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GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview
Date: May 12, 2003
Author: HH Editor
GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview - Page 1

The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 
A Preview And Performance Analysis With NVIDIA's New Killer

By - Dave Altavilla
May 12, 2003

Here we are again, with another installment of my pixel is faster than yours.  Why is it that Graphics Cards create so much buzz in the PC Enthusiast market?  Perhaps it's because Processors, Motherboards, Memory and Drives are just a little too sterile, in terms of the what Marketing Weasels can spin up for the general public?  We here at HotHardware, actually get fairly jazzed up about a next generation Motherboard Chipset or CPU but then again, some of us don't get out much.  Companies like Intel, AMD, SiS and VIA, do an excellent job of marketing obviously, creating brand name recognition in the industry.  However, like Intel's Pentium 4, even the average Joe, buying a pre-built Dell or Gateway PC, has a clue what a GeForce or a Radeon is.  Yes sir, Graphics Cards are just plain sexy, well depending on your perspective anyway.

On the other hand, designing, building and marketing a 3D Graphics Card, is a tough gig these days.  End users are getting more savvy, when it comes to features and frame rates.  Next generation game engines are getting more realistic and demanding with each new title.  Price points continue to drive downward, eating into profits.  Finally, the ASIC design and manufacturing process for these new Graphics Processors, is really beginning to require bleeding edge technology and "bleeding edge" is usually not synonymous with the high volume production levels required in this market.  And so we came to realize NVIDIA's immense heartburn over their failed attempt at their next generation flagship GPU, the NV30.  Although the NV30 had all the makings of a competitive product, cost structures and heat dissipation issues hampered the new chip, which was also well over 6 months late to the market.  As such, NVIDIA planned low quantity production runs, in an effort to push the NV30 out the door as more of a noise maker, both literally and figuratively.  The writing was on the wall; NV30 was simply not a volume production vehicle.  NVIDIA had to react quickly, spin the chip and in turn, minimize collateral damage that was being done by their rival ATi, with their wildly successful Radeon 9700/9800 product lines.

Today, NVIDIA's launches their "end game" for the flagship GeForce FX GPU, the NV35 or GeForce FX 5900 Ultra.  That is to say, that with everything the NV30 should have been, NVIDIA hopes to win the hearts of the enthusiast back with this Spring refresh product.  In an effort to finally knock ATi off their perch in high end 3D Graphics, NVIDIA has turned this revamped NV35 architecture on a dime and moved to tweak image quality issues, that were plaguing current driver revisions.

Today, we'll try to show you how far NVIDIA has come, with the GeForce FX 5900 and whether they have a new "killer" product in their arsenal.


Specifications & Features of the NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra
What the NV30 should have been...
NV35 and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra:
.13u Manufacturing Process
256-Bit GPU - 450MHz Clock Speed
Flip-Chip BGA Package with copper interconnects
Up To 8 Pixels Per Clock Processing
1 TMU Per Pipe (16 Textures per unit)
256-bit Memory Architecture
CineFX 2.0 for Cinematic Special Effects
"UltraShadow" Hardware Shadow Acceration
2x floating point pixel shader performance of NV30
256-bit Memory Architecture
256MB of DDR/DDR2
2nd Generation compression & caching
256MB High Speed Frame Buffer
AGP 4X/8x
Full DirectX 9.0 & OpenGL Support

CineFX 2.0 for Cinematic Special Effects
Intellisample HCT -

Next Generation Antialiasing, Anisotropic Filtering and Compression
Hardware Acceleration for Shadows
Full DX9 Compliance
64-Bit Floating-Point Color
128-Bit Floating-Point Color
2 x 400MHz Internal RAMDACs
Long Program length for Pixel and Vertex Shading
Unified Vertex and Pixel Shading instruction set
Unified Driver Architecture
nView 2.0 - Multi-Display Technology
Digital Vibrance Control 3.0


850MHz DDR
256-Bit Bus Width
128MB & 256MB Memory Capacity
3rd. Generation Lightspeed Memory Architecture
Effective bandwidth - 27.2GB/s actual @ 850MHz













For this article, we had the opportunity to work with a pre-production board and as such, this piece should only be considered a "preview" for what is to come with the retail product.  Our GFFX 5900 Ultra board is noticeably longer than the retail board, that is shown in the pictures above the specification section at the top of this page.  However, clock speeds, specifications and performance should all be identical to the retail product.    Our preview board shown here, is actually within ATX specifications but the retail reference design will be 1 inch shorter, about the length of the Leadtek Winfast A300 board in the picture above this section. 

