We bought a new Dell PC recently that was a great bargain, offered all the latest technology, but its gaming was very poor due to it coming with a basic Radeon X300 graphics card.
To replace the card we had two choices, spend $400+ on a top of the range Radeon X800/X850 or GeForce 6800 card, or keep the budget more sensible and get a mid-range card for around $200 such as a Radeon X600 or GeForce 6600 card.
We wanted a card that would handle the latest games like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 at a good resolution (1280×1024) with high graphics settings, and after researching we bought a Sparkle GeForce 6600GT graphics card from Directron for $207.
How did the card perform, and how much did it improve over the 16377 Aquamark3 benchmark score we got with the old X300 card? Keep reading to find out……
What You Get
The Sparkle 6600GT comes packaged like most retail graphics cards, and it is nice and secure inside the box to stop any damage in transit to this high-tech component.
The card itself looks nice with its blue PCB, and although it needs a large heat sink and fan it is thin enough to only take up one expansion slot in your PC. Unlike high-end graphics cards it has no separate power connector, making installation easier.
One thing you may not have seen before on a graphics card is the connector at the top of the card. This connector is for SLI, a new technology that lets you join two identical graphics cards together for vastly improved performance (on motherboards with 2 PCI Express slots).
There are 3 connectors on the end of the card, from left to right they are S-Video (for connecting to a TV), DVI (for a digital signal to high-end TV or LCD screen), and analog (for connecting to CRT monitors and older/cheaper LCDs).
Don’t worry if those connectors don’t match your needs as Sparkle supplies 3 accessory connectors with the 6600GT: an S-Video cable, an analog to DVI adapter (for using the card with dual high-end LCDs), and a S-Video to component adapter for connecting to the component inputs of high end TVs or receivers.
We would have preferred dual DVI outputs like on some of the high-end cards but this still offers very powerful connectivity options.
Even though it is marketed and priced as a mid-range card its specifications (and hopefully performance) exceed last years $400+ cards such as the Radeon 9800 Pro we have installed in our other main PC.
Chipset: NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT
Core Clock: 500 MHz
Memory Clock: 1000 MHz
Memory Type: 128 MB GDDR3
Memory Interface: 128 bit
RAMDAC: 400 MHz
Bus Type: PCI-Express 16x
HDTV: Supports resolution up to 1920 X 1080i (1080p)
Features (from Sparkle’s web site):
Microsoft DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 3.0 support
On-chip video processing
High-speed GDDR3 memory interface
64-bit floating point texture filtering and blending
NVIDIA SLI multi-GPU ready
Revolutionary superscalar architecture
NVIDIA CineFX 3.0 engine
NVIDIA UltraShadow II technology
Full-speed 32-bit color precision
NVIDIA Intellisample 3.0 technology
Full MPEG support
Advanced adaptive de-interlacing
Video scaling and filtering
Integrated HDTV encoder
NVIDIA ForceWare Unified Driver Architecture (UDA)
NVIDIA nView multi-display technology
NVIDIA Digital Vibrance Control 3.0 technology
OpenGL 1.5 optimizations and support
Dual 400MHz RAMDACs
Dual single-link DVI support
What does that all really mean when it comes to performance? we will see later when we benchmark and use the card, but first we need to install it.
(If you have one you should wear a grounding strap whenever you work with computer hardware to stop static electricity from damaging your expensive new gear. You should also unplug and remove the power cord from your PC before working on it.)
As we showed you in our Dell Dimension 8400 review installing hardware into our new test PC is easy.
With the case on its side you open it by pushing on the top and bottom latches. Open the case fully to 90 degrees.
You can see the existing X300 video card in its slot (make sure you have the right card by looking for the video connectors).
Open up the green plastic latch/arm that holds all the cards in place (on other PCs there isn’t this latch and you would probably need to unscrew a screw that holds the card in place.)
On the Dell and many other PCs there is a retaining latch that holds the PCI Express graphics card securely in place, push that latch out of the way and gently pull the card upwards so it comes out of the slot.
Line up the new card with the PCI Express slot (the same slot the old card came out of). Push the card gently into place; if it doesn’t go in easily don’t force it as you may be putting it into the slot incorrectly.
Once it is in place make sure the little retaining latch is in place at the back of the card and push the big green latch/cover back into place making sure it closes correctly. (On other PCs screw the new card into place just like the old card was screwed in.)
