Top 10 Graphics Boards for Gamers

SAN FRANCISCO (08/24/2000) - Rated on specs alone, ATI's latest board--the much-anticipated Radeon--would be a top contender. It packs an impressive technological résumé, with fill-rate specifications of over 1 gigatexel per second, a sophisticated new hardware transform-and-lighting engine, ATI's innovative Hyper-Z compression for faster frame rates at the highest resolutions, and the ability to process three texture units per pass (more than any other board). The version we tested comes with 64MB of fast Double Data Rate memory (the 32MB version uses a slightly slower version of DDR and has a slightly slower clock speed).

But those striking features come with an equally imposing $400 price. And our tests, using typical color depths and resolutions, indicated that the Radeon doesn't pack the punch we expect from such an expensive product. While the Radeon's numbers in Unreal Tournament came close to the scores of GeForce 2 GTS boards and 3dfx's new Voodoo5, its Quake III Arena numbers landed it substantially behind the GeForce2 GTS boards. As a result, the Radeon did not make our shortlist. To be fair, our tests were not done at the very high resolutions at which the Radeon is designed to do its best work.

GeForce2 Goes Ultra

Just as ATI mounted its first credible gaming challenge in recent memory with the Radeon board, NVidia announced its next-generation chip, the GeForce2 Ultra, whose main improvements are faster clock speed and improved memory bandwidth. NVidia will increase the graphics processor speed to 250 MHz. (The GeForce2 GTS runs at 200 MHz.) The board will also use DDR memory that's faster than what is currently available, running at 460 MHz (up from the GeForce2 GTS's 333 MHz). Such improvements should pay off in a significant performance boost. Expected to be the first to market in September is Creative Labs with its Annihilator 2 Ultra, a product that will be for serious (and well-heeled) gamers only--the announced price is $499. Additional boards are expected to bear the Elsa and Hercules brands, among others.

NVidia also recently announced its new Detonator 3 drivers, which it says should provide a substantial boost for all GeForce graphics boards.

Beyond the Top 10

At press time we learned that last month's least expensive board, S3 Diamond Multimedia's Viper II, is being phased out, and that the company is getting out of the graphics board business.

None of the recently tested boards listed below ranked high enough to secure a spot in our current Top 10. Where possible, we link to reviews of these models, either from PC World magazine's Top 10 Graphics Boards or from a previous month's version of PCWorld.com's Top 10 Graphics Boards for Gamers.

AGP Boards

Aopen's PA3030 RIVA TNT2 Ultra

Asus's AGP-V6600 GeForce 256 Deluxe, AGP-V6600 Pure, and AGP-V6800 Pure DDR-DVIATI Technologies' All-in-Wonder 128, All-in-Wonder 128 Pro, Radeon, Rage Fury Maxx, Rage Fury Pro, Xpert 128, and Xpert 2000Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS 64MBMatrox's Marvel G400-TV and Millennium G400MSI's Power 3D GeForce 256S3 Diamond Multimedia's Stealth III S540 XtremeHow We Test We test graphics boards under Windows 98 SE. Business tests include PC WorldBench 98. Our 3D score is based on tests with games that are evaluated on frame rate (67 percent) and image quality (33 percent). We use GT Interactive's Unreal Tournament, Id Software's Quake III Arena, and Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2000 for both performance and quality testing. We also use Electronic Arts' Need for Speed: High Stakes for speed tests, paired with Sierra's Viper Racing for image quality. We test graphics boards in a Dell Dimension XPS T600 with a PIII-600 CPU and 128MB of SDRAM. Overall rating is based on 3D and 2D performance (55 percent and 10 percent respectively--65 percent overall), features (15 percent), price (10 percent), and support policies (10 percent).

For Quake III frame rate, higher is better. (For reference: Videotape and movies run at 30 and 24 frames per second, respectively.) Data based on tests designed and conducted by the PC World Test Center. All rights reserved.

#1 Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | For the third month in a row, the 32MB Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS occupies the top slot on our chart. With a $20 price drop this month, the 3D Prophet II is an even better deal. Like the other NVidia GeForce2 GTS boards, the 3D Prophet II was a screamer in our Quake III Arena tests, posting a 90-frames-per-second score at a 16-bit color depth and producing 79 fps at 32-bit color. Despite the minimal performance difference between the 3D Prophet II and its GeForce2 GTS competition, it remains the winner because of its superior image quality. For example, the number two Elsa Gladiac generated only fair results overall in Unreal Tournament and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000, while the 3D Prophet II had good scores on all our test games.

WHAT'S NOT | While the 3D Prophet II's Quake III frame rates were impressive, its performance scores in other games, such as Unreal Tournament and Viper Racing, were no higher than those of many other boards. And for this much dough, you'd really expect to see some full games packaged with the card, not just demos.