The major difference between NV30 and NV35 (or GFFX 5800 Ultra and GFFX 5900 Ultra) is the memory bus width.  The NV35 is equipped with a 256 bit wide memory bus, for twice the bandwidth clock for clock versus the NV30.  However, the GFFX 5800 Ultra's memory is 150MHz faster than the NV35's, at 1GHz, versus 850MHz DDR for the GFFX 5900 Ultra.  Regardless, the GFFX 5900 Ultra has a crushing 27.1GB per second memory bandwidth spec, versus the 16GB/sec levels found in the NV30 and 21.8GB/sec found in the Radeon 9800 Pro.  This should bode well for the NV35 in high resolution and AA testing.

NVIDIA has also tweaked their "CineFX" Engine (now version 2.0) and the NV35 now boasts 2X the Pixel Shader performance of the NV30, with this new chip.  They've also optimized and tweak their image quality Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering engine a bit, now calling it "Intellisample HCT".  Finally, NVIDIA also added hardware processing support for shadow acceleration, which we'll cover in detail shortly for you.  Other than that, the NV35 has all the DX9 ready feature set of the NV30 and more, with a few optimization here and there.

A Note On Noise Levels:
We know, you're already wondering about the fan noise aren't you?  Suffice it to say that, although this fan is far from "quiet", it is significantly quieter than the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra's setup.  The fan does spin up during 3D game play but it is very much bearable and once installed inside a closed chassis, it's relatively quiet.  Is it as quiet as the HSF assembly found on a Radeon 9800 or 9700 card?  No, it definitely is not.  However, it's completely tolerable and should only offend the shrewdest of "Silent PC" enthusiasts.  Finally, as you can see, NVIDIA needed to stick with the two slot design with this card, since the heat sink assembly is beyond standard AGP/PCI slot spacing.  However, remember this is a reference board we're testing here.  3rd party OEMs could possibly deliver something in a single slot design, when this board hits retail.


New Product Line, New Features


GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview - Page 2

The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 
A Preview And Performance Analysis With NVIDIA's New Killer

By - Dave Altavilla
May 12, 2003


As with every new major Graphics launch, NVIDIA has prepared yet another technology demo for their new flagship GPU.  Behold, NVIDIA's "Vulcan"... Slightly more demonic by nature, than the NV30's sexy, nubile and flirtatious "Dawn", Vulcan displays an impressive rendering effect that has been challenging to perfect for many Game Developers.

NVIDIA Tech Demo - The Vulcan
Fire, Fire!   Arggh Arggh....


The effect of fire and especially its motion, like water, is very hard to replicate with computer animation.  Like water, fire is a fluid uncontrolled element that originates from a source but rarely repeats its movements, at least in nature anyway.  There is an interesting issue with many things in nature, in that they are very difficult to duplicate digitally on the screen.  Objects, such as trees, grass, fire, wind and water are all very challenging for the 3D Graphics artist and computer animator. Vulcan's is a creature that emanates fire form within its body and outward.  These images hardly do him justice however.  We're hopeful that NVIDIA will release the demo publicly, so you can see him in motion for yourself.  It is truly impressive to watch.  Vulcan's fire is easily the best looking fire we've seen to date, in any real-time computer animation effect.

Detonator FX  Drivers Version 44.03
Streamlined, Neat and Clean

NVIDIA hasn't changed their Detonator FX drivers much in the last few releases.  The version we tested is very similar to the 43.45 version that has been on NVIDIA's site for some time now.  Regardless, we've captured the essence of them and the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card behind them, for you here.




