Summary: Remember the GeForce FX 5900 Value that was announced back in May? Well, just recently it has quietly arrived, and it has a new name -- GeForce FX 5900 XT! Today we take a look at eVGA's GeForce FX 5900 XT card, the e-GeForce FX 5900 SE. Not only does this card boast new specs, NVIDIA and a group of its 5900 XT board partners are launching a special promotional bundle just for the holidays: inside the box is a free copy of Call of Duty! See what we think of this card and the 5900 XT core it's based on in today's review!
Normally when ATI or NVIDIA launches a new product, they’re quick to spread word of its impending arrival. A slurry of PDFs and technology briefs are sent out, briefings with the media are conducted, and finally, on launch day, you update your website with the related press release(s) and product information. Perhaps you’ll even throw a launch party.
A little over a month ago however, NVIDIA defied this traditional formula with the stealth launch of its GeForce FX 5900 XT graphics core. “GeForce FX 5900 XT” you say? I’ve never heard of that! That’s because NVIDIA never officially announced its arrival, but if you’ve been following Price Watch recently, you’ve probably noticed the recent addition of several $200 GeForce FX 5900 128MB listings. These are all video cards powered by GeForce FX 5900 XT graphics technology.
It turns out that NVIDIA has been quietly shipping these products right under ATI’s nose. Now NVIDIA and its board partners have decided to up the ante one more time, just in time for the holiday shopping season. Not only are these cards officially priced at $200, board manufacturers BFG, eVGA, MSI, PNY, Gainward, Leadtek, XFX, and Gigabyte will all be offering these cards with a free copy of Activision’s latest shooter, Call of Duty, a $50 value, right inside the box. How’s that for a holiday surprise!
As a result of the introduction of the GeForce FX 5900 XT, NVIDIA is essentially bringing the technology found in its flagship product down to the $200 price point -- it’s the GeForce4 Ti 4200 all over again! Since the Ti 4200 was replaced by the GeForce FX 5600 Ultra earlier this year, NVIDIA followers have been looking for a card that recaptures its spirit. The revised GeForce FX 5600 Ultra never really took off due to delays and high pricing.
With the GeForce FX 5900 XT however, NVIDIA is hoping to make the GeForce4 Ti 4200 a distant memory. While at the same time, its name sounds awfully similar to ATI’s latest products. And to add insult to injury, the “SE” designation eVGA uses for its GeForce FX 5900 XT card is just too purposeful to be dismissed as a mere coincidence. With all the letters in the alphabet, surely someone could have come up with a different combination. Considering that this card is the long awaited GeForce FX 5900 Value, certainly the “5900V” designation would have sufficed. Oh well, let’s take a look at what NVIDIA has on tap for the GeForce FX 5900 XT.
SIDEBAR: eVGA e-GeForce FX 5900 SE Product Webpage
GeForce FX 5900 Value gets a name
When the GeForce FX 5900 Value was first announced, rumors were swirling over what features this chip would support. Probably the most popular report was that the memory interface was being sliced in half, to 128-bits total. This would have the effect of starving the GeForce FX 5900 core, as it would only have half its memory bandwidth (13.6GB/sec assuming 850MHz memory frequency). As a result, the 5900 Value would have less memory bandwidth than NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5700 Ultra – clearly this wouldn’t make much sense.
Therefore, the 256-bit memory interface present on more senior GeForce FX 5900 variants remains on the GeForce FX 5900 XT (Value). In order to reduce manufacturing costs however, NVIDIA has replaced the 2.2 nanosecond memory with 2.8 nanosecond modules. This memory is rated for operation at 700MHz, which is the speed NVIDIA has chosen for the 5900 XT. This reduces peak memory bandwidth to 22.4GB/sec, 4.8GB/sec shy of the GeForce FX 5900 128MB. Surprisingly enough, this figure matches the RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB, and bests the 128MB RADEON 9800 PRO by 600MB/sec. In other words, this figure still isn’t bad for a “value” card.
