Friday, December 19, 2008

PCI Gaming Redux.

Recently, I got into an argument on the forums about PCI video cards. The one and only opposition in the face of reason was in this case a fella who goes by the nickname of "Tha General". He claimed his old Pentium 3 600Mhz and a PCI HD2400Pro could get playable frame rates in Crysis, at a resolution of 1024x768, on mixed low and medium settings. The whole concept was quite laughable, and you can read all about it in the thread here, but this whole discussion has gotten me motivated to do some real Benchmarks of the capabilities of a modern PCI video card.

The card in question is the Sparkle PCI8500GT, equipped with a 256Mb of DDR2 memory and a 128-bit memory interface, and yes, this is the same card I benchmarked along with the VIA C7-D CPU in my first ever post in this blog. This time, however, I have decided to see what the video card was capable of when coupled with a modern day CPU. So, without further ado, the results and their analysis:

Test Setup and Some Pics:
CPU: Intel E5200 2.5Ghz (Overclocked to 3.8Ghz)
Cooling: Thermalright IFX-14
Motherboard: Abit I-N73HD (
My P45 MSI board went up in flames - quite literally)
Memory: A-Data Vitesta 2 x 2Gb DDR2 800Mhz

Hard Drives: 2 x WD1600AAJS RAIDO and 2 x WD5000AAKS RAIDO

PSU: HEC Cougar 750W
Case: Nzxt Tempest

GPU: Sparkle 8500GT PCI 256MG DDR2
Drivers: Windows Vista x64 178.24

PCI8500GT next to my HD4870X2:

My computer the way it usually is:

The puny PCI8500GT in place of the previous monster:

Before we get to the results I would like to clarify:
First, these results represent the absolute maximum this card card can attain with the present drivers without overclocking (Anyone else, including, but not limited to Tha General, saying otherwise is flat out lying). This is because during the entire benchmarking sessions CPU usage has never reached over 65% (So the GPU was struggling along here, and the CPU was feeding it with all the data it could process) and because I have no other devices active on the PCI bus (And thus there is nothing else competing for the limited bus bandwidth).

Second, these results were achieved in each gaming title with all settings at their absolute lowest at a resolution of 1024x768. Crysis was run in DX9 mode.

First, the 3DMark Vantage score:
The 3DMV benchmarking session was painful to watch. It was an extremely slow slideshow with FPS staying below 3-4 FPS for the entirely of the benchmarking session. In the GPU test CPU usage sat around 5%, so the GPU was really struggling along. You can see the CPU sitting at the lowered x6 multiplier after the benchmark run concluded.

The result is pitiful...

Second, Gaming:

I tested the games on their lowest possible settings, at the resolution of 1024x768. Later I got curious and decided to test Crysis at 848x480 as well. This resolution might of interest to those of us with Plasma TVs as some of the smaller Plasma TVs have a 848x480 native resolution, but this wasn't the reason I wanted to test this resolution. The main reason was to see whether a lower resolution would net us any FPS advantage in this case. Right after this, I decided to re-run the CoD4 benchmark at a resolution of 640x480 as well.

Crysis was played from the Contact_Crysis start of game autosave point up to the GPS jamming array on the beach. CoD4 was benchmarked by running through the "Crew Expendable" mission (Cargo Ship, first mission of the game), Fallout 3 was played a while off a random savegame and NWN2 was played through the attack on West Harbor in the beginning of the game.

Here is the FRAPS report:
2008-12-19 18:28:58 - crysis64
Frames: 10678 - Time: 742512ms - Avg: 14.380 - Min: 3 - Max: 36

2008-12-19 18:49:24 - Fallout3
Frames: 2773 - Time: 111260ms - Avg: 24.923 - Min: 11 - Max: 55

2008-12-19 20:08:18 - nwn2main
Frames: 11383 - Time: 394620ms - Avg: 28.845 - Min: 5 - Max: 53

2008-12-19 20:58:29 - iw3sp
Frames: 7483 - Time: 422277ms - Avg: 17.720 - Min: 2 - Max: 93

2008-12-19 21:22:04 - crysis64
Frames: 5755 - Time: 369032ms - Avg: 15.594 - Min: 5 - Max: 49

2008-12-19 21:40:45 - iw3sp
Frames: 7757 - Time: 344496ms - Avg: 22.516 - Min: 6 - Max: 98

And here is a neat chart:

As we can see, the results aren't impressive. Neverwinter Nights 2 is playable, but looks like the 1st version of WoW graphics-wise. Fallout 3 is also playable, but the appeal of playing this magnificent title on such low settings is extremely low. Neither CoD4, nor Crysis, could display playable framerates, even with the resolution turned down as low as it would go in both.