WHAT ELSE | The 3D Prophet II GTS ships with heat sinks on the RAM for overclocking, and an overclocking utility is bundled for gamers who want to put the pedal to the metal. You can output to a TV through the S-Video port, and the board includes DVD acceleration. Hercules offers a three-year warranty on the 3D Prophet II GTS, with toll-free tech support for 11 hours each weekday.

BEST USE | Unless you'd rather wait a month and spend the extra $200 or so for a GeForce2 Ultra board, a GeForce2 GTS board is still your best option. Even though no full games are included, the Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS sports one of the best packages we've seen.

Buying Information

Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS

$299; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce2 GTS chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, TV-out connector, DVD hardware acceleration, no bundled applications.

877/484-5536www.hercules.com

#2 Elsa Gladiac GeForce2 GTS

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | Though its image quality can't match that of the Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS, Elsa's Gladiac is no slouch--it's managed to hold steady at number two on the chart for three months running, biting at the heels of the mighty Hercules. A one-time record holder for Quake III Arena frame rates, the Gladiac has since been beaten by the Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS 64MB by 1 frame per second at both the 16-bit and 32-bit color depths. At the resolutions and color depths we used for testing, that's a negligible difference. No games are bundled with the card, but Elsa lets you select up to three game titles at 50 percent off retail from its site. On the list, you'll find Messiah, MDK 2, Evolva, Earthworm Jim 3D, and others.

WHAT'S NOT | Like the Hercules board, the Gladiac doesn't offer much speed improvement in games other than Quake III. And at $319, it's a bit more expensive than the 3D Prophet II. The differences between the Gladiac's image quality and the 3D Prophet II's, if not dramatic, were noticeable: An annoying, bluish haze in Unreal Tournament and some unnatural effects in the water in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 were our main complaints about the Elsa board.

WHAT ELSE | Elsa provides a lengthy six-year warranty and toll-free tech support for 9 hours each weekday. The company says an optional TV-in/TV-out module will be available by the end of August.

BEST USE | This GeForce2 GTS board came in a very close second to our Best Buy.

The discounted games take a bit of the edge off the price. With more refined drivers, this board could surpass the Hercules 3D Prophet II GTS.

Buying Information

Elsa Gladiac GeForce2 GTS

$319; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce2 GTS chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, select up to three game titles at 50 percent off retail.

800/272-3572www.elsa.com

#3 Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator 2 Reviewed: August 23, 2000 WHAT'S HOT | Creative knows how to deal graphics cards. The impressive 3D Blaster Annihilator 2 is Creative's foray into the world of NVidia GeForce2 GTS products. It offers Quake III Arena frame rates nearly identical to those of the top two boards--78 frames per second in 32-bit color and 90 fps in 16-bit color--and it costs $19 less than the Elsa Gladiac. The image quality in Quake III and Unreal Tournament was terrific, with excellent ambient lighting and realistic reflections in both.

WHAT'S NOT | No games are bundled with the board, and blurry textures in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 led to only a fair rating in that game.

WHAT ELSE | Although the bundle lacks games, it does include E-Color's Colorific and 3Deep utilities, in addition to Creative's own Enhanced BlasterControl 4.0 utility for adjusting and calibrating lighting and colors.

The company offers a three-year warranty, as well as tech support for 14 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, and 8 hours on Sundays. You'll have to pay any toll charges.

BEST USE | Gamers hankering for GeForce2 GTS performance will find that Creative's 3D Blaster Annihilator 2 offers excellent results. Although its display glitch in Flight Simulator 2000 kept it from rising above its higher-ranked competitors, it's close in value to those boards.

Buying Information

Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator 2

$300; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce2 GTS chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, TV-out connector, bundled color-calibration utilities.

800/998-1000www.creative.com

#4 Asus AGP-V7700

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | Like its GeForce2 GTS-powered competition, Asus's AGP-V7700 delivered blistering speeds in both Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament, with heady Quake III scores of 79 frames per second at a 32-bit color depth and 90 fps in 16-bit color. Image quality was terrific in all our test games; in both Quake III and Unreal Tournament, the reflections off the guns were remarkably realistic. Asus also throws in full versions of both Drakan and Rollcage, as well as a package containing 12 game demos. And the AGP-V7700, sporting a $10 price drop this month, is the least expensive GeForce2 GTS board we've found.

WHAT'S NOT | We weren't able to install the drivers automatically using the CD-ROM, so we were forced to install them manually--a process that could be daunting to unsophisticated users.

