by Alexey Stepin
07/22/2005 | 12:33 PM
NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT graphics cards are fast and feature-rich, but their acoustic characteristics are worse than those of ATI’s RADEON X800/X850 – a majority of 6800 GT-based devices come with rather noisy cooling systems. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable.
The NV40/45 graphics processor consists of 222 million transistors and supports advanced technologies like Shader Model 3.0 which all results in a higher level of heat dissipation. A simple and quiet cooler just wouldn’t cope with such a complex GPU.
There have been numerous attempts to hush up the GeForce 6800 GT/Ultra, but cooling systems with acceptable acoustic characteristics are usually very bulky. For example, the Arctic Cooling NV Silencer 5 works almost silently and easily keeps even an overclocked GeForce 6800 Ultra cool, but it occupies two slots and exceeds the dimensions of the card’s PCB, thus making the installation of the card more difficult, especially if you’re building a SLI system.
And still the graphics card manufacturers keep on trying to create a compact and yet efficient and quiet cooling system for the GeForce 6800 GT, using heat pipes, copper as the heatsink material and other tricks.
This review is about one such attempt which MSI implemented in its NX6800GT-T2D256E graphics card. Did they have any luck? Just read on and you’ll soon know!
We received the device in its retail package. The bright and colorful box is as large as some boxes from ASUS. MSI seems to have taken in the monumentalistic ideas in an attempt to grasp the potential customer’s attention.
Although very large, the box is easy to carry around. With its plastic handle the box is not unlike a small suitcase. The front panel has a flap cover. For the cover not to open up during transportation, it’s held with a small sticker underneath. There’s a window under the cover through which you can have a look at the graphics card as it lies on its nest of foam rubber. The design of the cover is too gaudy to our taste, but it certainly makes its job – catching the customer’s eyes – done.
The box contains a tray made of transparent plastic. The NX6800GT lies in one of the hollows in the tray, the following accessories resting nearby:
Strangely enough, there are no cables or adapters for connecting the graphics card to a TV-set. It’s not quite right, even though the card is equipped with a standard S-Video output and you can easily find an appropriate cable. It’s also strange to see only one DVI-I-to-D-Sub adapter here. All graphics cards with two DVI connectors we have ever met were equipped with two appropriate adapters.
The multilingual installation guide contains just a brief and general description of the installation process. The user’s manual is written in English but is far more descriptive and covers all graphics card models from MSI that belong to the NX6800 and NX6600 series, describing their installation and connection, the pin layout of their DVI-I and D-Sub connectors and the settings of the ForceWare driver. It also tells you how to update the drivers and the BIOS via MSI Live Update 3.
The number of discs you receive with an MSI NX6800GT is truly astonishing – 14 CDs is an absolute record! Even ASUS doesn’t add so much software to its graphics cards. So, MSI offers you the following here:
As you see, the software bundle includes applications that range from data backup and virtual drive programs to a foreign language tutor and games. Even if you won’t ever use all of this, it’s nice just to have so much software included with a graphics card.
We’d call the accessories to the MSI NX6800GT perfect if they included just a single S-Video cable which is a really necessary thing sometimes. Well, these are only accessories – let’s get closer to the device.
This graphics card looks like a RADEON X800 XT or XL at first sight, having the same crimson color of the PCB and the same-shape cooler as ATI’s cards. Yet it is really a NX6800GT. MSI just replaced the traditional green of graphics cards with NVIDIA’s GPUs with crimson, and it looks cool enough:
This graphics card is an astonishingly compact device. Instead of a bulky dual-slot cooling system it is equipped with a flat and seemingly humble cooler. This appearance is deceptive, though. As you take the card in your hands you realize immediately how heavy the CopperUltra cooler from MSI is. It is in fact a copper bar, about 2 millimeters thick, with thin copper ribs soldered up to it. Another narrow bar is soldered to the bottom where the heat-spreader contacts the GPU.
The cooler is covered with a plastic casing that splits up the air stream from the 60mm fan with thirteen blades. The fan has no highlighting, but features a manual speed controller – there’s a small card with the control circuit on the cooler side.
So, you can use the slider varistor to vary the speed of the fan from 2800 to 4000rpm. The noise from the fan changes from 28 to 39dB at that. This control system isn’t as convenient as the one developed by ASUS, for example, because you have to open your system case each time you want to adjust the speed. The manufacturer probably suggests that the user sets the speed to a comfortable level once and for all and doesn’t touch the controller too often afterwards.
