We take a look at the graphics card segment

Picture perfect

The last six months have seen some interesting developments within the graphics sector. Firstly, the release of Windows 7 along with the DirectX 11 accompaniment has made it significantly easier to program in effects like tessellation and multiple light sources. Meanwhile, the success of the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar has raised speculation that consumers may be more ready to accept 3D display technology than ever before.

The fact that vendors are embracing these new developments shows that graphics cards remain one of the key components for a gaming PC and as a result many consumers are willing to part with a little extra cash as they feel that the performance increase is worth the expense.

“Graphics cards are the soul of gaming PCs, as they are directly related to the gaming experience,” observes Asus’ technical PR and component product marketing specialist, Iain Bristow. “A good graphics card can easily allow gamers to feel the rush of an exhilarating game and to fully enjoy the gameplay, even at high resolutions and quality settings.”

The importance of good graphics support is not limited to improved resolution and quality, as M2M Direct sales and marketing manager Hitesh Kothary points out: “There is now a whole host of more complex and subtle technologies that are critical to maximising the gaming experience.”

Realtime’s marketing manager, Roland Eva, highlights an additional use for graphics technology – multiple monitor support. “The top graphics cards enable users to expand their games across three screens, giving them a peripheral view that makes the gameplay more interactive and offers online gamers an edge over the competition,” he says.

The introduction of DirectX 11 is likely to be the new development that is most noticeable to end users. Although at the time of writing there are few compatible devices on the market – ATi’s Radeon HD 5800 and 5900 series, and Nvidia previewing the as-yet unreleased GeForce GF100 at last month’s CES – as Windows 7 becomes more widely used, so will DX11. The next generation is arriving now, and as Kothary says: “It is the single most important development in the graphics card market in the last few years.”

Sapphire’s global PR director, Bill Donnelly, adds: “From DX9 to DX10, there wasn’t a huge difference – there were some programming differences and things like that – but DX11 actually allows programmers to do some things that they’ve never been able to do before.

“You can have interaction between transparent objects, you can do many more light sources, and tessellation is supported as part of the DX11 programming, instead of having to write it especially for the card. What this means is that things like on-screen water, fire, swords, glass and ice look much more convincing and that increases people’s gameplay and immersion.”

DX11 also provides software support for dividing processing tasks between the CPU and the graphics card. As the technology progresses, the demand for processing power will grow, making the burgeoning general purpose GPU (GPGPU) an important development in PC architecture.

“If the possibilities for parallel processing are not explored, performance could become bottlenecked,” says Target Components’ product manager, Glen Rhodes. “Intel certainly thinks so too, with the new Core i3 and i5 Clarkdale processors coming with integrated graphics in the CPU.”

A surprise development in the mainstream of graphical technology is the reignition of interest in 3D display, which has hovered on the periphery of the market for some years now, but may be seeing a golden opportunity, courtesy of the 3D film Avatar.

EntaTech’s product specialist, Richard Dolman, embraces the new interest in 3D display: “More and more companies are implementing 3D display technology into their everyday marketing and corporate messaging, as well as introducing 3D display hardware. 3D display technology is continually hitting the market. I believe the next step after photo-realism will be the addition of 3D technologies as standard. These will give a greater sense of being involved, instead of just controlling.”

Donnelly, however, is a little more cautious and feels that the technology must mature a bit before wholesale adoption can take place: “There’s been a couple of fairly convincing demonstrations of it, but we’re not quite ready to make it realistic enough and immersive enough, I don’t think. It could come in the future but it’s early days. There are always early adopters of any technology, but we haven’t seen much interest from the hardcore yet,” he says.

A core issue at the heart of graphics technology is the widespread popularity of mobile PCs among end users. According to analysts, sales of laptops and netbooks have steadily outstripped desktop sales in the last two years, raising the possibility that the future of discrete graphics card may be dependent on a shrinking segment.

However, these figures do not account for sales of individual components and as such overlook the upgrade market. “As long as there is a demand for desktop PCs, bespoke systems and the local system integrator then there is a future for discrete graphic cards, as we are a nation that loves to upgrade and tweak,” states Rhodes.

Kothary agrees with this assertion: “Desktop sales may be in decline outside of the enthusiast market, but there will continue to be a thriving upgrade market and also a home entry-level market for households that want a traditional PC with better graphics. This requirement will need monitoring but the short to medium term should still be positive for discrete graphics.”