PCI gaming is officially relegated to nostalgic gamer use, as even on a resolution as low as 1024x768, the PCI8500GT (Which is the most powerful commonly availiable PCI video card as of this posting - While the 9400GT and 9500GT have been announced and there is an Albatron 8600GT for the PCI out there, none of those can be reliably located in online retailers) struggles with modern games on the lowest of settings.

Older games like F.E.A.R or Doom 3 will run fine, however (Scroll down to the bottom of the blog, you will see F.E.A.R running reasonably with this card even on a weakling CPU), so if you want to max out older titles and breathe some life into an aging machine that lacks other types of expansion slots a PCI video card still fits the bill.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bargain Gaming ? It can be done.

First of all, a confession: I am the owner of a monster computer rig which gets upgraded often with the latest and greatest as soon as I cannot run a desired game on maximum settings (Anti-Aliasing included).

With that confession behind me, we can move onto the subject at hand: It is a common misconception that to count as a "gamer" you need to have the latest and greatest in computer hardware, or not lag too far behind. Despite the inner "gamer" in me quite agreeing with it, the truth is this is not quite correct. To demonstrate why, and show you how you can game respectfully on a cheap computer, I decided to benchmark the bargain bin computer system which is highlighted (from the mod standpoint) in my previous post.

Now, for those of you too lazy to scroll down, here are the specs for that system:

CPU: Intel Celeron Dual Core E1200
Motherboard: Asus P5KPL-CM
Memory: 2GB DDR2 667Mhz
GPU: Powercolor HD2600XT 256MB GDDR4
HDD: Western Digital 200GB
CPU Cooler: Zalman CNPS7500-Alcu
Case Fans: 2 x Zalman ZM-2F Red 92mm (Rear and top exhausts), 1 x Thermaltake Cyclo Red pattern 120mm (Front intake)
OS: Windows Vista Business (x64)

If we omit the custom CPU cooler (Completely not needed, I used it since I had one lying around and it omits a nice blue light), the extra fans (Also not required and used as part of the mod) and use a 160GB HDD, then a system like this (With a cheap case and 430W PSU) costs a grand total of 245$ when built from For my home (Israeli) readers, a system like this would cost around 350$ (Damn thieves). Throwing in a DVD-RW drive would cost us around 20$ more (I used a Plextor USB DVD-RW drive for game installation here). If we remember that the HD2600XT is two generations old, and newer cards around the same price point provide superior performance nowdays, then the expected performance rises slightly above the one presented in this review.

I managed to slightly overclock this system (The board lacks any voltage controls, so CPU OC is limited to only changing the FSB. This is simple, and nearly everyone can manage to do this. To keep things simple, I let Catalyst Control Center find the maximum OC for the video card). The CPU sits at 1800Mhz, while the clocks on the HD2600XT have been set to 857Mhz for the core and 1161Mhz for the memory (CPU stock is 1600Mhz, stock core on the HD2600XT is 800Mhz and the stock memory is 1100Mhz). The benchmarks were run on the overclocked system.

With the monetary considerations aside, we move onto the benchmarks. The system above was benchmarked in the three following titles at a resolution of 1024X768:
1) Call of Duty 4 - One of the most popular games to date, both in single player and (especially) multiplayer.
2) Crysis - One of the most (Sharing the title with Crysis Warhead and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky) hardware intensive games out there. It was interesting to see how a weak system handles this title.
3) Mass Effect - One of the best CRPG titles of all time (Arguably the best CRPG of all time, and game of the year 2008).

