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Are all video cards the same?

Speaking of video cards (Google friendly: 'best video cards for PCs'), terms like Matrox Mystique, S3 Virge, Power VR, Rendition, ATI Rage, RIVA TNT and of course 3dfx will sound familiar to some of you. In those days, video cards dealt with 2D and the most popular brands, at least by us, were Cirrus Logic, Trident and SiS. To enjoy better 2D acceleration and, above all, a real 3D, you often needed a graphics accelerator that was not at all affordable.

API made the difference

ape maia

Some manufacturers at that time also offered combined solutions with dual chipsets. ATI went further, combining accelerator, TV card and sound card on a single card. It was the beginning of the 1990s and there was a lot of excitement because competition was not only between video card manufacturers but also between chipset manufacturers. In '92, SGI released the OpenGL API and we have to simplify it as much as possible because the competition talk would be extremely long. OpenGL was aimed at the (professional) UNIX market but was adopted on the fly by the 3D gaming market. Microsoft was, however, developing its own API (Direct3D) and obviously did not digest OpenGL. Other APIs developed by the manufacturers of the time (Glide, S3d, NVLIB, etc.) also tried to insert themselves between the two quarrels, with little success. Microsoft's operating system was predominant, games had to be developed for Windows and obviously Direct3D prevailed. In this simplification we have encapsulated 10 years of history and the origins of 'mass' 3D gaming. Undoubtedly it was 3dfx that made it accessible to everyone and the major cause of 3dfx's failure is today blamed on its unwillingness to support Direct3D.

ATI vs Nvidia

3dfx sli schede video

In those 10 years, many chipset manufacturers were swallowed up while others pulled out of the consumer market. This decade of cannibalism between manufacturers also led GPUs to a duopoly, as had already happened with CPUs. In the early 2000s, ATI and Nvidia were the only manufacturers left and only a few years before, nobody would have bet half a cent on Nvidia. In fact, while ATI was still considered an established giant, Nvidia was more famous for having acquired the bankrupt 3dfx than for its past chipsets. Rumours at the time even saw a monopoly looming, with ATI poised to acquire Nvidia at any moment. Especially after ATI had signed deals with Microsoft and Nintendo for consoles.

AMD vs Nvidia

amd-ati fusione

In 2006, AMD attempted to trip Intel up by buying ATI. The Canadian company was not in financial trouble, in fact it was experiencing steady growth, and was probably paid more than its real value. Returning to the present, the amount paid to acquire ATI is higher than AMD's current turnover: it is clear that something went wrong.

The slot where we all mount our cards today, the PCI Express, is an Intel product. About 65% of the revenue from ATI chipsets was due to a partnership with Intel, for its motherboards. Combine these two details and you will understand the favour AMD did Nvidia with the acquisition of ATI.

GPU market shares

Actually, the benefit was not only to Nvidia but also to Intel itself, which in the long run profited from the unfortunate merger. In 2002, Intel had only 14% of the market share, while today it is at 70%. As gamers we always think of the duopoly and forget that on almost all notebooks the video chipset is Intel or that in Intel processors the GPU has been integrated for years. Last year Intel and AMD announced a partnership to integrate Radeon Vega GPUs on new Intel processors. After a few months, the engineer responsible for the Radeon GPUs moved to Intel. Intel's intent is clear: to also enter the market that is today dominated by Nvidia.

Reference Video Cards

vecchia pubblicità schede video 3dfxReference cards are those that AMD and Nvidia provide to manufacturers, journalists and influencers at the launch of a new GPU. On the US market it is very easy to buy them, on the Italian market a little less so. Nvidia sometimes sells them to consumers directly through its website, AMD no longer does so. On eBay we find those used by editorial staff. Many manufacturers simply put out a reference card with their brand name stuck on it. Others leave the board intact and change the heatsink. A few completely redesign the board, adopting their own circuit board, (not necessarily) better capacitors and mosfets, a different controller... In short, only the GPU is identical.

The importance of branding

When we are on the verge of choosing a new video card, we gather information, read reviews, make comparisons. There is the illusion that that choice is a wise one, completely dependent on the hours (often days) spent documenting ourselves. In reality, many of us never chose the video cards we bought, but it was the brand that communicated best to us. Years and years of marketing led us to already have only two or three brands in mind. Usually the biggest ones, the ones that sell millions of video cards can afford to send thousands of them around, to influencers of various degrees and titles. So even the small brand with the good card, well reviewed by a very famous magazine, remains less in the limelight than the model everyone has been talking about.

Mater artium necessitas

 "Necessity is the mother of skill" and, thanks to the crazy prices of the last period, nowadays the wallet leads us to reason the purchase much more than before. Marketing continues to build a strong attraction but even the affordable cards are, in fact, already more expensive than they are worth. So, if we used to be willing to pay 50 euros more for the brand that conveys security, now we look for ways to save that same amount. Perhaps by focusing on lesser-known brands. The underlying reasoning is: "The GPU is always that, therefore the product is reliable!" or "To bad it's the reference card with a sticker on it". So.

