Summary: NVIDIA's GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is certainly an incredible performer, but there aren't many enthusiasts that are willing to pay its $500 price tag. This is where the 128MB GeForce FX 5900 comes in. With a 400MHz core and 850MHz memory, it comes close to reaching GeForce FX 5900 Ultra levels, and is priced at $400. Today we're taking a look at MSI's FX5900-TD128, which is based on the GeForce FX 5900 core. This card has another exotic cooling solution that impressed us, but how does it perform? Find out, as we explore its performance in our standard benchmarks in addition to Nascar 2003 and IL-2: Forgotten Battles!
UPDATE: Nascar 2003 fans rejoice, after swapping out the 875P platform for an nForce2 system the RADEON scores we reported yesterday jumped significantly. Head straight to the new results here!
After publishing our GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Performance Preview one month ago, the most popular question we’ve received is “when will this card be available?” After GeForce FX 5800 Ultra failed to hit the market in significant quantities, a lot of you were wondering if the GeForce FX 5900 family would succumb to a similar fate.
Based on what we’ve seen, the answer is a definite no. eVGA’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra has already been spotted at some e-tailers for $550 (including VIVO). NVIDIA has definitely delivered the goods this time around.
However, there aren’t many consumers willing to shell out $500+ for the latest graphics card. Only the most extreme of the hardcore crowd is what we’ve found in the past. If an alternative was available that delivered most of GeForce FX 5900 Ultra’s performance, but at a lower price point, a larger demographic of gamers would be able to afford NVIDIA’s latest and greatest graphics chip. That’s where NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 128MB comes in.
Based on the same graphics core as GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, GeForce FX 5900 128MB offers all the graphical eye candy of NVIDIA’s flagship, but at a much lower price: $400 MSRP. $400 is still a lot to pay for a graphics card, but when you factor in the plethora of third-party board partners NVIDIA has on tap for GeForce FX 5900, prices will steadily fall to lower levels. MSI is one of these card manufacturers, and as we’ve seen in the past, they make some pretty outstanding graphics cards.
Rather than relying solely on NVIDIA’s reference design for its products, MSI has implemented its own unique cooling system, known as T.O.P. Tech. T.O.P. Tech coolers incorporate copper cooling, rather than aluminum, for its superior thermal transfer properties. To increase the effectiveness of the graphics card’s fan, MSI mates the copper heatsink to a plastic duct which the hot air is directed through. This innovative design allows MSI to use a slower fan than other manufacturers, which typically operates around 2700 RPM, the end result is a graphics card that’s considerably quieter than other cards, in fact noise output is similar to the fan you’d find on your typical motherboard’s chipset!
MSI is back again with another distinctive cooling solution for GeForce FX 5900. In fact, they’ve put together quite an eye-catching package overall.
SIDEBAR: MSI GeForce FX 5900-TD128 Product
Before we can delve into MSI’s FX5900 TD128, we need to discuss the GeForce FX 5900 core that the card is based on.
If you recall the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra launch, you’ll remember that NVIDIA stated its CineFX architecture that the NV30 was based on would be found on all of its NV3x products. This enabled NVIDIA to provide DirectX functionality on its entire range of products; from top to bottom NVIDIA’s offering DirectX 9 support.
Being based on the NV35 core, this same feature set applies to GeForce FX 5900 as well. The key addition is a new 256-bit memory interface, twice as wide as the 128-bit interface found on GeForce FX 5800 Ultra. This allows twice as much data to be transferred each clock cycle, increasing performance in situations that involve anti-aliasing and/or anisotropic filtering, especially when combined with high screen resolution -- environments where the demands on memory bandwidth are greatest.
Unlike the GeForce FX 5800 family, for GeForce FX 5900, NVIDIA has gone back to traditional DDR memory. With its wider memory interface, high memory clock speeds are no longer necessary to achieve high memory bandwidth figures. DDRII is also in short supply, with only one manufacturer, Samsung, supplying NVIDIA with modules. As a result, DDRII memory is more expensive than DDR. (We’ve also found that DDRII modules operate considerably hotter than traditional DDR, which is one of the reasons why the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra was such a hot graphics card.)