Here are the results:

1) Call of Duty 4, Settings: Everything maxed out, including textures on "extra" and AS at the maximum. Anti-Aliasing 2X enabled. The benchmark run was the "Crew Expendable" (Cargo Ship) mission.
Minimum FPS: 19
Average FPS: 38
Maximum FPS: 64

2) Crysis, Settings: Everything set to medium, no post-processing enabled. The benchmark run was the early game, from the aircraft flight scene at the beginning until the "First Light" checkpoint above the beach.
Minimum FPS: 10
Average FPS: 30
Maximum FPS: 43

3) Mass Effect, Settings: All game settings maxed out.
Minimum FPS: 10
Average FPS: 44
Maximum FPS: 62

As we can see, this computer can provide us with an enjoyable gaming experience. True, this is not a mind-blowing resolution or Crysis on Very High settings, but if you can only spend 300$ on a computer, you can still enjoy today's games on reasonable settings. So if you were told that you could not game on less than a 1000$ computer and decided to give up on a computer for gaming, you may wish to reconsider this decision.


I dragged over an old 19" CRT so I could run 3DMark Vantage on this system (The previous 15" LCD monitor did not support a resolution of 1280x1024 which is required by 3DMark Vantage to run). Here is the rather pitiful result:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Boredom, Spares and a Dremel.

So, there I was sitting around, getting mostly bored when a friend dropped a rather sucky looking Acer computer case at my place and asked if I have a use for it.

A few days and two cans of spray paint later, the result is the following computer.


CPU: Intel Celeron Dual Core E1200
Motherboard: Asus P5KPL-CM
Memory: 2GB DDR2 667Mhz
GPU: Powercolor HD2600XT 256MB GDDR4
HDD: Western Digital 200GB
CPU Cooler: Zalman CNPS7500-Alcu
Case Fans: 2 x Zalman ZM-2F Red 92mm (Rear and top exhausts), 1 x Thermaltake Cyclo Red pattern 120mm (Front intake)

The computer was mostly built from spares. The things I did not have lying around are the Cyclo fan, the HD2600XT which I picked up from someone as a 2nd hand part and the 2GB of RAM which are also 2nd hand.

Additional Supplies/Tools:
1) Random Drill
2) My trusty Dremel
3) 2 Cans of Copper spray-paint.

I lacked two drive bay faceplates, so they are missing until I get some replacement which looks suitable. Probably a memory card reader for the small one and an improvised faceplate for the larger one.

Without further ado. The pics:

A quick snapshot of the early beginning:

My computer environment, and the modded case, still naked:

And now for the finished model:

And working in the dark:

Friday, July 18, 2008

VIA C7-D Gaming ? Why The Heck Not.

The VIA VB7001 + C7-D @ 1.5Ghz:

The Sparkle PCI8500GT, as rare as they get:

A while ago I decided to build a small mini-ITX system for use as a secondary home computer for my parents. We have recently purchased a Sharp 32" LCD TV, and I thought hooking up the computer to the TV for living room use as an internet browser would be neat. Once I started exploring the rather fascinating world of mITX systems, I realized that a whole breed of video cards exists tailored for use in such systems. Obviously, I am talking about PCI bus cards, that extinct breed many thought died years ago with the advent of AGP.

Like it often happens, the many were wrong: Not only the PCI video card lives on, but there are even DirectX 10.0 cards for the aging bus. These, as of today, are the PowerColor/Diamond/Visiontek HD2400Pro and the Sparkle 8500GT, with Albatron recently announcing the 8400GS, 8500GT and, surprisingly, the 8600GT for the PCI bus. I spent some time (It was extremely hard to find) and some money (90 USD), and got the Sparkle 8500GT via internet order from Canada. I bought a VB7001 motherboard off ebay and completed the rest with local purchases.
When I was researching the topic of PCI bus video cards I realized that while there are many people (as the techPowerUp forum thread aptly titled: "So you only have PCI slots and want to game?" indicates) who are interested in the subject, but information is scarce. I decided that a benchmarking session of the VIA C7-D, and most importantly the Sparkle 8500GT, was in order.

