We've been fortunate at HEXUS recently in that we've been able to take a good look at the high end of consumer graphics, and also a dabble in the midrange, with boards like ATI's Radeon 9600 Pro and NVIDIA's GeForce FX5600 Ultra. But it's been strangely quiet on the low end side of things.
That's unfortunate, since a quick glance at the chief contenders show it to be a lively sector, with some good products at obviously good prices.
Recent entrants to the low cost arena include 256MB Radeon 9200's at a fair few UK OEM's (and worldwide too I'm sure) along with NVIDIA's own budget GPU, NV34, in the form of various models carrying the FX 5200 moniker.
It's one such NV34 based board that we're looking at today, Gainward's FX 5200 Ultra Pro/760 XP. Before I plunge on into the board specifics, it's worth our time going over just what NV34/FX5200 is, compared to other GPU's in NVIDIA's line up.
At it's core (pun intended), NV34 is a 45 million transistor 150nm design, built by TMSC in Taiwan. It sports a 128-bit memory bus to onboard card memory, a 250 or 325MHz core clock depending on whether it's an Ultra, memory clocked at 400 or 650MHz by the same token, and 4 render pipes with a single texture unit per pipe. Full DirectX 9 compatibility comes via a dedicated shader unit per pipeline.
But, compared to its FX 5600 bigger brother (NV31), an 80 million transistor design on 130nm, it obviously loses some features in those missing 35 million transistors.
It's those missing transistors that set NV34 apart from NV31, and make NV34 such a budget chip. You see, NV34 performs no Z-buffer optimisations, nor colour optimisations to boot. While other optimisations are present on NV31, the most commonly used is compression. The extra silicon compresses the colour or Z data before shifting it to the rest of the GPU for further processing or display, effectively increasing bandwidth.
NV34 is crippled in this regard, and with NVIDIA's 5th generation GPU's, that's where a lot of their power comes from. Data compression and the bandwidth efficiency that brings, is very effective in keeping AA and AF performance up as high as possible, and it loses those abilities. So, on paper, NV34 is very much a budget performer.
The Ultra version, sporting 350MHz core clock and 4 pipelines, means a pixel fillrate of 1300Mpixels/second and a texture fillrate of 1300Mtexels/second, due to only having 1 TMU per pipe. Memory bandwidth using the DDR-I modules is a measly ~10.4GB/sec (16-bytes per clock, 650 million clocks per second). And remember, not much of that bandwidth is going to be used efficiently, without compression technology.
It smacks very much like the performance of 2 year old GPU's like GeForce3 (NV25), all things averaged out, with DirectX 9 support from the shader hardware.
But, it's a budget GPU, NVIDIA don't hide that, therefore we shouldn't approach the performance with such scepticism. It's prudent to concentrate on price, board features and bundled software and games, at this end of the market. So that's what we'll do with Gainward's interpretation. On we plough.