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.
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, eitherneither 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 1024×768 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” resolutionthat is, 1600×1200. However, PNY’s specifications only list support for resolutions up to 1280×1024 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 Vertoa 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 DIMM325MHz 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 moreno 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.
Abit’s Siluro GF4 Ti 4600
Abit’s Siluro card includes nearly everything we missed in PNY’s Verto package, and it does so with a little bit of style, too.
Abit’s interpretation of the Ti 4600 theme comes in a silver-heatsink-encrusted look with a stunning black finish. Perfect for that night on the town with an AGP card in your pocket. RAM coolers both front and back threaten to shatter the overclocking taboo: Be naughty. Move that slider. Move it. You know you want to.
Abit’s Siluro GF4 Ti 4600 Beyond the heatsinks and the different colors, the Abit card isn’t too terribly different from the PNY. Like the Verto, the Siluro uses the Conexant video encoder chip and a single Silicon Image TMDS transmitter. Physically, the most notable difference is the Siluro’s mini-DIN video out port, which is designed for use with Abit’s splitter cable. The splitter provides both S-Video and composite outputs.
Abit applies thermal paste between the GeForce4 Ti GPU and the Siluro cooler, like so:
As you can see, the paste was applied evenly. If I had to pick nits, I’d say the paste was perhaps a bit thick, but it’s still much thinner than any TIM.
Abit includes all the necessary goodies with the Siluro, including a DVI-to-VGA converter, the video out splitter cable, and both S-Video and composite extender cables. Because the Siluro uses the Conexant chip, it’s not capable of video capture, so no video input cable is provided. Abit’s software CD includes all the right stuff, including drivers, DirectX, an NVIDIA BIOS flash utility, an electronic copy of the manual, DVD player software, and couple of unique utilities. The first of these utilities, 3Deep, allows for better control of color and gamma in 3D games. The second, Graphic Max, is Abit’s overclocking utility; it’s two sliders and nothing special. The Siluro manual includes basic install instructions and surprisingly lucid explanations of NVIDIA driver settings, including Direct3D and OpenGL options.
I should mention something about Abit’s SiluroDVD software, which is simply a rebadged version of Intervideo’s WinDVD. I installed a version of this software on my own PC, and it nearly nuked my Win2K install. The system wouldn’t boot. Only a very lucky Usenet search saved me from having to reinstall everything. Somehow, one of Intervideo’s DLLs was causing crashes during the boot process, and the fix was to rename or delete it. The fix worked, but I was just a few moments of frustration from giving up. So be careful when installing SiluroDVD or any other version of WinDVD.
All in all, Abit’s Siluro GF4 Ti 4600 is a nice package. It includes everything you’d need and expect, plus some extras like the video extension cables. However, be aware that the Abit card comes with only a one-year warranty and no toll-free technical support. Abit relies laregely on its distributors and resellers to handle end-user support, so you’ll want to buy from a trusted source.
Gainward’s GeForce4 PowerPack! Ultra/750 XP Golden Sample
Gainward’s Ti 4600 card is the wildest of the bunch. And yes, near as I can tell, its official name is “GeForce4 PowerPack! Ultra/750 XP Golden Sample.” This card seems to be named using the Goodness Naming Theory, in which as many good things as possible should be packed into a name in order to denote goodness. This card ought to be especially good, because its name includes everything from an “Ultra” to an exclamation point, from an “XP” to a “Golden Sample.” And that’s a lot of goodness for one video card.
Fortunately, the card goes a long way toward living up to its name. Have a look at it, and you’ll begin to see what I mean:
The Gainward’s radical red coloring makes it stand out The Gainward Ti 4600, uniquely, has dual DVI outputs for support of two LCD panels at once. Dual Silicon Image TMDS transmitter chips enable the dual DVI outs. The card also sports the biggest memory coolers of the bunch, and a modified version of NVIDIA’s reference cooler keeps the GPU cool while blowing air out across the RAM heatsinks on the “top” side of the card.
The Philips video codec provides video capture capabilities Like the Siluro, the Gainward has a mini-DIN video output port, to which Gainward’s VIVO cable connects. This cable splits into four ports: S-Video out, composite out, S-Video in, and composite in. The card’s video encoding duties are handled by a Philips SAA7108E video codec chip. The Philips is limited to 800×600 video resolutions, but it can translate both directions: encoding VGA output as NSTC/PAL video, and decoding NTSC/PAL video into digital form. So if you want to do video capture and editing, the Gainward will do it.
The Gainward card’s cooling excellence is more than cosmetic. Pull off the GPU’s heatsink, and you’ll find a perfect, thin layer of thermal paste ensuring contact between the GPU and the mirror-finish surface of the cooler. This is a stock cooling installation I can really respect. Gainward just nailed it.
Gainward’s cooler has a mirror-smooth finish The “PowerPack!” part of this card’s name ain’t just talk. Gainward has stuffed the box full of all sorts of goodies. Have a look:
The Gainward card’s standard package has everything Notice, first, that there are two DVI-to-VGA converters, so you can run dual VGA monitors or dual DVI flat panels off of the card. There’s also Gainward’s four-way VIVO cable, a Gainward case badge, a full version of Intervideo’s WinDVD, their WinCoder video capture software, and the WinProducer non-linear video editing app. Gainward includes the best possible bundled video game for a GF4 card: Serious Sam. And just to make this a complete video-editing suite, the card comes with a Firewire cardwith a Firewire cablein the box. Really:
Yep, it’s a Firewire card. With a cable. Gainward’s driver install disk is a bizarre collage of drivers for everything from the S3 Trio3D to the Ti 4600. On that CD is Gainward’s Expertool overclocking utility. It’s possible to install ExpertTool in “Enhanced mode,” which will automatically overclock the card from its stock 300/650MHz core/memory clocks to 310/680MHz. Apparently Gainward thinks that’s a pretty safe overclocked speed, so they just make it an option at install time. Pretty gutsy, really.
