Upgrading your graphics card has never been so expensive. To pick up a cutting edge card based on NVIDIA's cracking Titanium 500 reference design could set you back upwards of £350. These days you could probably replace your monitor for less. If you have to buy NVIDIA though - and judging from the emails we've been getting that's a lot of you - then you probably want to know whether it's worth sifting through the various boards on the market, or whether you should simply go for the cheapest. It would be impossible for us to scrounge every single GeForce 3-derived card on the market, but by examining a cross-section of the products on offer we can establish whether any performance difference exists, or not... There are three categories; GeForce 3 Titanium 200, vanilla GeForce 3 and GeForce 3 Titanium 500. Our control for each category is the appropriate NVIDIA reference board. If you aren't familiar with GeForce 3 or GeForce 3 Titanium, we recommend you check out the respective reviews. Wherever a board varies from the reference design, it has been noted below.
Hercules 3D Prophet III Titanium 200 (£230)
ELSA Gladiac 721 (£200)
Visiontek Xtasy 6564 (£200)
Hercules 3D Prophet III (£280)
ELSA Gladiac 920 revised board (£250) - no DVI out
Visiontek GeForce 3 (£250)
ABIT Siluro GeForce 3 (£280)
Hercules 3D Prophet III Titanium 500 (£330)
ELSA Gladiac 921 (£350)
Visiontek Xtasy 6964 (£330)
We do not expect to see any one card pull away from the others in terms of performance. None of them vary a great deal from the reference design, although the ELSA Gladiac 920 does not feature a DVI output for digital flat panels, which should be kept in mind considering its price tag.
Our test system was an AMD Athlon XP 1800+ running on an ABIT KG7-RAID, with 512Mb of PC2100 DDR RAM and a fast IBM 60GXP hard disk. The test operating system was Windows XP, and NVIDIA's 21.85 driverset was employed. All of the tests were conducted at 1600x1200 resolution with a 32-bit colour depth. As well as the usual Quake 3 and 3D Mark 2001, we also used Max Payne and Serious Sam to test performance in more graphically intensive games, and to really push the hardware to its limits we used an exclusive Ballistics benchmark provided by Swedish developers Grin. GeForce 3 Titanium 200
One of the questions that a lot of gamers and hardware enthusiasts have asked lately is whether or not it's worth overclocking a GeForce 3. After playing around with these cards for a while, we've come to the conclusion that you probably won't notice the difference, but that there are a few extra globules of performance to extract from each of the cards in this roundup via the ignoble art of overclocking. There are two things you can overclock on a graphics card - the GPU's core frequency, and the memory clock frequency. To overclock an NVIDIA card you must first enable the hidden "Cool bits" overclocking tab in the GeForce 3 control panel. To do this, open the Windows Registry Editor (run 'regedit') and navigate to the "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\NVIDIA Corporation\Global" directory. Right click on the "Global" directory and create a new key titled "NVTweak". Then right-click on the NVTweak key and create a new dword value named "Coolbits". Double-click on Coolbits and set its value to "3". Then close the Registry Editor and restart windows. When you have rebooted, right-click on the desktop, select the Settings tab, then Advanced, then the GeForce tab. Click on Additional Properties to load up the tweaking screens and navigate to the Coolbits tab. From here you can overclock your NVIDIA graphics card. The trick is to gradually edge the two slider bars to the right and run a heavy-duty 3D game to test each new setting. If you start to see specs of white or any other unusual artefacts, just pop the slider bars back to the largest numbers that the card passed on. Try varying each slider individually too, to see what gives you the biggest performance increase.
In our testing, the average overclocks were interesting, to say the least. All of the Titanium 200 boards made it to 220MHz core frequency, and the memory made it to 450MHz minimum. Our best overclock was 225/485 with the Visiontek board. This put the board on a par performance wise with the more expensive vanilla card. Which, we discovered, could be pushed a darn sight harder in the memory department than any of the others. The core made it to 240MHz in every case, and 250MHz in the case of the ELSA and Visiontek boards, while the memory made it to an extraordinary 540MHz in the case of the Visiontek board. That's Ti500 territory. Speaking of which, the Ti500 itself went quite some way too. The core rarely went beyond 250MHz, with the Visiontek stretching to 270MHz, but the memory made it quite far. 580MHz in every case except for the reference board, which only managed 575MHz. This could have been a testing problem though. Which is all very well, until you consider that the Ti200 boards made the biggest increase in framerate, 15 frames per second in the Quake III Arena test and a handful more each in the various others. Only in the case of the Ti200 would we call it a purchase consideration. If you get lucky with the Ti200, it would appear that GeForce 3-like scores are perfectly possible. If you waded through the benchmarks, you'll be wondering why you bothered. It's clear from the graphs that no single card stands out at default clock speeds from its competitors. This is because generally speaking they all follow the reference design with only minor variations. From the benchmarks, the conclusion has to be that price is the decider, not performance. Really, this writer cannot possibly recommend a GeForce 3 Titanium 500 at current prices. £300+ is simply indefensible. Who has £300 to blow on a graphics card upgrade? If your system is a bit long in the tooth and you have to buy NVIDIA, pick up a cheap Athlon processor and a GeForce 3 Titanium 200. At the moment, they make the perfect combination.
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