Summary: With over 100GB/sec of memory bandwidth on tap, and 128 stream processors running in tandem at 1.5GHz, NVIDIA's GeForce 8800 Ultra redefines the words high performance. See what's been changed in this new GPU and how it performs in today's article!
Over the years NVIDIA has used a wide range of letter combinations and words to designate their products. For instance, many NVIDIA enthusiasts on a budget have flocked to NVIDIA’s “GT” line, starting with the GeForce 6800 GT and a few months later, the GeForce 6600 GT. Both of these cards dominated their respective segments of the graphics market thanks to their extraordinary combination of price/performance. The GeForce 6800 GT delivered roughly 90% of the performance of NVIDIA’s flagship Ultra card, but at a substantially lower price, while the 6600 GT offered performance superior to the previous generation of high-end DX9 cards like the Radeon 9700/9800 Pro with the addition of shader model 3.0 and a $200 price tag.
While the GT has represented price/performance, the Ultra line has historically been NVIDIA’s flagship graphics card. It’s the card for the gamer who craves the fastest graphics board money can buy. NVIDIA has a history of Ultra cards dating all the way back to the TNT2 Ultra days eight years ago. These cards are the exact opposite of being good values though, with price tags that have always been high, but that hasn’t stopped NVIDIA from producing them, and people from buying them: if you asked the average enthusiast, they’d probably tell you the last thing NVIDIA needs right now is a higher-end GeForce 8800 card, but here we are anyway.
Born out of the need to compete with the perceived threat of ATI’s upcoming R600 GPU, the GeForce 8800 Ultra isn’t an all-new graphics chip, it’s actually based largely on the same G80 GPU that’s already been inside the GeForce 8800 GTX and GeForce 8800 GTS lines for the past 6 months now. Let’s take a look at the specs:
As you can see, the GeForce 8800 Ultra shares the same basic architectural features as the GeForce 8800 GTX – its got the same number of transistors, the same 384-bit memory interface with 768MB of memory, and the same number of stream processors, the only difference lies in the clock speeds and max power consumption. Thanks to its tweaked 90-nm manufacturing process, the GPU actually consumes slightly less power than the GTX according to NVIDIA. NVIDIA isn’t saying much on what’s changed with their revised 90-nm process, only that they’ve developed a new silicon revision specifically for the GeForce 8800 Ultra that has been designed to improve the clocks while keeping power to a minimum. On the performance side, the stream processors are clocked 10% faster, while memory bandwidth jumps 20% to over 100GB/sec.
Unfortunately the video portion in GeForce 8800 Ultra carries over unchanged: the GeForce 8800 Ultra uses the same PureVideo HD video processing engine currently used in today’s GeForce 8800 cards. GeForce 8600/8500 GPUs feature a newer video processor that offloads more video functions, including performing full H.264 decoding.
NVIDIA has come up with a revised cooling unit for the new card however. On the next page we’ll take a look at the thermals of the new GeForce 8800 Ultra card…
On the surface the GeForce 8800 Ultra looks nothing like the GeForce 8800 GTX at first glance, but under the hood the two cards are quite similar. There are the obvious similarities such as the dual-slot cooling, dual power connections, and two SLI connectors on the top of the card, but the two cards share even more in common than these traits.
As far as we can tell, NVIDIA uses the exact same 10.5” PCB and general board layout and design. All the board level components are largely the same and located in all the same places. Even the card’s blower-style fan is the same. This is important, as the fan NVIDIA employs on the GeForce 8800 line is widely considered to be one of the quietest, if not the quietest in the industry.
NVIDIA has slightly tinkered with the board’s combination heat pipe/heatsink cooler though. As you can see, NVIDIA employs a larger ducting unit for keeping the graphics core and memory cool. To increase the effectiveness of the card’s fan, NVIDIA has elevated the position of the fan so it sits higher on the board. This gives the fan more room to channel air across the GPU, and ultimately outside the system case.
We ran a few quick benches to test the effectiveness of NVIDIA’s new cooler. We were curious to see how effective the changes NVIDIA has employed were:
Based on the above figures, it does look like the new cooler helped keep temps down. Under load the GeForce 8800 Ultra ran hotter than the stock GeForce 8800 GTX card, but ran cooler than the factory overclocked boards from EVGA and XFX, which are clocked closer to the speeds of the GeForce 8800 Ultra. It is a very slight difference though, with only three degrees Celsius separating the boards from one another.
