Graphics: Pick a Card...Any Card

With graphics capabilities being so important and new cards appearing all the time, you need a score card to pick the right one. Here it is...
Matrox

Normally known for their high-quality 2-D core, the latest Matrox cards, like the G400Max, are also powerful 3-D performers. Now that they are releasing the hardware specification and working with the Utah-GLX team and Precision Insight, those 3-D benefits can be seen in Linux as well. Like the 3dfx and ATI, Matrox cards depend on the Mesa implementation of OpenGL.

G200

Price: $50 or less

Benefits: Relatively speaking, the G200 is a cheap card that can provide reasonable hardware acceleration and sharp 2-D. Despite being a lower-end card, it does support 32-bit color in 3-D if you absolutely want it.

Disadvantages: Like its price reflects, the G200 is a low-end card. Don't expect to play Quake III Arena in all its glory at anything close to an acceptable frame rate.

G400

Price: $100 for a G400 single-head to $200 for a G400Max dual-head

Benefits: The G400Max is quite fast with the Utah-GLX drivers, and in a dual-head configuration can drive two monitors at once. Fortunately, the G400 comes in several models to suit different needs and budgets. Further, the G400 supports modern 3-D features like 32-bit output and large textures and can maintain a solid frame rate while doing so. Add in the clean 2-D, and the G400 cards look appealing.

Disadvantages: To get the best performance, expect to lay out some cash for the G400Max. It would also be nice if Matrox helped support bump-mapping in Linux like it does in Windows.

ATI

Like Matrox and 3dfx, ATI is helping the Linux community by working with developers to create and maintain their drivers. Further, they are looking into more than just 3-D by trying to add 2-D video acceleration (as might be used with DVD players) to their Linux support. ATI also has their Radeon chip on the horizon, with its plethora of new features and promised speed and Linux drivers. Their support with the Rage Pro and Rage 128 could be just the precursor to the splash that ATI could make in the Linux world.

Figure 3. ATI-RagePro

Rage Pro

Price: $35

Benefits: Now a very old card, the Rage Pro can be had very inexpensively. The support with the Utah-GLX drivers is as fast, if not faster, than the drivers for Windows.

Disadvantages: The Rage Pro just can't keep up with the rest of the pack. Quake III Arena is playable only after all the special effects are turned off. This should be considered the very low-end for any hardware acceleration in Linux.

Rage 128, Rage 128 Pro

Price: $60 for the Rage 128 to $130 for the Rage 128 Pro

Benefits: The Rage 128 line of cards are now supported under XFree86 4.0 and take advantage of the DRI for hardware acceleration and should perform quite well for the price.

Disadvantages: The drivers are still in development and aren't as fast or as optimized as those offered by other cards.

NVIDIA

Somewhat of a late bloomer relative to the others, NVIDIA finally made their presence felt in Spring 2000 when they released their XFree86 4.0 drivers. Based on the same code as their Windows implementation, the drivers offer the fastest and most conformant OpenGL acceleration available in Linux. Further, NVIDIA supports a wide range of cards, from their venerable TNT all the way up to their latest GeForce 2 cards. This range of cards supports many features, like 32-bit color and stencil buffers.

One special feature available on the GeForce and GeForce 2 cards is the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). This GPU offloads some of the computationally expensive work (mainly coordinate transformations and lighting operations) normally done by the CPU, leading in some cases to improved performance on lower-end systems. Additionally, NVIDIA is pushing support for all features currently available in Windows, including AGP transfers, texture compression, and flat-panel output as well as others. They also promise to offer in Linux the same full-scene anti-aliasing that has recently arrived as part of their Windows drivers.

One other advantage that NVIDIA has over 3dfx, Matrox and ATI is their business model. Currently they just make chips and other companies make the boards. The competition among the board makers can then lead to better prices for consumers.

TNT

Price: $30 used (not available in retail)

Benefits: A cheap, older card, the TNT offers solid OpenGL acceleration and 32-bit color.

Disadvantages: As the price might suggest, this card looks slow in today's market and doesn't have as much memory as newer cards. It is becoming a low-end card.

TNT2 and TNT2 Ultra

Price: $40 for a smaller TNT2 up to $140 for a TNT2 Ultra

Benefits: A range of cards to choose from, with varying speeds, a gamer on a budget can find a TNT2 to suit his needs. The TNT2 Ultra is still a reasonably speedy card and with its full set of features, solid OpenGL support, and 32MB of RAM, will last a bit longer for playing the newest games at a passable frame rate.

Disadvantages: The price for the high-end TNT2 Ultra can seem a big pricey for its power with today's games. And some features can be used only at a sizeable performance hit (like 32-bit color).

GeForce SDR and DDR

Price: $130 for the GeForce 32MB SDR up to $290 for the GeForce 32MB DDR

Benefits: The NVIDIA GPU can help boost the performance on a system with an older CPU. Further, the support for texture compression, 32-bit color, and many other features makes the card a versatile OpenGL accelerator.

Disadvantages: Unfortunately, even with DDR RAM the GeForce is bandwidth limited on high-end systems. Currently, the benefits seen from using the GPU are limited to just a few games. And expect to pay well over $200 for the best card.

GeForce 2 GTS

Price: Over $300

Benefits: The fastest card currently available on the market, and with the GPU it should last even the demanding gamer for a good long time. This is the card to have for today's hard-core Linux gamer. And with several companies making boards, there should be competition to bring prices down. This is also the NVIDIA card with enough bandwidth to support FSAA when NVIDIA adds that feature to their Linux drivers. This is the most future-proof card you can buy.

Disadvantages: For the fastest card on the market, expect to pay dearly; the GeForce 2 can cost as much as the CPU in your system. Also, there still seem to be some bandwidth issues, especially on higher-end systems at high resolutions. Finally, support for the features of the GPU haven't yet been fully realized in today's games.

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