3D Cards: Calculus For Dummies

So, SLI, triple SLI or quad SLI? The decision is so easy, and so cost-effective!

Some potentially promising news from the hardware side of PC gaming. Gamesindustry.biz has been chatting to NVIDIA’s Roy Taylor, who’s admitted that the graphics card company’s dreadful naming conventions (should we buy a GeForce 8800 GS, GT, GTS, GTX or Ultra? And with 320, 512 or 640Mb of memory?) are a little on the bewildering side, and proferred vague promises to simplify them. Somewhat ironically, Taylor is “VP of Content Business Development”, a title which does absolutely nothing to explain what his job actually involves – but hey, he sounds important.

Imagine, though, a world where choosing your next graphics card didn’t involve an hour of head-scratching research. Does a bright future await us? Mild venting beneath the cut.

“There is a need to simplify it for consumers, there’s no question.We think that the people who understand and know GeForce today, they’re okay with it – they understand it. But if we’re going to widen our appeal, there’s no doubt that we have to solve that problem.”
– NVIDIA’s Rod Taylor

Dunno if this means a genuine shakeup – like stripping the line back to something like GeForce Basic, GeForce Mid and GeForce Pro – or if it’s just hinting at a futile rebranding come GeForce 10, as abortively attempted with the 5 series’ pointless renaming to ‘GeForce FX’, or even ATI’s current ‘Radeon HD’ gibberish. Let’s hope for the former, as it’s a problem that desperately needs fixing -and not just by NVIDIA.

I was nosing at Mass Effect’s system requirements today, and found this under minimum graphics card:

NVIDIA GeForce 6 series(6800GT or better) / ATI 1300XT or better (X1550, X1600 Pro and HD2400 are below minimum system requirements).

I mean, for goodness’ sakes. So… The 1300XT is better than the X1500, X1600 and the HD2400? But the latter is a full 1100 better! Um. 1100 whats, exactly?

Facetiousness aside, I’m fortunate enough to be able to follow this stuff due to having spent some years working on a tech mag, but how in hell does it make any sense to someone who isn’t au fait with the increasingly nonsensical graphics card market? In fact, during that time on a tech mag, by far the most common reader phone call was from people wanting to know what graphics card they should buy. I wanted to cry whenever I got that call, but I did sympathise. Why is it not more obvious?

A traditional answer (or, at least, the established wisdom during my tech mag days. I’ve not, I stress, seen any reports to actually support it) to that latter has been that there’s deliberate obfuscation on the part of the graphics card companies. If the GeForce 11800 FX Pro Ultra XT is currently agreed to be the best-performing card on the market, word may trickle down to the unwashed masses. Except it will be diminished word – they’ll just pick up on ‘GeForce’, or maybe ‘GeForce 11’, and will be fooled into thinking the cheapie GeForce 11300 GS card they’ve spotted for what seems like a bargainous price is somehow awesome, just because it sports that hallowed prefix. It probably isn’t, though. It’s probably an overpriced shelf-warmer that can barely run Counter-Strike Source. The same happens with processors – people picking up dreadful Celeron machines from PC World just because they think the Intel sticker on the front signifies uber-power.

Another contributing factor is simply that these are tech companies, operating in an industry where incomprehensible number-based names are de rigeur, because hardware is made by stern men in labcoats who aren’t interested in impressing the kids. Take a look at the motherboard market, for instance, and you’ll be screaming in rank terror within minutes. For a firm like NVIDIA to do something different is actually a major break with tradition.

If NVIDIA’s talking about changing their naming system (which was further exacerbated by a) a long war with ATI, each company pilfering the other’s card name suffixes in the hope of thunder-stealing and b) trying to come up with a board for every single possible pricepoint), clearly it isn’t working so well these days. With super-cheap, Facebook’n’WoW-friendly PCs on the rise, it could be times are scary for a firm that largely flogs performance parts.

I wonder too if this has anything to do with NVIDIA’s involvement in the PC Gaming Alliance? One of the stated intentions of that much-sneered-at body is, I believe, to demystify PC gaming, or at least their apparently rather narrow idea of what PC gaming is, for a broad audience. There’s also the ongoing cold war between NVIDIA and Intel about the future of 3D – faster cards, say the former; processor-rendered Raytracing, say the latter. Perhaps NVIDIA hopes to avoid the axe by worming its way into more people’s hearts with a sudden burst of clarity.

Whatever, I’d certainly love to see a return to simply cheap card / expensive card, rather than wading through another sea of Pros and XTs and GTs and GTSes and GTXes. Silly buggers.


  1. Bob Arctor says:

    So SLI is good right?

    Got 2x 8600 Mobility type ones in my laptop, seem pretty good.

    Mind you I’m looking forward to the new lot of games which run on everyone’s PC. TF2 is great, got Sims 3 and Battlefield Heroes coming up. Hopefully won’t need anything more.

