Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Upgrade Report [GeekTech: A $600 Graphics Card? - 08/16/2005]

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August 16th, 2005
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August 16th, 2005

GeekTech: A $600 Graphics Card?

Sr. Editor Tom Mainelli

Building or buying a top-of-the-line desktop computer has never been
cheap. While prices for budget PCs seem to creep continuously lower
(Dell advertises a $299 system, for crying out loud), they appear to
be headed ever higher for top-performance models, with no upper limit
in sight.

The high end reached new heights in June when NVidia announced that
its next flagship graphics chip, the GeForce 7800 GTX, would grace
cards selling for $600. Not $500, the previous "you've got to be
kidding me" watermark, but $100 more. And if you're lucky enough to
own a dual-card ready SLI motherboard, you can spend a cool $1200 to
load up with two of these bad boys.

My first two cars cost less than $1200, max.

For more background on this, read "NVidia Launches New 7800 Graphics

NVidia's move irritated some of my tech-savvy friends, a few of whom
seem to think that access to the fastest gear on the planet is an
inalienable geek right. One proclaimed, "They've priced it right out
of the range of their enthusiast fans." Another stated simply, "Nobody
will buy that." And a third mumbled something along the lines of
"That's just not right."

I'm sorry, guys, but that's a bunch of garbage. First, we're not
talking about a company gouging prices for penicillin--we're talking
about a graphics card vendor. Second, I don't think even true
enthusiasts are crazy enough to run out and buy every new chip that
NVidia--or Advanced Micro Devices, ATI Technologies, or
Intel--launches. (I'll get back to this point in a minute.) Third,
somebody must be buying these high-end parts: If nobody did, then the
companies would stop pushing their price tags skyward with each
successive product introduction.

In NVidia's case, pricing the 7800 GTX at $600 looks like a win-win to
me. As PC World tests show, the chip offers scorching performance:

It is noticeably better than the company's previous flagship product,
the 6800 Ultra, which is still a viable high-end product. And if you
start at $600, and street prices invariably fall (as they already
have), people think they're getting a deal when they pay a mere $500
for the product.

Finally, the company's chief competitor, ATI, seems to be having some
trouble with its next big chip (code-named R520). Why shouldn't NVidia
enjoy being the uncontested top dog? I don't blame NVidia or its
partners for charging the highest price they can get for the fastest
graphics card on the block.

Does that mean I'm going to run out and buy it? Nope!

Big Money for Bragging Rights

NVidia is hardly the first tech company to float an outrageously high
price to see who bites. Sure, the graphics folks have led the way,
thanks largely to the fact that their most vocal supporters--serious
gamers--often seem to be the most willing to pay for every additional
frame per second they can get. But graphics vendors aren't the only
ones making money off deep-pocketed computer users bound and
determined to have the fastest machine around.

Just about everybody who makes a piece or part of a PC has jumped on
the bandwagon. I can remember the audible gasps from colleagues a few
years back when Intel announced that its first P4 Extreme Edition
processor would sell for about $925, or even when AMD launched its
competing FX-51 chip with a price of $730. Apparently somebody bought
those CPUs, as both companies recently launched high-end dual-core
chips with prices in the $1000 range; read "AMD Launches Dual-Core
Athlon 64 X2" for details:

Memory makers charge a premium for sticks of high-performance RAM that
are supposed to speed up your PC. Hard-drive vendor Western Digital
continues to sell its pricey Raptor drive, popular despite its measly
74GB capacity thanks to its blinding 10,000 rotations-per-minute
performance (compared to 7200 rpm for the average desktop drive).
Intel offers a chip set born of specially binned, high-speed parts:
the 875P with "Performance Acceleration Technology."

Oh sure, you can shake your head in disapproval at NVidia and its
partners. And you can tsk-tsk AMD, Intel, and all the boutique PC
vendors who sell systems carrying their $1000 CPUs. But as long
somebody is buying--and apparently somebody is--then they're going to
keep selling them. I would, wouldn't you?

Rich Folks, Not Enthusiasts

So who is buying these high-dollar parts? I contend it's not the
enthusiast system builders. It's probably not even the obsessive PC
gamers. Personally, I think these customers are people with more money
then brains. Or--to be more charitable--folks who have more cash than
they have time for research.

Sure, enthusiasts love to read about the 7800 GTX. They want to know
how it performs in benchmarks; how it compares to NVidia's other
chips; and how it stacks up against ATI's best GPU. But it's likely
that few expect to actually own one. They're reading about the 7800
GTX because they want to know what to expect from the more-affordably
priced chips that NVidia will inevitably roll out based on the same
technology. Visit our Upgrade Center for the latest announcements:

Enthusiasts love performance, but they also love getting the most for
their money--and paying $600 for a graphics card hardly counts as a
savvy buy. I would guess that very few enthusiasts ran out and bought
cards based on NVidia's 6800 Ultra chip. But I'll bet tons of them
bought cards using NVidia's 6600 GT, which landed in that magic spot
where price and performance come together: It was so good it won a
World Class Award this year:

I suspect that most true enthusiasts buy their processors the same
way--a few notches below the over-priced top.

So the next time ATI, AMD, Intel, NVidia, or another tech company
rolls out its next big thing, don't get mad at them for charging
outrageous prices. Rage instead against your rich buddy who ran out
and dropped $600 on a graphics card just so he could squeeze a few
extra frames per second out of his year-old copy of Doom III.

Then buy yourself a nice $200 card and get back to enjoying your PC.

Have a question or comment? Write to Tom Mainelli:

Read Tom Mainelli's regularly published "GeekTech" columns:


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