Ask Dan: The video card jungle

Date: 2 December 2007
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Dastardly Dells

I'm looking to purchase this new Zotac 8800 GT video card for my Dell computer, but have been told by a few of my friends that any video card not part of the original computer will not be compatible.

I have one of the newer Dell computers - a Dimension 9200 that I've only had for four months.

Could you clarify this for me before I buy please?


Current higher-spec Dells are - unlike older Dells - reasonably standard devices. Servicing them is often easier than you'd expect, thanks to Dell's surprisingly excellent service documentation (that's the online service manual for the 9200 that I linked to above).

I've never clapped eyes on a 9200, but from that manual I know that it has a PCIe video card slot. It even looks as if it's got a standard six-pin plug to power a PCIe video card - though many PCIe cards, including the Zotac 8800 GT you're considering, come with an adapter that lets you plug an ordinary "Molex" drive plug into the PCIe socket anyway.

The 9200's standard power supply, though, is only a 375 watt unit, which may mean it'll run out of steam if you plug in a high-powered card like an 8800 GT or GTS (an 8800 GTX would be right out).

The standard PSU might be adequate, if you don't have any other extra stuff in the computer. The 8800 GT only peaks at about 90 watts, versus maybe 110W peak for an 8800 GTS - so an honestly-specified 375W PSU ought to be able to handle it. I wouldn't be surprised if the computer ended up flaky when you played games, though.

In the olden days this would have been another big problem, because Dell used non-standard pinouts for their power supplies. A standard PSU would plug into the motherboard just fine, but you'd probably toast the computer if you actually managed to turn it on. So you either had to rewire the outputs from stock PSUs to match the stupid Dell spec, or buy special Dell PSUs, which weren't necessarily even available with higher output ratings.

Today, though, I'm... almost... sure that Dell PSUs are interchangeable with ordinary ones. So if the stock PSU doesn't have enough juice, you ought to be able to get another one off the shelf.

I still don't recommend Dell desktops in general. Yes, they come up with some impressive systems for the money (especially if, as you always should, you only buy when there's a sale on), but the super-cheap systems are always difficult to impossible to expand, and the more impressive systems, like yours, are overpriced compared with an equivalent white-box system.

But this isn't the open and shut case that it used to be. People who put more weight on the value of Dell's support services - I'm at the other end of the spectrum, and usually just sort of assume that anything I buy has no warranty at all - may well be very pleased with a Dell desktop.

Even the greatest Dell-support success stories (which weren't exactly the massive majority...) were not, in the past, nearly enough to compensate for the gratuitous non-standard components and corner-cutting in Dell systems. Only if your neighborhood computer stores were all blatant rip-off artists were they not a better deal. But today, Dell boxes are pretty straightforward.


76 cards with the same darn name

When doing some research for a new system recently, I found a lot of hype about the new Radeon 2900 XT, that has a lot more memory than the one Aus PC Market's listing here. I was just wondering what the deal is?


The product you're pointing at isn't a Radeon HD 2900 XT; it's the recently-released 2900 GT.

The GT is a good high-midrange card, and very good value for money (as of the last month of 2007), but I don't think you can buy a version of it that has more than 256Mb of RAM.

(That, of course, is part of the reason why the GT's so cheap.)

When Rusty sent me this question, Aus PC Market weren't listing any Radeon HD 2900 XTs at all. They list one now, for $AU572, but its product status is "Pre Order", which in this case means that they have no rational expectation of selling any.

This is because the rug's been well and truly pulled out from under the 2900 XT by the recently released Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT, which is cheaper and faster than the older ATI card, and by ATI's own Radeon HD 3850 and 3870 cards. The 3850's only a hair slower than a 2900 XT for most tests, but costs only half as much; the 3870's not a lot slower than an 8800 GT, and gives about the same bang per buck.

I talked about this a bit more in this Ask Dan, but the lightning pace of recent video card releases has rendered it a bit outdated. Even as I write this, GeForce 8800 GTS cards have snuck down under the (somewhat inflated by demand) prices of the 8800 GT cards, making the old GTSes only slightly worse value for money - but watch this space, because an updated version of the GTS, based on the same "G92" core revision as the 8800 GT, will be hitting the shelves Real Soon Now.

UPDATE: They've arrived now, and are on sale for an average price of a bit more than $AU500 delivered for a 512Mb card, versus around $AU450 delivered for a 512Mb 8800 GT. The bang-per-buck factor is about equal for the two cards, so if you've been considering an 8800 GT and have another fifty bucks to spend, a G92 GTS might well fit the bill.

The cheapest G92 8800 GTS that Aus PC Market have in stock as I write this is a $AU506-delivered Gigabyte-branded card; Australian shoppers who'd like to order one can click here to do so!

(It's still possible to buy the old value winner, the 320Mb 8800 GTS, for less than $AU400. They're not terrible value, but they're not the new G92 cards either.)

All of this is, in case you haven't noticed, a bit bloody confusing.

In brief, though: As of now, the start of December 2007, a Radeon HD 3850 is a great choice for most 3D gamers, and an HD 3870 is a good option too, though you'll probably always be imagining those few extra frames per second you'd get if you bought a GeForce 8800 GT.

There's still a bit of a waiting list for 8800 GTs, but it's not very long. Aus PC Market are smoothing out the queue by letting you order whichever of the several functionally-identical models of card comes in stock first, by adding one of every card you'd accept to your order.

(I'm not completely clear on what people are meant to do if they want an SLI dual 8800 GT system. Presumably, order two of every 8800 GT card. I'd send Aus PC an e-mail to ensure they clearly received that particular message, if I were you.)

