Summary: eVGA is first to market with a graphics card based on NVIDIA's GeForce FX 5900 Ultra GPU, and it offers one feature that noone else has (for now at least): higher clock speeds! With video input support, it also boasts video editing capabilities. But we know what you're dying to find out -- how much faster is it than the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra reference card, and how does it perform against RADEON 9800 PRO? Find out, as we explore its performance on an Athlon XP rig with all new custom demos!
Well folks, if you doubted NVIDIA’s ability to deliver GeForce FX 5900 on time, its official: the GeForce FX 5900 family has landed! In fact, the first wave of GeForce FX 5900 cards arrived last week. The eVGA e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card we’re reviewing today was the first GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card to hit the market, although other board partners are putting the finishing touches on their GeForce FX 5900 products as we speak.
With the arrival of GeForce FX 5900 and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, NVIDIA finally has products to service the high-end segment of the 3D graphics market, a sector they’ve been MIA since Fall ’02. NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5800 series was meant to take on this challenge, but product delays slipped it from September ’02 to Q1’03. As we all know by now, the product ultimately never shipped in significant quantities and has now been discontinued. To add insult to injury, NVIDIA has removed all traces of GeForce FX 5800 from its website.
NVIDIA’s engineering team has been quietly working on GeForce FX 5900 all along however, allowing them to bring it online right on schedule. In fact, NVIDIA went into full production on GeForce FX 5900 from first silicon. With ATI’s revised DX9 part, RADEON 9800, making its debut, GeForce FX 5900 couldn’t come soon enough
eVGA is one of ten card manufacturers that will be bringing GeForce FX 5900 cards to market initially. While eVGA is one of the newer card manufacturers overall (founded less than a handful of years ago), their meteoric rise to Tier One board partner status is a pretty remarkable story. But we’re not here to bore you with a company backgrounder; you want to know what makes the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra tick, and fortunately, eVGA has built something special for the hardcore crowd with the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, we’re not looking at a “stock” graphics card here folks.
3D back in the days
If you fast-forward to the late nineties, there were two types of graphics card manufacturers: those who played it safe and stuck with vanilla graphics card offerings, and those who catered to the high-end enthusiast, Canopus being the most popular example of the latter category. These manufacturers would add unique features to their products, running their boards at higher clock speeds, or in the case of Canopus’ Voodoo2-based Pure3D, offering more onboard graphics memory.
Over time the conservative manufacturers won out, their more traditional products were easy to produce and sold in huge bulks, the companies oriented towards enthusiasts just couldn’t match the aggressive pricing of the bigger players and eventually faded away. The golden age of hot-rodded graphics cards from the factory had ended. Or has it?
Fortunately for enthusiasts, more aggressive product offerings are becoming en vogue again. We’re not talking racing stripes and flashy packaging, either. ABIT’s OTES series of graphics cards added an exotic heat pipe cooling solution to NVIDIA’s GeForce4 GPU while Sapphire’s RADEON 9700 PRO Ultimate Edition also uses heat pipe technology to bring silent 3D graphics to the high-end sector. However, the majority of these more striking cards don’t offer any added performance over competing cards based on the same graphics chip. With the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, eVGA aims to change this.
SIDEBAR: eVGA e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Product Webpage
You’re probably fairly familiar with the guts behind eVGA’s e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra so we won’t go into too many details on the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra core. The key highlights are that it boasts a 450MHz core clock frequency and is paired with 256MB of DDR memory. Its predecessor, GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, shipped at a 500MHz core clock frequency with 1GHz DDR2 memory, but since its memory interface was only 128 bits wide it only offered up to 16GB/sec of bandwidth to the GPU.
GeForce FX 5900 Ultra doubles the size of the memory interface to 256 bits, boosting peak memory to 27.2GB/sec; the highest figure in the industry. Since both cards utilize the same four pixel pipeline with two texture units per pixel pipeline (4x2) architecture, GeForce FX 5800 Ultra technically boasts a higher fill rate (thanks to its higher core clock frequency) but with the wider interface and optimizations NVIDIA has made to its pixel shading engine, the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra should offer better overall performance, especially once eye candy features like anti-aliasing and anistotropic filtering are turned on. These visual quality features in particular can consume lots of memory bandwidth.
NVIDIA reduced the clock frequency of GeForce FX 5900 Ultra in an effort to improve manufacturing yields. At 500MHz for the Ultra model, NVIDIA was having a hard time finding chips that could run at that clock speed, and thus full scale production never commenced, many chips would have had to been thrown away, increasing production costs. With its slower 450MHz core, higher yields can be achieved, and thus NVIDIA can keep production costs in check.
