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AOpen TNT2-Ultra PA3020G AGP Review (Engineering Sample)

Date: 12th August 99
by Vijay Anand

- The Good
- The Bad
- Test System Configuration
- Conclusion
- Rating

- Other video cards reviews


Many of you would have known that video-cards usually come from brands like Creative, Diamond, 3dfx, ATI, Matrox and from smaller less companies like Asus, Cardex, Skywell, Expert-Colour, Leadtek but have you heard of brands like AOpen, MSI and Gigabyte? "Oh yes, they belong to the Motherboard category", you might say but 'This Time Around' (Remember MJ's song?), these Motherboard makers have also started a graphics card division, just like Asus. The anomaly is, all of them produce video-cards based on different iterations of the nVidia Riva-TNT2 chipset. Counting the number of video-card makers, there is already an abundant amount of choices to make when selecting a TNT2 based product. Now with these motherboard makers joining in, Saturation-point has reached in the TNT2 market (that's not goo for the card makers but it's in a way good/confusing for prospecting buyers!).

Now, AOpen is the sister-company to Acer, which is one of the biggest PC-machine makers and is the second largest motherboard maker in the world. Both Acer and AOpen manufacture all sorts of components for PCs, just about anything component you can think of are manufactured by them. AOpen (Acer-Open division) usually produces better components than Acer itself, probably due to the extra R&D that goes behind the scenes (not that ACER isn't up to par but AOpen always does it better!). AOpen has been having manufacturing their own brand video-cards but they were mostly produced in a smaller scale, probably to cater to their own clients. Now, starting with the TNT2, they are putting more effort to mass-produce them to end-users too. The board I've been sent is an Engineering version of their TNT2-Ultra product. They also have some other versions using other TNT2 chipset variations like the TNT2 and Vanta. Let's get on with the product details:


Video Card Specifications

Interface AGP 4x (AGP-2x compatible)
Chipset nVidia Riva TNT2-Ultra
Ram SEC 32MB 5ns SDRAM
Data Path 128 bit
RAMDAC 300 Mhz
TV-Output Optional
Video Playback MPEG-1, MPEG-2, Indeo, & Cinepak
Supported Resolutions 640 x 480 - 1920 x 1200
Supported Refresh Rates 60 - 150 Hz
These are the contents of the package:   These are the utilities & software
that are given on the installation CD:
  • (1) AOpen TNT2-Ultra PA3020G video card
  • (1) Installation guide
  • (1) AOpen Installation CD

 
  • AOpen TNT2-Ultra PA3020 Drivers
  • AOpen Tools


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The Good

The Video-Card Inspection section

The small box of for this card was kept with a simple design but with the words 'AOpen TNT-Ultra' screaming in the middle. Inside was just a thin manual, the installation CD and the AOpen PA-3020 video-card wrapped in the common electrostatic bag. Here's a snapshot of the board taken from AOpen's website:

The engineering board I received had a cheapo-PCB and build-quality was so-so only. I bet the final product looks like the above picture, which has a quality way above what I have at hand! Ok, the engineering-sample board did not have the Digital-Flat-Panel output (DFP) or the TV-out connection as shown in this snapshot. Funny thing about this snapshot is that it has a TV-out connection but lacks a TV-decoder chip! Must be an early video-card sample shot. The Heatsink and fan combo on my engineering product wasn't up to my standards but I hope it's not the same one used on the actual product. Rams used were 5ns SEC (Samsung) type. There were only 8 of them, meaning each has a 4MB capacity. I suppose these are more expensive because most of the other TNT2's are equipped with only 2MB pieces.

The Installation, Driver features and Programs

Installation was quite straight-forward as usual. The given manual looks plain but its contents are what I expect from a video-card manual, so I would rate it good. When you load the AOpen-CD, there is a nice long intro to the AOpen Company, all done with enticing PC graphics. IT gives a basic insight of the company (I liked it :P). As for installing the drivers, just click the correct option and the drivers get installed in a flash. Oh, there was a mouse glitch after installing the drivers but restarting the PC rectifies this. Nothing to worry as my board isn't the final version. The following are some screenshots of it's utilities after driver installation:

There are two new tabs in the display properties. Here's the display information page with the additional-properties button bringing up 5 more tabs as the below pictures show:
This is the colour-correction panel with adjustments to Brightness, Contrast and Gamma. You can have different profiles saved and loaded for different usages and occasions.
Open-GL settings.
Here's the Tune section where you can overclock both your memory and core speeds! Cool feature! I suppose AOpen is targeting the card for gamers? Alas, I'm sad to say that my sample board won't even clock more than 5Mhz more than the default 150/183Mhz speed. I've heart that the final versions will do much better:)
Other-Options, in case you've run into some minor glitches.
Direct-3D Setting. This is a standard section in all Riva cards. There is an advanced tab which has...
The important option to disable V-Sync! And a few more standard options.
This is the final-tab in the main Display-Properties page, the TV-output option and settings. There's not TV-Out in my sample, hence I've no idea what TV-Decoder chip they are using and the quality of the output. But I'll assume that the normal BT TV-Decoder is the one that will be used, which will bring about good game-play out on TV.

