-920 system has several things going for it:
- Triple channel integrated memory controller: More of a benchmark show off than something that will make a significant difference in gaming performance.
- Quick Path Interconnect (QPI) bus: One of the reasons that motherboards for Core i7 “9” series processor are priced much higher is that they use >20GB/Sec bus. The Core i5, i7 “8” series use a more traditional DMI bus. This is 2GB/Sec. In order to keep graphics performance up to scratch the PCI-e lanes are moved on to the processor die. PCI-e is the slot where the graphics cards go. The lanes connect the two together and keep performance up.
- PCI-e Lanes:Speaking of PCI-e lanes, the best possible scenario for Core processor other than the “9” series is x8, x8. With “9” series x16, x16 is possible –in fact it is a given. One of the reasons given for better multi GPU performance on Core i7 "9" series as compared to others is their x16, x16 configuration. But this is just one of the factors that give them an edge in this scenario (more on this later).
- Multiple video cards: If you are going multi vide cards, the “9” series is the natural choice. More PCI-e lanes, the QPI bus gives it a significant 10-17% improvement over a comparable “5” or “8” series system.
- Over-clocking: It is easier to over clock a “9” series processor as compared to others specially at default voltages. Infact hitting 3.8 Ghz on default voltage using a 920 is pretty easy. For a 8 series or a 5 series the limit is closer to 3.4 GHz.
- Six Core Processors: Intel is going to limit its upcoming 6 core processor to the LGA 1366 socket (Meant for the 9 series processors; the 5 and 8 series use the LGA 1156 socket). If you are the type who must have the latest, then Core i7 "9" series is the way to go now.
Core i5 and Core i7 8 series do have much better turbo modes. For example a 920 will hit a maximum of 133 MHz above its default speed for all 4 cores, and 266 MHz for two cores. (Default speed is 2.66 GHz)
A core i5 will hit 3.20 GHz from its base of 2.66 GHz a jump of nearly 600 MHz for 1 or 2 cores. For 3 or 4 cores this is 2.80 GHz. A Core i7 860 will do 3.46 GHz (up from 2.80 GHz) for 1 or 2 cores.
Their motherboards are also cheaper. Once the core i7 860 hits local markets, it will be the CPU for those with deepish pockets. For the rest of us the Core i5 will do nicely especially once it gets near its real retail price of about PKR. 17,000.
In brief, for mainstream/ casual gaming a E8400 will do. As will a Q9550. For those who want better performance a Core i5 is a must. For the best performance especially in a dual video card configuration consider the Core i7 920 the king. While there are faster processors available in the Core i7 family. However locally you are limited to this or the ultra expensive Extreme Edition (the cost differential is about PKR. 65,000, which can not be justified).
Already Own (and Keep): E8400/ Q9550
Buy New: Core i5-750/ Core i7-920 (Until Core i7-860 is available)