Old Lamps for New: Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX Review

Nvidia GeForce 9 graphics card family keeps getting new members. Today we are going t talk about Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX from Gainward – a graphics accelerator that tends to be the fastest single-chip solution today, but which is not that very much different from a well-known GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. Is it worth the $349 they ask for it? Let’s find out!

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
05/06/2008 | 05:24 PM

Nvidia has long been virtually unrivalled in the sector of above-$200 single-chip solutions thanks to its G92 graphics core. This GPU proved to be a very lucky solution, being the heart of a whole family of graphics cards, from the rather inexpensive GeForce 8800 GT to the monstrous GeForce 9800 GX2.

 

The fastest G92-based solution is the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS 512 graphics card which is capable of competing with the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX, the flagship product based on the previous G80 core. But after the release of the GeForce 9800 GX2 there appeared a gap between the $249-299 and $599-649 sectors where Nvidia didn’t have any product to offer whereas ATI had its dual-chip Radeon HD 3870 X2 priced at $399-449. And the company decided to fill in that niche and add another product into the GeForce 9 line-up.

Nvidia has introduced the GeForce 9800 GTX graphics card, which is based on the G92 chip with all its subunits enabled and its frequencies slightly increased relative to those of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. Bringing no innovations, except for 3-way SLI and SLI HybridPower technologies, the new card makes the GeForce series even more confusing to the customer.

Nvidia GeForce 8: Eight Products under One Number

A rather weak competition on the AMD side since the very moment AMD bought ATI Technologies up in October 2006, and the lucky G80 chip changed the discrete graphics market as well as Nvidia’s policy on it.

With no alternatives in the above-$599 sector Nvidia didn’t cut the price of its GeForce 8800 GTX but introduced the GeForce 8800 Ultra for $849. And instead of correcting the pricing of its GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB (G80) cards after the introduction of ATI Radeon HD 2900-series, the developer was waiting for many months to release the completely new G92 graphics processing unit (GPU) to fill in the price sectors from $199 to $649. This plan was successful, but the product nomenclature is now a perfect mess.

At the time of the G80 core there was an orderly graphics card line-up including GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB, GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB and GeForce 8800 GTX, and later complemented with GeForce 8800 Ultra. It was easy for the customer to choose the fastest or a medium-speed model.

However, Nvidia did not put a new model number, e.g. GeForce 8900 or GeForce 9800, on all the G92-based products, which would have been logical. As a result, the GeForce 8800 nomenclature got very confusing: the G92-based models were faster than the G80-based ones, but you couldn’t tell that from their names. Thus, the GeForce 8800 GT 512MB was faster than the GeForce 8800 GTS 320 and 640MB whereas the GeForce 8800 GT 256MB was slower than the latter. The GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, released somewhat later, competed not with the older GTS-indexed models but with the more advanced GeForce 8800 GTX.

Finally, Nvidia realized that having 8 different models selling under the same model number was not right. The company announced the next generation, GeForce 9.

Nvidia GeForce 9: New Name, Old Capabilities

The GeForce 9 series began with the GeForce 9600 GT 512MB graphics card based on the G94 processor. It proved to be quite a good product. As we noted in our reviews, it was faster than the GeForce 8800 GT 256MB and occasionally than the more expensive GeForce 8800 GT 512MB. This made it even more confusing for the customer because all the three cards are available today at prices from $150 to $200.

The second product and the flagship in the GeForce 9 series is the GeForce 9800 GX2 1GB graphics card with two G92 chips on board. Traditionally, a new flagship must deliver higher performance than a previous one, and that was true thanks to optimizations in the ForceWare driver for two GPUs in AFR modes.

The last announced product in the new series was the above-mentioned GeForce 9800 GTX 512MB based on the G92 chip. Having slightly higher frequencies than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, the new card acquired support for 3-way SLI and SLI HybridPower technologies and a 27-centimeter 12-layer PCB with two PCI Express power connectors.