Bristow suggests that the GPGPU sector may be the future for graphics cards, as the wider consumer market for PCs has meant that for many people the emphasis is not on gaming. “Without a doubt there is a bright future for mainstream and value segment graphics cards and the reason is the GPGPU trend,” he says.

“Discrete GPUs can effortlessly outperform IGPs and CPUs in terms of high-resolution playback, transcoding, video editing and many other multimedia-related tasks. Therefore, despite the fact that desktop sales have decreased, the total available market of discrete graphics cards is actually increasing.”

Donnelly believes the changing use of display technology is key to keeping the sector buoyant: “For the last few years, it has been games that have driven technology because we wanted better graphics and faster frame rates, but I think in future it’ll be other applications that drive the development.”

SRP: £104.99
Distributor: EntaTech

Based on a 55nm architecture, this device includes 128 shader cores operating at a clock speed of 738MHz, supported by either 512MB or 1024MB of DDR3 memory. It includes support for CUDA and PhysX, as well as offering Nvidia Hybrid Power, which allows the option of switching to onboard graphics to reduce power consumption

SRP: £99.99
Distributor: Westcoast

The GT 240 offers relatively good performance for an entry level card, with a 550MHz GPU that features 96 processing cores and 512MB of dedicated 128bit memory. The card can offer resolutions of 2560 x 1600 and is DirectX 10.1 compatible

SRP: £280
Distributor: Realtime Distribution

The GTX 285 offers 240 stream processors with a core clock speed of 702MHz, supported by a gigabyte of dedicated DDR3 RAM and a 512MB memory interface. It supports CUDA, PhysX, Stereoscopic 3D display and includes PureVideo DVD decoders

SRP: £58
Distributor: EntaTech

This entry-level device is built on a 40nm 625MHz processor core, which is supported by a gigabyte of DDR2 or SDDR3 memory. It also supports CUDA, PhysX, DirectX 10.1 and includes PureVideo HD

SRP: £330
Distributor: Target Components

Described by reviewers as ‘blisteringly fast’ this device carries an impressive 1600 processor cores operating at a core clock speed of 850MHz. Like the other 5800 series cards, this device includes DirectX 11 support with DirectCompute

SRP: £220
Distributor: Bluepoint, Realtime Distribution

Part of the highly successful Radeon 5800 series, the 5850 is DirectX 11 compatible, supports DirectCompute, OpenGL and ATI Eyefinity technology, and utilises a gigabyte of advanced GDDR5 memory to support the effective clock speed of 4350MHz

ASUS HD 5670
SRP: £94.99
Distributor: VIP Computers

Enabled for DirectX 11, the HD 5670’s 775MHz graphics processing unit is supported by a full gigabyte of DDR5 dedicated RAM. Asus says that its exclusive dust-proof fan extends the lifespan of the device by 25 per cent, while the GPU guard doubles the structural strength and reduces the risk of cracking

SRP: £225
Distributor: Target Components

Gigabyte says that its super over-clocked version of the GTX 275 offers nine per cent better performance than the generic GTX 275, and three per cent higher performance than generic GTX 285’s as well. The device features 240 stream processors supported by 1792MB GDDR3 integrated memory

SRP: £280
Distributor: Westcoast

Described as coming close to the performance of Nvidia’s flagship graphics card, this device uses a 633MHz GPU with 240 processor cores, supported by up to 896MB of dedicated 448 bit DDR3 RAM. It includes support for CUDA and full GPU acceleration for PhysX technology

SRP: £540
Distributor: Realtime Distribution, Bluepoint

With twice the processing power of its predecessor, the HD 5870, this graphics card offers an effective overclocked frequency of 4.04GHz, making it one of the most powerful GPUs on the market today. The Radeon HD 5970 is also one of the only cards on the market to fully support DirectX 11 and DirectCompute shared processing

SRP: £349.99
Distributor: Bluepoint

Designed for more business-oriented tasks such as CAD and DCC design software, the FX 1700 carries a 460MHz clock speed chip with 512MB of DDR2 dedicated SDRAM. Its support for CUDA parallel processing enables it to offer a balance between price and performance

SRP: £149.99
Distributor: Bluepoint

With two dual-link DVI connectors, the FX 570 is capable of offering high quality display at a resolution of up to 2560 x 1600 with a 60Hz refresh rate. The 400MHz processor is supported by a 256MB GDDR2 frame buffer and includes support for OpenGL and DirectX ten applications

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