NVIDIA GeForce FX5900 Ultra 28th June 2003
The GeForce FX 5800 (NV30) range have been around for a few months now but have only recently become available in quantity. This has co-incided with the release by Nvidia of their GeForce FX 5900 (NV35) displacing them from the top spot. Now that there is a higher range above them and they are being mass produced, both factors which will bring the price of the NV30 down we though it was about time we reviewed one of these cards. The review we are bringing you today is of the NVIDIA GeForce FX5900 Ultra which is the fastest card in the NV35 range.
Here are the manufacturers specifications:
The use of DDR rather than the more expensive DDRII memory means a slightly lower clock speed than its predecessor but a 256-bit memory bus like the Radeon 9800 Pro - something which we believe has held back the NV30 range of cards. A number of other improvements have been made such as more efficient color compression during FSAA.
On the left we have Nvidia's GeForce FX 5900 Ultra which you can see is considerably larger than the ASUS V9900 Ultra on the right. They both take up the PCI slot closest to the AGP slot but the newer 5900 doesn't use the back plate for air intake/venting. We prefer the alignment of the molex socket on the V9900 Ultra as it involves less stretching of cables. The heatsink is even bigger but is no longer an enclosed unit and works like other graphics card coolers. In operation the card is a lot quieter than the NV30 counterpart and finally acceptable to our ears.
Here we can see why two slots are taken up by the card. The V9900 Ultra takes air directly from the intake at the back and exhausts hot air from the outlet. Having the intake and outlet so close together is a crazy design from an aerodynamic point of view with a lot of the hot air exhausted being sucked right back in. Nvidia would have been a lot better off with having just an intake or an exhaust but not both. We think Nvidia have realized this and their new cards use a conventional approach to cooling. Having said that the cooler is still large enough to take up an extra slot as can be seen in the above picture. We found that despite the return to a traditional form of cooling the 5900 Ultra ran much cooler than the noisier 5800 Ultra.
We used our standard test system based around AMDs Athlon XP3200+ which is the fastest CPU we have. Clicking on the image above will give full details of the system. The most noticeable thing about the card was that it no longer made noise when in 3D mode which was akin to a vacuum cleaner. The situation has improved since the first incarnation of the FX 5800 and the noise is barely audible in normal (non-3D) use which is a big improvement. We compared the FX 5900 Ultra with the ASUS V9900 Ultra pictured above and a Ti4400 (no picture needed as they have been around for a while now).
the most important 3D benchmark and a good score is achieved beating any other
card so far.
V9900 Ultra is almost as fast as the GeForce FX5900 Ultra and a big step up
from the Ti4400. The performance will increase after Nvidia optimizes their
drivers, as it did for the NV30 cards.
A very good
score thanks in part to Nvidia's latest optimized drivers.
The architectural improvements since the GeForce4 are so obvious the FX5900 Ultra is actually three and a half times faster than the Ti4400 but only two percent above the NV30 card. Again, look to early drivers being the cause.
We like this benchmark and prefer it over Quake 3 (once you get over 400 FPS in Quake 3 it's difficult to have a meaningful comparison). When Doom 3 and Half Life 2 come out we'll see the cards weep but until then we can only really stress them by using high resolutions and/or 4x full scene anti-aliasing. Here we can see that any of the three cards are quite capable of handling this benchmark.
change when we engage 4x FSAA to improve quality. The Ti4400 takes quite a hit
at the higher resolutions whereas the NV30/35 cards don't suffer as much. The
V9900 Ultra is actually faster at the lower resolutions but this is probably due
to lack of driver optimization for the FX5900 Ultra. The FX5900 Ultra gains
quite a lead at the higher resolutions because of the extra memory bandwidth
The actual botmatch figures show the game is playable at any resolution with any of the cards.
Things change with 4x FSAA and only the NV30/35 cards are really running at an acceptable speed at the highest resolution. Again the V9900 Ultra is ahead in the lower resolutions of the more expensive FX 5900 Ultra but falls seriously behind a higher resolutions. Look for this trend to become more pronounced with the next driver release.
This test is designed to stress the cards by throwing lots of polygons at them. Standard settings were used but 4x FSAA was selected from the display settings rather than the applications to ensure it was active.
There isn't much between the NV30 and NV35 cards.
Switching to 4x FSAA really stresses the cards and the NV35 pulls ahead. None of the cards could complete the higher resolution tests without the application crashing. This is due to a bug in the benchmark which is getting a little long in the tooth.
The settings used for this test were as follows:
Which yielded the following results:
As expected there is little difference between the cards (still waiting for Doom 3 to sort the wheat from the chaff).
The GeForce FX5900 Ultra retakes the performance crown from ATI thanks primarily to a new memory architecture and some other improvements. It shows that Nvidia is determined to stay at the top and that they are willing to listen to customer criticisms. Gone is the poorly designed sealed cooling system of the NV30 which was badly designed from an aerodynamic point of view. Gone too is the noise and the NV35 cards are no longer noisier than their competitors.
Should people upgrade to the FX5900 Ultra? That depends on your goals. If money is no object then definitely. That will ensure future proofing for some time. If you are budget conscious but need something that will play future games with all the eye candy turned on (roll on Doom 3 and Half Life 2) then there are more modest cards in the NV35 line-up on their way. Alternatively if you can live with the noise, the FX5800 Ultra is bound to come down quickly in price now that it has been superceded, perhaps making it an attractive buy. Those who tend to play strategy games and think they do not need 3D power should look at games like Medieval: Total war where a Ti4400 struggles in larger battles.
Basically it would be unwise to buy a Ti4400 / Radeon 9000 as an upgrade unless your budget will allow nothing fancier and it may quickly become obsolete if DirectX 9 features start becoming standard in games. The GeForce FX5900 gives the best performance currently available albeit at a price.
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All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.