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Albatron's PC6600U flies under Nvidia's radar

Review Cheapest SLI card yet
Wed Mar 23 2005, 09:51
PITY THE graphics card manufacturers. Chipmakers ATI and Nvidia have made it so easy to build cards, by providing reference board designs and other help, that almost any company can make a card. And those easy-to-use reference designs mean that there's sometimes very little difference (in price or performance) between competing graphics cards. Manufacturers are trying a variety of approaches to make their products stand out from the crowd. Quite a few are boosting the speed of their cards, selling them with core and memory clocks around 10 percent above the reference design. Others add features, like enhanced cooling.

Albatron's PC6600U uses both these approaches to attract picky customers, and adds an even more radical one, which Nvidia doesn't approve of - more of that later.

The 128MB PC6600U is based around a standard Nvidia 6600 core. The key difference from the standard is the memory, running at 700 MHz, rather than the normal 500 MHz. According to Albatron, special fast memory chips allow this speed boost (the PC6600U I tested used 2ns Hynix chips). The full specifications are on Albatron's site, here.

This fast memory means the peformance of the PC6600U falls somewhere between standard 6600-based cards and 6600GT cards - they're all based around the same NV43 core, so performance differences should be determined solely by the variations in clock frequency. To give you an idea where the PC6600U lies: the standard 6600 cards have a core clock speed of 300 Mhz and memory clock speed of about 500. For the PC6600U I tested, the figures were 350 core and 700 memory. For the 6600GT, the figures are: core speed of 500-550 Mhz and memory speed around 1000 Mhz. As you might expect from that, benchmarks show that the PC6600U's performance lies roughly midway between the stock 6600 cards and the 6600GT's.

Now, at the time of writing, 128MB 6600-based cards are selling for around $140, while a 128MB 6600GT will cost you around $200. So, if Albatron can get the PC6600U into the hands of end users at something close to the lower end of that price range, it has a potential winner. At the moment, however, the small number of online sources that give prices for the card are looking a bit high, at around $185.

alt='albone'But, the PC6600U has a couple more tricks up its sleeve. Nvidia doesn't approve of the first of these: SLI support. For the time being, Nvidia only wants to see SLI (Scalable Link Interface) on the 6600GT, and of course 6800-based, cards. So Albatron isn't making any public statements about the PC6600U's SLI capabilities, and my card arrived with its SLI connector hiding modestly under a PCB-blue label.

But Nvidia shouldn't be too worried. As far as I know, no PC6600U will be SLI capable out of the box. The card will require a single wire modification - simple, but probably not something you should try if you have never picked up a soldering iron before. You can find details of this secret procedure, funnily enough, on Albatron's own forum. Wildly irresponsible speculation suggests that someone at Albatron fed this sensitive information to one of the forum moderators, who then created a new account to post it on the forum anonymously. See here.

Does the SLI feature really work? I haven't tried it myself, but informed sources claim it does. Is there any point in buying the PC6600U just to do SLI? Unless the price drops considerably, I would say no - particularly in light of the uncertain future supply of SLI-capable 6600 cards. The PC6600U that I tested has a final feather in its cap: it is very quiet. The fan turns relatively slowly, and there are heatsinks on both sides of the card, linked by heatpipes. However, it appears that production models of the PC6600U are rather different, with a more conventional single-sided heatsink and fan, and no heatpipes. Rumour has it that the original, elaborate cooling system was too expensive to manufacture. alt='albtwo'I was able to overclock the PC6600U's core from 350 to 395 Mhz and the memory from 700 to 770 Mhz. Using the Nibitor video BIOS editor, I enabled the 6600's built-in thermal monitor. This reported core temperatures of 60 C at idle, and 102 C at maximum load while overclocked (the ambient temperature was 22 C). There are a couple of caveats here. Firstly, since Albatron had not enabled the thermal monitor, it's possible that it was not properly calibrated, so these temperature readings may be inaccurate. Secondly, as mentioned above, this early version of the board appears to have a larger heatsink than the final version - this might have affected both temperature and overclocking performance.

Verdict
The Albatron PC6600U is a good mid-range card that gives good to excellent performance in any of the current generation of games. Price is the key: If you're thinking of buying an ordinary 6600-based card, take a look at the PC6600U, a few dollars more might net you this considerably faster card - but at the moment, PC6600U pricing needs to come down a little to make it a truly attractive option. SLI on this card is unfortunately a curiosity, not a useful feature for the vast majority of users. The card I tested was very quiet, and would suit a low-noise system, but production models may vary. µ

Benchmarks

3DMark05 1024 x 768
GeCube RX700XTG 2835      
Albatron PC6600U 2361      
3DMark03 1024 x 768
GeCube RX700XTG 7280      
Albatron PC6600U 6046      
Doom 3 (Demo 1) 800x600 1024x768 1280x1024  
GeCube RX700XTG 48.3 FPS 37.7 FPS 25.3 FPS  
Albatron PC6600U 52.5 FPS 50.3 FPS 40.0 FPS  
Notes: No AA, No AF, Max Detail  
Half Life 2 (HardwareOC ? Coast) 800×600 1024×768 1280x1024 1600x1200
GeCube RX700XTG 77.4 FPS 76.4 FPS 74.1 FPS 62.5 FPS
Albatron PC6600U 74.4 FPS 73.9 FPS 68.8 FPS 55.8 FPS
Notes: Trilinear Filtering, No AA, Max Quality  
Half Life 2 (HardwareOC ? d3c171) 800×600 1024×768 1280x1024  
GeCube RX700XTG 69.2 FPS 65.1 FPS 51.6 FPS  
Albatron PC6600U 64.2 FPS 57.9 FPS 45.5 FPS  
Notes: Trilinear Filtering, No AA, Max Quality  
Half Life 2 (HardwareOC ? Coast) 800×600 1024×768 1280x1024  
GeCube RX700XTG 74.4 FPS 63.0 FPS 39.4 FPS  
Albatron PC6600U 73.2 FPS 60.6 FPS 40.3 FPS  
Notes: 4xAA, 8xAF, Max Quality  
Half Life 2 (HardwareOC ? d3c171) 800×600 1024×768 1280x1024  
GeCube RX700XTG 57.3 FPS 42.5 FPS 27.6 FPS  
Albatron PC6600U 51.6 FPS 40.4 FPS 24.2 FPS  
Notes: 4xAA, 8xAF, Max Quality  

 

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