Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH Graphics Card Review

We decided to take a look at one of the most powerful graphics card around, Leadtek GeForce 6800 Ultra. Being equipped with monumental cooling system, this product provides ultimate reliability and stability even with overclocking, deserving to be called the fastest Doom III graphics option ever tested by X-bit labs.

by Alexey Stepin
09/01/2004 | 12:47 PM

A host of products from Leadtek Research has gone through our test lab, always getting our praises for the quality of manufacture, high performance and rich accessories. Leadtek’s graphics cards are distinguished for their original and effective cooling systems that could keep the card up and going under the harshest conditions.

 

Leadtek of course welcomed the new GeForce 6800 processor family from NVIDIA by releasing a series of solutions based around these chips. The company didn’t change its well-recognized brand and the new series comes to market under the name of WinFast A400. We are going to talk about the top-end member of this family today, the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH graphics card.

We already informed you in our news reports that NVIDIA officially refuted the rumors about the allegedly upcoming GeForce 6800 Ultra Extreme graphics processor, working at higher frequencies, saying they would not ship such a product. However, a few selected partners will offer accelerated versions of the GeForce 6800 Ultra.

Leadtek is amongst them, and its overclocked GeForce 6800 Ultra found its way into our test lab. Let’s take a closer look at it.

Accessories

Like its predecessors, the WinFast A400 Ultra comes in a beautiful box, with all the necessary cabling and software.

The design of the box remained practically the same, save for the yellow upper right corner with the GeForce 6800 Ultra logotype and the proud words “Authorized Solution Provider”. The picture in the central part of the box still displays some kind of a mage. Unlike the personage on the package of the WinFast A380 Ultra TDH, this one looks somewhat more aggressive, as if implying the power of the graphics card inside. Overall, the package looks nice enough, without any excessive gaudiness.

The box contains all the necessary manuals and the following cables and adapters:

Besides that, you receive the following software:

There are two modern games in the bundle, and one of them comes on a DVD! That’s an obvious advantage of the WinFast A400 Ultra TDH in the eyes of a hardcore gamer. Besides the drivers, the compact disc with system software contains the following utilities:

We described the multi-functional hardware monitoring system WinFox in our Leadtek WinFast A350 TDH VIVO review (see our article called Dependence of Contemporary High-End Graphics Accelerators Performance on FSAA Mode: VisionTek Xtasy 9800 PRO and Leadtek WinFast A350 TDH Graphics Cards Review for more details), so we won’t repeat ourselves again, but will rather move on right to the graphics card.

Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH – Bigger, Heavier, Cooler!

The Leadtek WinFast A380 Ultra TDH had a most impressive look thanks to its massive cooling system (see our article called ASUS RADEON 9800 XT and LeadTek WinFast A380 TDH Ultra: The Battle for AquaMark3 for more details). That system was very efficient, so the company continued the same concept in the new A400 series:

As you see, the cooling system has evolved over the times. It has acquired more size and weight and a proper name: 3 Air-Surround Cooling System. The copper heatsink has become larger; it has more ribs and the ribs are longer. But the most important thing is of course the flat heat-pipe that transfers heat from the GPU area to the side sections of the heatsink. The material of the casing is different, too. It is now deep-brown plastic rather than metal. The seemingly useless “wings” at the top part of the casing do have a purpose. At least, the right wing directs airflow at the heatsink that cools down the power circuitry of the graphics card.

The 60mm fan of the 3 Air-Surround cooling system has a non-standard geometry of the blades: the curve of the blades is opposite to the rotation direction. This design solution helps to spread the air stream on the sides of the heatsink rather than underneath the fan. Well, there are a few ribs under the fan, too. Overall, the efficiency of the cooling system is high – it would probably handle a junior Athlon XP model or a Celeron.

