Last week we had the opportunity to sit down with James Kim from the offices at S3 Graphics for a peek at the company’s newest line of video cards—specifically, the Chrome S27.
Not that anyone expected S3 to be making further inroads into the graphics card market. They've been most well-known for integrated chip solutions, particularly in VIA motherboards. Their most prominent product to date was the Savage series, which set a standard for Direct X texture compression and implemented the industry's first hardware alpha-blended sub-picture blending. Unfortunately, sub-par 3D performance blocked S3 from garnering a decent portion of the market, and S3 has been essentially a non-player in standalone cards.
S3 hopes to change all this with their new Chrome cards. The Chrome chips are not geared towards the high-performance gamer. Rather, they are budget cards geared towards the lower end of the market. Our direct comparisons are with similar-equipped and similar-priced cards from ATI and nVidia: the Radeon X1300 series and the GeForce 6600 series. If you’re currently searching for a high-end card for your speedy rig, you’ll want to keep squarely focused on the big two. However, if you’re money-conscious or looking for a budget card for your secondary PC, the S3 offerings are surprisingly reliable options.
By The Numbers
Let’s first take a look at the specifications. We’ll be specifically looking at the Chrome S27 cards, which come in both 128 MB and 256 MB varieties. We did not have a chance to test the S25 cards, although they are obviously aimed at users with an extremely limited budget and land in the $60-$70 range. Let's take a look at the specifications of the Chrome S27 and its main competitors.
The numbers alone make the comparisons seem awkward. After all, with twice the memory bandwidth and higher clock speeds, the card looks good on paper. It's not as fast as it looks, however, although the smart folks at S3 know this, and priced the product competitively, knowing that the S27 does not perform like a mid-market graphics solution.
The following benchmark information was provided by S3 Graphics. Amped IGO is not a hardware site, nor are we equipped with full testing facilities. We ask all our readers to consider this when reviewing the provided specifications. We can't offer a final grade or recommendation; we're consumers, not experts. We encourage our readers to research a variety of sources before choosing the right product for them. However, the limited testing we did manage and online benchmark comparisons published on Futuremark’s ORB generally support the provided data. Let’s start with 3DMark 05.
It means nothing without real-world numbers, however. The following figures provided by S3, and garnered from the web, should provide a rough estimate of card performance in these titles.
S3 is taking a big chance by not supporting Pixel Shader 3 technology, assuming that a budget card need only support Pixel Shader 2. Our other worry regards how to compare apples to apples in this scenario, since the Chrome series direct competitors generally feature lower clock speeds and on paper would seem to be technologically inferior. S3’s answer, of course, is the low price point, although it remains to be seen whether the strategy will pay off. Without enough information on real-world gaming performance, we can only speculate at the Chrome series’ consistency.
But Will It Run?
The Chrome series sports a solid list of supported and optimized games. The optimized list includes obvious choices like Far Cry and Battlefield 2, while the official list of tested games numbers close to 100. However, we were curious to verify performance in untested games. The average gamer—and particularly the budget-conscious one—doesn’t want to worry about whether his video card will run any given game in his library. At least, we wouldn’t, so compatibility is a necessity, particularly when faced with purchasing an unknown commodity in lieu of a recognizable brand name. Knowing this is a real concern, we decided to test the S27 256 MB with three random titles not appearing on the list of tested games.
A smaller site like Amped IGO isn’t equipped with the kind of test beds at the disposal of hardware-focused websites. Our comparisons with the performance of these games were made with a Radeon X850 XT PE 256MB. Our goal with these tests was to confirm compatibility and general performance, and the Radeon figures should not be construed as a direct performance comparison of similar cards. Rather, they are meant to be a reference point for us and our readers, as the two cards are designed for separate, distinct markets. Our machine sported a 3.0Ghz Pentium 4 Northwood and 1GB PC3200 RAM.