Although the number 9 in the series name implies some new capabilities, the GeForce 9800 GTX and GX2 cards do not actually differ on the hardware level from the GeForce 8800 GT 256MB, 8800 GT 512MB, and 8800 GTS 512MB because all of them are based on the G92 chip. The latter has only one significant difference from the G80 (the heart of the first generation of GeForce 8800 cards) in the user’s eyes: a more advanced video-processor that supports hardware decoding of HD video encoded in H.264 and VC-1 formats and post-processing of HD video.

Although the GeForce 8 and 9 series have identical capabilities, the GPU developer’s support of his products may be a significant factor for the user. The latest official GeForce 8 WHQL driver for Windows Vista 32 was released on the 20th of December, 2007. The latest WHQL driver for GeForce 9 became available on the 1st of April, 2008. Nvidia doesn’t update drivers for an older series after a new series is released, so the lack of up-to-date drivers for GeForce 8 is not a surprise.

Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX 512MB: Specifications

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The new card differs from the previous best G92-based product in two parameters: higher GPU and memory frequencies and two SLI connectors. This makes it a successor to the GeForce 8800 GTX which used to support 3-way SLI configurations. The new card is indeed positioned as such. The rest of differences concern the design of the card and will be described in the appropriate section of this review.

The GeForce 9800 GTX comes at a recommended price of $349 which puts it in between the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 ($399-449) and GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB ($249-299). Is it really worth its price? We’ll check this out using a Gainward Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB which is a copy of Nvidia’s reference sample. The GeForce 9800 GTX is likely to be pre-overclocked or equipped with a liquid cooling system, but not modified in any other way in near future. We’ll explain this shortly. Right now let’s check out the packaging and accessories of the Gainward card.

Closer Look at Gainward Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB

Package and Accessories

This box may be familiar to you by our reviews of other products from Gainward, e.g. Bliss 9600 GT 512MB GS or Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB GS GLH.

It is a standard-size box with a picture of a girl against a background of mountains. This design may not be eye-catching, yet it’s quite pleasing aesthetically.

Inside the main box there is a smaller one that contains the graphics card in a blister wrap. The remaining space is occupied by the accessories:

Not gorgeous accessories, we should confess. The only good thing about them is the copy of Tomb Raider: Anniversary. There is no power adapter (2xMolex → 1x6-pin PCI Express) here although not all modern PSUs offer two cables for graphics cards.

The things you need to use the Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB in a multimedia system are also missing. We mean a DVI-I → HDMI adapter, an internal or external S/PDIF cable, and software for playing HD content. Of course, the Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB is a top-performance gaming card in the first place, yet the mentioned accessories would make it more appealing to the customer especially as this solution seems to be the flagship single-chip product from Gainward. The company might have followed its own example in the way of the Bliss 8800 GT 1024MB GS which came with every accessory you might ever need (excepting the outdated version of the CyberLink PowerDVD player).

The packaging is good overall, but we guess the design might be rejuvenated. Currently, all products from Gainward have the same picture on the box. It would be nice to have some variation here. Now it’s time to have a look at the graphics card proper. It is no different from Nvidia’s reference card, so everything we say about it refers to any other GeForce 9800 GTX until there appear versions of this card designed differently from the reference sample.

PCB Design

Nvidia developed a new unified PCB design for the G92-based graphics card series. The PCB is shorter than the one used for the GeForce 8800 GTX which solves the problem of installation into small system cases like the Antec NSK1380, making it possible to build very compact yet very advanced gaming stations that are as fast as systems built in full-size ATX cases. The PCB is so compact because the developer has abandoned the 384-bit memory bus that made the wiring so sophisticated and has transitioned to a thinner tech process which makes the G92 more economical than the G80.

However, Nvidia seems to have had a fit of gigantism when designing its GeForce 9800 GTX. The new card is the same size as the GeForce 8800 GTX. This cannot be explained easily. We know of many models of GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB with the same specs that have a short PCB. Gainward has also released a version with 1024MB of graphics memory that is superior to the GeForce 9800 GTX in every parameter except for the memory frequency (and the difference is as small as 50 (100) MHz). All of those cards were perfectly stable delivering highest performance under harsh conditions of our tests. There was no real need to return to the era of GeForce 8800 GTX, but the GeForce 9800 GTX brings us back to it.

