The minimum specifications for Windows Vista (and the fancy Aero effects therein) really aren’t all high. The worst-case scenario will see you having to spend fairly small amounts to get the flashy new interface. And in most cases this purchase will be on a graphics card, and you’ll likely have to choose an AGP card unless your PC is still relatively new.
With both Nvidia and ATI still making cards for the older graphics standard, we round up five AGP cards that cost less than $200. Not only will these cards power all Vista’s visual treats, but they’ll also play the latest games.
The cheapest card on test is the Sapphire Radeon X1300 XT at $153. Surprisingly – given that the X1300 is an entry-level GPU – it performs quite well. At 1024 x 768, we saw 34fps in Call of Duty 2 (CoD2) and Far Cry (with HDR-enabled) returned 30fps. Both are just about playable without making any image quality sacrifices.
The secret is the 575MHz core clock speed and 700MHz RAM, both of which the heatsink manages to cool without making much noise at all. However, at 1280 x 1024, we saw frame rates drop to 25fps in CoD2 and just 19fps in Far Cry; other cards are faster for only a small premium. Only the poor performance in Far Cry (and the implied inability to handle the ever-more prevalent HDR effects) holds it back.
Like the X1300 XT, the HIS Radeon X1650 Pro IceQ makes use of the AVIVO additions to the Catalyst drivers. These include a fast video transcoder for iPod, PSP and other handheld devices, plus some image-enhancement tweaks for DVD playback. The X1650 Pro was the first GPU to be made with 80nm transistors, but the heatsink still has to be a huge double-height affair to cool the 590MHz chip without making a racket.
Performance is reasonable, though, with CoD2 and Far Cry running at 37fps and 32fps respectively at 1024 x 768. The 512MB of RAM means you can use high-resolution textures without affecting performance. And, sure enough, enabling the Extra textures in CoD2 saw no drop in frame rate.
The 7600 GS-based cards are at best only a touch faster than the X1650 Pro and, as all three are noticeably cheaper, this is where the competition lies. The PNY Verto GeForce 7600 GS is essentially based on the Nvidia reference design and managed 34fps in CoD2 and 39fps in Far Cry at 1024 x 768, 4fps slower than the X1650 Pro card in the former and 5fps faster in the latter. At 1280 x 1024, all three 7600 GS cards managed 24fps in CoD2, while the X1650 Pro was marginally quicker with 27fps. Conversely, the X1650 Pro scored only 21fps in Far Cry to the 24fps of the 7600 GS cards. Ultimately, it’s a photo finish, but the 7600 GS cards nudge ahead because the GPU is more adept at handling HDR effects.
The MSI GeForce 7600 GS attempts to differentiate itself by using 512MB of GDDR3 RAM instead of the 256MB of the PNY card and by using a passive (and therefore silent) heatsink. The extra RAM should in theory allow you to use maximum texture settings with no performance penalty, and when we used the Extra texture settings of CoD2 we saw no frame rate drop. However, performing the same test on the other GeForce 7600 GS cards also saw no frame rate drop, so the $169 price seems unjustified.
That’s especially true in light of the Gigabyte GeForce 7600 GS, which also uses a passive heatsink. This card is $14 cheaper than the MSI, and around $5 cheaper than the PNY. Considering you should be paying a premium for the large lump of golden-coloured aluminium cooling the GPU and RAM, it’s competitively priced, including the two-channel version of CyberLink PowerDVD 6. PNY counters by including SWAT 4. However, we recommend you save money and opt for the silent Gigabyte card.
1 HIS Radeon X1650 Pro IceQ
2 Gigabyte GeForce 7600 GS
3 Sapphire Radeon X1300 XT
4 MSI GeForce 7600GS
5 PNY Verto GeForce 7600 GS