Other than the new memory subsystem, little is changed from GeForce FX 5800. The core is still based on TSMC’s 0.13-micron manufacturing process, while transistor count is up slightly: 125 million in GeForce FX 5800 versus 130 million in GeForce FX 5900. To address performance in next generation titles that use shadowing extensively (read: Doom 3) NVIDIA has added one new feature, UltraShadow.
UltraShadow is essentially designed to prevent the graphics core from rendering unnecessary areas within shadows. Previous graphics accelerators would render the entire shadow, regardless if certain areas were visible or not. With Ultra Shadow, game programmers can define the areas of the shadow that need to be calculated, the rest is discarded; this increases efficiency and allows the lighting calculations to be performed more quickly. The end result is greater performance, especially in complex scenes with multiple light sources and objects with shadows, a trait you’ve probably noticed if you’ve looked at a lot of Doom 3 screenshots. Currently, UltraShadow is only exposed through OpenGL, not Direct3D. NVIDIA has told us that they plan to address this however.
Now that we know more about the NV35 graphics core that the GeForce FX 5900 family is based on, the next question is what separates the GeForce FX 5900 from the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra that was announced last month. The key differences are clock speeds and memory size. The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra ships with a 450MHz core clock frequency and is paired with 256MB of 850MHz DDR memory. The GeForce FX 5900 core operates a little slower at 400MHz but memory clock frequency remains unchanged at 850MHz. We’ve provided a chart which summarizes the high-end segment as it stands at this point:
SIDEBAR: Is it just us, our is Dusk 10X better than Dawn?
Unfortunately, we don’t have a GeForce FX 5900 reference board to compare MSI’s GeForce FX 5900-TD128 against, but we do see that it has significantly less power circuitry than our reference GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card. Capacitor count in particular is significantly reduced. The length of the board is also shorter, right at 9”, which puts it slightly longer than GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, but the same length as GeForce4 Ti 4600.
MSI has equipped the GeForce FX 5900-TD128 with one massive cooler that encompasses the graphics core and memory, just as we saw on NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 reference card. The main heatsink itself is slimmer than the one found on the reference GeForce FX 5900 Ultra board, but it’s still large enough to obstruct the PCI slot next to the AGP interface.
By implementing such a large design, the surface area of the heatsink is increased, allowing it to draw more heat off the core and thus enhancing its effectiveness. MSI uses taller fins in the area surrounding the graphics core/fan to increase the surface area of the heatsink even further.
Surprisingly enough, a second heatsink/fan unit is used on the back of the FX5900 card. This cooler is reminiscent of the T.O.P. Tech cooler found on MSI’s GeForce FX 5200 card, the FX5200-TDR128. This cooler sits on the underside of the NV35 core, an area which NVIDIA addresses with a heatsink on its 5900 Ultra reference card.
Twin-Flow Noise output
In a move somewhat reminiscent of the failed FX Flow cooling system found on GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, MSI dubs their cooling solution Twin-Flow. Fortunately we can report that Twin-Flow doesn’t come anywhere close to reaching the noise level of FX Flow, like MSI’s T.O.P. Tech cooling, Twin-Flow is impeccably quiet. In fact, we couldn’t hear the difference between 2D or 3D mode on the FX5900-TD128. The noise output of our Pentium 4 3.0GHz cooler actually drowned out all sound from the fans of the FX5900-TD128 graphics card.
With an active cooler on the underside of the graphics card, one aspect that concerned us was size. On many of today’s 865PE motherboards, the North Bridge is located so close to the AGP slot that there isn’t much room for error. We started our compatibility testing with our testbed motherboard, the ASUS P4C800 Deluxe. As you can see in the picture, we had to bend one of the fins on the chipset’s North Bridge in order for the GeForce FX 5900-TD128 to fit properly. Unfortunately, no amount of fin bending could get the FX5900-TD128 to work with ASUS’ P4P800 Deluxe, the chipset is located so close to the AGP slot that there are just too many fins to bend. This wasn’t the case for FIC’s 865PE-based P4-865PE Max II, it fit perfectly with the FX5900-TD128, as you can see in the picture above. We can also report a thumbs-up for all nForce2 motherboards, as well as E7025, 845PE. Of all the motherboards we’ve tested recently, only those of you with older P4C800 Deluxe's (us included) and the DFI LANPARTY PRO875 required heatsink fin adjustment, MSI’s own 875P motherboard fit perfectly with the FX5900-TD128.
