Sunday, January 20, 2008

Video card debacle

So my video card fan doesn't work anymore. A couple weeks ago it started making weird noises, after a week they stopped. I thought, naively, that it had fixed itself.

yeah, right, it fixed itself by dying.

Looking back, the funny thing about this is that the card always overheated a bit. I always got a couple of funny looking colored pixels in my videos from time to time, never understanding where they came from. But in the last couple of days I started to get SO much that I had to start investigating. So from the get go, my card was slightly overheating.

The card in question is an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128mb. It was, supposedly, a brand new card ATI sent me when I rma'd to them my previous 9800. Well, it was having problems from the minute I received it it seems. It lasted me about a year before the fan died.

It still works fine though. Using ATI TOOLS I dropped down the core clock and memory clock about 78 mhz each, and now I don't get any pixels at all and everything seems pretty smooth. The heatsink must work pretty well on that thing. But now I'm stuck with an underpowered video card with no working fan.

What is a guy to do? Well, the logical answer is: upgrade. Problem is, my system is pushing 4 and a half years old at this point, and it doesn't have a PCI express port. That means no modern video card for me. Anyway, even if I did have one of those, the rest of my components are pretty ancient: AMD Athlon XP 2800+. 1gb of PC2700 ram (running at 333mhz in dual channel on an Nvidia nforce2 motherboard). So a top of the line wouldn't do much for the system anyway since it would be bottlenecked by it.

Usually, in the past, I would have said "NICE! A busted component! This means it is time to upgrade!". But this time it's different. I like my system. In fact I love it. It's the best system I've ever owned (it's my fourth system total and the second one I built). It's really stable still after all those years and does everything I want out of it. Plus, I've pretty much stopped being a modern PC gamer, all of my modern gaming is done on consoles. All of the games I play on the PC are older games that my PC can run easily.

So to me, there's no reason to upgrade. My PC still does everything I want it to do. If I upgraded, I'd end up with a 64 bit processor, and from what I understand, those processors work best when used with a 64 bit operating system. Well I have a legal copy of Windows XP Home edition 32 bit, but no 64 bit OS. Also, I know that most programs out there aren't really compatible with 64 bit OS's, and since most of my interest in programs and games these days belong to the ancient, I just can't see how upgrading to a 64 bit OS would help me.

No matter how I see it, upgrading doesn't fit my current PC needs. Windows XP still works great, I still need to run a 32 bit OS, and I don't really need more power. More power is always nice I grant you that, but I don't need it.

So that leaves me with the dirty option of looking at AGP video cards.

Now the first thing you notice when looking at those, is that you get fucked up the ass. Most AGP cards are gimped versions of their PCI-E counterparts. You see a card and you're like "HOLY MOLY THAT'S AN AWESOME CARD!" and the next thing you know, it runs with slower ram, a slower core and it has less bandwidth.

And get this: It's usually more expensive than the PCI-E version. So you're paying more for less. Yippie.

But if you're like me and upgrading isn't really an option, then you don't have much of a choice.

Now, I have two criterias for video cards: First, it has to somewhat outperform my 9800 Pro. I mean, it sucks to pay money for a new video card when it's not really better than what you used to have. That's like wasting your money. If you're going to spend money, at least get something better than what you used to have.

Second, it needs to run with a 350 watts PSU. I have a 350 watts Enermax PSU, and at this's probably something like five years old. That's an eternity for any PC component, and for the PSU it's probably even worse. That means that it's just not as efficient as it used to be. That could cause problems. So in a way, the more powerful the new card will be, the more risks I take of it not working well with my PSU.

Those two criterias are the two main ones, but there's a couple of others who factor into my decision:

Third, the warranty needs to be good. I could keep this system for another two, or maybe even three years, easily. I'm still very satisfied with my PC today, so what's the chance of me suddenly wanting to upgrade in a year? Not likely. I think this PC still has a solid two years left in it. Like I said, all it needs to do at this point is run old games. So really, there's no point in buying a video card with a one year warranty and having to go through this again in 14 months. If I'm buying a video card, I want it to be last all the way to my next complete upgrade. That means the warranty can't be less than two years long. Also, it means I can't really look to the used video cards market for a quick solution. Older but powerful cards, such as the X850 or x800, are great but they're legacy cards by now. If I buy one used I'm on my own and won't get warranty service if it breaks, which is not what I'm looking for.

That also applies for more modern cards, I saw a brand new BFG 6800 GT on ebay at a good price, but you can't register that card on the company's website anymore. If you can't register it, you can't receive service for it. Most companies, like EVGA, require a copy of the original receipt
to grant you warranty service. If you bought your card on ebay you won't have that to show them. I bought my ATi 9800 Pro on ebay in july 2003, but I registered it right away when I received it. Some companies might not require you to have a receipt, but most require a proof of purchase before giving you warranty service.

What this means is that it's not a good idea to buy your card used if you care about keeping it for years. Although someone could tell me "Well you could buy two cards at 70$ each in a span of three years, or one card for 140$. In the end it's the same". And they'd be right. I have to keep that in mind.

What else? Well, there's also the fact that I prefer modern cards to older cards. I'm having some problems with my DVI display and my Radeon 9800 Pro, and I'm blaming it on the literally ANCIENT and almost first version of the DVI plug on the 9800. The card has a hard time changing resolutions, sometimes the resolution looks really messed up and I have to switch it a couple of times to fix it.

