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The GeForce 6 series has wasted no time moving from the initial high-end 6800 Ultra down to price points mere mortals can afford. The cheapest solution is the GeForce 6200, which comes it two distinct flavors. The first is a normal graphics card, with 128 or 256MB of on-board graphics memory. The 128MB version goes for about $110. For those that need to save even more money, the 6200 comes in a version that incorporates a new technology called “TurboCache,” which marries a small 16 or 32MB local frame buffer with main system RAM to operate like a 128MB card, albeit more slowly. These cards cost about $70.

Why would ExtremeTech bother taking a look at these inexpensive cards? Don’t our readers—generally very savvy do-it-yourself types—look for graphics cards with a little more oomph? Certainly we think that’s the case, but we know you don’t always have an unlimited budget to play with. Maybe you’re building or buying a computer for your parents, or a toddler. Perhaps your spouse isn’t very much into games, but would like a machine of her own to surf the web and check email (with perhaps a little Sims 2 on the side). You want to avoid integrated graphics, but you’re working on a budget. That’s where the GeForce 6200 comes in. Continued…

In essence, the GeForce 6200 is a cut-back version of the GeForce 6 series cards we have covered here before, like the 6800 Ultra and the 6600GT. It supports all the same major rendering features of those products, including DirectX 9 Shader Model 3.0. However, the floating point blending and Z compression bandwidth saving features have been disabled or removed. This shouldn’t be off too much concern to the GeForce 6200’s target market, though. The chips still include the programmable video module present in other GeForce 6 series GPUs, so all those “PureVideo” features like hardware MPEG and WMV decoding are available.

The 6200 series comes in two variants. The basic model is just a regular video card with either 128 or 256MB of RAM on board, on a 128-bit memory bus. It is based on the NV43-V chip. The “GeForce 6200 with TurboCache” is actually based on a NV44 chip, though the major features are the same.

So what is this TurboCache? It’s basically a way to make an inexpensive 16MB graphics card behave more like a 128MB card. Nvidia has devised a way to use the bidirectional nature of PCI Express to render directly to system memory with pretty good efficiency. Of course, you’ll still need some local on-board cache to keep frequently-accessed bits “close” to the graphics processor, so TurboCache cards have either 16 or 32MB of local RAM. A TurboCache manager determines what data (color, texture, z-buffer data) to be stored in the small local buffer and what can be written to main system memory.

It’s worth noting that the system allows the video card to actually render directly to system memory. The back buffer, depth and stencil buffers, environment maps, and other rendered surfaces can be drawn directly to system RAM. The final front buffer, used for scan-out to the display, is always stored in the 16 or 32MB of local memory. The amount of system RAM used for TurboCache is allocated dynamically, up to 112MB (for a total of 128MB), and is released back to the system when applications are closed.

Here’s a look at the speeds and feeds of a few entry-level graphics solutions.

GeForce 6200 with TurboCache GeForce 6200 Radeon X300 Intel GMA 900
Pixel Pipelines 4 4 4 4
Vertex Pipelines 3 3 2 None – CPU based
Memory Bus Interface 32-bit plus system RAM 128-bit 128-bit System RAM only
Core/Memory clock 350/350 300/225 400/200 333/266 (shared system RAM)
Street Price $70 $110 $100 Included in 915G

Looking at the specs, the GeForce 6200 doesn’t seem half bad, for the price. The memory clock may seem awfully high on the TurboCache version—700MHz effective—but don’t let the clock rate fool you. The connection to the single 16MB chip is only 32 bits wide, so that’s only 2.8GB per second of bandwidth. Let’s see how it performs. Continued…

The GeForce 6200 is definitely an entry-level graphics card, meant as an alternative to integrated graphics. Typically you wouldn’t put it in a really high-end system. For our tests, we still want to get the CPU out of the way, and make sure we hit the upper limit of these cards’ capabilities. For that reason, we tested in a very high-end rig, configured as follows:

CPU 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition
Motherboard Intel 925CXV
Memory 1GB 533MHz DDR2 RAM
Audio Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
Hard Drive Maxtor 1250GB S-ATA hard drive
Optical Drive Plextor PX-504UF
Operating System Windows XP Pro w/SP2
DirectX version 9.0c

In this machine we tested three cards in turn. First, a GeForce 6200 with TurboCache. Most of the cards we can find on the market have 16MB of local video card memory, so that’s what we used, though the product does come in a 32MB variant. Next we ran a more expensive and more traditional stock GeForce 6200 with 128MB of local memory. For comparison’s sake, we ran ATI’s own budget graphics card, the Radeon X300. Note that this is not the common (and less expensive) X300 SE, but rather the standard, faster, X300.