The cooler is fastened to the PCB with five spring-loaded screws and an additional back-plate on four screws more. Unfortunately, these screws are rather fragile and easily break at a slightest pressure. Even doing everything carefully we lost three screws out of nine when dismantling and reinstalling the cooler – their heads just broke off.
Dark-gray thermal compound is used as a thermal interface between the cooler’s sole and the GPU surface. This compound is only on the NV45 die, while the HSI chip lacks any thermal interface at all. The memory contacts the heat-spreader through black elastic pads – we have some apprehensions about the thermal conductivity properties of this mysterious material, but at least they ensure good contact. The 2.0ns memory chips come from Samsung. They work at 500 (1000DDR) MHz, and the graphics core is clocked at 350MHz (the default frequency of the reference 6800 GT).
The cooler deserves its name of CopperUltra as even the heatsink on the power elements is made of copper rather than aluminum. Like in NVIDIA’s reference cooling system this heatsink receives some air from the main heatsink fan. Overall, even with some minor defects, the CopperUltra cooler seems to be quite capable of cooling such a hot chip as NV45. Our tests confirmed this point: the graphics card was stable and went through our tests without problems even at the minimum speed of the fan.
The cooler installed on the MSI NX6800GT proved to be rather quiet. Even at the maximum speed its noise remained in a comfortable range. This noise consisted mostly of a quiet hissing of the air while the fan was nearly noiseless. Unfortunately, when we set the speed controller to the minimum position, a distinct and irritating sound added to this noise. This sound may be the result of some flaw in the fan control circuit.
So, although the MSI engineers didn’t match the silence of the RADEON X800 XT/X850 XT, they did make a rather quiet device. Overclocking gave an indirect confirmation of the highest efficiency of the CopperUltra cooler. We easily overclocked the graphics processor to 435MHz (that is, above the default frequency of the GeForce 6800 Ultra). Alas, the 2.0ns memory wouldn’t speed up above 550 (1100DDR) MHz, but we think this is a good result nevertheless, considering we achieved it with the card’s standard cooling system with a not very good thermal interface. During our overclocking experiments we set a 120mm fan to blow at the card.
The card also supports MSI’s six-step dynamic overclocking technology called D.O.T., but it only works if you’ve installed the exclusive drivers from MSI.
The overclocking profiles increase the frequencies of the card by from 2% (Private) to 10% (Commander). You can also set the frequencies manually, without using CoolBits fix or third-party utilities like RivaTuner. Unfortunately, the exclusive MSI drivers coming with the card are based on an older version of NVIDIA’s ForceWare, so it would be wise to use MSI Live Update 3 to download the latest version of the driver from the company’s website right after the purchase. If that D.O.T. feature isn’t at all fascinating to you, you can just install a latest official version of NVIDIA’s ForceWare.
The NX6800GT delivered an excellent-quality picture in all resolutions up to 1600x1200@85Hz and 1800x1400@75Hz. So you can use this card for work in highest display modes supported by your monitor.
We performed our tests on the following testbed:
Besides the MSI NX6800GT we also tested the following graphics cards:
Following our traditional methodology, we enabled the ForceWare optimizations, except the Anisotropic mip filter optimization. The Image settings slider was set to the Quality position. In ATI’s Catalyst we enabled Catalyst A.I. using the Standard mode. The Mipmap Detail Level option was set to Quality. We disabled the VSync option in both drivers.
If possible, we control FSAA and anisotropic filtering from the application. Otherwise, we force the necessary mode from the driver. We don’t edit any configuration files. The graphics quality settings in the games were set to the maximum level, the same for graphics cards from NVIDIA and ATI Technologies. The following games and applications were used:
First Person 3D Shooters:
Third Person 3D Shooters:
As a GeForce6 card should, the MSI NX6800GT shows a superb performance in Doom 3 , being second to the GeForce 6800 Ultra only. When overclocked, the NX6800GT is the fastest card in this test, even counting the topmost GeForce6 model in.
We get the same results in the 4x FSAA + 16x AF mode, and even 1280x1024 resolution is comfortably playable.
It’s all the same on the d3dm4 map as on Hellhole with the only difference that the frame rates are overall higher on this multiplayer map which lacks any monsters.
The RADEON X850 XT PE manages to give out the same frame rate as the MSI card in the “eye candy” mode, but overclocking makes the latter card an unrivalled leader. But it is just a well-established fact that Doom 3 has a liking towards NVIDIA’s cards due to certain features of the game engine and to the use of the OpenGL API.