Video cards are all the same

schede video memeThis is not the case. Nvidia and AMD can put up stakes, tell you what you can customise and what you can't, but they don't carry out thorough checks. Even some famous brands and long-time partners save money on some components, why shouldn't the lesser known ones? So many people now keep an eye on capacitors, knowing that they are the number one cause of failures in much of the hardware. Don't you think there are manufacturers who put in good capacitors and sacrifice the rest? But if we let ourselves be assailed by doubts, we would never buy anything. Everyone can cheat and probably everyone does. Making do with the integrated GPU cannot be the solution. Just as it is not a solution to rely on tests and reviews, because you will want to use the video card for years, not a few days.

The video card guarantee...

And here it comes to us the European legal warranty That 24+2 months of full protection is not a lot for a VGA but not a few either. In our experience, which may not be absolute but is still that of an entire group, defective motherboards and VGAs do not pass the first year. There is plenty of time, therefore, to evaluate any brand, as long as you have taken the care to buy it from a serious seller and turn to him, not the manufacturer. Also because...

... and how to invalidate it

Sometimes people buy models with underperforming heatsinks and then replace them on the fly. It is good to know that hardly any manufacturer will pass on the warranty if they notice the heatsink change. And it is not difficult to notice. Even those who answer in the FAQ or by email: 'Yes, no problem, just put it back before sending it back', are hiding behind the discretionality. What does this discretion consist of? If they have a reconditioned one of the same model, they send you that one, otherwise it's down to luck. There are those who do not exchange it (and charge the courier to send it back), those who exchange it for a slightly newer model (reconditioned), and those who try to wring a few extra pennies out of the latter offer. With many shops, online or physical, it is the same thing. It seems to be a different matter with the big chains. We can only speak of Amazon, as cases have happened to us with cards purchased there. They were not replaced but refunded, fully, and in one case even before the delivery of the parcel.

Editorial cuts

 We have cut, a lot, the historical part so as not to bore anyone. Cutting also means committing a few inaccuracies in order to get straight to the point. We would have liked to talk about how Nvidia tried to appropriate the term GPU or when ATI responded with the VPU. Or go into detail about pre-3dfx cards, 2D acceleration, the birth of the GeForce and Radeon series, which are still with us today. If you'd like to read these kinds of insights, click on the little heart at the bottom left!


The duopoly sucks. It sucks for CPUs and it sucks for GPUs. It sucks because the competition is limited and one of the two seems well content with its niche. Between brands, on the other hand, the competition is no longer on price but on acronyms, marketing, stages, and zero-point pre-overclock. Some custom board manufacturers do not even do the assembly, outsourcing the task to those who charge less. Just as is already the case for the production of individual components; for example, the printed circuit board. Intel's possible future entry into the market for dedicated video cards (don't call them 'discrete') could revitalise the market. As long as this does not involve absorbing AMD's graphics sector (Intel Radeon does not sound bad) or cannibalising Nvidia.

How to buy with confidence

Who needs overclock, already know what to look at and we will not develop separate paragraphs. For everyone else, the advice is simple:

  1. You don't need a proper custom, just a custom heatsink. For temperature and noise reasons.
  2. All brands are fine, the important thing is to be able to turn to a seller reliable in case of problems. Turning to the manufacturer does not speed anything up.
  3. If you buy on Amazon and the price is crazy, wait for the restock. Upon replenishment, the price will return to normal until stocks are exhausted.
  4. Beware of second-hand goods! Take a look at the seller's profile. If he has sold several used video cards, he might be someone with a mining hobby. Cards that give problems with mining do not always burn out, but they remain defective and will give problems during gaming sessions. By the way, second-hand prices are not so attractive to take risks and some manufacturers demand a nominal invoice to offer a warranty.
Out-of-context reflection

Why don't manufacturers curb the scourge of mining?

Well! Why should they? Nvidia makes cosmetic statements so as not to hurt the feelings of fanboys. AMD openly welcomes miners, they have long had dedicated drivers. In fact they don't make more money from the single card sold at crazy prices but sell more units. And then they would go against their partners. In fact, the video card manufacturers are the only ones who, through official distributors and retailers, could put a patch on it in the short term. But they don't, again because of the issue of units sold. The positive return for the consumer is that the materials used on custom cards must be really good in order not to run into hundreds of thousands of RMAs.

What to do then?

We need to increase the number of GPUs produced. How much? Not much. Since Nvidia and AMD see it as a bubble, it is difficult for them to start producing enough GPUs to satisfy miners and consumers. Who would buy them if the bubble were to burst soon after? They know very well that in such an eventuality, the second-hand market would be saturated for years and sales of new GPUs would be below the lows of 10 years ago. We have no choice but to rely on the good old reservations!!