WHAT ELSE | Asus offers a competitive three-year warranty on the V7700. Tech support is available for only 9 hours each weekday, and you'll pay for any toll charges.

BEST USE | The relatively low price is attractive, and as long as you can handle the manual driver installation, the AGP-V7700 is a nice deal.

Buying Information

Asus AGP-V7700

$269; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce2 GTS chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, bundled software DVD player, games, and 12-demo CD-ROM.

510/739-3777www.asus.com

#5 Gainward CardExpert GeForce 256 DDR

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | A relative unknown in the land of graphics boards, the CardExpert GeForce 256 DDR offered nearly as much zip at our 800-by-600 test resolution as did the newer GeForce2 GTS boards--despite its older NVidia GeForce 256 engine, and for a significantly lower price. Granted, its Quake III numbers--84 frames per second in 16-bit color and 71 fps in 32-bit color--were lower. But like the Hercules 3D Prophet DDR-DVI, the CardExpert's Unreal Tournament and Viper Racing scores were quite competitive. The CardExpert also ships with a couple extras: full versions of Drakan and Rollcage.

WHAT'S NOT | While graphics looked accurate in both Quake III and Unreal Tournament, we saw some dithering of transparencies and dull textures in Viper Racing and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000.

WHAT ELSE | In addition to the two full games, the CardExpert ships with a software DVD player and a games demo pack. An S-Video-out port lets you play games on a TV. The company offers a three-year warranty on the board and toll-free tech support for 9 hours each weekday.

BEST USE | If you'd rather not bust open your piggy bank to purchase a top-of-the-line card, the CardExpert GeForce 256 DDR is a solid alternative.

Just keep in mind that within a month or so you'll be two generations removed from the cutting edge.

Buying Information

Gainward CardExpert GeForce 256 DDR

$230; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce 256 chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, TV-out connector, bundled 3D games and software DVD player.

800/539-2273www.gainward.com

#6 Hercules 3D Prophet DDR-DVI

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | Boasting high frame rates in Unreal Tournament and Viper Racing, not to mention solid Quake III performance (85 frames per second in 16-bit color and 72 fps in 32-bit color), the Hercules 3D Prophet DDR-DVI also provides DVD acceleration.

WHAT'S NOT | Even after a $10 price cut this month, the card's $259 price is still a bit high for a product with an older-generation GeForce 256 engine--and especially for a package that lacks any full games.

WHAT ELSE | Hercules offers a three-year warranty on the 3D Prophet DDR-DVI, with toll-free tech support for 11 hours each weekday.

BEST USE | This is a fine gaming board with terrific Unreal Tournament and Viper Racing performance, not to mention the added bonus of DVD hardware acceleration. But if you're willing to pay $259, you might as well pay a few dollars more and spring for a GeForce2 GTS board.

Buying Information

Hercules 3D Prophet DDR-DVI

$259; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce 256 chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, DVI port, TV-out connector, DVD hardware acceleration, no bundled applications.

877/484-5536www.hercules.com

#7 3dfx Voodoo5 5500

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | Sporting two of 3dfx's VSA-100 graphics chips, the Voodoo5 5500 offers 64MB of video memory (32MB for each chip). The board provided the highest frame rates we've seen in Unreal Tournament: 51 frames per second in 16-bit color and 48 fps in 32-bit color. Although the Voodoo5 5500 lacks the hardware transform-and-lighting capability of GeForce2 GTS boards, its hardware full-screen antialiasing works well to remove jagged edges from graphical images. And you can't beat 3dfx's lifetime warranty.

WHAT'S NOT | The Voodoo5 5500 sells for $299--as much as our Best Buy--but performs generally slower overall. Its frame rates in Quake III were substantially lower than the scores posted by GeForce 2 GTS boards--69 frames per second at a 16-bit color depth and 68 fps in 32-bit color. In addition, the board earned only a fair rating for image quality in Unreal Tournament, in which it produced dull reflections and a dark overall appearance. To supply the added juice necessary to keep this board running, you'll have to use one of your disk drive power leads.

WHAT ELSE | The board comes bundled with 3dfx Tools, which allow you to configure your PC's lighting and color settings. Toll-free tech support is available for 12 hours each weekday and 8 hours every Saturday.

BEST USE | The Voodoo5 5500 is impressive compared to previous 3dfx offerings, producing generally terrific-looking images. But the better overall performance of the top-ranked boards still shows that the NVidia GeForce2 GTS products are at the top of their game.

Buying Information

3dfx Voodoo5 5500

$299; 4X AGP, 64MB of SDRAM, two 3dfx VSA-100 chips, 350-MHz RAMDAC, bundled software MPEG decoder and color-calibration utilities, no bundled games.