So okay, enough of that, let's see the options:

1. Geforce 7300 GT

This is the first one that caught my eye. Ncix has a real good deal on one, 74.99$ plus you get a postal rebate of 25$. I usually don't really factor rebates in my decisions since it takes you three months to receive them. By the time you receive your 25$ you don't care about it anymore. As far as I'm concerned, that card would cost me 97$ final with shipping and taxes.

The problem is that it's a weak ass card. I'm not even sure that it's better than my 9800 Pro, in fact it could be worse. Tom's hardware says that it's like, one little itty bitty notch better than the 9800 pro, which means that I'd be paying 97$ for a card that will perform the same. I don't like that. That's a lot of money to spend to keep the status quo. So it's cheap, from every aspect.

2. Geforce 7600 GS

Ok that one is more interesting. It's more powerful than the 7300 GT (not by a lot, but it would be noticeable. We're talking 10 to 20 fps more on average), so it would be noticeably better than my 9800 pro. Not that it matters much, since I don't think I play any games in which I would notice a performance boost. But at least I would be paying for something better. Maybe NWN would be smoother?...I doubt it, it's smooth enough as it is. Oh well.

The problem with is, really, is that it's sandwiched between the cheaper and not that much weaker 7300 GT, and the 7600 GT. The 7600 GT AGP is basically an overclocked version of the 7600 GS, but from my estimates, it would cost me only 20$ more. For 20$ I'll take the stronger card for sure. I usually see the 7600 GS for around 100$, with taxes and shipping it's up to 130$. There's also a 20$ from evga if you buy one before the end of January. So I guess that would make it 110$...110$ in three months that is.

3. Geforce 7600 GT AGP

This card pisses me off. The PCI-E version of this card is truly a great card, but the AGP version is basically a slightly overclocked 7600 GS. So obviously, it will perform a little better than the 7600 GS, but it's hard to judge how much since there isn't any benchmarks for old AGP cards like that. Future shop currently has a deal on one of those for 129.99, with taxes it would cost me 150$. So that means that it would cost 20$ more than the 7600 GS. For 20$ i'd take the 7600 GT in a heartbeat. Then again, if you buy the card on ncix you get a 20$ rebate on the 7600 GS, so I don't know. I'm not sure the performance gain from the higher core clock deserves a 40$ raise...but it is a more modern card. From what I learned, the 7600 GS is the older of the three cards I talked about so far.

4. Geforce 7800 GS

Well, honestly, this card is too expensive. On top of that, it's probably too powerful for my system anyway, making my PSU sweat and being bottlenecked all over. But hey, it's a nice card.

So how about some radeons? From what I saw there's only really one choice:

5. Radeon X1650 Pro

Now this is kind of the card the complicates things. Normally, the x1650 blows out the first three cards in this list. But there's a LOT of variations of this card on the market. In fact, I think all of them out there nowadays are quite weak, about on par with the specs for the 7600 GS. The price though is usually pretty good, priced slightly lower than the 7600 GS. But most Radeons have only a one year warranty, although Sapphire seems to offer two years. Also, some cards seem to require a powerful PSU, such as the Diamond X1650 Pro, which requires a 420W PSU. Before you tell me that it's bull and that it doesn't truly require that kind of power, bear in mind that on there are TWO threads about guys having problems running this card with a 350W PSU, and guess what? They're both enermax PSU's. And mine to boot is 5 years old.

Yeah, kinda stressful. The reference design of the card from ATI required only a 350W PSU though, so the higher requirements of the diamond card are probably due to a new heatsink.

But still, the problem with the X1650 is that it's either too demanding on the power, or the warranty is not long enough, or maybe you just don't have a freaking clue what you're getting. A local store has a Sapphire X1650 Pro for like 87$ before taxes, which looks like a sweet deal, but there's no indication of what exactly their card has under the hood. And since it's a small shop, they probably don't carry the cards in store, so they'd have to order them. Generally quite annoying.

But then again, even the weak version of the x1650 Pro can probably compete, or beat, an 7600 GS. The best version, which I highly doubt is the one my local store sells, probably beats the 7600 GT, or at least can compete with it. And the card is cheaper than both the 7600 GS and the 7600 GT. It only has a two year warranty, but that could be enough. If my video card breaks again in two years, then It'd probably be time to upgrade anyway.

So I don't know about the x1650. I would have liked to switch from ATI to Nvidia. I've been with ATI for a while now, I'm due for a change. But I'm not sure if the economics of it are making sense at this point. Then again, keep in mind that's it's not a sure thing that an X1650 pro with the same specs as the 7600 GS would beat it. If you check out on VGA charts, what seems to truly make the difference for the original x1650 pro was its DDR3 memory. If you compare the 7600GS to an X1600 pro, which uses DDR2 memory, the ATI gets clobbered, even though it has a higher clock rate than the 7600 GS. The GS even beats the X1600 XT, which uses DDR3 memory. So a weak ATI X1650 Pro in NO WAY is assured of beating even an 7600 GS, so surely not the 7600 GT.

EDIT: I just rechecked the vga charts on Tom's hardware, and I was surprised. I don't know where I got the idea that the X1650 pro was killing the 7600 GS, because really the race is quite tight. The pro beats the 7600 GS in pretty much every test, but never really by more than 5 fps and it's usually closer than. That means that a weak version of the X1650 pro would probably lose to the 7600 GS in pretty much every test. Really really interesting. That totally devalues the X1650 since I'm pretty sure that the one being sold right now is the weak version. The 7600 GT probably beats even the full X1650 pro though, which I need to keep in mind.

Okay so that's enough writing for now. I'll finish it later.

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