The continuity of generations is obvious: the new card look as impressive as its predecessor with the same suffix. The PCB is as long as 27 centimeters (without the mounting bracket) as opposed to 23 centimeters of the GeForce 8800 GT/GTS 512MB. This makes it impossible to install the GeForce 9800 GTX into some small system cases. For example, it will press against the HDD cage in Antec’s Sonata Plus. You may suppose that the PCB is larger to reduce the number of its layers, but that’s not true. It has 12 layers whereas the PCB of the GeForce 8800 GT/GTS 512MB had 10 layers and a shorter length.

The Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB was quite satisfied with a three-phase power circuit, but the GeForce 9800 GTX uses a four-phase one despite the lower frequency of the GPU, which is the main consumer. The power circuit is based on the Primarion PX3544 controller we are familiar with by the whole series of Nvidia’s G92-based cards. The memory has an independent two-phase power circuit controlled by an Anpec APW7066 chip we have not met before.

What looks like another inexplicable caprice of the developer, the card has two 6-pin PCI Express 1.0 connectors. The GeForce 9800 GTX is unlikely to consume more than 110W, so there is no actual need for two connectors. The combined load capacity of one such connector and the power section of the PCI Express x16 slot is 150W, which is far above the requirement of any G92-based card as we could see by the example of XFX GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB XXX and Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB. So, that’s a questionable solution that doesn’t make it any easier for the user. The power connectors are placed like on the GeForce 8800 GTX.

The left part of the PCB is designed in a classic way. There is nothing extraordinary here. The card doesn’t have a seat for a DisplayPort chip that used to be present on every GeForce 8800 GT/GTS 512MB. The memory chips are placed around the GPU.

The card carries a total of eight GDDR3 memory chips (Samsung K4J52324QE-BJ08, 512Mbit, 16Mbitx32, 1.9V voltage, 0.83ns access time, rated frequency of 1200 (2400) MHz). Such chips were installed on the Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB GS GLH. The GeForce 9800 GTX has a memory frequency of 1100 (2200) MHz. With a 256-bit memory bus, the memory bandwidth is 70.4GBps. This is lower than the GeForce 8800 GTX’s 86.5GBps, but the G92 has a more advanced memory controller that allows it to compete successfully with the G80 across most applications. Our tests of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB prove this point. The additional bandwidth growth only ensures that the new card is not slower than the previous GTX-indexed flagship even at high resolutions. We’ll see shortly, in our tests, if it’s really so in practice.

The smaller amount of memory (512MB as opposed to the GeForce 8800 GTX’s 768MB) may be a factor in memory-sensitive applications. We don’t know why Nvidia didn’t equip its new flagship with 1024 megabytes of memory although this is not something extraordinary from a technical point of view as the Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB GS GLH proves. Nvidia must have been limited by economical reasons: fast memory is rather expensive and using two times more chips would make the new card much costlier.

The GPU is marked as G92-420-A2. We already saw variations in the marking of the G92 chip when we tested the GeForce 9800 GX2 whose cored were marked as G92-450-A2. To remind you, the GeForce 8800 GT/GTS 512MB carry G92-400-A2 chips. So, all of them have the same revision number but differ in the middle number. We can only guess that it’s the way Nvidia denotes the frequency potential of the chip. This sample of the G92 is dated the 7th week of this year, i.e. February 17-23.

Of course, there is nothing new about the GPU configuration: the graphics core contains 128 unified streamed processors, 32 (64) texture processors and 16 raster operators grouped into 4 sections with four 64-bit memory controllers. The main GPU domain, including TMUs, texture caches, memory controller and raster operators, is clocked at 675MHz. The shader processor domain also called Lumenex Engine is clocked at 1688MHz. This is not much higher than the frequencies of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB and resembles the GeForce 8800 Ultra not being far faster than the GeForce 8800 GTX.