We can’t see any difference between the participating graphics cards in the “pure speed” mode.
The difference also evades us in the “eye candy” mode, yet we can discern that the GeForce 6 family is inferior to the RADEON X8 series in 1600x1200. The MSI NX6800GT at its default frequencies is only capable of competing with the RADEON X800 XL.
The Metallurgy map outlines the gaps between the graphics cards more clearly, and in all resolutions, excepting 1024x768, we see the NX6800GT have a higher speed than even the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition.
The MSI card performs well enough even after we enable full-screen anti-aliasing with anisotropic filtering, but it drops back to the level of the RADEON X800 XL in 1600x1200, while the more advanced RADEON models go ahead thanks to their efficient memory controller and high operational frequencies.
Just like Doom 3 , The Chronicles can efficiently use some specific features of GeForce6 series chips, so the MSI NX6800 GT is ahead of all RADEON X800/X850 devices and – at the overclocked frequencies – ahead of the GeForce 6800 Ultra, too.
The overall picture is the same in the “eye candy” mode: the GeForce6 cards (the NV6800 GT among them) run this game at a higher speed than the RADEON X800/X850 cards do, making resolutions up to 1280x1024 playable. With ATI’s cards, the frame rate is comfortable in 1024x767 only.
The first level of Far Cry isn’t too complex in terms of geometry but is rich in pixel shaders that draw the water. Thus, the frequency of the GPU is most important here, and the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition, the highest-frequency processor present, wins this test. The MSI NX6800GT, on the contrary, has the lowest default GPU frequency (350MHz only) of all the participating cards, but overclocking to 435MHz helps it get closer to the results of the RADEON X850 XT.
In the “eye candy” mode it is more difficult to challenge the RADEON X850 even at overclocking – the NX6800GT is only on the level of the RADEON X800 XL. At its default frequencies the MSI card is the slowest in this test.
The Research map is the opposite of Pier. There are no open vistas here but only caves. The scene is geometrically difficult and is made even more complex through the use of per-pixel lighting. The Shader Model 3.0 mode is at its highest efficiency here, so the GeForce6 cards look more confident than on the Pier map. Particularly, the overclocked MSI NX6800GT is abreast to the high-frequency monster RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition. Well, even working at its default frequencies the MSI card is no more than 8-12% behind the RADEON X850 XT.
Graphics cards from the GeForce6 series don’t give up the fight even after we enable full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering. The MSI NX6800GT successfully contends with the RADEON X800 XL despite the lower GPU frequency.
This game isn’t complex enough to load top-end graphics cards in the “pure speed” mode.
Only the highest resolution (1600x1200) can show us any differences between the graphics cards in the “eye candy” mode. The NV6800GT at its default frequencies delivers the same speed as the RADEON X800 XT does.
The speed of the game on the Canals maps depends largely on the pixel shader performance of the graphics card. No wonder then that the RADEON X800/X850 series cards are in the lead. Overclocking gives some speed bonus to the NV6800GT in 1600x1200 only.
The GeForce6 cards perform better in the “eye candy” mode. They are no worse than the RADEON X850 in 1280x1024 and become leaders in 1600x1200.
The d3_c17_02 map isn’t as complex as d1_canals_12 . It doesn’t have any water, but includes a fight scene which loads the graphics card’s vertex processors, and the central processor, too. Since the performance of the vertex units directly depends on the frequency of the card, the ATI RADEON X850 cards win this test.
It’s all the same in the “eye candy” mode: the ATI RADEON X850 XT PE/X850 XT are still on top, while the overclocked MSI NX6800GT can only rival the RADEON X800 XL.
The demo version of F.E.A.R. we use in our tests can make use of such advantages of the NV4x architecture as Shader Model 3.0, for example. That’s why the GeForce6 series cards look preferable here, even though they do not yield more than 50fps in the lowest resolution. The game is just too demanding about the performance of the graphics card as well as of the central processor. It’s simply impossible to get an acceptable frame rate in higher resolutions using the maximum graphics quality settings.
The GeForce6 are in the lead in the “eye candy” mode, too, even though they offer no more than 30 frames per second in 1024x768. It seems like you’ll have to forget about full-screen anti-aliasing if you want to play F.E.A.R. at the highest settings.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow presents nothing exceptional for modern top-end graphics hardware, so it is difficult to say which device is better here. Note that the GeForce6 family outperforms the RADEON X850 series in low resolutions and that all the cards, except the RADEON X800 XL and the MSI NX6800 GT, have the same speed of 55-57fps in 1600x1200 (we want to remind you that this shooter has no built-in benchmarking tools and we have to test it using the FRAPS utility; it means the results may be inaccurate a little).