The protective grid has changed, too. Instead of the thin and flexible wire carcass, we now have a stiff, “bulletproof” lattice with numerous small holes. Coupled with a relatively high rotational speed of the fan, this version doesn’t provide for a noiseless operation, although Leadtek claims the cooling system to produce no more than 28dB of noise. As before, a portion of the air stream from the fan is driven to the backside of the PCB where a massive copper heat-spreader is placed:

We were surprised at first, since no GeForce 6800 series card should have memory chips at the backside of the PCB. What is that heat-spreader to cool? We found out, however, that the BGA-packaged memory gives out quite an amount of heat through the chips’ legs, i.e. it heats up the backside of the PCB! The graphics processor also contributes to this, so the PCB has to be cooled down by a heat-spreader. The surface of the PCB is rather complex there, so there are special thermal pads between it and the heat-spreader, which was perceptibly hot during our tests, indicating that the Leadtek engineers were right in their solution.

The cooling system conceals eight GDDR3 memory chips with an access time of 1.6ns manufactured by Samsung. The memory works at the standard (for the GeForce 6800 Ultra) frequency of 1100MHz. Its total amount is 256MB, as should be. The graphics core is clocked at 425MHz – slightly above the standard frequency. As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH is an accelerated version of the standard GeForce 6800 Ultra. The higher starting frequency implies a good overclockability of this card, and we will check this out soon.

Noise, Overclocking and 2D Quality

Against the manufacturer’s claims, the new system couldn’t boast an absolute noiselessness. You could always hear the sound of the fan with a mixture of hiss from the air passing through the fine lattice. Fortunately, the noise level was low enough, even with the system case open. Due to some mysterious reason, Leadtek didn’t endow its new product with an ability to control the fan speed depending on the load on the graphics processor. The fan is always rotating at a constant speed. Well, we can hardly call it a drawback since a constant quiet sound is less irritating than the constant transition from silence to roar of NVIDIA’s reference cooling system. Overall, 3 Air-Surround Cooling System boasts an excellent efficiency, but it is only average in terms of noise. It has a long way to go to become a truly silent system.

Overclocking pleased us a lot. Considering the typically bad overclockability of NVIDIA’s new graphics processors, 450MHz with air cooling is a good achievement. The memory could work at 1200MHz, i.e. at its nominal frequency, but after a while, the card produced various image defects and even hang up a couple of times. So, we dropped the frequencies to 440/1170MHz and enjoyed absolute stability.

2D quality was another matter. The reviewed card has two DVI-I connectors and we had to use a DVI-I ? D-Sub adapter to attach our monitor. The extra connectors affected the image quality negatively; we had to screw the cable to the adapter and the adapter to the card very tight, or else any accidental movement of the cable made the onscreen image into a blur. We also found out that the first DVI-I output (labeled “1”) provides a crisp image in all resolutions up to and including 1600x1200@75Hz. The second connector, labeled “2”, was much worse in this respect – the image was fuzzy in 1024x768@85Hz already. The blur was stronger in 1280x1024@85Hz, and in 1600x1200@75Hz, the image quality was downright nasty.

It’s strange to see this difference between the two ports: there are two identical 400MHz RAMDACs in the GPU die, and the reference GeForce 6800 Ultra produced an image of the same quality whatever port we attached our monitor to. It is probable that this problem, most likely provoked by defective output LC filters on one of the ports, only occurred on our particular sample of the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra, though.

In the practical part of the review we will examine the performance of the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH and compare it to the ordinary GeForce 6800 Ultra that works at its regular frequencies as well as to the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition.

Testbed and Methods

We used our traditional set of games and benchmarks to measure the performance of Leadtek’s new graphics card.

First Person 3D Shooters:

Third Person 3D Shooters:

Simulators:

Strategy:

Semi-synthetic benchmarks:

Synthetic benchmarks:

As always, we chose the maximum graphics quality settings in each game. The testbed configuration remained the same:

Performance in First Person 3D Shooters

Doom III

Our Leadtek GeForce 6800 Ultra benchmark would not be full without the Doom III game, however, this title caused some difficulties for us and NVIDIA Corp.

When we were in process of making our Doom III Performance Preview we used Leadtek’s graphics card for getting the results. Unfortunately, the product froze and produced BSODs all the time, which is why we put it away and used the reference card from NVIDIA.

After making some brief investigation and even down-clocking Leatek’s GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics card to “GT” frequencies we still could not make it run well in Doom III. Being pretty upset we asked NVIDIA to provide us a new BIOS version for the card and modestly hoping for success we flashed it inside. We were totally amazed, but the graphics card managed to run Doom III game absolutely flawlessly after trivial BIOS flash.

NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800-series is the fastest Doom III performer. No need to say that Leadtek’s 6800 Ultra with boosted clock-speed is the fastest graphics card in Doom III we at X-bit labs have ever tested.

Call of Duty

Leadtek’s new one performs excellently right from the start – matching the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition. The difference between the WinFast A400 Ultra and the ordinary GeForce 6800 Ultra is negligible – the GPU clock rate must be of little importance in this game. Overclocking is rewarding, though.

Full-screen antialiasing (FSAA) and anisotropic filtering (AF) being enabled, the Leadtek only wins 1024x768 resolution, and after that the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition comes to the fore – it is better suited to such operational modes. The WinFast A400 Ultra has a small advantage over the standard GeForce 6800 Ultra, but increases it by means of overclocking.

Unreal Tournament 2004

Torlan level

In the pure speed mode, with such eye candies as full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic texture filtering disabled, the cards all get the same result. Only with 4x FSAA and 16x AF, we see any difference starting from 1280x1024 resolution.

Metallurgy level

The limiting effect of the central processor is less felt on this game map, so differences arise earlier. The members of the GeForce 6800 Ultra family, including the WinFast A400 Ultra TDH, handle this map better than the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition does.

Well, it’s all vice versa in the eye candy mode, although the overclocked WinFast A400 Ultra nearly reaches ATI Technologies’ flagship product.

Far Cry

Pier level

The demo record on the Pier level contains a short run in thick grass and a long flight on a hang-glider during which you can enjoy the sight of water surface, realized with the help of pixel shaders.

The overclocked Leadtek gives you the performance of the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition and more, since 1280x1024 resolution.

Under harder conditions, the topmost RADEON X800 is unbeatable. Overclocking is profitable for the WinFast A400 Ultra, but is still not enough for a victory in this test.

Research level

This level contains open areas as well as caves lit by numerous light sources. Lighting is calculated on the per-pixel basis.

The results are similar to what we saw on the Pier level, but the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is less brilliant here…

…although it is still the leader with FSAA and anisotropic filtering enabled. Overclocking adds some frames per second to the WinFast A400 Ultra, while the difference between it and the GeForce 6800 Ultra is negligible, only about 1fps.

Volcano level

The record we made on the Volcano level is more complex than the Research one, both in geometry and in the load on the pixel pipelines.

The scene being much heavier, the Leadtek only overtakes the X800 XT Platinum Edition at the overclocked frequencies.

Alas, the less efficient algorithms of working with the graphics memory tell negatively on the results of the Leadtek in the eye candy mode. Even overclocked, it cannot approach the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition.

Halo: Combat Evolved

Halo is ATI’s domain because RADEONs can process complex pixel shaders better than their competitors. However, the overclocked WinFast A400 Ultra can challenge the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition! Comparing the Leadtek with the standard GeForce 6800 Ultra, we notice a very small difference, about 1-2fps.

Painkiller

It is only in 1280x1024 resolution and higher that there are any differences in the results, and the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition and the two versions of the GeForce 6800 Ultra deliver about the same performance. The latter two cards only differ by 1-3 frames per second. Overclocking produces a small effect on the Leadtek, although makes it the leader in this test.

Like in Call of Duty, the GeForce 6800 cards win the low resolution, but lose in 1280x1024. The overclocked WinFast A400 Ultra speeds up a little.

FireStarter

This game uses a non-standard resolution of 1600x1024, which ATI cards do not support in the full-screen mode. That’s why we only post results for the first two resolutions.

This game is simple technically, and fill rate is the most important parameter here. The GeForce 6800 can boast a high fill rate and it easily passes this test. The overclocked Leadtek card notches a record of 500fps here!

The RADEON X800 Platinum Edition wins the eye candy mode, although the WinFast A400 Ultra regains its leadership through overclocking.

Highly Anticipated DirectX 9 Game 1

Seafloor level

The cards on NVIDIA’s GPUs, except the GeForce 6800 GT, have the same result on the first level of this upcoming game, due to the CPU’s limiting effect. For more details about this game see our article called A Next-Generation DirectX 9.0 Game Graphics Performance Preview.