In addition, to help boost performance, the 2.8ns memory modules NVIDIA’s 5900 XT board partners utilize run at lower latencies than the 2.2ns modules used on the GeForce FX 5900 and 5900 Ultra. If you’ve ever lowered the latency on your system RAM (via your motherboard’s BIOS), you know that this change increases performance. As you’ll see in our performance results, this allows the 5900 XT to run neck-and-neck with the GeForce FX 5900 128MB in many of our benchmarks.
The GeForce FX 5900 XT’s core remains unchanged from the GeForce FX 5900 128MB. The core clock frequency is still 400MHz, equating to a peak texel fill rate of 3.2Gigatexels/second, which is higher than the RADEON 9800 PRO and just shy of the RADEON 9800 XT. Obviously traditional metrics like memory bandwidth and fill rate don’t tell the whole story anymore, but it’s an impressive figure nonetheless.
It’s also interesting to note that while NVIDIA borrows ATI’s naming conventions for the GeForce FX 5900 XT core and the GeForce FX 5900 SE cards that are based on it, this is not a crippled graphics card like ATI’s “SE” series, which are often stripped down models with narrower memory interfaces or half their pixel pipelines disabled. The GeForce FX 5900 XT boasts all the features of the other 5900 GPUs, including such goodies as UltraShadow. This is what we like to call “a good thing”.
To coincide with the release of the GeForce FX 5900 XT, NVIDIA launched its Detonator 53.03 driver set last week, but actually, NVIDIA’s board partners provided 53.03 a month prior for use with their GeForce FX 5900 XT cards, which were already shipping to retail channels.
As you can see in the pictures, eVGA’s e-GeForce FX 5900 SE board design (which is based entirely on NVIDIA’s reference board) is a radical departure from the other cards in the GeForce FX 5900 series. In fact, at first glance some enthusiasts may mistake it for a GeForce FX 5600 Ultra board, which it shares several traits with.
For starters, you’ve got the same heatsink/fan cooling the GeForce FX 5900 XT graphics core. NVIDIA probably had quite a few of these on hand for the revised GeForce FX 5600 Ultra, but with these cards shipping much later than expected and the arrival of the GeForce FX 5700 family (which replaces GeForce FX 5600) these coolers were able to find a new home on the 5900 XT. To keep the board’s memory cool, NVIDIA added conventional aluminum heatsinks to the board.
Another characteristic the GeForce FX 5900 XT shares with the GeForce FX 5600 Ultra is the power connector. Unlike other GeForce FX 5900 variants, NVIDIA orients the GeForce FX 5900 XT’s power connector parallel with the edge of the PCB, rather than perpendicular. This is something we’ve been griping about for quite some time as the orientation on previous 5900s consumes more cable and makes installation in small form factor PCs more difficult, so we’re glad to see it fixed with the GeForce FX 5900 XT.
With all these common characteristics however, the GeForce FX 5900 XT is not based on the 5600 Ultra PCB. The 5900 XT’s design is built to supply the graphics core with more power, as you can see with all the additional capacitors located behind the DVI and VGA connectors. But at the same time, we aren’t looking at a PCB that’s as complicated as a 5700 Ultra or GeForce FX 5900. The board itself is also slightly longer than 5600 Ultra, but shorter than 5700 Ultra or GeForce FX 5900/5900 Ultra.
All of this is critical for keeping the board’s manufacturing cost in check (remember, we’re dealing with a $200 graphics card here), while at the same time building a board that’s sufficient to meet the power and thermal needs of the GeForce FX 5900 XT core and its accompanying 350MHz (700MHz effective) DDR memory.
With its more expensive PCB and DDR2 memory, we’d guess (and remember, this is a guess) that the GeForce FX 5900 XT may actually be cheaper to produce than GeForce FX 5700 Ultra. This would also explain why many of NVIDIA’s board partners are currently experiencing shortages of 5700 Ultra parts, while the 5900 XT is readily available.