In Price of Persia , on the contrary, ATI’s RADEON X850/X800 have an advantage. The MSI NX6800GT enjoys the highest overclocking gain here, about 20%. This game is tested manually, so the numbers should be regarded as approximate rather than absolutely accurate.
The IL-2 games use the OpenGL API, so the NVIDIA GeForce6 cards have an advantage due to their more efficient OpenGL driver. The MSI NX6800GT even outperforms the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition and is beyond competition in the overclocked mode.
The gap between the GeForce Ultra and the overclocked MSI NX6800GT on one side and the rest of the participating devices on the other is wider in the “eye candy” mode. Overclocking gives the NX6800GT a 30% speed boost. The overclocked NX6800GT allows you to play 1280x1024 resolution comfortably.
Lock On prefers GeForce6 series cards, too. Yet at the maximum graphics quality settings this game is too slow on any card – there can be no talk about playability.
The results of all the cards are roughly the same. But again, you can’t play with comfort at a frame rate of 18-20fps.
This game creates its special effects with pixel shaders, so modern RADEONs run it faster than their GeForce 6x00 counterparts. The MSI NX6800GT doesn’t have a single chance in Colin McRae Rally 2005 , although overclocking improves its performance noticeably.
When we enable full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, graphics cards with the NV45 on board fall even farther behind the ATI RADEON X850 and X800.
Working at the default frequencies, the MSI card equals the RADEON X800 XL, but when overclocked it easily overtakes the GeForce 6800 Ultra to become a leader in the first two resolutions. In 1600x1200 the NX6800GT successfully rivals the senior RADEON X850 model.
ATI’s cards are better at doing full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering than their rivals, as a rule, because of their highly efficient memory controller. Here, however, we have an opposite situation: the GeForce6 cards are all on top in the “eye candy” mode. Note that only resolutions up to 1280x1024 are really playable.
The NX6800GT challenges the RADEON X850 XT in the first two resolutions, but slows down in 1600x1200 (yet it is still ahead of the RADEON X800 XL). Overclocking helps the MSI card keep on the same level with the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition. Don’t forget that this real-time strategy is a very demanding game. If you select the maximum graphics quality settings, you’ll have to play in low resolutions, even on a top-end graphics card. Otherwise the game is going to be too slow.
The GeForce6 family cards look even better against their ATI rivals in the “eye candy” mode of this game. Here, the MSI NX6800GT outperforms the ATI RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition even in 1600x1200, although by no more than 1 frame per second.
Overclocking adds some more speed to the MSI NX6800GT, but it’s still not enough to catch up with the RADEON X800 XL at the least. This test evidently prefers graphics cards of the RADEON X850 and X800 families.
In Aquamark3 the NX6800GT performs just like the RADEON X800 XL, and the overclocked MSI card is almost as fast as the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition which has much higher default frequencies.
The RADEONs are far ahead their competitors in the 4x FSAA + 16x AF mode. Even overclocking can’t help the NX6800GT here: the MSI card is only comparable with the RADEON X800 XL in 1024x768. In other resolutions it is slower than the X800 XL by about 25% (at the default frequencies) and by 7-10% (at the overclocked frequencies).
The MSI NX6800GT scores 656 points more than the RADEON X800 XL, its immediate market rival, in 3DMark03. At the overclocked frequencies it stops a mere 123 points short of the 13,000 mark. Let’s now examine the results of each of the subtests.
Using only DirectX 7 functions, the first test employs just a fraction of what modern graphics hardware can offer. The GeForce6 series cards feel well enough in such conditions since they have a special unit for processing fixed T&L commands. Despite the relatively low core frequency, the MSI NX6800GT easily keeps on the same level with the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition. When we overclock the core of the MSI card to 435MHz, it leaves even the GeForce 6800 Ultra behind and wins the test.
The MSI solution doesn’t look that good in the eye candy mode where it has to compete with the RADEON X800 XL. However, once we overclock it, the NX6800GT catches up with RADEON X850 XT/XT Platinum Edition.
The second test makes use of the architectural features of the NV4x core, but the low frequency prevents the NV6800GT from rivaling senior RADEON models, even though the MSI card is ahead of the RADEON X800 XL.
