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High-end graphics cards get all the glory. A card like a GeForce 6800 Ultra or Radeon X850 can cost over $500, but not many users are willing to shell out that kind of money. In fact, these extremely high-end cards probably account for only 1% or 2% of all graphics cards sales. Where do people spend their money? Most people buy low-end cards. Manufacturers tend to skimp on graphics cards, knowing that uninformed consumers have been trained to look for high-GHz processors and big hard drives but don’t know good graphics cards from bad.

For the last half year, many new systems have been sold based on Intel’s 915 or 925 chipsets, with PCI Express (PCIe) graphics capabilities. Many of them didn’t come with a separate graphics card at all, instead relying on sub-par integrated graphics. Most of these systems had very inexpensive and underpowered PCIe graphics cards.

On the retail shelves, it’s hard for most consumers to resist the lure of sub-$100 video cards whose packaging promises an amazing experience. Of course, those don’t really deliver, either.

The sweet spot is somewhere in between, and that’s what we’re looking at today. This head-to-head review compares two retail graphics cards with two competing chipsets, both of which can be found for right around $200. For two C-notes, which graphics card performs better, a GeForce 6600GT, or a Radeon X700 Pro?

Representing the ATI camp, we have a Sapphire Hybrid Radeon X700 Pro video card. It doesn’t really deviate from the reference specs, but does come with a nice software bundle. Included in the box is PowerDVD 5, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. It’s a 256MB card, which is nice to see at this price range.

Our GeForce 6600GT card comes from AOpen. The Aeolus 6600GT sticks to nVidia’s reference specs, but the software bundle isn’t quite as nice as Sapphire’s software bundle. It comes with two games as well, Arx Fatalis and SpellForce, which will appeal to a different gamer demographic than the more action-oriented games that ship with the ATI bundle. This is a 128MB card, so some games that use an extremely large amount of video memory might underperform a bit. On the other hand, the AOpen card has better HDTV support, with a dongle that offers composite, S-video, and component output. The Sapphire card only has a single composite video cable.

We’ve covered the GeForce 6600 and Radeon X700 series in the past, but you might like a little refresher on the “speeds and feeds.” The following chart gives a quick overview of the number of pipelines and clock rates of the two cards we’re comparing today.

Number of pixel pipelines Number of vertex processors Core clock speed Memory clock speed
Radeon X700 Pro: 8 6 425 432
GeForce 6600 GT: 8 3 500 500

Immediately, we see that the GeForce 6600GT has a large advantage in clock speed. At the very high-end, ATI’s cards have a large clock speed advantage over nVidia’s, and the cards generally perform quite close to one another. Knowing this, and knowing that the X700 Pro is at a serious clock speed disadvantage here, we expect to see ATI come up short in most of the benchmarks. Even in games that don’t feature a lot of shaders, the X700 Pro simply has less potential fill rate and memory bandwidth than the 6600GT.

Note that the X700 Pro has twice as many vertex processing engines. In certain games that may rely more on drawing lots of polygons or vertex shaders than on texturing speed or pixel shader performance, ATI’s card should do quite well. Let’s run through a few 3D benchmarks and see how the two stack up.

Athlon 64 motherboards with PCIe graphics slots haven’t really hit the market quite yet, so we’re sticking with our Intel-based PCIe test system for the time being. The system loadout is as follows:

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

We used the latest drivers for all cards. For ATI, we used Catalyst 4.12, the final version of this is due out later this month. For nVidia, we used the publicly available ForceWare 67.02 beta drivers. We always use the in-game settings for anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, where available.

Our 3D graphics performance tests consist of:

  • 3DMark05 – a very demanding synthetic graphics benchmark that uses DirectX 9 shaders extensively.

  • AquaMark3 – a synthetic test based on a real game engine and real game assets (from AquaNox 2).

  • Far Cry – Crytek’s first-person shooter is one of the prettiest and most demanding games on the market.

  • Half-Life 2 – the sequel to one of the greatest shooters of all time is a technically advanced DirectX 9 game, and the engine has been licensed for other games as well.

  • Doom 3 – id Software’s games always push graphics cards to the limit and make excellent benchmarks.