In terms of connectivity, the GeForce 8800 Ultra features two dual-link DVIs and supports HDCP. Unfortunately however, like G80 and previous G70-based GPUs before it, the GeForce 8800 Ultra doesn’t support HDCP over dual-link, this feature is only supported by the GeForce 8600 GTS.
Company of Heroes 1.3
3DMark 06 – Direct3D
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 Lost Coast – Direct3D
Company of Heroes – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
STALKER – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
In the case of the original GeForce 8800 GTX, the GeForce 8800 Ultra represents a nice boost in performance. Thanks to its higher clocks, the GeForce 8800 Ultra ran anywhere from 6-13% faster than the GeForce 8800 GTX in our testing. The exact amount varies depending on the game being tested and the resolution, in our experience Oblivion saw the greatest margin in favor of the GeForce 8800 Ultra, at 1600x1200 the GeForce 8800 Ultra ran 13% faster than the stock GeForce 8800 GTX in the mountains area, although under the more graphically-demanding foliage area the margins in favor of the GeForce 8800 Ultra were much smaller – just 7% at the same resolution in foliage. The GeForce 8800 Ultra also ran 12% faster than the GTX in Company of Heroes at 1920x1200, and we also saw double-digit gains in favor of the Ultra board in Quake and F.E.A.R. at high resolutions.
For the most part, we only saw gains in the high single digits (6-9%) everywhere else, including Far Cry with HDR+AA enabled as well as the 16xCSAA and 8xMSAA modes. Under these higher levels of AA, only F.E.A.R. managed to hit double digits of 10%, although here we did limit our testing to just one resolution, 1600x1200, perhaps at higher resolutions where memory bandwidth becomes even more important the Ultra may pull away a little further. It probably wouldn’t be much though.
This is because the Ultra represents a fairly small bump over the GeForce 8800 GTX. Memory bandwidth is up 20% over the GTX, while the stream processors are 10% faster and the core clock frequency is only 6% faster. Everywhere else the chip is basically the same from a pure performance perspective: you’ve got the same number of shaders and the same 384-bit memory interface as the GeForce 8800 GTX.
Because of this, factory overclocked GeForce 8800 GTX boards like the EVGA e-GeForce 8800 GTX KO ACS3 we tested perform practically neck-and-neck with the GeForce 8800 Ultra. We also ran some limited tests with XFX’s GeForce 8800 GTX XXX Edition and saw similar results. These GTX boards, which are clocked much higher than the stock GeForce 8800 GTX represent the greatest threat to the GeForce 8800 Ultra in our opinion: they deliver roughly the same levels of performance but cost significantly less than NVIDIA’s $830 MSRP for the GeForce 8800 Ultra. There’s just no reason to spend the extra $150+ for the Ultra unless you really just want the latest and greatest.
Of course, keep in mind that the GeForce 8800 Ultra we’re looking at today represents the baseline in GeForce 8800 Ultra performance. There’s nothing stopping NVIDIA’s board partners from producing factory a overclocked GeForce 8800 Ultra card, in fact, many of NVIDIA’s board partners plan to do just that at some point. The exact details on which SKUs and clock speeds for these factory OC’ed Ultra boards will be announced at a later date. We’ve been told that retail GeForce 8800 Ultra cards should begin hitting shelves on or before May 15th giving board partners a few more weeks to get their Ultra SKUs lined up.
We still wouldn’t be surprised if the factory overclocked GTX cards delivered a better price/performance ratio though. It’s just really hard to justify spending an extra $180 or more for such slim gains.
ATI’s R600 is still MIA, although it looks like it will be making its debut shortly. Unfortunately we can’t elaborate on the performance of this GPU any more than that just yet, but we’ll have plenty to say on the subject soon.
Until then, the GeForce 8800 Ultra is NVIDIA’s fastest new GPU, just keep in mind that it isn’t quite as significant an increase as some may have hoped for. Still though, 6-13% is nothing to scoff at, especially considering that NVIDIA’s got the world’s fastest GPU already. Is it truly worthy of the "Ultra" desingation? In stock form, probably not. But we're hoping that in the next few weeks NVIDIA can work with their board partners on getting some highly overclocked GeForce 8800 Ultra boards out the door that are truly worthy of the Ultra name.
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