Under 2 level

The second level is simpler than the first, but the GeForce 6800 Ultra and the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH still produce the same fps rates, and the overclocked WinFast performs in a similar manner. Evidently, the GPU clock rate matters much here, since the gap between the GeForce 6800 GT and Ultra is rather wide, especially in high resolutions.

Highly Anticipated DirectX 9 Game 2

Danger level

The second next-generation game favors GPUs from NVIDIA for their high fill rate and effective work with DirectX 7-based game engines (For more details about this game see our article called Yet Another DirectX 9 Game: Lost Oblivion in Chernobyl). The difference between the reference board and the WinFast A400 Ultra is minimal again.

With FSAA and AF enabled, the Leadtek successfully rivals the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition.

Escape level

Like in all the previous tests, there’s a negligible discrepancy between the Leadtek and the reference GeForce 6800 Ultra card, while the effect from overclocking is substantial enough.

The RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition feels better under a higher load, but the overclocked WinFast A400 Ultra is still unreachable.

Performance in Third Person 3D Shooters

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

This OpenGL shooter placed in the Star Wars universe doesn’t use complex shader-based effects, and NVIDIA’s cards are preferable here. Overclocking brings in a surprisingly low gain, but the difference between the GeForce 6800 Ultra and the Leadtek is tangible, although produced by a small difference in the frequencies of the two GPUs (25MHz).

Everything returns to the norm after we enable full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering. The difference between the two versions of the GeForce 6800 Ultra is small, and overclocking becomes more rewarding since not only the GPU, but the graphics memory too is overclocked. However, even the overclocked WinFast A400 Ultra is overtaken by the RADEON X800 in 1280x1024 and left behind in 1600x1200.

Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

The extra 25MHz of the GPU frequency give a significant advantage to the Leadtek over the standard GeForce 6800 Ultra. This is probable due to the game’s using many pixel shaders, which are executed faster by a higher-clocked GPU.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

This game produces similar results to Splinter Cell. Overclocking is less beneficial, though.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne

There’s nothing interesting in the pure speed mode: all the cards, except the RADEON X800 PRO, are limited by the CPU performance.

In 1280x1024 resolution of the eye candy mode the Leadtek competes successfully with the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition, but the latter wins the highest resolution anyway.

Performance in Simulators

IL-2 Sturmovik: Aces in the Sky

The RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is the Ace of the Sky of this game, and even the overclocked Leadtek with the ForceWare 61.34 driver can do nothing about that.

The Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH looks better in this mode, losing only to the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition. The combo overclocking is rewarding, while a 25MHz increase of the core frequency is of little effect.

Lock On: Modern Air Combat

This flight simulator prefers graphics cards on NVIDIA’s GPUs, although even they cannot provide an acceptable playability at the maximum graphics quality settings.

As it often happens, NVIDIA cards lose their ground in the eye candy mode. Only the overclocked WinFast A400 Ultra TDH can challenge the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition.

Colin McRae Rally 04

This game uses pixel shaders actively and favors RADEON-based cards, as you can see in 1280x1024 resolution already. The bonus of a higher GPU frequency of the Leadtek card is most visible in this game.

Once again, we see the GeForce family cards slowing down in the eye candy mode. The RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition wins this test. Overclocking is profitable here, although cannot make the Leadtek card the winner.

Performance in Strategy Games

Perimeter

Nothing can help the WinFast A400 Ultra here – neither higher GPU clock rate nor overclocking. The RADEON X800 cards are the best in this test.

The RADEON X800 PRO loses its ground in the eye candy mode, but the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition remains the leader. The Leadtek is only left to compete with the 12-pipelined solution from ATI Technologies.

Performance in Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

Aquamark3

Aquamark3 has a fancy towards NVIDIA cards due to its complex geometry and a high overdraw coefficient. The test is most sensitive to the GPU frequency in the pure speed mode and ignores the higher memory clock rate of the overclocked WinFast A400 Ultra.

In the eye candy mode, however, the Leadtek profits more from the higher memory frequency. Overclocking helps it beat the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition in the low resolution, but the competitor is better in higher resolutions due to efficient utilization of the graphics memory bandwidth.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark03 build 340

Overall Score

As you see, a 25MHz bonus to the clock rate of the GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics processor brings in a nice score advantage, while further overclocking is less rewarding.