The arrival of the G92 8800 GTS cards will take even more pressure off the 8800 GT market. Which is good news for last-minute Christmas gift buyers.


Delete 1.8 litre four-cylinder, insert 350ci V8

I'm considering buying Aus PC Market's "AMD64 8600GT AM2 Gaming Rig" as my basic box, but removing the 8600 and putting in a 8800 GT. Will this machine handle the bigger card?

Also, with all cards between $AU400 and $AU450 in NVIDIA 8800 GTS range, is there one that would offer better performance?

I'm only interested in gaming (EQ2 online), don't need to be able to plug in a TV or do anything but play games.

(With a Gigabyte motherboard, is a Gigabyte video card most likely to run best?)


Yes, this system will probably be fine with a GeForce 8800 GT instead of its cheap 'n' cheerful 8600 GT (which is most certainly not the 98% of the speed of the 8800 that its model number might suggest...).

I'm slightly nervous about the standard allegedly-460-watt Cooler Master PSU, but it'll probably be fine as long as you don't add a bunch of extra stuff to the system and/or overclock like crazy.

You can't get the (cheap) Cooler Master Centurion case this system uses without also getting the (unquestionably also cheap) PSU, so there's no real penny-pinching alternative.

Personally, I'd try it with the 8800 GT and just see if the computer hung when I played games. No harm will be done (except to your entertainment) if it does, and the PC will definitely work fine for boring 2D stuff while you wait for a better PSU to be delivered, if it turns out to be necessary.

(Oh, and on the subject of the "bigger card" - the 8800 GT is not greatly physically bigger than the 8600. The 8800 GTS (both the old and new G92 versions) has a double-slot cooler and is fairly long; the 8800 GTX is double-width and so long that it doesn't fit in quite a few PC enclosures. But the 8800 GT has unremarkable dimensions, and doesn't even need two PCIe power plugs.)

And, as I mention above, the 8800 GTS was not faster than the 8800 GT when the GT was new, but the new G92 version pushes it at least 10% ahead. This difference isn't enough to get very bothered about, but the price difference isn't a big deal either. The G92 GTS's bigger chip cooler, if you've got the room for it, is worth a few extra bucks just by itself (even if you've no interest in overclocking, the bigger, lazier cooler should last longer), so if I were buying right now I think I'd probably get a GTS.

At stock clock speeds, an 8800 GT (G92 core) is close to 8800 GTX (G80 core) performance. 8800 GTs are also likely to have quite a lot of overclocking headroom (PSU permitting...), and the current Nvidia driver software makes it very easy to do it. So you can quite easily wind a GT up to as near to a (stock speed) GTX as makes no difference.

It's been observed that this uniform overclocking headroom indicates that Nvidia could have set the stock clock speeds for the GT cards considerably higher - but didn't, because they still wanted to sell some GTX cards.

(Now that the faster G92 8800 GTS has hit the market, the 8800 GTX and 8800 Ultra have practically vanished from store shelves. A stock-speed G92 8800 GTS is much better value than even a "cheap" 8800 GTX.)

With an 8800 GT or G92 GTS, the AM2 box you're considering will run EverQuest II like the wind, even at very high resolutions and/or FSAA levels.

If you were interested in playing something like Crysis or, heaven forbid, Supreme Commander on a big monitor, though, I'd recommend you save a few hundred bucks more for a system with a faster CPU - an overclocked Core 2 Quad Q6600, or something.

That's because the same basic rules apply today as did ten years ago: A super-fast video card will let you turn up resolution and prettiness settings in games, but it won't make the game any faster when there's a lot of geometry and physics and AI work to be done, because that's the job of the CPU.

For something like Supreme Commander, an 8800 GT will let you run the game at arbitrary resolutions without any penalty, and give you awesome frame rates when the game is young and not much is happening. But the video card will be waiting for your CPU, a lot, once a big game gets going.

(For Supreme Commander, there currently exists no "adequate" CPU. As with its predecessor Total Annihilation back in 1997, faster processors just delay the onset of low frame rates and slow game speeds. They cannot eliminate them.)

And no, you're not at all likely to get a more stable system by combining a Brand X video card with a Brand X motherboard. It's normal for the number of factories making a given model of video card to be a lot smaller than the number of official "manufacturers", and this is the case with the 8800 GT, too.

Different brands may have slightly different cards made for them in the one factory, though - the difference may stop at the cooling fan, or it may go deeper. I'm indebted to Per Hansson of Techspot for this breakdown of the situation with the 8800 GT:

They're being made by Foxconn and Flextronics.

Palit Microsystems, Galaxy Technology and XpertVision cards come with three-phase instead of two-phase power supplies for the graphics processor, which gives smoother input DC and more theoretical current capacity, thereby possibly offering higher core-speed overclocks. The spots for the extra regulators are there on the circuit boards of all 8800 GT cards, but the other brands save some pennies by only installing two phases worth of components.

Every 8800 GT (probably including the upcoming memory-hole-tacular 1Gb models) has the same "1ns" Qimonda RAM, which should be able to run at (a DDR-doubled speed of) 2GHz without breaking a sweat. It's is almost never clocked that high by default, though, and you shouldn't expect it to quite live up to its sticker speed if you're into overclocking. In any case, since all 8800 GTs so fat have the same RAM, there's no reason to buy any particular card on that account.

Australian shoppers can buy all sorts of PC video hardware from Aus PC Market.
Click here to order!