Gainward backs its cards with a three-year repair-or-replace warranty, which is darn near a lifetime in the graphics world. However, like Abit, Gainward doesn’t offer toll-free technical support, and the dealer from whom you purchase the card will be your first line of support.
All told, though, Gainward’s put together nearly the ultimate GeForce4 package. Obviously, the company has put some serious thought into how to make its cards stand out from the crowd, and they’ve managed to succeed in making something unique. If you even think you might want to do video editing or perhaps drive a pair of LCDs off your computer at some point in the future, the Gainward card is the way to go.
Now, let’s test these things…
Our testing methods
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least twice, and the results were averaged.
Our test system was configured like so:
|Processor||AMD Athlon XP 2200+ 1.8GHz|
|Front-side bus||266MHz (133MHz double-pumped)|
|Chipset drivers||VIA 4-in-1 4.38(2)v(a)|
|Memory size||512MB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3000 PC2700 DDR SDRAM|
|Sound||Creative SoundBlaster Live!|
|Storage||Maxtor DiamondMax Plus D740X 7200RPM ATA/100 hard drive|
|OS||Microsoft Windows XP Professional|
We used NVIDIA’s new 29.42 drivers for testing. For comparison, we used a Parhelia 128MB with Matrox’s 2.25 drivers, plus an ATI Radeon 8500 128MB with ATI’s new CATALYST 7.72 drivers.
I want to give a big thanks to Corsair for providing us with DDR333 memory for our testing. Their XMS3000 DIMMs allowed us to run the memory on our Shuttle AK35GT2/R test motherboard at CAS2 timings at 166MHz (that’s 333MHz DDR, kids). If you’re looking to tweak out your system to the max and maybe overclock it a little, Corsair’s RAM is definitely worth considering. Using it makes life easier for us as we’re dealing with brand-new chipsets and pre-production motherboards, because we don’t have to worry so much about stability and compatibility. The stuff flat works.
The test systems’ Windows desktops were set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Codecreatures Benchmark Pro
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
These cards are based on the same chip with the same memory and the same default clock speeds, so we’re not expecting big performance differences. However, we’ll test them out just to be sure. We’re using Codecreatures Benchmark Pro because it really exercises a GeForce4 card, stressing the pixel shaders and vertex shaders, along with everything else.
As expected, these cards performance is, for all intents and purposes, identical. There’s no reason to belabor the point with further tests, honestly. Instead, we’ll turn our attention to something that can set these cards apart…
Yep, we overclocked these things to see what they could do. The cards’ cooling solutions, board designs, and on-board components can all help make a card easier to overclock. However, dumb luck can play a part, too. Every chip is different, and the memory and GPU chips on these individual cards might have more to do with their ability to run out of spec than anything else. So your mileage may vary.
We’ve included a whole barrage of results below, because we thought it might be interesting to see how the cards performed at each of the speeds we tested. For instance, you can see from the results whether overclocking the GPU or the memory had more impact. The fastest speed listed for each card is the highest overclocked speed at which it would run.
The Gainward walks away from the other cards in our overclocking tests. None of the cards’ GPUs would overclock much, but the Gainward did the best there. The Abit would only go 10MHz faster than stock, and PNY, with its lovely TIM, had a panic attack anywhere above its stock clock speed.
You can see that overclocking the GPU has quite a bit more impact than overclocking the memory, even when running this heavy-duty test at 1280×1024.
In terms of performance, stability, and compatibility, you can’t go wrong with nearly any flavor of GeForce4 Ti 4600. You might have noticed that we did include benchmark scores for ATI’s Radeon 8500 and Matrox’s Parhelia. They were the bottom bars on each graph. That’s pretty much the way it is in most performance comparisons when the Ti 4600 participates.
However, if we were forced to pick a winner, the choice wouldn’t be hard. Gainward’s extremely-long-named GeForce4 PowerPack! Ultra/750 XP Golden Sample card is the best Ti 4600 card we’ve seen, either in this comparo or anywhere else. Its unique dual-DVI output capabilities make it a true bargain. (You might have to buy a Quadro to get dual DVI outputs otherwise.) Gainward bundles everything you’d expect with a $300-plus video card, including robust video editing abilities. This is a do-everything, workstation-class graphics card that will be at home inside of any enthusiast’s system.
Given that our three entries are currently separated in price by a total of only $20, I’m having a hard time recommending PNY’s bare-bones Verto card. However, I expect the tight pricing on these cards is only temporary, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the PNY Ti 4600 cards available for well under $300 soon. PNY’s approach is obviously geared toward keeping prices down, and with PNY’s lifetime warranty, a cheap Verto could be a good deal.
Abit’s Siluro card, meanwhile, is a very solid package that’s hard to fault. If you don’t care about dual DVI outputs or video editing, you might want to save yourself 10 or 15 bucks and go for the Abit instead of the Gainward.
Whichever card you pick, you’ll have the absolute fastest 3D graphics chip anywherefor at least a week or two.