Game Test 1

High fill rate and fast memory matter much for 3DMark03’s first test, so the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra feels all right here. The difference between it and the ordinary GeForce 6800 Ultra is minimal.

FSAA and AF enabled, the performance of the Leadtek remains at the level of the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition. Overclocking helps to leave the competitor behind.

Game Test 2

The second and third tests of 3DMark03 are NVIDIA’s territory due to the peculiarities of the employed rendering algorithms as well as to numerous shadows. The Leadtek is beyond competition here, and is even better at overclocking.

The Leadtek wins the eye candy mode, too.

Game Test 3

Technically the second test is the same as the third, so the diagrams are practically the same here.

The same goes for the diagrams we got in the eye candy mode.

Game Test 4

The fourth game test is probably the most complex of all 3DMark03 trials, as it uses complex version 2.0 pixel shaders. Those shaders prevent the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra from doing as good as it did in the first three tests of this benchmarking suite. It only competes with the 12-pipelined RADEON X800 PRO at the nominal frequencies and overtakes it at overclocking.

The advantage of the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is more conspicuous after we enable full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering.

The Leadtek was overall good in 3DMark03, winning three tests out of four, but losing the fourth, the most complex one. Anyway, that didn’t affect the total score greatly.

Conclusion

Well, we should confess that the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH graphics card is no perfection. The company equipped its new product with a traditionally mighty cooling system that can keep the GPU and memory cool even during extreme overclocking, but at the expense of the noise factor. Looking at this well-designed massive copper contraption, you expect complete or near-complete silence, you know. Alas, the card is no etalon of noiseless work. For example, the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition with its simple and compact cooler produces much less noise. We also disliked the nasty 2D image quality on one of the DVI-I outputs of the card. We don’t count this in as a serious shortcoming since we suspect this to be a defect of our particular sample. The accessories are good, though. You get everything to get the card installed and running as well as two games to engage you from the beginning.

Yes, you would buy this card to play games, and the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH is excellent in the pure speed mode when full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled.


Click to enlarge

As you see, it loses 1280x1024 resolution to its main rival, the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition, in a few games that use complex pixel shaders, but in the rest of the games it is the RADEON’s equal or even superior. The Leadtek wins 16 out of 27 tests, including 3DMark03’s overall score. That’s a nice performance, worthy of a top-end product.


Click to enlarge

It’s not so well with full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering. The WinFast A400 Ultra TDH could only win 5 out of 21 tests that support the eye candy mode. When overclocked, it won 7 tests, and that’s obviously a defeat. The reason is simple: the activation of those eye-pleasing features puts a big load on the memory controller and increases the demands on the computational capabilities of the GPU, and the new solution from NVIDIA is worse than the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition in this respect due to a lower clock rate. The RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition is better suited for such hard operational modes as it is equipped with advanced memory bandwidth saving technologies.

The Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH did well where it was expected to do well – in the pure speed mode as well as in games that don’t use complex version 2.0 pixel shaders. So, this card may suit ideally for people who like playing in high resolutions, although without full-screen antialiasing. Like all graphics cards with NVIDIA’s new-generation GPUs, the WinFast A400 Ultra TDH supports Shader Model 3.0, which may come in handy in the future, in case the new pixel shader version becomes widespread among the game developers. The higher GPU frequency of the Leadtek card (425MHz) is of a small, although noticeable, effect.

Highs:

Lows:

Regrettably, NVIDIA is experiencing problems now trying to promote its new family of graphics processors in the market. Sources say this is due to a low chip yield, arguing that it is practically impossible to enable back the disabled four pipelines of the GeForce 6800. In other words, GeForce 6800 GPUs is really made of defective chips.

Although you can see new products from NVIDIA and its partners in shops, the supply is too low yet: a search through xbitlabs.dealtime.com found only three offers, which is a drop in the ocean. Pricewatch.com showed a list of a score of products, though, and the Leadtek WinFast A400 Ultra TDH was not among them. The price of the new Leadtek is expected to be about $550 and more, but you get an accelerated version of the GeForce 6800 Ultra equipped with the most efficient cooling system for that money.