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  SE Videocards: What are you really getting?
 
 

Backround

For years, the expression "Special Edition" (SE) was basically an automotive term. It meant the vehicle was above and beyond the standard offering. It might have a larger engine, sport suspension or a tweaked out interior. Whatever was done, you knew it would be something special. Then a few years ago, manufacturers started offering SE versions of their videocards. However, for videocards, the SE designation meant just the opposite...the manufacturer was usually offering something that was less than their standard product.

In the cutthroat videocard industry, OEM's are looking for any way possible to gain an advantage. So OEM's started asking videocard companies like ATI and NVIDIA if they could modify standard products to be more "cost effective" or to fill perceived holes in the product lines. It's out of that environment that the SE cards were born.

Typically, there are five methods card manufacturers may employ to reduce the cost of their products: use a PCB (printed circuit board) with fewer layers, use slower memory, use GPU's (graphics processing unit) with lower clock speeds, reduce the number of memory pathways or use a GPU that has been crippled (i.e. reduced number of pixel pipelines). In many cases, multiple methods may be combined to produce these more cost effective solutions. It's usually these modified offerings that carry the moniker "SE."

The Confusion

There is nothing inherently wrong with a manufacturer doing something to make a more cost effective solution. The problem arises because there is rarely documentation for "SE" cards...and this is where it becomes a case of "buyer beware."

Currently, ATI has the following GPU's listed in their RADEON 9XXX line of cards:

RADEON 9800 XT
RADEON 9800 PRO
RADEON 9800

RADEON 9600 XT
RADEON 9600 PRO
RADEON 9600

RADEON 9200 PRO
RADEON 9200
RADEON 9200 SE

RADEON 9700

According to that page, there is only one official SE card, the 9200 SE. If you look on the 9200 Specifications page, there is little information to differentiate the 9200 SE versus the 9200. It's only in this Product Comparison that you see that the 9200 SE has only a 64-bit memory interface. That is a significantly narrow memory pipe that will be a bottleneck to data transfers. Another point of mention is the lack of clock and memory speeds on the 9200 Product Comparison page. Many times a manufacturer will allow add-in card companies to set their own speeds. So even two cards with the same chipsets may not have the same clock speeds.

Even though the 9200 SE is the only SE card that appears on the main RADEON page, it is not the only ATI-based SE card that appears on Pricewatch. There you will find the 9600 SE and the 9800 SE as well.

While the 9600 SE does not appear on the main RADEON page, it does show up on the 9600 page. Looking at the Comparison Chart, we see that the 9600 SE only has a 64-bit memory interface. Again, that severely hurts that chipset's ability to transfer data.

On the otherhand, the 9800 SE is a bit of a mystery. A search on ATI's site turns up no mention of that chipset. This article on the Xbit website offers some insight into the 9800 SE. Unfortunately, it appears that even the 9800 SE will have two versions.

The first version of the RADEON 9800 SE will be made on simplified 6-layer PCB and feature 128-bit memory bus for 128MB of DDR SDRAM. The RADEON 9800 SE graphics chip will have only four active rendering pipelines. ATI Technologies again simply disables half of the VPU??s pixel pipelines.

The second version of the RADEON 9800 SE graphics card will be made on 8-layer PCB and will boast with 256-bit bus for 128MB of DDR SDRAM memory. The chip will also feature only four pipelines.

One ATI-based manufacturer that has a boatload of different offerings, Sapphire Technology, lists the 9800 SE as an available chipset in the form of the SAPPHIRE RADEON 9800SE ATLANTIS. According to this page, it will be the 256-bit memory version. Unfortunately, they do not list clock speeds. Also, where the model number should, there is nothing but X's. To add to the confusion, according to this Digit-Life review, Sapphire also offers a 9800 PRO Lite which has the same clock speeds as the RADEON 9800 PRO but the PCB is not reference and the price is lower by $70. Is that what is called "poetic license"?

