Monday, August 6, 2007

Is Your PC a Graphics Wimp?

By Stephen H. Wildstrom Mon Aug 6, 8:08 AM ET

A pretty river flows past Pleasantview. Its rippling waters reflect clouds and the graceful arches of a bridge. Unless, that is, you're playing Electronic Arts' (NasdaqGS:ERTS - News) The Sims 2 video game on an Intel (NasdaqGS:INTC - News) computer with underpowered graphics. If so, the water appears as a featureless patch of monochromatic blue, and many other graphic subtleties of the game are lost.

My plunge into the world of The Sims was part of an experiment that chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD - News) set up for me out of naked self-interest. AMD is best known as Intel's fierce rival in processors. But it also competes in graphics systems, and AMD -- which owns ATI Technologies, a maker of graphics adapters -- was seeking to demonstrate its superiority there.

Graphics performance has long been a concern for dedicated gamers and for users of advanced professional software, such as computer-assisted design tools. But it may soon become a lot more important to everyone else.Why? Microsoft's Vista operating system makes far greater use of 3D graphics than does any previous version of Windows. Its features include a "Flip 3D" interface, which lets you page quickly through all the windows open on your system. Microsoft (NasdaqGS:MSFT - News) wants software developers to make better use of such capabilities.

Sufficient, But Not Superior

AMD set me up with two midrange Velocity Micro desktops, which retail for about $800 each. The two systems are identical except for their processors and graphics adapters. The all-Intel model has a G965 Express graphics chip, while the AMD version uses the company's own ATI Radeon Xpress processor. Both systems run on Windows Vista Home Premium. Just to keep AMD honest, I extended the test to two additional Intel Vista systems of my own, a Lenovo ( ThinkPad T61 with NVIDIA's Quadro graphics, and a ThinkPad X61s with an Intel GM965 Express display adapter.

The Intel 965 family of graphics chips dominates the market for adapters. They are standard in most low- to midpriced desktops and in laptops with Intel processors. And they're just about universal in subcompact notebooks -- meaning anything with a display measuring 12 inches or less. They are inexpensive, relatively power-thrifty -- a big factor in laptop design -- and very popular with manufacturers.

In my tests, all the Intel chips had enough heft to display Vista's spiffy graphics features, such as animated icons and transparent windows. But they fell way short of the ATI and NVIDIA (NasdaqGS:NVDA - News) systems in games. The Intel chips don't meet minimum requirements for running Linden Lab's Second Life virtual-world software on Vista.

The Eye of the Beholder

Most games are designed to inspect the hardware they're running on and adjust graphics features for best performance. You can override The Sims' decision to turn off such features as reflections for Intel 965 graphics, but the images don't look as good as they ought to, and you pay a price in sluggish performance. (When asked to respond, Intel said the 965 chips were not optimized for 3D games, but their performance will be improved when Intel releases new software in a few weeks. Existing owners will be able to download it.)

My advice to shoppers, who typically focus on processor speed and memory, is to pay more attention to graphics. The Intel 965 is fine if your needs are minimal. In a lightweight notebook, where battery life is key, it's probably the only choice.

For better graphics performance, consider a system using ATI or NVIDIA graphics. Unfortunately, model designations are complicated, and there's no single specification to guide you. Examining systems at a computer store should let you see how different systems look running Second Life or The Sims. If something looks good to you in the shop, it will do fine.