  2. DesireCampbell says:

    The fact is, if you have the technical know-how to change your video card, you know which card to get (or have the ability to find out). If you *don’t* know how to swap out your card you’ll be going to Tech Squad to do it for you anyway, and you’re probably be better off just getting them to pick one out for you anyway.

  3. Sharkwald says:

    You what?

    So if you’re not competent to fix an engine, you should let a car salesman tell you what to buy?

  4. S. Arthur says:

    I doubt naming schemes for computer parts will ever get close to anything comprehensible. In the meantime, this has never done me wrong.

  5. James T says:

    Owning a winter home in Florida? Couldn’t hurt…

  6. Birdoman says:

    Remember the days of updating Half-life/CS with patches with the delightful appellations or and so on?

    Why don’t they just copy what apple (!) does – for each major new generation of cards, give it a nice friendly name like tiger or sunfish or leetmaster or whatever. For grades within that, throw in an “x.y” numbering scheme where x is the level (good/ok/shit) and y is the memory. It won’t sort out dud versions of new generations, but at least it’d remove the number madness.

  7. nambiar says:

    Nvidia is guilty of playing the shiate game ever since they decided to eol the 9xxx series even though the 88xx series rivals it by a million light years. 384bit mem-interface is NOT better than 256, says Nvidia. Tangent – I’ve already posed this very Q to the folks at Crytek to no avail, but does anyone here think that the Crysis team tested the game on a CRAY machine ?

  8. vic says:

    You guys are off your rocker. The chaos of the market has brought forth the gift of frames per second delivered at higher and higher resolutions at cheaper and cheaper prices. The rich but confusing range of pickings has also allowed a thousand tech blogs to flourish and a million fan-boy flame-wars to rage across the forums. Yeah it’s dangerous jungle sometimes where you might need the help of some guides to make the right choices but its full of life and much better than having no choices when it comes to hardware. I’d hate to see the consolidation that has happened in PC sound to happen to PC video. Creative’s consolidation of PC sound has basically totally killed innovation there and it has stagnated. Just saying be careful what you wish for.

  9. Wildbluesun says:

    Hell yeah. Graphics card research, for me, meant wading through a pile of tables with columns headed things like “pixel pipelines” and “memory bus width”. Whut? A bus is one of those big red things you ride to work on, surely?

    If the card’s NAME actually told me ANYTHING about what it does, my brain wouldn’t have leaked through my ears.

  10. Sharkwald says:

    Vic, I’m all for competition and innovation, but I’m also in favour of not obfuscating that to the non-enthusiast. Putting meaninful performance metrics, certified by an independent body, on the back of the box is one way to do so. And by meaninful I don’t mean “gets a score of 56378 in 3DMark 08”, because that means bog all to anyone outside of 3DMark obsessives. Tell me if it’ll run my game well.

  11. dhex says:

    You guys are off your rocker. The chaos of the market has brought forth the gift of frames per second delivered at higher and higher resolutions at cheaper and cheaper prices.

    i gotta say i’m with vic on this one – i think you guys have been in centrally planned economies for a bit too long. :)

    but more to the point, you guys want something you can’t get from the pc market at this point – no one can tell you 100% “this will work ‘well'” because “well” is such a subjective point, even beyond all the intricacies of hardware compatibility. some people can live with 25fps for crysis, some can’t, or whatever your favorite graphics hog of the moment is.

  12. Birdoman says:

    “The chaos of the market” – if you want to see it as a virtue – would be dependent on the existence of lots of competition. Since the graphics card/processor market is essentially a duopoly I think free trade rants are missing the point. If we had four or five graphics card producers (and i mean the actual chipsets), then your chaos would be beneficial. As it stands, they’re abusing their market position to confuse the consumer and capture his/her surplus value. Tsk tsk!

  13. Justin says:

    This is helpful, but I’m really not that savvy on Video Cards. apparently my x1250 doesn’t run Mass Effect but the x1300XT will. Could someone give me a list of Video Cards that start at x1300XT and go UP (in terms of quality and fulfilling minimum requirements) not in terms of just being a higher number given that I’ve now learned that’s just a scam to get non-techs like me to be suckered into buying a sub-quality product.

    Much Thanks


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  15. Frye says:

    Marketing people really don’t like a cheap card / expensive card distinction. Check your local Burger King: what used to be a small/medium/large menu is now medium/large/King Size. As if to say: even our smallest menu is pretty big! I think the reason of their choice for fx/gs/gt/gtx is somewhere along those lines.

  16. Frye says:

    Woops! didnt mean to revive dead thread , dunno how i got here, my bad.

  17. Guaranteed Website Traffic says:

    Are nVidia trying to differentiate themselves from their competition?

    I am looking forward on this features. Thanks!