888/234-4334www.3dfx.com

#8 Matrox Millennium G400 Max

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | An all-around graphics board and not a pure gaming card, the inexpensive Millennium G400 Max delivers some excellent extras. Running the faster 360-MHz RAMDAC and a different chip than its Millennium G400 sibling, the G400 Max provided realistic lighting effects and a big performance improvement over the Millennium G400 in most of our gaming tests. Matrox offers an unusually large software bundle at this price point, including Micrografx's Picture Publisher 8 image editor and Simply 3D graphics animation program, along with the Rage Software game Expendable, and Matrox's own software DVD player. This board also supports Environment-Mapped Bump Mapping, a technique that provides greater photo-realism in some games. Built-in support for two monitors under Windows 98, 2000, and NT is also part of the deal. (Windows NT lacks native support for dual monitors, but Matrox's drivers overcome that limitation.) Matrox's DualHead Display lets each monitor run a separate application, resolution, and refresh rate. (Under Windows 2000, the DualHead feature does not include support for independent refresh rates or resolutions.) Note that we have not tested the dual-display features.

WHAT'S NOT | The Matrox Millennium G400 Max earned below-average scores--particularly in Need for Speed: High Stakes, where its 15-frames-per-second showing was among the slowest. It was also below average in Quake III at both the 16-bit and 32-bit color depths, where it managed 74 fps and 50 fps, respectively.

WHAT ELSE | Matrox offers a three-year warranty and tech support (on your dime) for 10 hours each weekday.

BEST USE | A fine board for all-around use, the Millennium G400 Max is also a great choice for those who need dual-display capability. Dedicated, speed-hungry gamers will be dissatisfied, however.

Buying Information

Matrox Millennium G400 Max

$209; 4X AGP, 32MB of SGRAM, Matrox G400 Max chip, 360-MHz RAMDAC, TV-out connector, bundled image editor, 3D graphics and animation program, game, and software DVD player.

800/361-1408www.matrox.com/mga

#9 Leadtek WinFast GeForce 256 DDR

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | Leadtek's WinFast GeForce 256 DDR exhibited good frame rates in our test games. Although the WinFast was slower in Quake III than were the other GeForce 256 DDR boards and the GeForce2 GTS boards, it was as fast or faster in Unreal Tournament and Viper Racing. In Quake III, the WinFast produced excellent lighting effects with nice highlights on the guns, but too much contrast on the sky. Like the Hercules 3D Prophet boards, the WinFast offers DVD hardware acceleration, which should give you better video playback on monitors or TVs.

WHAT'S NOT | No games are bundled with the board. In Unreal Tournament, reflections were a little flat and some textures appeared fuzzy. Leadtek's stated one-year warranty is the shortest offered by any vendor on our chart.

WHAT ELSE | Though the WinFast board includes no games, it still ships with a nice software bundle, including a software DVD player, E-Color's 3Deep and Colorific, Web and video producers, and other utilities. Leadtek offers tech support for 9.5 hours each weekday (though you'll pay toll charges).

BEST USE | If you want to save a few bucks off the cost of a GeForce2 GTS board, the WinFast GeForce 256 DDR is an option. But for $20 more, the number four Asus AGP-V7700 is much faster.

Buying Information

Leadtek WinFast GeForce 256 DDR

$249; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce 256 chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, optional DVI interface and TV-out connector, DVD hardware acceleration, bundled Web authoring tools, digital video editing application, and color- and video-calibration utilities.

510/490-8076www.leadtek.com

#10 MSI StarForce 815

Reviewed: August 23, 2000

WHAT'S HOT | MSI has gotten into the graphics board market only recently, but its first GeForce2 GTS board is a serious contender. The StarForce 815 earned roughly the same numbers as the top four boards on the chart did--90 frames per second in Quake III at a 16-bit color depth, and 79 fps in 32-bit color. And at $269 this board costs less than many of the other GeForce2 GTS boards.

WHAT'S NOT | The StarForce 815's image quality was not as good as that of other GeForce2 GTS boards. In Viper Racing the clouds appeared blotchy, and in Flight Simulator 2000 the textures were dull.

WHAT ELSE | MSI offers support for 10 hours per weekday, but you'll have to pay any toll charges. A three-year warranty is offered through the distributor, not the manufacturer. The board is also bundled with a software DVD player.

BEST USE | The StarForce 815 performed quite well, but its drivers could use some tuning.

Buying Information

MSI StarForce 815

$269; 4X AGP, 32MB of DDR SGRAM, NVidia GeForce2 GTS chip, 350-MHz RAMDAC, bundled software DVD player and overclocking utility.

510/623-8818www.msicomputer.com

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