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Life At The Low End
Dr. John

Budget Video:  The low end of the video card spectrum used to be a very lonely place with jerky video, and low resolutions. But not anymore. The new value-oriented offerings from NVidia have just put some life into the low end. So let's take a look at what this new video breed has to offer budget-minded gamers.

Lots of new NVidia video cards are coming out right about now, so I thought I'd take a look and see how the new GeForce4 MX cards stack up against the GeForce2 and GeForce 3 Ti 200 cards.  Not too many people are willing to relinquish $400 for a video card, but new offerings with quite a bit of power are available now in the $100 to $200 range. So this review is aimed at helping owners of GeForce2 and GeForce2 MX cards decide if it is worth upgrading to either a GeForce3 Ti 200, or one of the new GeForce4 MX cards.

  The Cards: I put the new Visiontek GeForce4 MX 440 and 420 cards through some comparison testing against GeForce2 Pro and GeForce3 Ti 200 cards to see if the new cards performed better or worse. The models I used for comparisons were the Asus V7700 Deluxe GeForce2 Pro 32MB DDR card and the Visiontek GeForce3 Ti 200 64MB DDR cards.

This is the GeForce4 MX440 card with 64MB of DDR DRAM.  Quite basic, and nothing really fancy, unless you consider Twin-View dual-monitor support fancy. And in a way, it is.  The dual-monitor support on the MX440 is quite impressive.

The GeForce4 MX420 is even more basic. This one almost looks like a network card it's so small.  But it still has room for an S-video out connector so you can play games on a large TV.

Finally, I also compared the performance of the new GeForce4 MX cards to the built-in GeForce2 MX video that comes with nForce motherboards.

Introduction:  So is the GeForce 4 MX anything to get excited about? In fact, the MX 440 comes equipped with DDR DRAM, and it puts in a very commendable performance as you will see. The MX 420 is a real budget card, yet it still manages some quite decent scores.

Both cards have two output connectors. The MX420 has an extra S-video out for TV gaming, while the MX440 has dual-monitor support with excellent driver utilities for controlling both monitors in spanning and non-spanning modes.

Rather than do an exhaustive test of these cards with Quake III, Serious Sam, Unreal, and the rest of the usual lineup, I concentrated on 3D Mark 2000 and 2001 to test Direct X 7 and 8 performance respectively. I only tested two resolutions and color depths at the two ends of the playable spectrum with these lower-end cards (640x480x16 and 1024x768x32).

System: I tested the video cards on what I consider a fairly basic new system with NVidia's new nForce chipset, including integrated sound and video. The motherboard was Asus' new A7N266 with DDR memory support. The system contained 256MB of Crucial PC2100 DDR DRAM and a 1.466 GHz (XP 1700+) Athlon CPU running at 11 x 133MHz (CPU and memory front side bus at 133MHz). The system had Windows 98SE and Direct X 8.1 installed, and the latest nForce drivers from NVidia's web site.

Video Drivers:

For most testing I used the latest 27.30 NVidia drivers that come with GeForce4 MX cards. For testing the old GeForce2 card, I used the 23.11 WHQL drivers available from NVidia's web site. It is interesting that NVidia is only offering the 23.11 drivers for download, rather than putting the new 27.11 drivers up as well.

3D Mark 2000 (Direct X 7)

I ran 3D Mark 2000 version 1.1 to test what kind of performance you can expect in various Direct X 7 3D games. The results are shown in the next graph. 

The blue bars are for 640x480 at 16-bit, while the red bars are for 1024x768 at 32-bit color. The red bars really represent what resolution and color depth you would prefer to run your games at if possible. Running games at 800x600 with 32-bit color is perfectly good for 17 inch monitors, but if you have a 19 inch monitor, 1024x768 is the preferred setting.

From the graph above it's clear that the MX440 is darned close to the Ti200. The price difference is negligible as well. The surprises for me are the excellent showing that the MX420 puts in (GF2 Pro equivalent), and the terrible showing for the integrated nForce video (Less than 1/3 the score for the MX440 at 1024x768x32).

3D-Mark 2001 (Direct X 8)

Now we get to the benchmark that was designed for the GeForce 3 and 4 cards, the new 3D Mark 2001se (second edition). This benchmark makes $400 video cards cry for mercy. But take a look at Direct X 8 performance on these low-end cards.

The Ti200 really does well here, with good tight scores at both settings. The MX400 does exceptionally well too, beating the GF2 Pro nicely. Notice also that the MX420 does a very good job with Direct X 8 performance at a very affordable price. It meets or beats a GeForce2 Pro, and puts the onboard video to shame. 

What I notice here the most is that the MX440 does not do as well with DX8 as compared to the GF3 Ti200. These two cards performed very similarly with DX7 (3D Mark 2000). But with Direct X 8 (3D Mark 2001se), there is now a significant advantage for the GF3 Ti200. 