  • Unreal Tournament 2004 – a popular online shooter, a heavily licensed game engine, and the source of a thriving game mod community.

Let’s start off with our synthetic tests.

Note: We experienced an “out of memory” error resulting for the top score.

The AOpen card based on the 6600GT has a sizeable performance lead over the Sapphire card based on the X700 Pro. We immediately see the limitation of the AOpen card’s 128MB memory limit, though. At the extremely high resolution of 1600×1200 with 4X AA and 8X AF, we get a Direct3D “out of memory” error in 3DMark05. The ATI-based card from Sapphire, with its 256MB of RAM, is able to run the test fine, albeit quite slowly.

The 6600GT has a bit of an advantage in AquaMark3 as well. The X700 Pro card catches up well at 1600×1200 with 4X AA and 8X AF, probably because it has twice the on-board RAM.

Two of the most graphically impressive games on the market are Far Cry and Half-Life 2. Let’s start by taking a look at the Far Cry performance with the 1.3 patch applied.

It’s just not even close. nVidia’s $200 card runs Far Cry much faster than ATI’s card. The performance gap closes at 1600×1200 with 4X AA and 8X AF, but at that resolution, neither card runs the game at an acceptable speed, so the point is debatable.

ATI always does quite well in Half-Life 2, and this is no exception, but the X700 Pro is still unable to match the performance of the 6600GT.

Of course, Far Cry and Half-Life 2 aren’t the only gorgeous-looking shooters on the market. Let’s not forget Doom 3, the latest graphics engine masterpiece from id Software. nVidia has always dominated this game. Let’s see if ATI’s new card can catch up.

Just as ATI tends to excel in Half-Life 2, nVidia tends to do well in Doom 3. But this goes beyond “doing well.” The X700 Pro runs the game at about half the speed of the 6600GT in most resolutions! That’s just a ridiculous performance advantage in nVidia’s favor. We’ve seen ATI boards get very close to nVidia’s in the $500+ price range, but down here at $200, there’s just no competition.

It looks like AOpen’s 6600GT card doesn’t have much of an advantage in this game. At 1600×1200, it manages a sizeable performance lead, but in all other cases it’s neck-and-neck. We can call this one a draw.

Despite having only 128MB of memory, AOpen’s card managed to trounce the X700 Pro in almost every test. The software bundle is decent, but the two games aren’t exactly topping the charts. Gamers who like roleplaying games and haven’t tried these titles may appreciate them, though. We like the HDTV dongle with component outputs.

This is a really good value for $200. A few games that use a rather large amount of texture RAM, like some massively multiplayer online games, may run into a few performance problems with this 128MB card, but for the most part, it’s a lot of bang for the buck.

Product: AOpen Aeolus 6600GT
Pros: Good TV support; great performance for the price.
Cons: Only has 128MB when a few games would benefit from 256MB.
Summary: We’d love to see a 256MB version of this card at the same price, but even at 128MB it’s a heck of a deal. This is a great mid-priced PCIe upgrade.
Price: $200 (check prices)

Sapphire has presented a pretty good value in this package, with a top-notch software bundle and a 256MB graphics card based on new technology for $200. There’s only one problem: It isn’t nearly as fast as the other $200 graphics card. ATI’s recently announced X800 card might eventually fill this price space a lot better, but it will initially hit the market at about $250, so there’s a hole at $200 that the company needs to fill.

Certainly, this card isn’t bad. It’s not like it’s dog-slow, has compatibility problems, or makes more noise than a hair dryer. It has none of those problems, and in fact, the 256MB of RAM provided may prove to be a big benefit in a few games that use a very large amount of textures. But there’s really no room for second place in the graphics business, and at the $200 price point, that’s exactly what this card is. A GeForce 6600GT simply outperforms it in almost every situation, and sometimes by quite a sizeable margin. It may be good, but we simply can’t recommend it when there are such clearly superior competitors.

Product: Sapphire Hybrid Radeon X700 Pro
Pros: 256MB; very good software bundle.
Cons: Simply doesn’t perform as well as the competitive nVidia card.
Summary: We like to see affordable 256MB graphics cards, and we like good software bundles, but this card simply doesn’t perform as well as the 6600GT.
Price: $200 (check prices)