3D Quality & Features

What else would you have come to expect from a TNT2? Excellent 3D quality of course (not Matrox style yet)! I used games like NFS3, NFS4 Star-Wars Episode-1: Phantom Menace, Star-Wars Episode-1 : Pod-Racer, Quake-2 and tested the games at 1024x768 with extreme fluency.

Here's the complete 3D feature set:

  • Alpha Blending
  • Anisotropic Filtering
  • Bilinear Filtering
  • Bump Mapping
  • Environment Mapping
  • Fogging
  • Gouraud Shading
  • Hardware Triangle Setup Engine
  • MIP Mapping
  • Perspective Correction
  • Specular Highlights
  • Stencil Buffer
  • Subpixel Precision
  • 12GFLOP Floating Point Geometry Engine
  • Texture Mapping
  • Transparency
  • Transparency
  • TwiN-Texel Engine
  • Z-Buffering
 

Since the TNT2-Ultra is a very fast chipset and has a much smaller drop in performance when running 32-bit colour, I decided to run the new NFS4:High Stakes at 16-bit and 32-bit colour to see the difference that so many people try to claim it's better. I've see so many review comparing the 16-bit and 32-bit colour differences and the only was they always show that 32-bit colour is better is by magnifying the snapshot quite a bit! Come on! Nobody in the right state of mind will look at such tiny differences while playing games! The only game that I've seen where 32-bit colour makes a small difference is in Quake-3's special effects, e.g. shooting with whatever gear your carrying and explosions.

Ok, back to my test system. I didn't try Quake-2 for 16/32-bit colour differences because everything is so brownish! So I loaded my new NFS4 CD for some test-runs and guess what I found? Zero!, Zilch!, Nothing! I mean I tried playing the same track at least 5 times on in either colour resolution and I can't find that 'bit' of difference (and I really looked hard)! So much for the colour talk.

Have a look at the below selected screenshots taken by 3DMark99-MAX test suite for comparisons (to view in full size, click on pictures). I've now included a comparison with the 3dfx V3-3000's image quality which, has yielded interesting results. Carry on to find out:

AOpen PA3020 3DMark99
Reference Shots
Description
Texture Resolution

A The quality is just like that of the TNT which is very good and that's one assurance when you buy any new nVidia-based chipset.
Game-1

Same as the above remark.
Game-2

Same as the above remark.


The Benchmarks

Benchmarking was done in Windows-98 with Microsoft DirectX-6.1 drivers and PowerStrip 2.50 for overclocking. Overclocking is Nil on this engineering sample board... it crashes while testing. This should change in the final version. So all tests were done at the default-speed of 150/183Mhz and using nVidia reference 1.88 drivers (I also have the newer 2.08 drivers but they do no improvement and only slow the results a tiny bit, so I used the older 1.88 version).

Canopus Spectra-5400 PE AGP 32MB SDRAM

Benchmarking Software / Cpu Config Wintune98 Video (2D) / Mps Wintune98 Direct3D / Mps Wintune98 OpenGL / Mps Quake-2 Timedemo1 / fps Quake-2 Timedemo2 / fps 3D Mark99 / 3DMarks
C-300A (4.5 x 100MHz) (nVidia) 72.27397 199.6824 158.1363 93.4 87.1 3953
C-450A (4.5 x 100MHz) (nVidia) 105.3979 200.0901 162.2439 94.6 88.8 3891

Done @ 640 x 480 with OpenGL for Quake II V3.05, @ 800 x 600 for 3D Mark99 and @ 1024 x 768 for the Wintune98 tests. Colour depth = 16bit for all tests

The WT98 results are normal for an Ultra-TNT2.Let's look at some Q2 results:




As you can see, the variance between the Creative and AOpen TNT2-Ultra differ only by about 1 FPS in which, Creative is leading in every test (all are using refrence drivers). Expect every other TNT2-Ultra to perform similar to these results unless your using manufacturer's drivers, but that too won't show any prominent difference.


The performance drop is quite small as you can see from the graph and this is something you can assured of with the TNT2. Though this gap will widen when running a more complex benchmark like Crusher (unfortunately I don't have it), but there isn't much to worry as the performance drop will be much less than the previous TNT. The maximum performance drop in games would be 15% to 20% lower than 16-bit scores. Next are the 3DMark99-Max results.

