A Few Words On Video Cards . . .

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We haven’t spoken on video cards for a while, so it’s time for an update.

XBitLabs reported the other day that video cards significantly better than those available today won’t be around until next year.

They also did a very nice review of the great and near-great high-end cards available today, and also overclocked the near-great and benchmarked them extensively.

They concluded that if bang-for-the-buck is very important, a Radeon 9800 non-Pro appeared to be the best choice.

But then there are Radeon 9800 non-Pros, and Radeon non-non pros.

There are two Radeon 9800 non-pros. They are the Radeon 9800 SE, and the plain old Radeon 9800.

The Radeon 9800 SE goes for about $200 in the US these day. The “SE” stands for “Special Edition.” Unfortunately, this is a “Special” Edition like the “Special Olympics” are special.

Well, not quite. In the case of the video card, the physical handicap is quite deliberate: four of the eight pipelines operational on real 9800s are disabled.

To complicate matters more, there are two versions of the 9800 SE, a 128-bit version and a 256-bit version. What the difference? As one member of our forums (Shade00) succinctly put it:

“The 256-bit board will look like a Radeon 9700. The 128-bit board will look like a 9500 Pro. All of the Sapphire cards I’ve seen have been 128-bit. All of the Powercolor cards I’ve seen have been 256-bit. The Powercolors are usually the same price as a 9800 np (around $250). The Sapphires are the ones for under $200.”

Why would one care? You may be able to enable the four other pipelines with the 256-bit version; you can’t with the others.

Unfortunately, all the cheaper 9800 SEs are the 129-bit version (both Sapphire and “ATI”). I can confirm that the Powercolor version costs practically the same as the regular 9800, so there’s no point in risking the mod.

So you don’t want the 9800 SE. If you have to buy a higher-end card (but see below) what you want is the plain 9800. That comes out to about $250.

Yes, I know that’s a lot of buck for the bang.

In ancient times, say a year ago, one would have expected the Radeon 9700 or Radeon 9700 Pro to be at $200 or below. These are not ancient times. Few places sell them, and even the cheapest Pricewatch place charges north of $200 for one.

In ancient times, one could have hoped that prices would eventually slide once newer models came out, but Radeon 9700 prices and the 9800 SE give one little reason for hope. It seems that ATI is quite determined to give you a crippled video card if you are determined to spend less than $200 for one.

nVidia? It’s as bad or worse over there.

Effective Collusion

I’m not going to play X-Files, but both ATI and nVidia have figured out, either separately or together, that they can get more money out of you by crippling their medium-range cards than by just making them somewhat less capable. And they’re probably right.

However, something else one ought to keep in mind is that the handwriting is on the wall for AGP. If you buy an expensive video card today, and expect it to last two-three years, think again. There likely won’t be a slot for it in your 2005 mobo.

Given that, the best approach for most people with current systems is to wait until we’ve crossed over to PCI Express video cards, and buy then. Not because PCI Express is initially going to be any better, but because it will likely work in future mobos for at least a few years.

If you have to buy a new system, you have to decide how long its going to be around, and decide whether to bite the bullet right away, or buy a lower-end card and hope the current cream of the crop gets cheap after being obsoleted 12-18 months from now.

Sorry, But . . .

There’s no good choices here, just less-bad ones. The only way to change this is for enough people not to buy at all, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

The problem with buying anything is that no matter what you buy, you’re giving a “Yes” vote to this policy. Pay more, and you say with your wallet, “Yes, you can milk me more.” Buy a crippled card, and you say, “Yes, for a little less money, I’ll settle for a lot less.”

It’s sad and unfortunate, but this is how people making the products take advantage of impatience and desire.



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