We recently reduced the top price of our Superbudget PCs category to just £500. In many respects these PCs compete quite favourably with machines that cost up to £200 more. However, what really exposes the shoestring budget is the graphics and, in particular, the games performance.
Often using the cheapest graphics chips available, these machines struggle to get beyond the magic 30fps (frames per second) figure needed to play games in any degree of comfort. Add to this their frequent inability to cope with the latest graphics features supported by DirectX 9.0, and an upgrade will be required for anyone intending to play games titles.
Retailing at around the £50 mark, a 32MB TurboCache card such as the nVidia GeForce 6200 could be the answer - a 16MB version should also be available for approximately £40.
The key to this product is the way that it uses memory. Modern games use huge amounts of textures and these are handled in a block of memory called the framebuffer. As a general rule, a game running at a resolution of 1,024x768 requires a framebuffer of 128MB to render all the necessary textures, cope with stencil buffers and so on. Usually the framebuffer will come from the graphics card's own memory but, in the case of this TurboCache card, only 32MB is provided.
In the past, some graphics cards have compensated for a lack of onboard memory by using some of the PC's own RAM. But this has never been particularly successful because too much time is lost while sending data between the system memory and the graphics chip.
However, the bi-directional PCI Express bus is far more versatile and, with the help of the TurboCache Manager, this card can really make both system and onboard memory work together. And because the 6200 chip has full support for DirectX 9.0 features such as version 3.0 of the Shaders and CineFX, your games should always be able to support the latest visual effects.
In real-world performance, the TurboCache does make a clear difference to games speed. We took this month's Gladiator Legion 3000 Superbudget PC and upgraded its basic onboard Radeon Xpress 200 graphics chip.
At a resolution of 800x600, the TurboCache card made most games playable - for example, Doom 3 shot from 11fps to over 34fps, Halo went from 16fps to 35fps, and Unreal Tournament jumped from 72 to 148fps. Move to a resolution of 1,024x768, however, and only Unreal Tournament is viable - Doom3 and Halo dropped to 23fps and 28fps respectively. That's much faster than the Xpress 200's times, but if you want to play above 800x600 the TurboCache card won't cut the mustard. And while it does exceed 30fps on most titles at 800x600, even here you'd really want 45-50fps for a comfortable experience.