I stocked up on beer, snacks, an old CRT monitor (for resolution flexibility) and set to work on what is, to my knowledge, the one and only VIA C7-D + PCI8500GT benchmark on the web.

NOTE: The performance of the PCI bus 8500GT displayed here often suffers from the CPU bottleneck phenomena. On a more powerful system like the Pentium 4 these results are likely to improve, but I would not hazard a guess as to by how much.

The Test Setup:
CPU: VIA C7-D (Esther) at 1.5Ghz.

Motherboard: VIA CB7001 mini-ITX Motherboard.

Video Card: Sparkle 8500GT PCI, 256Mb DDR2, 128-bit memory bus.

Memory: 1Gb Kingston DDR2 667Mhz at 533Mhz CL4 (The board does not support 667Mhz).
Hard Drive: Seagate ST3500320AS 500Gb HDD, 32Mb cache.

DVD-RW: Plextor PX-608CU Ultra-Slim external DVD-RW drive.

Wireless: Edimax USB High-Gain wireless adapter.

Wireless Keyboard: Scorpius-P20MT w/Trackball.

Power Supply: HEC 250SRT Flex ATX (250W).
Case: Custom mini-ITX case (Homebuilt).

Case Cooling: Thermaltake Thunderblade 120mm blue LED fan.

Monitor: Daewoo 19" CRT.


Note: While most reviews leave overclocking for last, due to the lack of free time, I could not run all tests both overclocked and non-overclocked, so I decided to focus on the overclocked tests.

Overclocking the VIA board is an elusive business. In short, the VB7001 board has no overclocking support
whasoever, and I was loathe to deal in BIOS editing on this board. Thus, the C7-D was left at the stock clock of 1.5Ghz. The Sparkle 8500GT has proven far more docile: ATITool allowed me to bring up the core clock to 719Mhz (From a stock speed of 459Mhz, a 56% increase !) with a maximum load temperature of 70C. Backed up by an hour of artifact testing, I decided to move onto the memory. The memory was far less generous, with the DDR2 used on this board giving me only a modest 52Mhz increase, from 400Mhz to 452Mhz (A 13% overclock). With another 26 minutes of artifact searching, I decided this would be as far as I would attempt to get. With my overclocking options pretty much exhausted, I decided to move onto the benchmarks.

The overclocked system running Super Pi at a very leisurely pace:

Stress Testing:

More of it:


As a synthetic benchmark, I usually do not rely on 3DMark software and their equivalents, but in this case it is quite interesting to see what the result of the test is. The test was run on the basic and free version of 3DMark06 at a resolution of 1280X1024 pixels. The FPS averaged at around 4 FPS during the GPU test scenes, while the CPU test was absolutely horrible with FPS way below 1 frame per second (And closer to one frame per minute !), resulting in a painful to watch slideshow. Clearly, 3DMark06 is way more than this system can manage, but this is to be expected. The final results surprised me, however, since the system managed to get 1,038 marks. While a low score by any measure, this has given me a little hope since a little research shows a stock Athlon X2 3600+ with an overclocked 8500GT (PCI-E DDR3 model) scores around 2,700 marks.


First, I have to note that I have run into major problems with trying to run games. Many would simply refuse to start and this list includes Homeworld 2, Rome: Total War, Hellgate London, Spellforce 2 and Doom 3. I do not know what is the reason for the games not starting, but I can only assume some incompatibility with the CPU, chipset, GPU drivers or the PCI-to-PCI-E bridge used by the PCI8500GT.

Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries:

This game is old and serves as the starting point of our benchmarks. It was quite playable all the way through 4XAA on 1280X1024 (Forced via the nVidia panel) on maximum settings, but any less would have been a disaster, since the game has been released in 2002. I played through the Jungle Assault Class Match mission on the different tested resolutions. As the game did not support higher resolutions, they were not tested.

Nexus: The Jupiter Incident:

This game is a bit more "modern", having been released on November 5th, 2004. Despite being flawed by a myriad of bugs, the game offered engaging (Even if, at times, extremely difficult) space combat and beautiful graphics. It is one of the games that have really aged well, as even today, at the tested resolutions, the game looked visually appealing. I have played through the second mission, and recorded the results with FRAPS.


