August 21, 2001

Review: Elsa Gladiac 920 GeForce3 video board

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -
Another day, another video board -- that's the way it seems to be lately. I remember when you had a choice between a number of different chipset makers, and you actually had to think what chipset you wanted on your next video card. Lately, due to faltering companies and consolidation, the question seems to be "which Nvidia-based board do I want to buy?"
This does not mean Nvidia is the only manufacturer that supports Linux -- there is support with Matrox and ATI cards, even 3D support -- but Matrox is not targeting the gaming market and ATI has not taken an active role in driver development for Linux. This leaves Linux users looking for the best performance looking at Nvidia cards, and wondering which to buy, because there are so many variations by so many manufacturers.

The board
The Elsa Gladiac 920 GeForce3 board is the definition of taking a manufacturers suggested design and following it to the letter. If you take a look at an Nvidia reference board, and then look at the Elsa Gladiac 920, you see a startling resemblance, with the Elsa missing the digital out for LCD displays. There is nothing wrong with this. Nvidia is certainly good at designing boards for its chipsets, but it is interesting how little Elsa strayed. For those of you looking to add a glow-in-the-dark neon-yellow PCB to that modded case, no such luck, but for most users, the board design will have little effect, except for the type and placement of heatsinks. Like the reference boards from Nvidia, the Elsa has heatsinks on the RAM, something nice for overclockers who want to increase their memory bandwidth.

Features
(Reprinted from my Gigabyte GV-GF3000 Review)
nfiniteFX engine -- This feature of the GeForce 3 is derived from the programmable Vertex and Pixel processors. The combination of these two processors on the GeForce 3 CPU allows for game developers to create their own custom special effects in games.

High resolutions antialiasing (HRAA) -- High resolution antialiasing (using Nvidias "Quincunx AA" technology) allows for 4x-like antialiasing with only the performance decline of 2x antialiasing. Antialiasing is a process where the jagged edges of objects are smoothed out. This feature, at present, does not appear to be enabled in the Nvidia Linux drivers, but could be added in a future driver. The current driver only supports up to 2x antialiasing.

Lightspeed memory architecture -- Lightspeed memory architecture, like the nfiniteFX engine, is really several features combined under one name. The first, and biggest feature, is Nvidia's "crossbar memory controller." On a GeForce2, the memory controller is 128-bits, and so when, say, 32-bits of data is requested, the other 96-bits that could hold something are wasted. In order to fix this problem on the GeForce3, Nvidia split the memory controller into four 32-bit DDR memory controllers. This means that if 32-bits of data was needed, the GeForce3 need only use one of the four memory controllers, leaving the other three to do other things, allowing for more parallel operation, and thus being more efficient. An analogy: if you had a one gallon jug, and you needed to carry one quart each of oil, milk, cola, and antifreeze, you couldn't mix them together, so you could only carry them one at a time, even though you technically had enough space for all four. If you had four quart jugs, you could hold the same amount overall, but would have less space wasted when carrying different amounts.

The other features of this memory architecture are simpler, and while having less impact, when combined affect the performance quite a bit. Z-occlusion culling (say that 10 times fast!) is a process where pixels in the Z-buffer (the place where the Z-axis values of pixels are stored, hence the name) are compared to find which ones are not going to actually be seen, and are not sent to the framebuffer for display. In past cards, this did not happen, even though it seems so simple, and therefore overdrawing occurred, wasted time drawing things that you can't even see. Next is Z-buffer compression. This lossless compression allows you to fit four times as much data in the Z-buffer, without loss. Finally, there is a fast clearing ability for the Z-buffer, allowing the Z-buffer to quickly be flushed, speeding up this common operation.

Documentation, packaging and software
Physically installing a video card is not difficult -- if you can open the case and unmount the old card, you are half way there. Then it is a matter of seating the new card and closing the case. However, most manufacturers give somewhat-detailed instructions on how to do this via a print manual. Elsa also provides these instructions, but they are on a single, small piece of paper. However, the directions are well written and correct. The only additions the directions could use, perhaps, are some diagrams, but I believe a user with relatively little experience could install this card with the instructions provided. This is the only print documentation provided.

As for the software, Elsa bundles various programs and drivers for Windows, including a full version of Giants: Citizen Kabuto for Windows. As usual, no Linux drivers or software are provided, and so the Nvidia drivers were used in all tests.

Something worth mentioning: The Elsa board has a feature I have not seen, or at least not noticed, before on a video card -- a six-year warranty (full terms available here). Now, we all know no video card has a six-year life span, but it is nice to see this gesture from Elsa -- and it does mean something else -- if they will support you six years down the road, they will certainly support it a few months or a year from now, which is certainly a reasonable amount of time to still be using the card.

Performance
System Specifications
Athlon Thunderbird 1400MHz
Gigabyte 7DXR
256 Megs PC2100 DDR SDRAM from Crucial.com
Western Digital 7200 RPM 10.2 Gig Hard Drive
3Com 3C905TX-C 10/100 NIC (PCI)
400 Watt Future Power ATX Power Supply
Mandrake 8.0 with Kernel 2.4.3

Quake 3 Arena Timedemos (Frames Per Second)
Board 640x480 800x600 1024x768 1200x1024 1600x1200
Default Qualtiy
Elsa Gladiac 920 184.3 183.4 170.9 123.8 89.6
Gigabyte GV-GF3000 GeForce3 183.6 182.6 172.8 126.1 90.7
Abit Siluro GeForce2 MX400 175.4 130.2 85.5 52.9 36.8
Highest Qualtiy
Elsa Gladiac 920 178.5 177.8 142.4 96.6 70.9
Gigabyte GV-GF3000 GeForce3 183.2 179.0 146.1 98.0 71.4
Abit Siluro GeForce2 MX400 125.7 88.2 58.9 37.7 27.2

As you can see here, the two cards here perform in a similar fashion, so close in fact, that any difference in performance can probably be attributed to a slight difference in the testing conditions, which I try to eliminate as much as possible (in fact, here I actually took out one board and swapped in another). GeForce3 boards are all based on the same CPU, running at the same speed, so really what should matter is support and price, and perhaps overclocking, if you are into that sort of thing.

Conclusions
With boards being so similar now, the real choices are support and features -- the Elsa board's warranty certainly says something about support, and if you don't want to risk being out of luck a month or two down the road, having a board with a good warranty is a nice option. As for bundles, normally an issue for Windows users, they are basically useless to Linux users, so sacrificing bundle for cost should not matter very much to Linux users, who will basically only need the card itself. On Pricewatch, it is available for $355, while the cheapest GeForce3, the PNY, is available for around $305. If you are looking for good support from a company known for video cards, the Gladiac 920 is definitely a good choice.

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