Frankly, we're sort of torn, around the HH Labs, with respect to which driver suite we prefer, NVIDIA's or ATi's.  This version of the Detonator FX drivers, is very streamline and easy to use, with only one set of image quality controls for both D3D and OpenGL.  For D3D you have up to 8X AA available to you now, with the NV30 and NV35, as well as 4XS and 6XS mode, for additional texture sharpening that is sometimes needed in scenes that are blurred slightly from AA's smoothing effects.  In OpenGL, you have up to 8X available as well but only have the option of running in 4X mode below the 8X level, as 6XS is not available for OpenGL gaming.

There are also specific and dedicated clock sliders available, with the help of NVIDIA's "Coolbits" registry tweak, one for 2D or desktop clock speeds and one slider for 3D control as well.  These settings also work in conjunction with the Heat Sink and Fan assembly on the card and throttle the fan up slightly during game-play.  Again, fan speed and noise factor is very manageable with this card, so it's not all that surprising that NVIDIA carried this approach forward, with respect to thermal management.  Incidentally, the 48C temp you see in the temperature control panel above, is indicative of the reading we took after about 1/2 hour of in-game testing with the card and on a open test bench environment.

Image Quality Testing - "Intellisample HCT"  On Display - Anisotropic Filtering
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The first aspect of image quality we'll explore with the NV35, is Anisotropic Filtering.  This is a method of sharpening textures in a rendered scene, thus providing more detailed and vivid textures on visible surfaces.  All of the following in game screen shots, were taken at 1024X768 resolution and converted to very low compression JPEGs.  Analog modem users may want to take note of the large file size while downloading.  Also, we suggest you switch your desktop resolution to 1024X768, in order to view these images at their proper scale.

Ansiotropic Filtering Tests - Quake 3 Arena:

All Shots Taken In Quality Mode For Both Cards

NV35 No AF

NV35 2X AF

R9800 2X AF

NV35 4X AF

R9800 4X AF

NV35 8X AF

R9800 8X AF

R9800 16X AF

To the naked eye, the NV35's Aniso Filtering is on par, setting for setting, with ATi's.  There is a very slight advantage in 4X mode, for ATi here but the difference is completely negligible and really this gets into a very subjective topic.  You decide which you like better but for us it's pretty much a toss up.  Incidentally, 16X AF with the ATi card, is barely an improvement over 8X levels it seems, at least with respect to Quake 3's textures.


Color Mip Levels Activated

NV35 No AF
NV35 2X AF
R9800 2X AF
NV35 4X AF
R9800 4X AF
 NV35 8X AF
 R9800 8X AF

 R9800 16X AF


NV35 Performance Mode Shots

NV35 4X AF
Perf.  Mip

NV35 4X AF Perf.

With Color Mip Levels enabled in Quake 3, we're able to see exactly how much work each card is doing in a given scene.  As you can see here, it's pretty much a horse race but there is an ever so slight nod given to the Radeon card here, especially at 8X levels.  At 16 AF, the Radeon is clearly sharpening textures further off in the distance, which should equate to a sharper scene overall.  However again, don't let this test sway your judgment too much.  You don't play the game this way, so this test is merely for sake of discussion here and to highlight the differences between the two cards.  At end of the day, the standard mode shots we've shown you first, are what you'll be observing during game play. 

Finally, we enabled "Performance Mode" for the NV35, in order to show you the differences in the mip level blending for this setting.  Clearly the transitions aren't as smooth as quality mode.  However, fire up the same 4X setting in the quality shots above and A/B them on your screen.  Can you see the difference?  It is ever so slight but the Quality mode shots do look sharper at the far end of the scene.  Look at the floor textures for the tell tale details.  ATi's performance mode settings look pretty much the same as well, when you enable Color Mip Levels on Q3.  So again overall, it's pretty much a toss up between AF and the two top contenders. 

Let's look at Anti-Aliasing.



GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview - Page 3

The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 
A Preview And Performance Analysis With NVIDIA's New Killer

By - Dave Altavilla
May 12, 2003


HotHardware.com Test Setup
Pentium 4, Canterwood and 4 killer Graphics Cards

Before we jump into the benchmarks, please take a look at our system test setup and specs below.  It is important to note that we have only tested an ATi Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB card in the following benchmarks.  ATi's latest 256MB DDR2 based R9800 board did not make it to our lab in time for testing in this article.  As such, we will be coming back with a side by side benchmark comparison of the 256MB Radeon 9800 Pro card, later this week, for a proper apples to apples comparison.  With that said, let's get it on!