A significant difference of the GeForce 9800 GTX from the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB is that it has two MIO connectors to enable triple-core 3-way SLI configurations. The 2-pin S/PDIF connector has been transferred to the right part of the card as the consequence. Besides that, the card has two DVI-I ports supporting dual-link mode and a 7-pin mini-DIN connector. Besides serving as video output in RCA, S-Video and YPbPr formats, the latter seems to do double duty as an external S/PDIF output as implemented in some models of GeForce 8800 GT.

Cooling System

After a few unlucky experiments with coolers for top-end graphics cards, Nvidia has come to a unified cooler design. It is one of the best in the history of 3D graphics hardware in terms of noise and cooling performance. This design was first employed on the GeForce 8800 GTX/GTS and then on the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. Now, with minor changes, this cooler is installed on the GeForce 9800 GTX.

The cooler has an aluminum base with a large heatsink consisting of thin aluminum plates joined together. There is a copper sole above the GPU that is connected to the heatsink with three heat pipes. The pipes help distribute the heat uniformly in the heatsink.

Fiber pads soaked in white thermal grease are used as a thermal interface between the memory chips and the load-bearing elements of the power circuit. There are special juts in the base for that. A layer of dark-gray thermal grease is between the copper sole and the GPU die.

The cooler is equipped with a Delta BFB1012L blower that is employed in every dual-slot reference cooler from Nvidia. The fan uses a 4-pin connection with PWM-based speed management. The airflow from the fan goes through the heatsink and is exhausted out of the system case through the slits in the mounting bracket. This improves the thermal conditions inside your system case. The cooler’s casing is made from black glossy plastic and decorated with a silver-and-green GeForce logo. Our sample of GeForce 9800 GTX is from Gainward which is indicated by an appropriate sticker. The whole arrangement is fastened tight to the PCB with 14 spring-loaded screws.  The casing is additionally fixed with three screws.

This cooler should cope with the GeForce 9800 GTX quite well at comfortable level of noise because the new card can hardly generate much more heat than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB which is almost silent.

Power Consumption, Noise, Temperature and Overclockability

The GeForce 9800 GTX uses a different power circuit and works at higher frequencies than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. That’s why we performed our standard procedure of measuring the new card’s power draw on a special testbed configured as follows:

The 3D load is created by running the first SM3.0/HDR test from 3DMark06 in a loop at 1600x1200 with 4x FSAA and 16x AF. The Peak 2D load is emulated by means of the 2D Transparent Windows test from PCMark05. We got these numbers:


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As might have been expected, the new card is not much different from the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB in terms of power consumption. The peak power draw is not higher than 110W, so our prediction was quite correct. The distribution of load shows there is no need for two external power connectors: each of them has a load of about 32W in 3D mode, the combined load being barely above 60W. If these connectors were loaded more, to offload the PCI Express x16 slot, they could be explained by Nvidia’s desire to put a smaller load on the mainboard which might make sense for SLI and especially for 3-way SLI configurations. But the consumption on the internal +12V line is the biggest, exceeding the consumption of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB on the same line. So, the two 6-pin PCI Express 1.0 connectors on board the GeForce 9800 GTX can only be the result of marketing consideration winning over common sense. Pre-overclocked versions of GeForce 9800 GTX, which are sure to appear, are unlikely to have a much higher power draw and won’t need the two connectors, either.

Anyway, the new flagship card from Nvidia doesn’t have a voracious appetite especially if compared with the GeForce 8800 GTX. You don’t need a very advanced PSU for it. Any 400-450W PSU with two graphics card cables will do because the Gainward Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB comes without Molex → 6-pin PCIe adapters.

The cooling system installed on the GeForce 9800 GTX is in fact identical to the cooler of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, and their noise characteristics should be the same. We checked this out with a digital sound-level meter Velleman DVM1326 using A-curve weighing. The level of ambient noise in our lab was 36dBA and the level of noise at a distance of 1 meter from the working testbed with a passively cooled graphics card inside was 43dBA. Here are the results:

The new card is about as noisy as its predecessor GeForce 8800 GTX. It is almost silent at work – you can only hear it if it is the single source of noise in your system case, which is improbable. The cooling performance is high because the G92 chip generates less heat than the G80 this cooler was designed for. According to RivaTuner, the GPU temperature was 48°C in idle mode and 61°C under load on an open testbed. The numbers will be higher in a closed system case, but the GeForce 9800 GTX is unlikely to overheat anyway.

