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A three-pack of GeForce4 Ti 4600s

6 vertex shaders, 12 pixel pipes, one big overclocking graph

WE'VE SEEN a number of exciting developments in PC graphics lately, including new drivers from ATI and Matrox's formidable new Parhelia cards. But as we've run the tests and studied the benchmarks for these other cards, one thing has become clear: the GeForce4 Ti 4600 remains the Big Dawg of PC graphics. If you want the fastest graphics on the block, it's not even close. Other cards have fancy features or more advanced pixels shaders, but nothing runs today's games like a GeForce4 Ti.

So before we dig any further into the mysteries of Parhelia or take a detour through the strange world of the SiS Xabre, we're going to pause for a second and consider a few of the GeForce4 Ti 4600 cards available today. Does it really matter which brand card you buy? The answer might surprise you. Read on to find out.

The dirt on the GeForce4 Ti 4600
Before we get started, I should offer a brief introduction to NVIDIA's GeForce4 Ti 4600 GPU. The GeForce4 Ti chip is NVIDIA's fastest GPU. It's essentially a moderately tweaked version of the original GeForce3 chip with a faster clock rate and faster memory. You can read all about the GF4 Ti in our technology preview. If it's benchmarks you crave, have a look at our big graphics round-up and benchmarkfest to see how the Ti 4600 compares. I'll summarize for you: the Ti 4600 is the fastest thing out there. All of the cards we're looking at today are based on the same basic chip and specs, so they shouldn't vary widely in terms of performance. Let's take a look and see what they have to offer.

ModelVerto GeForce4 Ti 4600

PNY's Verto GeForce4 Ti 4600
PNY's Verto card is the first one we'll look at today, and that's appropriate, because the Verto is a perfect carbon copy of NVIDIA's Ti 4600 128MB reference design. As such, the Verto card will introduce us to many common features of all Ti 4600 cards. PNY's most notable variation from NVIDIA's template is the Verto's swanky maroon PCB color, which makes the card seem a little less generic. Like so:

The no-nonsense Verto resembles NVIDIA's reference design

Of course, following NVIDIA's reference design closely is no bad thing, especially when it comes to coolers. NVIDIA's stock Ti 4600 cooler looks fancier than an Elton John outfit back in the day.

The Verto card comes standard with a VGA output, an S-Video out port, and a DVI output for LCD displays.

From left to right: VGA out, S-Video out, DVI out, superfluous hole

Unlike the other cards we're looking at today, the Verto's video output is a standard S-Video connector that requires no adapter cable. Other cards require adapters, which then offer both S-Video and composite output ports. PNY doesn't include any cables, either—neither an adapter nor an S-Video cord.

Conexant's video encoder chip is mounted on the back side of PCB

To drive its TV output, the Verto uses a Conexant CX25871 video encoder chip, which can encode VGA output at source resolutions as high as 1024x768 into NTSC, PAL, and SECAM video streams. The chip can generate HTDV output, as well. The chip supports simultaneous S-Video and composite video outputs, but as we've noted, the Verto has only an S-Video out. Also, the Conexant's DACs have 10 bits per channel of precision, which will warm the hearts of Matrox Parhelia fans, although the GeForce4 can't really take advantage of the extra color precision.

The Verto packs a single TMDS transmitter

The other notable custom ASIC on the Verto card is Silicon Image's Sil164CT64 TMDS transmitter. This chip enables the card's DVI output for flat-panel LCD displays. It's limited to 165Mpixels per second, or so-called "UXGA" resolution—that is, 1600x1200. However, PNY's specifications only list support for resolutions up to 1280x1024 via DVI.

It's possible to connect an adapter to the Verto's DVI output and use this port to drive a second VGA monitor, too. However, PNY doesn't include a DVI-to-VGA adapter with the Verto—a strange omission for a $300 video card.

NVIDIA tends to sell its GPU chips packaged with memory chips, and in the Ti 4600's case, the RAM chips of choice are Samsung 2.8ns chips in a micro-BGA package. In the Verto's case, those chips come stark nekkid:

Samsung 2.8ns memory chips come standard on Ti 4600 cards

Now most of the time, nekkid RAM chips are not a problem. Generally, we view RAM heatsinks and coolers with suspicion around here, because memory chips usually just don't run very hot. Also, most RAM heatsinks aren't even big enough to make effective paperweights, let alone coolers. However, the RAM on a Ti 4600 card runs much faster than your average DIMM—325MHz to be exact, or 650MHz DDR. Running a 3D application full-bore, the Samsung chips can get too hot to touch, especially on the underside (that is, the "top" side) of a VGA card installed in in a tower case. The Verto was exceptionally stable for us at stock speeds in all of our testing, but proper heatsinks on the RAM chips sure wouldn't hurt.

Speaking of cooling, we yanked off that swanky NVIDIA GPU cooler to see how PNY had attached it to the GPU. We found a square, yellow pad of thermal interface material that didn't quite pull of cleanly.

I have to admit: I'm not a big fan of TIM pads like this. I've always gotten better results out of thermal paste, and paste is much easier to clean off. (We did all of our testing on each card before I pulled off the stock cooler, by the way, so the overclocking results we'll drop on you in a second here were achieved using the out-of-box cooling setup.) Once I did pull off the Verto's heatsink to take the above picture, I had to scrape off the TIM in order to reattach the heatsink. And let me tell you, it wasn't pretty. I went straight for the lighter fluid, which will cut through even a nasty TIM pad like a hot knife through vegemite.

But the yellow goo was impervious.

I scraped and struggled for a while, praying a stray spark wouldn't set both me and the Verto ablaze in a Michael Jackson-like moment of infamy and light. Then I pulled out the big guns: my wife's fingernail polish remover. Using the power of this vile chemical, I was finally able to make the yellow goo succumb, but not without considerable effort. I replaced the TIM with thermal paste and reattached the heatsink.

Bonus: by the time I finished, my sinuses were exceptionally clear.

Here's what's in the box with the Verto

PNY includes next to nothing in the box with the Verto; this is definitely a no-frills package. There is a simple printed manual. There's a CD with NVIDIA's reference drivers and DirectX 8.1 on it, and nothing more—no DVD player software, no electronic copy of the manual, not even any freebie NVIDIA demos to show off the card. You won't find cables of any kind or, as I mentioned, a DVI-to-VGA converter. PNY does bundle in a game, however: LucasArts' Star Wars Starfighter.

I'm a little put off by PNY's bare-bones approach to selling a $300-plus graphics card. Even a value-obsessed Midwesterner like me appreciates having all the necessary bits and pieces included, and PNY's omission of necessary gear like a DVI-to-VGA converter and DVD player software seems downright cheap. I'd prefer PNY had used the license fees for the bundled game to pay for these basic accessories instead.

However, if you want to get the Supreme Graphics Chip of Badness of the moment and nearly nothing more, PNY's Verto is the ticket. These cards are widely available at retail outlets like Best Buy, so they make good impulse purchases. You can then assuage your guilt by thinking about PNY's lifetime replacement warranty and toll-free tech support.

Be aware, though: Ti 4600 cards from PNY's chief rival in retail, VisionTek, include DVD player software, a video-in capabilities, video editing software, and (usually) a DVI-to-VGA adapter. (We've not included the VisionTek card in today's round-up because I mailed it off to the vast Canadian wilderness for Dissonance to use in testing.) If the prices match, you're probably better off with the VisionTek.