Close the case, reconnect the power, and start up the pc. Assuming the card is installed correctly Windows should start up fine and all you need to do is install the drivers that came on the CD with the graphics card and set the screen resolution to the one you want.
You should then go to the Nvidia web site you make sure you have the latest drivers.
If you recall from our earlier review the Dell Dimension 8400 had a PCMark04 score of 4566, which is very good but was let down by the graphics component in the score breakout: CPU 5195, Memory 5268, Graphics 1221, and HDD 5094.
With the new card installed we re-ran the PCMark04 tests and the graphics score had increased to 4234, a 250% increase, and the overall PCMark04 score increased to 5098.
We also re-ran our Aquamark3 benchmark: previously we had got 16377 and the benchmark went slowly and jerkily in places but now the benchmark was much faster and smooth throughout, with a final score of 54116, a 230% improvement. Looking at the frame rates we went from an average frame rate of 16.4 to an average of 54.1!
(We also ran this test on our old PC with Athlon 2500+ CPU and Radeon 9800 Pro graphics and got a score of 27,928 and 27.9 frames per second. Considering that we felt the old PC did a good job of displaying Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 this is a major improvement.)
We also ran the 3DMark03 and 3DMark05 benchmarks which are both commonly used. The 3DMArk05 benchmark is particularly interesting as it taxes the CPU and graphics more than any current game. With the GeForce 6600GT card we achieved a 3DMark03 score of 8314 and a 3DMark05 score of 3386, both of which are impressive for a mid-range card and challenge the scores of some GeForce 6800 and Radeon X800 reviews we have seen.
These are great benchmarking results, and a massive improvement over what we had before but we wanted to take things a bit further as Nvidia makes overclocking very easy with it’s software.
To enable overclocking on a Nvidia card you need to edit your computer’s registry. Only do this if you are comfortable playing with the registry. Go to “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\NVIDIA Corporation\Global\NVTweak” and add a new dword called “coolbits” with a hexadecimal value of 3.
You can then right click on your display, choose properties, settings, advanced, GeForce 6600 GT, and you should see a new menu item called Clock Frequency Settings.
We chose manual overclocking, and clicked detect optimal frequencies which found what it though was a safe amount to overclock. We could then have run stress tests, raising the frequencies a little at a time to see the maximum we could achieve without any display problems. I saw we could have as we took the easy way out, lowering the optimal frequencies by 10MHz and leaving it at that.
The card has run at the overclocked speeds for a week now with no problems and while we could get a few more MHz out of it I am happy with our speeds of 570MHz core clock speed (up from 500MHz) and 1170MHz memory speed (up from 1000MHz).
To see what the overclocking did for our benchmarks we ran everything again, PCMark04 added another 50 points to the graphics score (to 4284), Aquamark3 increased more than 10% to 60689, 3DMark03 increased more than 12% to 9365 and 3DMark05 increased more than 13% to 3835.
So what does this mean for gaming performance? we ran the Doom 3 demo “demo 1″ at 1024×768 resolution with high quality graphics, no Anti-Aliasing and 8x AF and got a frame rate of 60. With 4x Anti-Aliasing enabled this dropped to 42 frames per second (still very playable). Raising the resolution to 1280×1024 lowered frame rates to 52 and 29.
Since then we have played both Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 at 1280×1024 for hours and the games have been very playable with lots of nice eye-candy to look at. To see what it is really capable of we upped the resolution to 1600×1200 and played with high graphics options and Anti-Aliasing; Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 both got a little jerky when entering large areas but I wouldn’t describe either game as unplayable.
For the money this is a great upgrade for a PC with a PCI Express graphics slot. Performance in games was improved almost 4x compared to the X300 SE card supplied with the PC, and improved 2x over our older PC with an Athlon 2500+ processor and a Radeon 6800 Pro graphics card.
In other reviews benchmarks the 6800GT outperformed its closest competitor in the $200 price range: the ATI Radeon X700.
If that wasn’t enough then you get SLI which, with the right motherboard, allows you to link two of these cards together for top performance.
Displays the most graphics intensive games at good frame rates
SLI for future expansion
Great value for money
Better performing cards are available (for twice the money)
Overall Score: 9.5/10