3DMark99-MAX Results

3DMark Results CPU Geometry Speed Rasterizer Score
3DMark Results 3DMark Results
As expected, the AOpen TNT2-Ultra performs on par with competing products from Creative, though it still loses to Creative by a tiny amount. Similar to the previous case. No comments.
Game-1 Game-2 Fill-Rate
3DMark Results 3DMark Results 3DMark Results
No comments. No comments. No comments.
Fill-Rate with Multi-texturing 4mb Texture Rendering Speed 8mb Texture Rendering Speed
3DMark Results 3DMark Results 3DMark Results
No comments. No comments. No comments.
16mb Texture Rendering Speed 32mb Texture Rendering Speed Bump-Mapping Emboss, 3-pass
3DMark Results   3DMark Results
At 16MB texture sizes, the Ultras have no problem of what-so-ever. I didn't have 128MB SDRAM to run the 32MB Texture file test, but please refer to my other reviews for this score. No comments.
Bump-Mapping Emboss, 2-pass Bump-Mapping Emboss, 1-pass Notes
3DMark Results 3DMark Results As my version of 3DMark99-MAX is not registered, all results are based on an 800x600 resolution at 16-bit colour depth with each processor's proper optimization.
No comments. No comments.


Super-7 Talk

I've been seeing so many queries regarding Super-7 motherboard compatibility with TNT/TNT2 video cards in our forums (clinics) that I decided to address it in this section. I've been running almost every video card successfully in my Super-7 combo for quite a while now and if there has been any compatibility issue, I would have addressed them in my reviews, but I still see many queries. Ok, if you have a VIA (MVP3, MVP3+) based motherboard your quite safe to use many of the current video adapters like TNT / TNT2. All you have to do is get the all the latest drivers for your motherboard from VIA's website and update your windows. That's about it! It also helps to get proven motherboards like Tyan, AOpen AX59-Pro, FIC-VA-503+ and DFI-P5BV3+/K6BV3+/K6XV3+ which are very stable, well designed boards and can use these high-powered video cards like TNT/TNT2 which draw a lot of power.

If your using the ALI Alladin-V chipset based motherboards, e.g. the most common of them are the MSI-5169 and the ASUS-P5A series, your going to have a tougher time to get your favourite TNT/TNT2 combo to work with this board even with the latest drivers from ALI's website. This chipset itself has gone through many revisions but it still can't rectify the problems completely. Whichever motherboard you have, do update your windows with all the latest motherboard drivers 1st before fixing in the TNT/TNT2 card. Also try not to overclock your video-cards while running on a super-7 motherboard as the TNT/TNT2 card already draws a lot power, you will be straining the system by overclocking. And finally, if you need to buy a new Super-7 motherboard, get an MVP3+ based motherboard because it is technically superior to the ALI-chipset equivalent and it gives you less problems with new video-cards. Bottom-line is, all Super-7 can use TNT/TNT2 video cards but it depends how well your motherboard bios and drivers are updated, not to mention the video-card drivers. Additionally, if you have a lot of expansion cards and are having problems getting the new video card to work, try removing all the cards and plug in the new video-card to see if it works. The progressively add a card at a time to help the board smooth out the resources.

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The Bad

Well, the quality of the board isn't good but looking at the picture of the final product is really a world apart. Since mine is an engineering sample, I won't penalise it in the quality department as it works to what it's designed for. I guess the overclockability of my board is effected by the quality of the board plus it could be that the core used isn't a good one.

The fan and heatsink combo provided sucks! The heatsink is so thin with hardly any fins at all (more like bumps!), how do you expect the fan's forced air to push the heat away as fast as possible? More over, the given fan needs a finger push to get it spinning at many occasions. This won't pose a heat problem to the TNT2-Ultra chipset as all the TNT2 variants are guaranteed to work without any active cooling and will operate well even with zero-air movement when they are not overclocked.

The card doesn't provide enough utilities or any other nice feature other than AOpen Overclocking utility. I would have preferred at least a software-DVD player.

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Test System Configuration

Processor(s) Intel Celeron-300A
Ram 64MB 100MHz LGS-7J 10ns SDRAM Dimm
Motherboard AOpen AX6BC-Pro
HardDrive(s) IBM Deskstar-3 3.2Gb
Operating System MS Windows 98 Build 4.10.1998
DirectX Version MS DirectX Version 6.1
Other software used PowerStrip 2.50
Video Card(s) AOpen PA3020 TNT2-Ultra AGP
Video Card Drivers nVidia Reference drivers 1.88

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Conclusion  

From the look of the PA3020's simplicity, I would say AOpen is trying to sell the card to a prospective gamier at very competitive prices. I just hope the final product looks as good as the snapshot given by AOpen and perform much better in the overclocking department to catch many potential users. AOpen's website has stated that they've tested a few and have come to a maximum overclocked speed of 175/233 Mhz!! Hmmm...


VIDEO CARD RATING

Overall Rating (Out of a maximum of 5 Star)

Installation ****1/2
Performance ****
Price NA
Software Bundle ***
Material Quality ***1/2
Overall Rating ****

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Last updated July 5, 1999.

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