NVIDIA has also added its UltraShadow technology for improved performance in games that utilize shadows extensively. When supported by the developer, UltraShadow reduces the workload on the graphics processor by preventing it from rendering regions of the shadow that are unnecessary. Think of it as occlusion culling, but for shadows exclusively.
e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra specs
With the clock speed improvements eVGA has made, the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra should be one of the faster GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards on the market, if not the fastest. You’ll have to read on to see what kind of performance improvement the higher clock speeds bring.
SIDEBAR: To celebrate its four-year anniversary, eVGA will be giving away a GeForce FX card every day in the month of July, including a cash prize of $1,000. Might want to check it out.
This may come as a disappointment to some enthusiasts, as reference boards tend to come with tamer cooling solutions than some of the third party offerings, but with NVIDIA controlling all manufacturing a consistent level of quality is ensured, regardless of the board manufacturer. This practice is also employed by ATI with its high-end offerings.
With that out of the way, what separates the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra “reference” board, from NVIDIA’s official reference design we previewed last month? For starters, the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra board is significantly shorter than NVIDIA’s reference card. You can see that the number of capacitors has been reduced significantly. As a result, the card is 9” long from end-to-end, the same length as GeForce4 Ti 4600 cards. This should make card installation a little easier for those of you with cramped cases. NVIDIA’s feature connector has been removed and eVGA has added their sticker to the cooling unit, other than those changes we’re looking at the same card.
The cooling system itself is a three-piece design; somewhat reminiscent of the cooler NVIDIA has implemented on its Quadro FX 2000 NV30-based cards. One towering heatsink is used to cool the graphics core. The fins on this heatsink are so long in fact that they will consume the first PCI slot in your system; requiring end user’s to keep that space free in order for the graphics card to fit properly. The heatsink responsible for cooling the graphics core is flanked by an equally daunting cooling system for the memory on the top of the card; fins are placed above the memory modules to increase surface area even further. Finally, one large heatsink is used to cool the underside of the graphics card, which includes the other 128MB of DDR memory.
Fortunately the system is effective without being overtly loud (read: GeForce FX 5800 Ultra), and to further reduce noise levels the cooling fan operates dynamically. As temperatures increase, the RPMs spin up. In 2D mode the card is incredibly quiet. At first we weren’t big fans of this system, as we found the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra would actually clock itself below stock speeds in some cases, but with newer driver releases these quirks have been resolved.
Since the AGP card isn’t capable of supplying the card with enough power, GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards will also require an external power connection. Unfortunately eVGA doesn’t include a power cable in the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra packaging, so you will need to feed it directly off the system power supply.
For video encoding, Philips SAA7108AE video encoder/decoder chip is used. This brings video editing duties to the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card. A VIVO cable that comes bundled with the graphics card provides composite and S-Video inputs and outputs.
SIDEBAR: NVIDIA partner Flextronics actually manufactures the cards.
Before we go any further, we’d like to address some of the questions concerning the reliability of the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card, especially since it ships overclocked from the factory. In our testing, the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra performed with the reliability we expect from an NVIDIA-based graphics card, namely it was rock-solid. Early reports from some end user’s indicate problems with 3DMark 03’s CPU tests, but after an entire afternoon devoted solely to running 3DMark 03 tests exclusively, we were unable to produce anything unusual on 875P (P4C800 Deluxe) and nForce2 Ultra 400 (DFI LANPARTY PRO NFII Ultra) platforms, even while the graphics card was overclocked above 500/900MHz! In one case the P4C800 system hung momentarily during CPU test 2, but the system was able to finish the remainder of that test, as well as the synthetic shader and fill rate tests that follow.
Considering that 3DMark’s CPU tests transfer graphics processing to the host CPU, and not the graphics card, we have a strong feeling that the problems being reported are the result of something system-related, and are not caused by the higher clock speeds the eVGA card ships with. The fact that users are running into the same problems at NVIDIA’s default 450/850MHz clock settings (and even lower) support this even further.
One thing all users need to keep in mind is heat. DX9 cards like the RADEON 9800 PRO and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra tend to get pretty toasty under load, much more so than graphics cards of the past. As a result, adequate case ventilation is a must for these cards, even at default clock speeds. Personally, we feel heat is the most likely culprit of most end user’s problems.
NVIDIA and ATI both recommend beefy power supplies as well, but remember as we highlighted in Alan’s power supply guide, it’s not about the overall size of your power source, but the amount of power on each rail. Many of today’s latest power supplies shipping with some cases weren’t built to supply the power needs of today’s Athlon XP and Pentium 4 processors.
eVGA ships the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra with the full retail versions of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, nVDVD 2.0, PowerDirector 2.1, a collection of NVIDIA technology demos, and a copy of America’s Army. For less experienced computer users, eVGA has its own custom Automated Driver Management (ADM) software, which walks the end user through driver installation.