For now we’ll chalk this category up to guarded optimism provided you’re not dealing with an 865PE motherboard. For these users, all bets are off, as Intel seems to have looser restrictions on the AGP keep-out area for this chipset. We would not be surprised if there are multiple GeForce FX 5900 cards that don’t fit with these motherboards. The reference GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card fit in the P4P800 Deluxe, but as one reader (Kevin O’Neil) noted, it’s a tight fit.
UPDATE: It has come to our attention that newer revisions of the P4P800 and P4C800 now have the North Bridge heatsink mounted parallel with the AGP slot. These newer motherboards will offer more space between the AGP slot and chipset North Bridge.
SIDEBAR: NVIDIA demo pics were taken with 8x AA
Power and temperature
With only one power source on the GeForce FX 5900 board design, MSI had to integrate a power splitter to deliver power to both cooling fans. You can see it on the underside of the card. MSI neatly bundles everything together with a built-in clip, so everything works as it should.
MSI’s packaging for the FX5900-TD128 is definitely one of the most impressive we’ve seen – the box itself is physically larger than many motherboard boxes! The front proudly proclaims MSI’s status as the world’s largest video card manufacturer in shipment volume (as measured by Goldman Sachs), a title it has owned for the past two years. While the inside of the box has characters from a trio of NVIDIA technology demos and all the specifications on NVIDIA’s latest and greatest.
As far as the bundle is concerned, MSI continues to include copies of its Media Center Deluxe II software, Virtual Drive 7, Restore It 3, MSI 5.1-channel DVD player, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Morrowind, and Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project. There’s also a 7-in-1 games pack, which includes demos taken from a selection of games. Right now you’re probably disappointed with the games bundle in particular, as Ghost Recon was released in November 2001, while Morrowind is just over a year old as well. Fortunately there’s light at the end of the tunnel, as MSI is planning on updating its game bundle very soon. Titles that have been mentioned to us include notables such as Unreal 2 or Command and Conquer: Generals. We’re still keeping our fingers crossed for Ubisoft’s more recent Tom Clancy shooter, Splinter Cell, but with its AAA title status we doubt MSI can give us this game as a freebie.
In any case, it’s good to see MSI address this aspect so quickly, and the recent EA/NVIDIA deal gives card manufacturers like MSI access to titles that they wouldn’t have been able to offer previously. It’s quite possible that we may see some EA Sports titles implemented at some point in the future if we’re lucky, but for the sake of all that’s good, please don’t give us 007: Nightfire.
Also included in the packaging is an S-Video cable, a longer power cord, a DVI adapter and a small calendar/notepad for jotting down notes.
In addition to the FX5900-TD128 card we’re reviewing today, MSI will also be offering a GeForce FX 5900 card with video input, the GeForce FX 5900 VTD128. This card will be based on the same design as the FX5900-TD128, and will include a VIVO module similar to the one seen on MSI’s GeForce4 Ti 4600-8X card, the G4Ti4600-VT2D8X. MSI will also offer two GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards, one with video input and one without it.
Nascar Racing 2003 Season (custom demo)
NotesAfter countless hours troubleshooting the 875P/RADEON combination with CATALYST 3.4 with no success, we finally decided to try an nForce2 setup. Voila, the RADEON scores jumped significantly! As you can see, the RADEON cards put up a strong fight at low resolutions, although admittedly even the archaic GeForce4 Ti 4200 is able to keep up with all of the latest DX9 cards. Once we crank the screen res up however, the CPU becomes less of a limiting factor and we see the two GeForce FX Ultra cards slowly make their way up the ranks. By 1600x1200 the fill rate advantage the enjoy allows them to take the top three positions, with GeForce FX 5900 Ultra at the top of the heap.
