Mid-range graphics processor
We knew when the 16-pipe high-end cards arrived that a revolution in the mid range was only a matter of time. That revolution came in force with the arrival of the GeForce 6600 GT. These cards, priced at around $199, brought performance on par with the previous generation's high-end cards. In fact, the 6600 GT offered performance to rival NVIDIA's own $299 GeForce 6800.
The 6600 GT also packed the formidable technology portfolio of the GeForce 6 series, including Shader Model 3.0, a fully functional version of NVIDIA's programmable video processor, and a unique fragment crossbar situated between the pixel shader and raster output portions of the pixel pipeline. Despite saving silicon by having only four raster output units, the 6600 GT achieved performance better than nearly any eight-pipe competitor.
The GeForce 6600 GT was good enough to force ATI into introducing a product, the Radeon X700 XT, apparently for the sole reason of countering. The X700 XT couldn't keep up with the GeForce 6600 GT in terms of overall performance, though, and ATI canceled it before it ever came to market. That left the 6600 GT competing against the decidedly overmatched Radeon X700 Pro.
When NVIDIA introduced an AGP version with similar performance at a similar price, the 6600 GT cemented its position as the mid-range card of choice for just about anyone. For LCD freaks, the deal got even sweeter when XFX let fly with a dual-DVI version of the 6600GT. Add in the prospect of eventually running two of these cards in an SLI rigthrough an upgrade-by-installment planand you have the ultimate mid-range graphics card for 2004.
Low-end graphics processor
Last year's best low-end graphics card was a stunning example of the benefits of trickle down. Based on the same RV350 graphics core that made the Radeon 9600 series such a hot mid-range commodity in 2003, the Radeon 9550 brought full-precision, DirectX 9-class graphics to video cards costing as little as $60. The Radeon 9550's only real competition was NVIDIA's partial precision-plagued GeForce FX 5200 series, which the 9550 largely outclassed. S3 also made a play for the low-end with the DeltaChrome S4, but the S4 was a rare bird in the wild and couldn't touch the 9550's performance, anyway.
Apart from its direct competition in the add-in graphics card market, it's important to highlight how much of a step above integrated graphics the Radeon 9550 represents. Intel may boast that its GMA900 IGP has DirectX 9-class shaders, but supporting DX9 shaders and delivering playable in-game frame rates are two very different things. Titles like Doom 3 and Far Cry are barely playable and often artifact-prone on the GMA900 and other integrated graphics chipsets, but the Radeon 9550 can handle them all, albeit at low resolutions.