GeForce DDR on the cheap

Review date: 30 March 2000.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


NVIDIA's GeForce 256 PC graphics card chipset is one of those stand-out products that gets to be king of the hill for ages. The GeForce has been around only since September last year, but that's a long time by PC graphics card standards. Usually, the latest red-hot chipset comes out, and two months later you can buy something faster from some other manufacturer. Not so with the GeForce; it's still where it's at in consumer PC 3D hardware, and it can even give a reasonable account of itself against far more expensive professional 3D boards.

Most super-fast PC 3D cards are, of course, used for 3D games. And the games keep getting more and more spectacular, with more and more impressive hardware requirements if you want to get the most out of them.

For a little while yet, though, the pinnacle of consumer 3D boards will still be the high-specification version of the GeForce chipset - the GeForce DDR. DDR stands for Double Data Rate, and it describes the memory technology used by these cards. Memory operations can occur on both the rising and the falling side of the clock pulses, so the graphics card's memory is, in effect, twice as fast.

This doubled memory bandwidth compared with "Standard Data Rate" (SDR) plain GeForce boards makes DDR cards a little faster at low resolutions, and a lot faster at high ones - 1600 by 1200 is a real playable game resolution, if your monitor can handle it.

Changing resolution doesn't change the load on the CPU, only on the graphics card; a DDR GeForce lets you set your game resolution about two steps higher without losing any frame rate.

So a DDR GeForce still rules the roost. This'll change soon enough - 3dfx's new Voodoo 4 and 5 products seem sure to beat GeForce performance by a substantial margin, and NVIDIA themselves are readying another new chipset, called the NV15 - but it'll be a little while yet before GeForce owners are far behind the bleeding edge.

Once you've decided you want one, the trick is to find one that doesn't cost a fortune.

GeForce DDR card

The CARDEXPERT GeFORCE 256, made by Gainward, qualifies.

It sold for $AU535 when I first wrote this review; now, it's only $515. This is expensive, for a video card, but it's cheap, for a GeForce DDR.

A lot of DDR GeForce boards have lots of extra features - TV output and, sometimes, input, and 3D glasses connectors and special flat panel outputs for LCD monitors that don't use standard VGA connectors. And they've often got fancy software bundles, as well. This all adds to the price.

Fancy-pants all-bells-and-whistles DDR boards like these can set you back $AU650 or so - that's the price for ASUS' V6800 Deluxe DDR, for instance. Buy a big-name card, like Creative's 3D Blaster GeForce boards, and you'll have no trouble finding dealers happy to relieve you of $AU600 for a plain SDR card, not even a DDR one.

If all you want is a DDR GeForce with one ordinary monitor output and no fancy software, your options shrink. The CARDEXPERT board isn't amazingly cheap, but it is, I think, still the cheapest DDR you can find in Australia at the moment. And it's even got a TV output, now; the original ones brought into Australia had only the monitor connector, but now you pay less and get more!

There's little risk in buying yum cha graphics cards that use popular chipsets, as long as the card sticks to the reference design and therefore works with the reference drivers - and the CARDEXPERT GeForces do.

At a given clock speed, one graphics card based on Chipset X and running Driver Version Y will be exactly the same speed as another. Cheaper cards might not be able to run at quite as high a clock speed, but the difference is often trivial.

What you get

The CARDEXPERT board is your regular, standard-issue GeForce DDR. It's got the same Infineon RAM as other DDR boards, it's got a simple VGA output, it's got an S-Video TV output (see my video guide here if you're wondering what that terms means) and it's got a slim-line, reasonably well made chip cooler stuck to the main chip with thermally conductive tape.

Some extreme overclockers clamp heftier coolers onto their graphics cards, trading the stock tape for thermal transfer grease and alternative retention systems. You could do this with the CARDEXPERT board; it's got a selection of handy holes around the main chip that could be used for the cable tie, baling wire and chewing gum cooler retention contraptions that people rig up.

You're not likely to see a lot of difference if you do this, though; GeForces are not tremendously overclockable, and the difference in performance between the fastest and the slowest of them is not large. The CARDEXPERT card is, therefore, on par with its more expensive competitors as far as price goes.

Apart from the card itself, you also get three CD-ROMs and a slim but adequate manual.

