Ask Dan: Video card prices. What's up with that?

Date: 6 May 2007
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Why does Sapphire ask for $60.50 more for a 512Mb AGP Radeon X1950 Pro than a similar card from HIS costs? Is it because of better spec and performance?

Anonymous Hotmail user

(When Anon sent this question, the price difference was actually almost $AU80. In the weeks it took me to get around to answering, it's dropped a bit. It's still significant, though.)

There are ways in which versions of the same video card from different "manufacturers" can be genuinely different.

Simple physical hardware quality, though, is not one of those ways.

I put "manufacturers" in quotes because two cards sold by different companies are actually quite likely to have been made in the same factory. Video card "manufacturers" contract out the work to the companies that actually run the production lines, and there are far fewer of those production lines than there are video card brands.

Different factories can have different quality levels, but I've never noticed any consistent difference.

Since everybody uses the same drivers these days, there aren't any software differences, either. And good riddance to the old branded drivers, too; back in the day, those were nothing but trouble.

Speed certainly can vary between cards, and it does in this case; there is, indeed, a performance difference between the Sapphire- and HIS-branded AGP 512Mb Radeon X1950s.

The more expensive Sapphire has core and RAM clock speeds of 580 and 700MHz, respectively. The cheaper HIS is 575 and 690MHz.

That's a difference of 0.87% and 1.45%, respectively. If you think it's worth paying one red cent for that, you're completely insane.

More practically, video cards with identical or near-identical stock clock speeds may have different overclockability, thanks to different card layout, different chip coolers, and different RAM chips. Cards that're "factory overclocked" - that come with stock clock speeds significantly higher than normal - can reasonably be expected to be stable at that speed or a little higher. Cards that come with the standard stock clock speeds may or may not be able to run as fast as the factory overclocked models.

In the real world, video card overclocking doesn't often amount to much these days. You may be able to get 20% more core and RAM speed out of a midrange card, if you're mildly lucky (high-end cards are generally closer to the redline in the first place); that can make a noticeable difference in games. Again, though, it's not worth big bucks.

There can be big maximum-RAM-speed differences between cards that use different RAM chips, but I don't think there are any middle to high end cards at the moment that have any significant RAM quality differences between "manufacturers". This is only going to make a difference to your frame rate when the card RAM speed is the limiting factor, anyway; if you're running at a high resolution with lots of antialiasing then this may be the case, but even then it's unreasonable to expect more than 1% better frame rate for every 2% improvement in RAM clock.

The kind of chip cooler that's installed on a card is one of the ways in which card "manufacturers" can genuinely differentiate their products. HIS and Sapphire have different cooler designs, one with the fan at one end of the heat sink and one with it at the other. I don't know which one works better, but I doubt there's much of a difference. The durability of the fan bearings is more important, if you ask me. A card whose cooler will keep on trucking for a few years of 24-hour operation is worth considerably more to me than a card whose fan starts buzzing after eight months.

Whether you're interested in overclocking, fan durability or both, it's therefore worth paying extra for a card with one of those double-height two-expansion-slot coolers that you usually only get on the top-end models that really need that much cooling even at stock speed. The fans on those big coolers will, if they're thermally controlled and so don't spin at full power most of the time, generally last a lot longer than the smaller fans on standard card coolers.

The best solution for durability, of course, is no fan at all. Low-end graphics cards that don't need a cooling fan are no good to anybody who wants to play recent 3D games, but you can get heavyweight passive coolers like the one on the old Sapphire Radeon 9700 Pro Ultimate Edition I mention in this piece for high-end cards. They're great for quiet-computing enthusiasts, and there are no moving parts to wear out, but passive coolers are not usually specified to handle much more than a card's stock heat output, and even then generally need more case ventilation than the average PC offers.

At the moment, you can get moderately fast 3D cards with fanless coolers - GeForce 7600, 8500 and 8600 cards, for instance - but faster cards run too hot for passive cooling, unless you cheat by having a really unusual amount of air flow through the case. This means the only passive coolers you can get for a GeForce 8800 GTX are third party add-ons, and installing them can be is somewhat alarming.

One other thing that can influence the price of otherwise identical cards is weird distribution deals between the chip makers and the card "manufacturers". At the moment, for instance, Nvidia requires some card makers to buy several lower end chips for every 8800 GTX they order, but lets other companies buy all the 8800s they like with no restrictions. Shenanigans like this push prices in strange directions.

My policy has always, rather boringly, been to buy based on nothing but price. Decide on the card you want (probably not the very newest fastest thing, unless you just love spending money for its own sake...), then buy the cheapest model of that card you can get, and you're done.

Yes, Dan's telling you that the $AU319 delivered AGP X1950 Pro is the better deal.
Australian shoppers can order it here.