We first decided to test compatibility with the recently-released Auto Assault, which we knew would give our S27 a good workout. Auto Assault features a great deal of particle effects and an occasionally sluggish visual engine. The test was run at a resolution of 1024 X 768, 2X AA. As you can see, the S27 had a hard time keeping up, so we turned down the visual options, at which point the game ran steadily. We experienced no glitches, artifacts, or any other rendering issues, and the image quality was no different than that of the Radeon. The test consisted of the destruction of a Pike outpost, and then traveling to a repair station.
The Rise of Legends demo was our next stop. What better way to test general stability than to run a game not yet released? We set it at 1024 X 768 with 2X AA, and it produced our most pleasant surprise, as the S27 more than held its own against a higher-performance card, and the game was eminently playable. Again, image quality was consistent, and there were no glitches to report. The test consisted of 10 minutes of skirmish play.
Lastly, we booted up an older title: Giants: Citizen Kabuto. We expected strong performance from the S3 at 1440 X 900 on a widescreen monitor, considering the game’s age. While it ran with no obvious image corruption or other bugs, the card’s meager performance surprised us. Lowering the resolution to 1024 X 768 had no appreciable difference on performance. At moments of greater activity, the framerate dropped to as low as 4 FPS, a huge surprise for a Direct X 7 game. The average FPS was held up by decent performance when there was no appreciable on-screen activity. The test map was the initial Meccaryn mission.
Two Heads Are Better Than One
It’s unclear whether or not a price-conscious consumer is likely to spring for two GPU’s instead of a single mid-range card. S3 is taking a chance and supporting multiple cards, similar to Nvidia’s SLI or ATI’s Crossfire. S3 calls the technology “MultiChrome,” and is understandable proud of the result. If game compatibility is a big concern, then so is motherboard compatibility, and MultiChrome takes advantage of the brazen competition between Nvidia and ATI by offering the only open-platform solution for multi-GPU motherboards. ATI’s Crossfire boards do not support dual Nvidia cards, nor does the nForce line support Crossfire technology. Yet most major dual-GPU motherboards support MultiChrome, which may indeed bring, as S3 says, “multi-GPU to the masses.”
The following represents the percentage FPS increase users would expect to gain using two S27’s instead of just one.
Value is Relative
It’s difficult to place a comparative value on a video card at any price point, although in the end, the average consumer can narrow the search to a simple “fastest card at the assigned budget” concept. With this in mind, we’ve created an arbitrary numerical value called the Price-to-Performance value. We calculated the average price of the S27 cards with the average price of similar offerings from ATI and nVidia, using a well-known online retail outlet as our source. We then created a “performance score” using benchmark performance figures from our 3D Mark tests and the average 3D Mark figures of competing cards in identical machines from Futuremark’s ORB. The Price-to-Performance value is created by dividing the performance score by the average product price.
We recognize that performance is more complex than the score from a standalone benchmarking tool. However, the impossibility of a series of tests in the Amped IGO offices required us to use documented figures based on a consistent set of benchmarks. While we cannot attest to complete accuracy, the graph should give our readers an idea of how much bang for the buck the Chrome series offers, compared to its closest competitors. Note that there is no 128 MB version of the X1300 PRO, so we used the 4-pipeline X1300 256 MB as an appropriate comparison. Also bear in mind that retailer price will vary. We only compared retail boxed products, not OEM or refurbished parts.
You hardcore types will need to wait for S3’s future entries in the mid- and upper-range markets. In the budget card arena, however, the Chrome series has a slight edge, outperforming its direct competitors while still maintaining a lower price point. Game compatibility and driver conflicts were never a factor in our time spent with the card, so anyone worried about straying from a household brand can breathe easy. This doesn’t mean we can attest to driver stability across the board, particularly in light of the underachieving performance in an older title like Giants. Still, the S27 is a solid alternative to the comparable X1300 and 6600 chips, and we eagerly look forward to what S3’s got planned for the future.