It’s better in the “eye candy” mode: the MSI NX6800GT is similar to the much more expensive RADEON X850 XT except 1600x1200 where the latter is greatly aided by the high frequencies and the efficient memory controller.
The NX6800GT and the RADEON X850 XT have almost the same speed in 1024x768 resolution of the third test, but the MSI card falls behind in higher resolutions, but never below the level of the RADEON X800 XL.
The general picture is the same in the “eye candy” mode, but the speeds are lower. Overclocking is so profitable that the overclocked MSI can successfully rival the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition.
The fourth test makes use of version 2.0 pixel shaders, which are executed faster on modern RADEONs than on NV4x-based graphics cards. The RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition meets no competition here, while the MSI NX6800GT sinks to the last place. Overclocking helps it outperform the RADEON X800 XL, though.
The NX6800GT isn’t brilliant in the “eye candy” mode, either. It is slower than the RADEON X800 XL in all resolutions, but overclocking lifts it up to the level of the RADEON X850 XT. So, the overall score of the MSI NX6800GT card in 3DMark03 is correct: this card is inferior to the RADEON X800 XL in one test only.
Alas, it’s not all so good for the MSI card in the new version of 3DMark. The MSI NX6800GT has a smaller score than the RADEON X800 XL, and it’s only through overclocking that it can overcome the barrier of 5,000 points.
You can see it right from the first test that the MSI NX6800GT is the slowest among the participating cards, even though it is very close to the RADEON X800 XL in 1600x1200. When overclocked, the NX6800GT rises up to the level of the RADEON X850 XT.
It’s all roughly the same in the “eye candy” mode.
The MSI card performs better in the second test where it equals the performance of the RADEON X800 XL. Overclocking gives the NX6800GT such a big impact that it becomes capable of competing with the RADEON X850 XT and is very close to the results of the RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition.
The overall picture changes a little when we turn on full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering: the NX6800GT goes abreast to the RADEON X800 XL in the first two resolutions, but its memory controller cannot cope with the increased load in 1600x1200 anymore. Overclocking is less rewarding here than when anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering were off.
The last test is the hardest of the three, being filled with abnormally complex pixel shaders. The low frequency of the GPU hamstrings the MSI NS6800GT: despite the support of Shader Model 3.0, the card is a little slower than the RADEON X800 XL.
When full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are both in use, the MSI card quite successfully competes with the same RADEON X800 XL in all resolutions, including 1600x1200, and – when overclocked – with the RADEON X850 XT.
Thus, we should acknowledge the fact that the RADEON X800 XL is generally better in 3DMark05 than the MSI NX6800GT.
The MSI NX6800GT-T2D256E graphics card would be a perfect device if it were not for some small but still unpleasant defects that all pertain to MSI’s exclusive cooling system called CopperUltra. Yes, the system boasts the highest cooling efficiency achieved at a relatively low level of noise, but the fan of our sample would produce a quiet but irritating rattling sound at the minimum speed. It is however possible that this is just a defect of our particular sample of the card, so we don’t take it too seriously.
The main problem with the CopperUltra to us is in the unreliable fastening. More exactly, in the fragile screws that can be beheaded just too easily. It is not much of a trouble if you don’t remove the cooler, but the die of the HSI chip lacks any thermal interface and if you want to amend this deficiency, you may break some of the screws that fasten the cooler. On the other hand, the CopperUltra system is very compact and you do not lose the expansion slot that’s located right under the graphics card’s one which you do with low-noise GeForce 6800 GT models from other manufacturers.
Another indisputable advantage of the MSI NX6800GT-T2D256E is its rich accessories, especially the software pack. Only graphics cards from ASUS can probably boast accessories like these, but even ASUS doesn’t put so much software into the package. You won’t also have to lose two Molex connectors (the NX6800GT has two appropriate splitters), but the cable for connecting the card to a TV-set is to be purchased separately.
As for the performance of the card, there is not much to talk about: it’s just another GeForce 6800 GT. The graphics card feels at ease in modern games, sometimes being inferior to the RADEON X800 XL in FSAA + anisotropic filtering modes, but it supports such features as Shader Model 3.0 and floating-point color which the RADEON lacks. This fact makes the MSI NV6800GT a preferable choice for people who are interested in upcoming games. Don’t forget the support of the multi-GPU SLI technology, too. Having a SLI-compatible mainboard and a sufficient amount of money, you can buy a second NX6800GT to get a ragingly fast and – what’s very important – rather quiet gaming computer.