- GuillemotPrice - £130
NVIDIA have been making great strides in the graphics chip market with their incredibly fast GeForce and GeForce 2 chips recently, but these are aimed at the top end of the market, which is not where the majority of the money is to be made. As a result NVIDIA have decided to make a move on the mainstream market with the GeForce 2 MX chip. The hardware spec matches that of the low pricing of the board - the main GPU itself runs at 175MHz (as opposed to the 200 on the more expensive GeForce 2 GTS), and the memory is much cheaper and slower SDR SDRAM running at 183MHz. But as the chip is essentially based around the GeForce 2 it supports all the features of the faster chip, such as AGP 4x support and fast writes, as well as bringing the power of the 2nd generation hardware T&L engines of the GTS to the mass market. It is interesting to see that NVIDIA have decided to return to SDR memory after the great debacle that occurred with the original launch of the GeForce 256, with respect to the bandwidth limitations imposed by single cycle memory (SDR). The reasons for this are obvious, as double data rate (DDR) memory is extremely expensive in comparison to the more common SDR memory chips, which are available from virtually every memory manufacturer on the planet. In doing this the GeForce 2 MX's performance will be crippled in comparison to the higher end cards, but we must remember that this card is aimed at the mainstream, where price is the main issue and good performance is something to hope for. Another benefit of the slower memory is that the GPU itself becomes so terribly limited by the lack of bandwidth between itself and the memory that it is no longer necessary to have the chip running as fast. This means that chips that would have failed to run at the 200MHz of the GTS can now be used for the MX if they are capable of the 175MHz required, thereby increasing yield and lowering costs.
Today we are taking a look at one of the better MX boards on the market - the Prophet 2 MX from Hercules. Guillemot recently acquired the ailing American graphics card company Hercules in an attempt to broaden their markets in the States, and it seems to have paid off, except for the loss of the Guillemot brand here in Europe. Apart from the name, one asset that Guillemot did pick up from Hercules is their penchant for high quality board design. The Prophet 2 MX is just as well designed as you would expect from Hercules, and it is impressive how so much has been squeezed into such a small space. The board itself is a rather snazzy blue, which makes a very welcome change from the regular green PCBs we see in most of our PCs. It is also incredibly small, measuring in at only 16cm long and 6.5cm high! This is certainly something that will sit well with those users who are limited to cramped cases. This tiny card is adorned with a huge blue heatsink (no fan) covering the equally large GeForce 2 MX GPU. A smattering of memory adorns the back end of the card, which have no heatsinks (as seen on the Prophet 2 GTS). The output takes the form of the usual 15pin monitor connector - there are no other outputs from the card.
The tests were all run on an Intel Pentium III 800e CPU, running on a i440BX based motherboard with 256Mb PC100 SDRAM.
From the Quake 3 performance we can see that, due to the slower SDR memory, the card is having a little trouble keeping up with the older GeForce DDR. This is a real sign of the memory bandwidth limitations imposed by the SDR memory on the board. It would appear that the maximum fill rate of 700Mtexels/sec isn't really being used to the full, as this is some 220Mtexels/sec greater than the GeForce DDR's maximum and yet the MX is still slower. The 3D Mark 2000 performance also highlights this massive memory bottleneck problem. The GeForce 2 GTS is obviously way out in front, but while the Prophet is edged out by the DDR GeForce the margin is somewhat smaller, which does show that despite these memory limitations the tweaked core of the MX is more powerful than that of the original GeForce 256 chip.
While the older GeForce DDR based boards may well be faster than the Prophet 2 MX, they do still cost considerably more, and this is where the MX will ultimately shine through. Priced at about £130, the Prophet 2 MX is aimed squarely at the mainstream, and as such it will doubtlessly be very successful. And while the performance isn't truly spectacular, one must remember that this is the latest generation of NVIDIA's T&L engine and texture pipelines, and as a result there will be benefits from these refinements that aren't available in the earlier GeForce 256 chips, which may well shine through as games become more complex. The Prophet 2 MX is a great little card (literally) and if you are in the market for something quick but don't have a depthless wallet, then I would strongly urge you to consider the Prophet 2 MX - you could do far worse.