Take home messages? If you have an original GeForce2 MX card, the GeForce4 MX420 is a significant upgrade. If you have a GeForce2 Pro, the GeForce3 Ti200 is a significant upgrade, but the GeForce4 MX440 is not.

Overclocking GeForce Cards

I used Powerstrip 3.12 (Entech) to overclock the core and memory on the GeForce cards. If you haven't tried Powerstrip, I highly recommend it. You can get it here:

http://www.entechtaiwan.com/ps.htm

The default graphics core and memory settings on the 5 cards I tested are:

Standard speeds:
GeForce2 Pro:         200MHz/333MHz (core - memory)
GeForce3 Ti 200:     175MHz/400MHz 
GeForce4 MX 420:    125MHz/166MHz (SDRAM)
GeForce4 MX 440:    135MHz/200MHz (DDR)
GeForce2 MX (int):   50MHz/50MHz?

Overclocked settings:
GF2 Pro Overclocked:        210MHz/350MHz
GF3 Ti 200 Overclocked:    185MHz/440MHz
GF4 MX420 Overclocked:    135MHz/190MHz
GF4 MX440 Overclocked:    145MHz/230MHz
GF2 MXint. Overclocked:     not overclockable

The on-board GeForce2 MX video (labeled GF2MXint in graphs) on the nForce motherboard would not overclock at all. I am not sure exactly how the nForce board uses system memory for AGP functions, but the default readings with Powerstrip read out as 50MHz core, 50MHz memory.  The memory slider would not move (because it's system memory), and the core slider always caused the system to crash, whenever I tried to change the setting. I set the nForce motherboard BIOS to allow video overclocking, but this had no effect on the lack of overclockability. I think it's safe to say that the onboard video on nForce motherboards is not particularly tweakable.

The graphs below show the benchmarks with the overclocked settings. 

 

Overclocking these cards gave marginal increases in performance (for example, 9% for the GeForce4 MX 440 at 1024x768x32). 

nForce Chipset

NVidia's move into the chipset market is a logical extension of their move to to console market, where graphics and memory are integrated. But in the case of the nForce integrated video on the current chipset, I've got to wonder what they were thinking. Maybe servers? The onboard video on nForce motherboards is not anywhere near up to snuff for newer 3D games, and is barely good enough to run older games at acceptable resolutions and frame rates. But other than the built-in video, the nForce chipset is impressive. The memory support is very good, and the built-in audio is far superior to the Yamaha chips integrated on many motherboards. What NVidia needs to do is remove the on-board video altogether, and add 10/100 Ethernet support. The newer nForce 415-D chipset without the built-in video is a great idea, now let's get with the integrated fast Ethernet guys!

Conclusions

If you want raw power and speed in your graphics system, you'll want to save your money for something gutsier than MX cards. But if you have an old GeForce2 MX card, and you're on a budget, the MX 440 is one heck of a nice budget card.  Keep in mind that the GeForce3 Ti 200 beats the MX 440 in every benchmark, and only costs about $20 to $30 more. In my opinion, the extra $30 is worth the money. Also keep in mind that the GeForce 4 Ti 4200 should be available soon, and it will beat the GeForce3 Ti 200, for just about the same price. The MX420 is a damn good video card at the bottom end. For about $100, you get GeForce 2 Pro performance... with good 'ol SDRAM!

Final words.  If you have a really old video card and it's giving you trouble, but you are also flat broke, the MX420 will beat the pants off of a Voodoo3 or TNT2 card. If you have a little more cash on hand, the MX440 is an even better choice to replace an old video card. But for just a few dollars more, you can get a full-fledged GF3 Ti200, which has twice the number of pipelines, and faster memory.

But one thing is clear folks, the low-end of computer video isn't so low anymore, thanks to NVidia.


Pros: 
  • MX 440 is a good choice for budget gamers
  • MX 420 excellent for it's price range
  • Complete Direct X 8 support
  • MX 440 has great dual monitor support
  • MX 420 is dirt cheap
  • Programmable special effects
  • Overclockable

Cons: 
  • MX 440 is almost as expensive as GF3 Ti 200
  • GeForce3 Ti200 is fairly inexpensive, and beats both GeForce4 MX cards in all benchmarks
  • Not much in the way of cooling on these cards
  • Built-in video on nForce motherboards is pitiful

GeForce4 MX 440:

Price: Approximately $165 US

Rating, :  4.5 out of 5 smiley faces (90%).
:) :) :) :) +


GeForce4 MX 420:

Price: Approximately $120 US

Rating, :  4.3 out of 5 smiley faces (86%).
:) :) :) :) +

Availability for both cards: Good

Copyright, March 10th, 2002