Pentium 4 Processors at 3GHz  - 800MHz System Bus
Motherboard and RAM Config
Abit IC7-G "Canterwood" Motherboard
512MB of Kingston HyperX PC3500 CAS 2 RAM
CAS Timings were 2-2-2-5
NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra  256MB
NVIDIA GeForce FX 5800 Ultra  128MB
ATi Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB
ATi Radeon 9700 Pro 128MB

Other Hardware and Software:
Seagate Barracuda V SATA 120GB HD
Windows XP Professional w/ SP1
NVIDIA Detonator FX Drivers Version 44.03
ATi Catalyst 3.2 Drivers
Intel Release Chipset Driver  v5.00.1012
Intel Applications Accelerator RAID Edition v3.0.0.229

3DMark 2001 SE and 3DMark 2003
The Angry Onion And The FutureMark  Tests

Interestingly enough, 3DMark 2001 at 1024X768 res, gives a slight edge to the Radeon 9800 Pro, until your enable AA.  Then the NV35 clearly takes the lead.  This could point to a bit of driver immaturity for the GFFX 5900 Ultra but that is to be expected, since we're about a month away from official release of the card.

At high res and with 4X AA enabled, the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra really begins to distance itself from the Radeon 9800 Pro, by almost 1000 points.  In terms of AA performance, the 5800 Ultra is clearly bringing up the rear here.


3DMark 2003 gives a clean sweep to the NVIDIA cards here and the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra takes the lead handily by over 400 marks.  If NVIDIA was unhappy with the fact that they had to optimize drivers for a benchmark that, in their opinion, was not representative of real-world game rendering, then they certainly re-prioritized their efforts.  What is interesting is that the NV30 and NV35 are within a couple hundred points of each other.


Quake 3 Arena and Serious Sam SE

GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview - Page 4

The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 
A Preview And Performance Analysis With NVIDIA's New Killer

By - Dave Altavilla
May 12, 2003


Why not get our Quake 3 Arena on?  This dinosaur of a game engine still looks decent at high resolution, with all the eye candy turn up to max.  This is exactly how we tested with Q3, of course.

Quake 3 and Serious Sam SE Testing
Old Game Engines Die Hard

There is a very interesting story being told here in these Quake 3 benchmarks.  The NV35 is on top by small margins, without AA or Aniso enabled.  This is indicative of a more CPU limited condition than anything else.  However, turn on 4X AA and the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra surges past the R9800 Pro by 16 - 27%, depending on the resolution.  Yet when we enable Aniso Filtering, the gap closes dramatically, with the GFFX 5900 U losing out to the R9800 Pro at 1024 and pulling ahead by only a small percentage at 1600X1200.  This is indicative with the struggle NVIDIA is still having with respect to performance optimizations in their Anisotropic Filtering techniques.


Even at high res, Serious Sam SE just isn't taxing enough on these high end graphics cards.  However, turn on AA and you begin to separate the men from the boys, where the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra takes the lead with a 10 to 16% gain over the Radeon 9800 Pro.


Comanche 4 and Unreal Tournament 2003

GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview - Page 5

The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 
A Preview And Performance Analysis With NVIDIA's New Killer

By - Dave Altavilla
May 12, 2003


Sliding back into Direct X game play, we have Comanche 4 from Novalogic, a Military Copter Sim that is big on pretty graphics and fun factor but light on realism.

Comanche 4 and Unreal Tournament 2003 Testing
Direct X 8 Gaming At Its Finest


Once again, this test is definitely CPU limited and even our fast 3GHz P4 Canterwood setup can't drive the polys fast enough to allow these cards to stretch their legs.  However, the NV35 is taking a short nap here and only pulls ahead of the Radeon 9800 Pro at 1600X1200 with AA enabled.  We're not sure why this is but again, we would have to point to driver optimization as the cure.