This first person shooter, released on October 17th, 2005, was one of the most graphically intensive games of its time. This is the first real challenge for our test setup, since the CPU falls below the system requirements (Which are a 1.7Ghz Pentium 4 CPU, or an equivalent). The benchmarking was done via the game's built in test scene. On the minimum settings, the game is playable on all tested resolutions, up to 1600x1200, but the visual appeal of running F.E.A.R on such settings is very low. On medium settings, the game is quite playable on 1024x768. With all settings maxed out (without the high performance ones such as Volumeric lighting and soft shadows) the game is playable at 800x600 and 1024x768, albeit the second one might get choppy at heavy action scenes. In all cases the CPU related settings were kept to the minimum, as to not stress the CPU, which spent most of the benchmark session on 100% in any case.

While the results from running F.E.A.R aren't amazing, they are quite impressive for a system way below the minimum requirements for the game. I am sure that with a more powerful CPU, even this PCI video card would be able to pull off more impressive results.

Minimum settings, all extra options off:

No high-end features on, all GPU settings on medium, all CPU settings on low:

Auto-Detected settings, GPU settings maxed out, but without volumetric lighting and soft shadows, which are off, and with 2xAS filtering:

You can see that the performance differences are next to non-existent, probably due to the extremely weak CPU.


Released in 2006, Oblivion was a very demanding game graphics wise, even if one that has aged less than gracefully, looking very dated in 2008. As we shall shortly see, the VIA C7 is completely unable to cope with this game spending the entire benchmarking session at full load. The GPU itself should have been able to achieve playable framerates with a more powerful CPU, since I played Oblivion on a 3Ghz Pentium 4 with a GeForce 6600 (non-GT) back in the day.
In order to record FPS information, I played repeatedly through the initial dungeon. Since the FPS was extremely low, I decided to not do outdoor benchmarks, as it would have been quite pointless at this point.

Everything maxed out, no soft shadows and no volumetric lighting, HDR enabled, indoors:

Default, auto-detected settings, bloom lighting, all settings at medium, indoors:

Lowest settings, indoors:

Call of Duty 4:

If you are going to ask why bother, why not ? I had the game, I had the computer and I had a spare 30 minutes. Playing the game was possible, but very not fun. Still, it is impressive it would run in the first place on a system this weak. The FPS recording was done on the "Crew Expendable" (Cargo Ship) mission, which was replayed in its entirety for each FPS measurement.

Bilinear filtering, automatic texture settings, all other settings on normal, all high-performance features off:

Again, you can see that the different graphics settings made next to no difference in the actual frame rate.


If at this point you think that I am absolutely insane, you are probably right. Running the world's most demanding game on the performance equivalent of a Pentium III has to border on absolute madness, but I did it anyway. Not only did I do it, but it also ran, and it was even playable in the early game with slowdowns usually being caused by the CPU processing sound. Quite frankly, I was more than amazed, I barely expected the game to start, much less run ! I ran through the beginning of the game, up to clearing the jamming station on the beach after landing and repeated a benchmark with a savegame of the Onslaught chapter (The tank battle). The latter was not playable, but this is beside the point - The world's most demanding game runs on the C7 and PCI8500GT combo.

All settings low:

I decided to repeat the measurements again, this time at a resolution of 848x480, which displays less pixels on the screen than 800x600. The results have not changed by any felt margin. I also have to add that in the early game, the game seems to be running far smoother than the 16-17 average FPS the FRAPs record gives it, probably due to the slowdowns occurring when there is little action and thus they are not felt.

All settings low:


Well, there isn't much to conclude. The mini-ITX systems based on processors like the VIA C7 are not meant for gaming, but as I have shown today, they can do that, even if poorly. Also, the PCI8500GT is indeed a viable option for those of us stuck with only PCI slots (I still recommend a motherboard upgrade, since PCI video cards are way too costly for the performance), since its performance should be higher when not stuck with a CPU this weak (Again, I cannot predict by how much). I wouldn't recommend any of this setup to anyone, since it makes so little sense, but it does look cool, which was the entire point.

Thank you for reading.