This feature starts off by detecting the chipset your motherboard is based on. Once it has determined your chipset, it then scans to see if the AGP (GART) driver for your chipset has been installed. If it hasn’t, ADM will automatically install it for you. Finally, ADM will look for any traces of older graphics drivers that may be remaining in the OS, if it finds them, it will remove them. Once this step is complete, the NVIDIA Detonator driver is installed.
The real beauty of ADM is how seamlessly it’s tied to the graphics driver installation, if you didn’t look closely, you probably wouldn’t realize it was there. And by ensuring that your AGP driver is installed, ADM addresses one area that is often overlooked. As anyone who is experienced in PC troubleshooting can tell you, poor performance and stability are the frequent result of not having the GART driver for your chipset installed. eVGA does need to update their driver set however, as the current CD is limited to Intel’s 4.0 INF, the latest version is up to 5.0.
SIDEBAR: Remember, all vertex processing in the 3DMark CPU tests are performed by the CPU, not GPU. Even the fastest Athlon XP and Pentium 4 processors aren’t natively designed to handle this, hence the lower frame rates you see in CPU test 1 (192 vs. 73 in the first screenshot)
Nascar Racing 2003 Season (custom demo)
We decided to create a more stressful demo for this go-round, we’re now at the Richmond Raceway complex, the “action-track” as its known in NASCAR circles. Instead of conducting a test session, the new demo also is now a complete race with the full field. This is a little more stressful than the previous demo, as it was conducted on an empty Daytona track during sunset. We used the same settings as before, namely all visual quality settings were set on "high" except for mirror quality (medium) and pit crews (low). We used a drawing distance of 70% while all options were checked except for specular highlights.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
We’re still using The Black Death track in IL2:FB, although after a quick tip from a reader (thanks Robert!), we’re now recording at the five second mark rather than the very beginning. In this benchmark we continue to see the eVGA and reference GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards battle it out at the top, with the eVGA only pulling ahead at 1600x1200. At that resolution, the reference card is locked up with ATI’s RADEON 9800 PRO 128MB. Both cards trail the eVGA card by 5% however.
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
If you recall our article from earlier this week, we used an in-house demo in Serious Sam 2, taken from “The Pit” map. For today’s article, we decided to make a new custom demo on the map “Elephant Atrium”, which has been used in the past for all of our reviews. As you can see, the results are dramatically different, with the GeForce FX cards now back on top (we also ran this same demo on the P4C800 system with the same end result, although the margins are closer). The frame rates were higher with this new demo than Pit, so we decided to run our scores with AA and AF enabled.
Quake III - High Quality
Likewise, for Q3 we decided to make another custom demo based on the Q3DM7 map, which has been used in the past for all of our review scores. This time around, the trends remain the same as what we saw earlier this week, with RADEON cards coming out ahead (with the exception of the eVGA card). Like the Serious Sam demo we made, this new demo is less stressful than the demo we used earlier, as Q3DM7 is a much larger map than Q3DM1, hence the higher frame rates.
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Our UT results are similar to the trends we saw earlier this week, but keep in mind that we’re not running a custom demo here.
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
We’re using the same custom demo we recorded earlier this week for this test, although we’ll probably be adding another demo to the suite to test with shortly. Right now we’re still debating on which map to use from Splinter Cell. In any case, the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is once again able to come out ahead thanks to its higher clock frequencies. Although it really doesn’t begin to outpace the other cards until 1600x1200.
While the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra’s higher core clock frequency allows it to gain some ground on the RADEON 9800 PRO card in Nascar 2003, it still isn’t enough, as the 9800 PRO is ahead from 1024x768 and up. We clearly see the higher clock speeds come into play once AA and AF are cranked on, we’ll probably test in this mode only in Nascar 2003 going forward.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
NotesWhile the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards are able to pull of the crown in this test, keep in mind that ATI's 4xAA setting is doing significantly more work than the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, resulting in better image quality. The higher clock speeds of the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra allow it pull ahead of the reference GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card slightly but we're looking at less than 2 fps.
UPDATE: Earlier we incorrectly reported the score for the RADEON 9700 PRO as 25 frames per second at 1600x1200x32, accidentally copying the score from 1280x1024x32. The actual frame rate was recorded to be 17.4 frames per second, we're sorry for the confusion this has caused and the graph has been updated accordingly.
SIDEBAR: Well, with basketball season over, the annual sports dry period has begun.
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Quake 3 High Quality
Performance: Whenever you’re dealing with a card based on the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, you know it’s going to be a performer. Performance against ATI’s latest and greatest is really neck-and-neck, with each card winning its fair share of benchmarks. In the grand scheme of things, both cards are more than capable of handling all of today’s newest games, it’s performance with next generation titles that’s still up for debate.
Price: At $500+, the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is by no means inexpensive. You can purchase a processor, motherboard, and memory before you touch the price of the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra!
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