We were quite lucky with our GeForce 9800 GTX at overclocking. We managed to reach 800/2000MHz for the graphics core and 1300 (2600) MHz for the memory. The card passed a few cycles of 3DMark06 tests at such clock rates, but began to fail after a while. At GPU frequencies of 770/1925MHz the card was stable but there are image artifacts like flickering colored spots in 3DMark06. These were eliminated by reducing the memory frequency to 1250 (2500) MHz. Thus, the final frequencies of the card, according to RivaTuner, were 771/1944MHz for the core and 1252 (2504) MHz for the memory. The GPU temperature was 64°C under load on an open testbed.

The card started up successfully on our PCI Express 1.0a mainboard. Mainboard supporting PCI Express 1.1 and 2.0 should all be compatible with it as well.

Testbed and Methods

For our performance test session we put together the following testbed:

According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering - Adaptive Anti-Aliasing/Multi-sampling for ATI Catalyst and Antialiasing – Transparency: Multisampling for Nvidia ForceWare. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

For our tests we used the following games and synthetic benchmarks:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Strategies

Synthetic Benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way. The only exception was Enemy Territory: Quake Wars game where we disabled the built-in fps rate limitation locked at 30fps. Games supporting DirectX 10 were tested in this particular mode.

Besides Gainward Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:

The tests were performed in the following resolutions: 1280x1024/960, 1600x1200 and 1920x1200. If the game didn’t support 16:10 display format, we set the last resolution to 1920x1440. We used “eye candy” mode everywhere, where it was possible without disabling the HDR/Shader Model 3.0/Shader Model 4.0. Namely, we ran the tests with enabled anisotropic filtering 16x as well as MSAA 4x antialiasing. We enabled them from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare drivers.

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.1. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Battlefield 2142

This game doesn’t support display resolutions of 16:10 format, so we use a resolution of 1920x1440 pixels (4:3 format) instead of 1920x1200 for it.

You can’t expect a real high performance boost from the modest frequency growth of the Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX. It is ahead of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB by a mere 5-6%. Not very impressive for a graphics card that claims to be the flagship of Nvidia’s single-chip solution line-up.

BioShock

BioShock doesn’t support FSAA when running in Windows Vista’s DirectX 10 environment. That’s why we benchmarked the cards without FSAA.

The new card is only 7% ahead of the previous topmost G92-based model at best. This performance gain is not really worth the extra $50 Nvidia asks for it. At high resolutions the GeForce 9800 GTX is as fast as the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2. The latter has a somewhat higher minimum of speed, but is more expensive, produces more noise and consumes more power.

Call of Juarez

The game’s build-in benchmarking tools do not support a display resolution of 2560x1600, so we had to limit our test to 1920x1200.

As we already know, you can achieve a playable speed in Call of Juarez at the maximum level of detail and with enabled 4x FSAA only if you have a dual-processor solution such as Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2 or ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2.

The GeForce 9800 GTX is over 15% ahead of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB at high resolutions, but this has no practical meaning because the speed only grows from 16 to 19fps.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The performance growth is more substantial here: about 18% at 1280x1024. It helps the GeForce 9800 GTX yield a frame rate of 60fps which is the desired minimum for a first-person shooter. The gap from the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB is smaller at the higher resolutions, varying from 11 to 13% depending on the display resolution. Both cards provide the same level of playing comfort.

Crysis

This game is tested at the High level of detail, excepting the Shader option which is set at Very High. This way we try to achieve a compromise between image quality and speed.

The Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX is considerably better than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB in terms of minimum performance, but this is only due to the newer version of ForceWare that cannot be officially used for the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB although both cards are based on the same GPU. Moreover, the average speed is still rather low, not reaching 35fps even at the lowest resolution.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

The frame rate is fixed at 30fps in this game as this is the rate at which the physical model is being updated at the server. Thus, this 30fps speed is the required minimum for playing the game.

The new GeForce 9800 GTX doesn’t have any serious advantage over the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. The maximum performance gain is only 5-6%, which has no effect on the gamer’s experience. No one can feel such a small increase in frame rate especially as it is higher than the limit.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Valve’s game gets a bigger performance boost than Id Software’s, but the gamer has no practical benefits anyway. The GeForce 9800 GTX is as fast as the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 here, which is good considering the higher price of the latter. This doesn’t make the new card special, though.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. This is the reason why we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.

The GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, GeForce 9800 GTX and Radeon HD 3870 X2 behave in a similar manner in every test mode, so your choice depends on your personal preferences as well as on the price and availability of the particular graphics card. We guess the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB has the most optimal price/performance ratio which has helped it become so popular in the gaming community.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

It’s only multi-GPU solutions from Nvidia, including a GeForce 9600 GT SLI configuration, that can ensure a really high speed in this game. The GeForce 9800 GTX doesn’t justify its higher price, larger size and higher power draw as it delivers the same performance as the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB.

Tomb Raider: Legend

The new graphics card shows the biggest performance gain at a resolution of 1280x1024, about 11%. This makes it the leader among single-chip cards, but from a gamer’s point of view it is no different from the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB as both cards have much higher speed than you actually need for this game genre. Considering the lower price of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, the benefits of the GeForce 9800 GTX look rather vague especially as the new card is less handy due to its larger size and two power connectors.

Performance in RPG

Hellgate: London

The game is very sensitive to the amount of graphics memory. The GeForce 9800 GTX and GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB have the same amount and behave similarly as the consequence. The only exception is the 1920x1200 mode where the new card is about 19% ahead although this doesn’t make that display resolution much more comfortable to play at. The resolution of 1280x1024 pixels is still the optimal one for top-end single-chip graphics cards in this game unless you disable FSAA and reduce the level of detail.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The game loses much of its visual appeal without HDR. Although some gamers argue that point, we think TES IV looks best with enabled FP HDR and test it in this mode.

The GeForce 9800 GTX wins every resolution, sometimes even outperforming the GeForce 9800 GX2. However, its practical advantage over the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB is rather small. At least, it is surely not worth the extra $50-100.

Performance in Strategies

Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

The new add-on to Company of Heroes is tested in DirectX 10 mode only since it provides the highest quality of the visuals.

This is one of the few applications where the GeForce 9800 GTX is really much faster than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. The gap is 19-20% in every mode. Like in Crysis, it must be due to the newer version of the official driver. The minimum speed remains just as low, however. It means the playing comfort hasn’t changed. The Radeon HD 3870 X2 remains the only card to ensure smoothness of gameplay and accuracy of control even in the hardest scenes of this game.

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

The game having a frame rate limiter, you should consider the minimum speed of the cards in the first place.

Like the other tested graphics cards, the GeForce 9800 GTX easily hits the performance ceiling at every display resolution.

World in Conflict

The only effect from the increased clock rates of the GeForce 9800 GTX is a small performance gain at 1280x1024. This 7% increase doesn’t add more playability, though, because the frame rate is only 26-28fps with slowdowns to 14-16fps.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark05

The new card scores even less points overall than the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, probably due to the different version of the driver. On the other hand, 3DMark05 is not an adequate benchmark anymore. It cannot show the real potential of modern graphics cards with unified architecture and advanced computing abilities.

There is no difference between the G92-based cards in the first test. In the second, the cards only differ at low resolutions. It’s only in the third test, which is the most sophisticated one, that we see a stable performance gain of 5-6%.

Futuremark 3DMark06

As opposed to 3DMark06, 3DMark06 shows a certain advantage of the GeForce 9800 GTX although it is not enough to compete with the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 which has as many as 640 shader processors.