Setting up

The CARDEXPERT card, like every other GeForce, is an AGP board. So you need a motherboard with an AGP slot. Your motherboard also needs to have a switching voltage regulator for the AGP power supply. Old and/or cheap boards with linear regulators won't cut it. GeForce cards draw a ton of current, and linear regulators aren't up to the task - hot 3D boards have for some time required switching regulator motherboards, and most recent motherboards have the right kind.

If your computer's up to scratch, installing the board is as easy as installing any other graphics card. If you're running Windows - and you probably are, if you're in the market for a game-focused 3D graphics card - change your graphics adaptor back to plain VGA, first. Go to Control Panel -> Display Properties -> Settings -> Advanced -> Adapter -> Change -> Display a list... -> Show all hardware, and then pick Standard Display Adapter (VGA) from the Standard Display Types category at the top of the list.

There's a good chance that the card change will go smoothly even if you don't bother to do this - but it's still a good idea, especially if you're trading up from a PCI video card.

Gainward didn't waste time rolling their own drivers for this dead standard GeForce; they just bundled NVIDIA's reference drivers onto the setup disc. These drivers aren't the newest version, though; they're the v3.62 incarnation, from November 1999. You can get the latest official drivers from NVIDIA here, and the rather more advanced v5-series beta drivers were leaked a while ago. They're not as stable and compatible as they might be, but they're conclusively faster than the older ones; you can get the latest v5.xx drivers from sites like Reactor Critical.

The v5 drivers also include support for "S3TC", S3's texture compression technology that can greatly reduce the amount of video memory used by textures. They also make a stab at Full Screen Anti-Aliasing (FSAA), which banishes the "jaggy" stepped lines that plague 3D games. There's an excellent article on the 5.08 drivers, which were the original leaked v5 ones, on Thresh's FiringSquad here.

Note that the S-Video ("Y/C") output on the Gainward board is a "true" S-Video connector, without the two extra pin-holes that many video cards have on their versions. These extra pins are for composite video output - you plug in an included adaptor lead and it gives you a normal RCA video connector, which lets you hook up equipment that doesn't have Y/C input.

If you only need S-Video TV out, the Gainward card is fine. If you need composite, it's no good.


The CARDEXPERT GeForce comes with a decent selection of software besides the driver disc. You get the full versions of two Psygnosis game titles - the not-so-new but still excellent dragon-riding 3D show-off game, Drakan, and the over-the-top racer Rollcage. There's a value-free selection of game demos, as well, but that's not the end of the bundle. You also get CyberLink's PowerDVD v2.5.

GeForce boards, like many current PC video cards, have built in DVD decoding functions to help take the load off the system processor when you play DVD movies on a PC that's got a DVD-ROM drive, but no dedicated DVD playback board. The GeForce, like some other cards, has "motion compensation" implemented in hardware, which reduces the CPU load substantially, but at the cost of slightly lower image quality. PowerDVD supports the GeForce's hardware decode features, and is an excellent software DVD player to boot.

If you're not bothered about seriously slowing down your computer while you play a movie - and most people aren't - then just about any current processor will do for software playback, on pretty much any video card. A 400MHz Celeron's more than fast enough; any P-III or Athlon in existence will have plenty of grunt left over. A steaming game box with a fast P-III or Athlon and a GeForce is serious overkill, but it'll do the job just fine.

If you don't have a DVD-ROM drive, or any desire to view DVDs on your PC, then PowerDVD won't interest you at all. If you do have a use for a software DVD playback package, though, PowerDVD is an excellent one, and well above the usual standard for video card pack-in software.


Video cards from lesser-known brands can be bad news, but this one isn't. Decent software bundle, decent price, standard design; why pay more?

At this price point, now that you get TV out thrown in, the Gainward board is excellent value. You can, however, save a little more if you go for Leadtek's WinFast GeForce 256 DDR, which also has TV out but now costs only $AU505.

But the Leadtek card comes with WinDVD, not PowerDVD; PowerDVD is the better package, and the rest of the Leadtek software bundle's less than thrilling.

The CARDEXPERT board's got what you want and doesn't make you pay for what you don't. It's not a ton cheaper than the competition, but neither is it a cheap and nasty piece of gear.


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