ATI is not alone in this practice. Though not as widespread as the ATI camp, NVIDIA-based cards are not immune to SE-itis. eVGA.com is offering a GeForceFX 5900 SE. However, in this case, the SE model may truly fill a hole in a manufacturer's product line.

NVIDIA had a huge hole between their 5900 cards and the 5600 Ultras from a performance standpoint, but not from a cost standpoint. Many had hoped the upcoming 5700 cards would finally fill that hole. While the 5700 was a vast improvement over the 5600 cards, NVIDIA chose to reduce the memory pathways from 256-bit to 128-bit. Once again, that left NVIDIA without a mainstrean 256-bit offering...enter eVGA.com's 5900 SE.

While the specifications (pdf) don't list specific number of PCB layers (most specs don't), the 5900 SE appears to be just a lower clocked version of the 5900. Interestingly, is this quote

Powered by the same advanced technology and features as the FX 5800 GPU??s, the e-GeForce FX 5900SE, 128MB delivers studio-quality color and amazing cinematic gaming effects.

So, does the 5900 SE use the earlier 5800 technology rather than the newer 5900 technology? Hard to tell, but the 22GB/s bandwidth of the 5900 SE far excceds the 16GB/s effective bandwidth of the 5800 Ultra. Given that the eVGA.com's 5900 SE is only a few bucks more ($207 at Newegg.com) than the 5700 Ultra, the 5900 SE seems to be a bargin.

Finally, there is the issue of the GeForceFX XT cards. A search on the NVIDIA site turns up no references to this chipset. Cards powered by this GPU show up on Pricewatch. Again, visiting the eVGA.com site, the specifications for the 5600 XT can be compared to the 5600 Ultra. The first thing that jumps out is that the 5600 XT only has a core clock of 235MHz. That is a significant reduction from the 400MHz of the Ultra. At that speed, eVGA.com only uses a heatsink to cool the GPU. While that makes the card ideal for home theater PC use, it would definitely hurt gaming performance. As with the SE cards, documentation for the XT cards could be lacking. For example, what are the clock and memory speeds for this 5600 XT on the AGPTEK website? It says it is the 5600 XT page and shows a picture of the GPU, but the specifications listed at the bottom of the page do not mention the 5600 XT by name.

Another manufacturer who sells 5600 XT cards is AOpen. However, the 5600 XT is not listed on their VGA Products page. Instead, you have to click on a link for "Special model for north and south America." There you will find this link to their 5600 XT. Adding to buyer confusion is that the AOpen 5600 XT has a core clock speed of 325MHz and uses a fan/heatsink combo. Chaintech's website lists their 5600 XT as having a 235MHz core clock. Does the AOpen page contain a typo?

Final Thoughts

There are many more examples of these alternate configurations on the market. Unless you purchase a mainstream configuration, you might not end up with what you thought you were getting. If one of these alternate fit into your budget, then there are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Do your homework - It may sound obvious, but make sure you know exactly what you are getting. What is the core speed, the memory speed and the memory interface? It's also important to understand how the reductions the manufacturer has taken will affect your application performance.

2. Don't make last minute changes - When purchasing (especially online), it's very easy to settle on a product only to select another product at the last minute thinking it is an equivalent product. As we have seen above, there is no guarantee that cards using the same chipsets will have the same specifications.

Of the cards mentioned above, the 5900 SE from eVGA.com stands out. It appears to fill a hole in NVIDIA's product line and is offered at an attractive price.

As I said earlier, there is no problem with add-in board manufacturers trimming corners to offer inexpensive alternatives. However, it would be helpful if the GPU manufacturers either established standards for these alternate configurations or require add-in manufacturers to clearly state the specifications of these cards. It only hurts ATI and NVIDIA when, in the end, a customer is disappointed with one of their products thinking it was something else.

 
      Posted by: , November 30, 2003, 6:00 pm  

 
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