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Thursday, February 19: NVidia GeForce Chips Explained

Patrick Norton

I love the fact that NVidia has pushed the limits on 3D performance (NVidia's drivers aren't bad, either). The company has established its reputation by releasing new products every six months or so. The downside? With new chips coming out and older chips still on the market, that means a lot of NVidia-based boards on the shelves.

TNT2-based boards are cheap; I still see them on shelves for up to $50. Same thing for GeForce 256, the first generation of GeForce processors. For that money, you can get the latest generation of GeForce4 boards, at least the low-cost MX versions.

That said, the GeForce4 MX-based boards might not be the best way to go. Don't get me wrong: Every board listed will play games (especially pre-DirectX 8 games). Read Tom's VGA Charts (http://www17.tomshardware.com) for a comparison of almost every graphics card sold in the last three or four years. Look closely; you'll see that the GeForce3 and GeForce3 Ti 500 generally outperform the newer GeForce4 MX boards and pretty much trounce them on Aquanox, a DirectX 8 game.

GeForce3 vs. GeForce4

The GeForce3 is actually more advanced technology than the GeForce4 MX, which is essentially a souped-up GeForce2 MX processor. The GeForce4 doesn't contain the nfiniteFX engine (NVidia's vertex shader), which means it doesn't fully support DirectX 8.1. All GeForce3 cards pack this feature. That's one reason the GeForce4 MX is cheaper.

The main differences between the GeForce4 MX and the GeForce2 MX cards are the clock speeds and the GeForce4 MX's Light Speed Memory Architecture II. The GeForce4 MX's implementation of this memory controller has half the segments of the GeForce3 and GeForce4 Ti, and thus considerably less memory bandwidth and performance. While we're going over gadgetry, the GeForce3 boards have a single vertex shader, compared to the GeForce4 Ti's pair of shaders.

For a few dollars more than the GeForce 4Mx 460, you'll get heaps better performance and a longer life with a GeForce4 420Ti board (or, for less money, the late GeForce3 boards), especially if you regularly buy new games. The GeForce4 MX boards are missing those crucial vertex and pixel shaders. That's not a problem with today's Quake, but soon games will demand Direct X 8 or Direct X 9. Avoid the bottom of the barrel GeForce4 MX420; it will barely outperform the GeForce2 MX400.

GeForce Bargains

The best bargains are GeForce3 boards if they're priced under GeForce4 MX cards. The GeForce4 420Ti is the best deal on a top-of-the-line video card. The GeForce4 420Ti is an ideal choice for a middle-of-the-line video card. The GeForce4 MX 440 is a good deal, as long as you pay less than $80 and understand that you'll want to replace it in a year.

If you're running less than a 1GHz processor and already have a GeForce board, you should upgrade the processor first. Or, upgrade the processor and the video card in tandem. Thinking about a top-of-the-line GeForce4 Ti board? You're wasting money if your processor can't feed it, and 1GHz is pretty much the starting point.

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