Interestingly, the new card enjoys a bigger advantage in the SM2.0 than in the SM3.0 tests although its main and shader domain frequencies are increased proportionally, by about 4%, in comparison with the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. Perhaps the first SM2.0 test has lots of memory accesses as it uses numerous light sources and high-resolution textures, including detailed lighting/shadowing maps. And the new card has a higher memory bandwidth than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB: 70.4GBps against 62GBps.

The individual SM2.0 tests confirm our supposition. There is indeed a 7-8% performance increase relative to the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB in the first test, but in the second test the gap is only 4%. So, it is the first test that contributed the most to the overall result.

The GeForce 9800 GTX enjoys a bigger advantage over the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB in the second test: 8% against 5%. This must be due to the same reason as in the SM2.0 tests: the new card uses faster memory.

Conclusion

We have tested Nvidia’s new graphics card that claims to be the fastest single-chip solution available today. It indeed fulfils its purpose: to bridge the gap between the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB and the GeForce 9800 GX2. It is a high-quality product without obvious defects.

The GPU and memory frequencies of the 9800 GTX are but 4% and 13% higher respectively than those of the 8800 GTS. It’s like with Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 Ultra. Fortunately, the GeForce 9800 GTX is not likely to become a niche product for wealthy enthusiasts because its recommended price is rather low, $349, while the GeForce 8800 Ultra used to cost over $800 at similar level of performance. Here, the tradition is carried on that a flagship product’s performance can be delivered by a performance-mainstream card after one year. It’s quite an achievement for a $349 card considering the extremely high price of the 8800 Ultra.

It is not from the top where the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 and Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2 reign currently that the main danger to the new card comes from. It’s from below, from the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. Costing $249-299, it is about as fast as the newcomer in modern games. The GeForce 9800 GTX is better by 15-17% in some applications, but the average gap is only 5-8%, which can hardly affect your playing comfort. Being cheaper, the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB is also easier to use because it is smaller and has only one power connector rather than two as the GeForce 9800 GTX has. Even if the retail prices are close to the recommended ones, the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB seems to be a preferable buy. And if the real price of the GeForce 9800 GTX is much higher than the recommended $349, there is no sense in buying it.

By the way, Nvidia’s confused naming system is no good at all. The G92 core should have given birth to a GeForce 8900 or 9800 series. Instead, we have two series of cards based on the same GPU with deliberately incompatible drivers, and a GeForce 8 product is competing with a GeForce 9 one, affecting the sales. It’s even more confusing for the customer. There are three variants of GeForce 8800 GTS selling today: 320MB, 512MB and 640MB. And only an experienced user knows that the 512MB version is the best one. Hopefully, it is just a temporary situation and Nvidia will transfer the entire G92-based line-up to the GeForce 9 series.

From a technical point of view, the GeForce 9800 GTX is quite an odd thing. We know a number of pre-overclocked versions of GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB with better specs that have a short 10-layer PCB with a three-phase voltage regulator, but the GeForce 9800 GTX comes with a more complex and longer 12-layer PCB with a four-phase GPU voltage regulator. We don’t know why Nvidia took the most difficult way while developing it. The 27-centimeter PCB makes the GeForce 9800 GTX unsuitable for compact or short-length system cases. The two 6-pin power connectors are also hard to explain because our tests show that the total load on these connectors is hardly above 60W.

Overall, it is an example of how a good idea may be marred by marketing confusion as well as unlucky engineering solutions. And still, the GeForce 9800 GTX is indeed the fastest single-chip graphics card until the arrival of the GT200 core.

Gainward Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB Summary

As for the specific sample described in this review, the Gainward Bliss 9800 GTX 512MB is a precise copy of the reference card, having all of its good and bad points. It comes with scanty accessories, without power adapters and any HD-related accessories such as a media player or DVI-I → HDMI adapter. This would be normal for an inexpensive entry-level product, but a top-end graphics card should be special, we guess. On the other hand, this may help Gainward market this product at a lower price, which is good because we don’t have any complaints about the manufacturing quality of the card.

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