SIDEBAR: Unfortunately, after adding the new benches there just wasn’t enough time to include 3DMark 03.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
NotesIL-2 Sturmovik tends to favor the RADEON cards with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering disabled, at 1600x1200x32 the RADEON 9700 PRO is ahead of GeForce FX 5900 Ultra by 20%. Both 9800 PRO cards offer similar performance levels. The FX5900-TD128 does a good job of keeping up with the Ultra card, offering very playable frame rates all the way up to 1280x1024.
SIDEBAR: Are you glad to see the new benches?
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
NotesIn our original GeForce FX 5900 Ultra preview article, the RADEON cards didn't finish ahead of the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra until 1600x1200. But with the detail level cranked up to "quality" and our own custom demo, the RADEON cards take the throne as early as 1024x768x32, where the 5900 Ultra trails by 6%. At the same resolution, the FX5900-TD128 is down to the FX5900 Ultra by 10%. This gap opens up to 13% by 1600x1200, while the margin between RADEON 9800 PRO and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra doubles to 12%.
SIDEBAR: Remember, you can't compare previous numbers to today's, this is an in-house demo we used for testing.
Quake III - High Quality
NotesOnce again we're seeing different results than what we've seen in the past, although this time we've upgraded to the latest point release, in addition to using our own new demo. In the demo we're paired up with bots on Q3DM1, first one to 40 frags wins. It's a pretty intensive demo as you can see by the frame rates, the rockets and plasma are flying constantly.
The RADEON cards earn a clean sweep in this benchmark, most likely in part to their anisotropic filtering engine. We've found that the RADEON cards take a less dramatic performance hit once AF is cranked up. By 1600x1200 the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is trailing by 8%, while GeForce FX 5900 is behind the Ultra card by 15%.
SIDEBAR: Even though it's an old title, Q3 is still pretty fun.
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
NotesPreviously, the GeForce FX cards used their fill rate advantage to outshine the RADEON cards in Nascar 2003. However, under the greater demands of AA and AF, we see the RADEON 9800 PRO cards recapture the throne. We have a strong suspicion this is due to the RADEON's adaptive anisotropic filtering engine. We've found in the past that GeForce FX cards take a significantly greater performance hit with anisotropic filtering than ATI's DX9 cards.
SIDEBAR: I really hope this isn't Papyrus' last hardcore sim.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
NotesThe tables turn for the RADEON cards once AA and AF are enabled in IL-2, with the GeForce FX cards coming out ahead at 1024x768x32 and above. We didn't have as much time to play with IL-2 as we did with Nascar 2003, but we found 30 fps to be a good cutoff point in terms of ideal frame rate. Even at the highest resolutions, GeForce FX 5900 is offering just over 90% the performance of GeForce FX 5900 Ultra.
Editor's Note: We've received emails from a few of you questioning whether the GeForce FX cards are performing anti-aliasing in IL-2 Sturmovik or not. In light of the Splinter Cell AA issue, we felt it best to provide you with screenshots directly from IL-2 demonstrating AA in action on the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra reference board. As you can see, AA is working (4xAA with 8xAF, in one shot, just like our test conditions) but just barely for a "4x" setting. Please download the bitmaps to see for yourself.
SIDEBAR: We will be adding LOAC as soon as it's available.
Unreal Tournament 2003
Performance: The GeForce FX 5900 GPU may not be the fastest on the block, but it’s still more powerful than the majority of the other offerings on the market. And with its 400MHz core and 850MHz memory, NVIDIA has ensured that it will offer a compelling experience, offering most of the Ultra’s performance for $100 less. As you saw in our performance results, we threw quite a few game titles at the FX5900-TD128, and it handled them all very well, offering playable frame rates at the highest resolutions with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.
Twin-Flow size: The real enemy of Twin-Flow won’t be sound output, rather it will be its sheer physical size. Occupying the nearest PCI slot isn’t a big deal in our opinion, as most gamers and enthusiasts keep this slot empty for better airflow anyway. But with the cooler on the underside of the card jutting out just over a ½”, there isn’t much room for error. We think the majority of consumers who should be concerned are those of you who own 865PE motherboards, especially if the North Bridge on your heatsink is passively cooled. The ASUS P4P800 Deluxe definitely won’t fit.
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