For ATI, the drivers we used were the newly released Catalyst 5.1. For Nvidia, we couldn’t use the latest publicly available drivers, because they don’t support the 6200 with TurboCache. Instead, we had to use ForceWare 71.20 beta driver provided by Nvidia.

Since these are definitely low-end cards, testing at our normal settings of 1280×1024 and 1600×1200 with and without antialiasing and anisotropic filtering would be a waste. All it would determine is that none of the cards are fast enough to run anything recent at those resolutions. So, we tested at more modest resolutions of 800×600 and 1024×768 with no AA and no AF. Continued…

Let’s start off with our synthetic test. 3DMark 05 is an extremely forward-looking benchmark, stressing DirectX 9 more than any current game. Let’s see how the cards stack up in this extremely graphics-intensive test.

The scores aren’t particular high for any of these cards, but the regular GeForce 6200 puts in a pretty respectable showing for its price. The TurboCache version doesn’t fare as well, failing to break 1000 at the default resolution of 1024×768. Clearly, none of these cards are going to run games very well if they make heavy use of DirectX 9 shaders.

Ideally you want to get close to 60 frames per second for fast-paced shooters, but anything over 30fps should be smooth enough to be enjoyable by those who aren’t hardcore gamers. Again, the standard 6200 takes top honors, and the TurboCache version suffers a bit. Still, all these solutions are way faster than integrated graphics. Continued…

Two of the most graphically impressive games on the market are Far Cry and Doom 3. Let’s start by taking a look at Far Cry performance with the 1.3 patch applied.

We’re surprised to see such a playable frame rate on the standard 6200 card at a resolution of 1024×768. That’s certainly something you can live with, for a card costing just over $100. The TurboCache version takes a real dive as you dial up the resolution, though.

Here’s a situation where TurboCache just doesn’t cut it. Nvidia’s new 6-series GeForce chips excel in Doom 3, and you can see just how well the standard 6200 performs. TurboCache cuts frame rates by 66%, though. This doesn’t bode well for future demanding games that use lots of stencil buffer shadows and the like. With the TurboCache version of the 6200, you’d have to dial down the details a lot to get a playable frame rate out of them. Continued…

Obviously, if you’re serious about games at all, the GeForce 6200 isn’t for you. For about $80 more you can get a GeForce 6600GT, and you’d be a lot happier. The target market for the 6200 products are the “well at least it’s not integrated graphics” crowd. For them, we can recommend the standard 6200 without reservation. At around $110 for the 128MB version, it beats the pants off of any integrated solution and most other cheap cards, and can definitely let you play the latest games. You’ll have to compromise on resolution and maybe turn down the detail a touch, but you can definitely play and play well.

The GeForce 6200 with TurboCache is, in a way, like having integrated graphics stuck into your PCIe slot. The reliance of this part on your main system RAM is definitely a bottleneck, and it really hurts performance in some cases. You’d have to turn the resolution and detail settings in your games way down to keep things smooth, and that’s never good. However, it does outperform most integrated graphics solutions, and it’s far more compatible. The TurboCache system does indeed work—despite having only 16MB of on-board memory, our system treated it like any other 128MB card, and no application ever crashed for lack of video RAM. We’re just not wild about the price. With that little RAM on board, we would hope you could save more than $40 off the price of a standard 6200, which blows the doors off the TurboCache model.

The X300 we used for comparison is definitely getting a bit long in the tooth. For about the same price, the standard GeForce 6200 definitely outperforms it in almost all cases. ATI has plans to offer a low-cost card with a feature similar to TurboCache in the near future—perhaps it will use this opportunity to boost clock speeds or do whatever it must to remain competitive in the budget card segment.

Product: GeForce 6200
Company: Nvidia Corp.
Price: $110 (street)
Pros: Cheap! Good speed for the price.
Cons: You can get a lot more performance for about $80 more, and it’s worth it.
Summary: If you’re on a really tight budget, but just can’t bear integrated graphics (we can’t blame you), this is a great alternative.

Product: GeForce 6200 with TurboCache
Company: Nvidia Corp.
Pros: Very cheap; good compatibility; works with games that require 128MB while many other cheap cards don’t.
Cons: Performance suffers, sometimes severely, due to reliance on system RAM bandwidth.
Summary: TurboCache is a neat technology, but these cards still just don’t perform well enough. Spend a tiny bit more for a card with its own RAM.
Price: $70 (street)