Unreal Tournament is a lot more demanding on the Graphic subsystem as well as the CPU.  We ran some high quality optimized fly by demos in the Antalus map, for some high resolution, high IQ gaming benchmarks.

Again the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra roars past the Radeon 9800 Pro by a solid 20% but the gap closes when 8X Aniso Filtering is enabled and the lead drops to 14%.  Surprisingly, the NV30 is holding up fairly well here too, versus a R9700 Pro.

Now here's a twist, we're exposed to a crushing 32% lead by the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra at 1600X1200 without AA or AF running.  However, turn on 4X AA and the R9800 Pro gets right in the rear view mirror of the GFFX 5900 Ultra.  Enable 8X AF on top of that and the Radeon 9800 Pro squeaks by.  As the old saying goes, "what's up with that"?  We did this to show you the effect high levels of Ansio Filtering have on the NVIDIA cards.  At 8X AF, the wind is really taken out of the NV35's sails.  NVIDIA still seems to have some work to do, as far as AA and AF goes, both in IQ and in driver optimization.  Having said that, in our opinion, 4X AF is the sweet spot, in terms of image quality and frame rate trade offs.

Speaking of optimization, did someone say overclocking?

Overclocking and The Wrap-Up

GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview - Page 6

The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 
A Preview And Performance Analysis With NVIDIA's New Killer

By - Dave Altavilla
May 12, 2003


You certainly have to posses some serious intestinal fortitude, if you are going to overclock a $499 Graphics Card.  However, somebody has to do it and why not let that somebody be us?  We're masochists deep down I guess, here at HotHardware.

Overclocking The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra
Coolbits making it hot...

Coolbits Registry Tweak
GeForce FX 5900 Ultra
Overclocking Results

4X AA and 8X Anisotropic Filtering Enabled

We'll take another 12% gain with full stability any day of the week.  As you can see, we were able to overclock the core GPU nicely, 55MHz over spec and the memory 116MHz over its stock speed.  This was achieved without a single lock up or image artifact during an hour long testing loop.  We're not sure if this is indicative of retail product capabilities but it certainly is promising.


Final Analysis

Now that we've shown you all the intricate details, with regards to image quality and benchmarks, what can we say about NVIDIA's new baby?  Well, we have to be careful here.  At $499 ESP we can be fairly tough critics.  At this price tag, we want our AA as crisp if not crisper than anything else on the market.  However, it seems NVIDIA's current Anti-Aliasing quality is slightly less sharp than ATi's, depending on the setting.  In addition, we would want Aniso Filtering nearly for free but as we've seen in more stressful testing, NVIDIA's GPU takes a more sizeable hit than ATi's Radeon 9800, although it manages to keep the lead in most tests.  Again, a new set of drivers could change the picture completely and literally.  Also remember, we tested the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, which will retail for $499, versus an ATi Radeon 9800 Pro, which retails for $399, a 256MB card versus a 128MB card.  Will users realize a return on their investment of that extra $100?  That's a tough call.  We're very interested in seeing what speeds and feeds NVIDIA will run on their $399 128MB GeForce FX 5900 (non Ultra) card.  If NV keeps the clocks speeds up and just de-pops the memory down to 128MB, the 5900 "standard" could be a real looker.

All told, the NV35 is a very competitive product that surpassed ATi's current high end offering by a significant margin, in almost every test we ran.  We'll be coming back to a side by side with the 256MB R9800 card but all indications are that the extra 128MB of lower latency memory didn't buy the new Radeon 9800 Pro all that much.  For now, we're impressed with the potential the NV35 has to offer.  If NVIDIA's excellent track record for driver optimizations holds true, we'll see incremental performance increases in the near future for the NV35 and hopefully they'll tighten up that AA a bit too.  With a few board OEMs growing their own cooling solutions, things could get really exciting for the NV35 and it's various flavors, this summer.  The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is officially slated to hit volume in June.  ATi is now talking openly about a "Summer refresh" with their high end R350 products, so we'll have to see how the chips fall then.  However for now, NVIDIA has taken back the raw performance lead in the high end PC Graphic arena.  Welcome back NVIDIA; let the games begin.


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GeForce FX 5900 Ultra Preview Page 7

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