2D: The new graphics battleground?

I had an interesting experience over the weekend that I thought you'd like to hear about. I was swapping out the graphics card in my main system, switching from a Radeon 9800 Pro to a Chaintech Apogee AA6800 (as featured in our recent GeForce 6800 series round-up). After installing the card and drivers, I set the desktop to my usual resolution, which is 1600x1200 @ 85Hz on a Mitsubishi Diamond Plus 200.

It quickly became apparent that something was just not right. The whole display was fuzzy, and while the text wasn't unreadable, I felt the beginnings of a headache after looking at the monitor for less than a minute. I tried a number of things to eliminate the problem, from changing output ports on the card to adjusting the settings on my monitor. None of them improved the situation.

I did get a slight improvement by messing around with the "Image Sharpening" setting in the NVIDIA drivers. According to the tool tip, this "sharpens the image quality by amplifying high frequency content." Unfortunately, this 1) didn't bring the display back to an acceptable level and 2) introduced distortion at higher settings. Clearly not a workable solution.

By now the headache was really starting to take hold, so I gave up and switched back to the 9800 Pro, which immediately solved the problem. Later, I borrowed the NVIDIA 6800 reference board from Damage and installed it in my machine, and it looked just as good as the 9800 Pro.

There are a couple of possible explanations here. One is that something is wrong with this particular Chaintech card, although the card looks fine at lower resolutions and got through the rest of our testing without issue. The second and more troubling explanation is that some card manufacturers are cutting corners on NVIDIA's reference design, with the result that 2D image quality suffers at higher resolutions.

We're in the process of looking into this more extensively, and the experience has convinced us to make 2D display quality at high resolutions a priority in future graphics card reviews. In the meantime, however, those of you who prefer high resolutions should be careful when choosing a card. Buy from someone with a good exchange/return policy, and evaluate the quality of the 2D display carefully. I would've thought that decent 2D quality was a given in this day and age, but apparently that's not the case.

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