As you can see, NVIDIA has also adopted Silicon Image’s Sil 1162 DVI transmitter, which is available in a smaller TSOP package than previous transmitters NVIDIA has used. The board can also support video encoding via an optional Philips encoder chip which eVGA has decided not to implement. This isn’t surprising, considering this is a card that’s intended to serve the mainstream market at a particular price point. We’ll probably have to wait for the second generation of GeForce FX 5900 XT cards before we see video input support adopted.
Hardware accessories included with the e-GeForce FX 5900 SE are an S-Video cable and DVI adapter. We’d really like to see eVGA include a power adapter in the bundle, as some end users may be running short on available power connections, but eVGA’s automated driver management (ADM) utility is a nice tool for less experienced computer users that’s included in the box and is unique to eVGA. ADM checks to make sure you’ve installed your AGP GART and system chipset drivers before installing the graphics driver. If this isn’t in place, ADM installs it for you. These drivers can have a significant impact on your system’s stability and performance if they aren’t in place, so this is an important feature for newbies.
Call of Duty (custom demo)
Nascar 2003: OpenGL
Despite its slower memory, the GeForce FX 5900 XT core powering the e-GeForce FX 5900 SE is able to remain close with GeForce FX 5900 (and actually outgun it slightly at 1600x1200) in NASCAR Racing 2003. With its advanced physics engine, this game isn’t quite as graphics-bound as other benches in our test suite though.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB: OpenGL
In IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles, we see the RADEON 9800, GeForce FX 5900, and GeForce FX 5900 XT all within a slim margin of one another – you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between any of these cards. This game, like NASCAR Racing 2003 before it, has an incredible amount of physics calculations for the CPU to process, which holds graphics performance back. There’s also a lot going on in the track we test with, as a group of fighters attack a ground convoy and airbase, while others provide air support.
Quake III - OpenGL
In Quake 3 we’re finally able to see a little separation between the GeForce FX 5900 and GeForce FX 5900 XT. Thanks to its superior memory bandwidth, the GeForce FX 5900 is able to come out on top (by up to 7% at high resolutions) over the GeForce FX 5900 XT, which is able to overtake the RADEON 9800 thanks to the new 53.03 driver.
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
The margin between the GeForce FX 5900 and GeForce FX 5900 XT closes up a little in Unreal Tournament 2003 with 4x anti-aliasing turned on. We’re looking at just over 3% at 1280x1024. Meanwhile, we saw a performance decline with ForceWare 53.03, which allows the RADEON 9800 to take the lead over both cards.
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
We were surprised to see so little of a difference between the GeForce FX 5900 XT and GeForce FX 5900 in Tomb Raider, we’re looking at a 1 fps difference here, performance is indistinguishable. It goes without saying that the RADEON 9800 performs well here though.
Call of Duty
Based on what we saw in Quake 3, it was no surprise to see the same trends hold up in Call of Duty. GeForce FX 5900 128MB holds an edge here, but at just 5% at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200, it’s a slight one.
Call of Duty 4xAA 8xAF
Unreal Tournament 2003
Unreal Tournament 2003
GeForce FX 5900 XT core: Despite the early rumors regarding GeForce FX 5900 Value, NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 XT GPU is not a crippled graphics core. In fact it boasts all the features of the more senior GeForce FX 5900 chips, including their 256-bit memory interface. And since the core clock remains at 400MHz, fill rate is identical with the GeForce FX 5900 128MB.
GeForce FX 5900 128MB: The GeForce FX 5900 128MB runs a hair faster than the GeForce FX 5900 XT overall, so if you already own a copy of Call of Duty, or just don’t care for the first-person shooter genre, you may want to pick this card up or the RADEON 9800 128MB (assuming you’re lucky enough to still find one of the $200 Circuit City cards).
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