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GeForce 7 Series Round-up with Asus & MSI
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Date: Dec 15, 2006
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction

 

  The recent release of the GeForce 8800 series means two good things for those in NVIDIA's camp: for benchmark junkies there's a new set of cards to put through their paces. And for those with less lofty goals, it means that that the prices for the existing crop of card should soon start dropping.  Thus, it's a win-win situation for everyone involved - the buyers, the shops, and, of course, NVIDIA itself.

Shopping for a GeForce 7 card is akin to stopping at Baskin Robbins these days, with so many flavors to choose from.  We decided to grab one of those little plastic spoons and do a little of the sampling for you.  Up for today's taste test are MSI's NX7900GT-VT2D256E-HD, a pre-overclocked 7900 GT also featuring HDCP support, and two cards from Asus: the EN7900GS TOP/2DHT/256M/A and the EN7950GT/HTDP/512M/A.  The former card also comes overclocked by default, and by a large margin, while the latter card sports 512MB of RAM as well as HDCP support (all 7950 GTs come with this as a standard).  

      

      

NVIDIA's GeForce 7 Series: Features & Specs
A flavor for every taste
NVIDIA CineFX 4.0 Shading Architecture

Vertex Shaders
Support for Microsoft DirectX 9.0 Vertex Shader 3.0
Displacement mapping
Geometry instancing
Infinite length vertex programs


Pixel Shaders
Support for DirectX 9.0 Pixel Shader 3.0
Full pixel branching support
Support for Multiple Render Targets (MRTs)
Infinite length pixel programs

Next-Generation Texture Engine
Accelerated texture access
Up to 16 textures per rendering pass
Support for 16-bit floating point format and 32-bit floating point format
Support for non-power of two textures
Support for sRGB texture format for gamma textures
DirectX and S3TC texture compression


._Full 128-bit studio-quality floating point precision through the entire rendering pipeline with native hardware support for 32bpp, 64bpp, and 128bpp rendering modes


NVIDIA Intellisample 4.0 Technology

._Advanced 16x anisotropic filtering (with up to 128 Taps)
._Blistering- fast antialiasing and compression performance
._Gamma-adjusted rotated-grid antialiasing removes jagged edges for incredible image quality
._Transparent multisampling and transparent supersampling modes boost antialiasing quality to new levels
._Support for normal map compression
._Support for advanced lossless compression algorithms for color, texture, and z-data at even higher resolutions and frame rates
._Fast z-clear

NVIDIA UltraShadow II Technology
._Designed to enhance the performance of shadow-intensive games

64-Bit Texture Filtering and Blending

._Delivers true high dynamic-range (HDR) lighting support
._Full floating point support throughout entire pipeline
._Floating point filtering improves the quality of images in motion
._Floating point texturing drives new levels of clarity and image detail
._Floating point frame buffer blending gives detail to special effects like motion blur and explosions

API Support
. Complete DirectX support, including the latest version of Microsoft DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 3.0
._Full OpenGL support, including OpenGL 2.0


NVIDIA Digital Vibrance Control (DVC) 3.0 Technology
._DVC color controls
._DVC image sharpening controls

NVIDIA SLI Technology
._Patented hardware and software technology allows two GPUs to run in parallel to scale performance
._Scales performance on over 60 top PC games and applications


NVIDIA PureVideo Technology
._Dedicated on-chip video processor
._High-definition H.264, MPEG2 and WMV9 decode acceleration
._Advanced spatial-temporal de-interlacing
._Inverse telecine (2:2 and 3:2 pull-down correction)
._High-quality video scaling
._Video color correction
._Microsoft Video Mixing Renderer (VMR) supports multiple video windows with full video quality and features in each window

Composited Desktop Hardware Engine
._Video post-processing
._Real-time desktop compositing
._Accelerated antialiased text rendering
._Pixel shader-driven special effects and animation

Advanced Display Functionality
._Dual integrated 400MHz RAMDACs for display resolutions up to and including 2048x1536 at 85Hz
._Dual-link DVI capability to drive the industry's largest and highest resolution digital flat panel displays up to 2560x1600
._Integrated HDTV encoder provides analog TV-output (Component/Composite/S-Video) up to 1080i resolution
._Full NVIDIA nView multi-display technology capability

Advanced Engineering
._Designed for PCI Express x16
._Designed for high-speed GDDR3 memory

Operating Systems
._Windows XP/XP 64/ME/2000
._Built for Microsoft Windows Vista
._Linux
._Macintosh OS X


 


Let's stop here for a quick reminder of what GeForce 7 Series is and isn't.  In the table below we've included the default options for the 7900 GS and 7900 GT, and then the updated specs of all three of the cards in today's round-up:

 

First off, we'll make the point that the EN7950GT does not have a comparison column.  There is no difference in core or memory speeds between Asus' model and a stock card from any other manufacturer.  That being said, the amount of memory is double and the speeds are typically faster than 7900 GT cards.  The NX7900GT and EN7900GS TOP both come overclocked from the manufacturer, with both the core and memory speeds tweaked up a notch.  MSI's card is clocked 50MHz higher on the core and 40MHz on the memory, while Asus really pushes the envelope, going 140MHz over the default speed of the 7900 GS, with an additional 60MHz on the GDDR3 RAM.  These extra speeds will provide some brute force for the EN7900GS TOP, as the GS model enters the battle with a bit of a handicap, having 4 fewer pixel shaders and 1 less vertex shader than the 7900 GT and 7950 GT models. 

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MSI NX7900GT-VT2D256E-HD

 

 

MSI NX7900GT-VT2D256E-HD
Good Performance is color-blind

At first glance MSI's NX7900GT-VT2D256E-HD might surprise you.  It comes on a red-colored PCB, typically the choice ATI Radeon cards.  This move may have been made, more or less, to distinguish the newer VT2D256E-HD supporting HDCP from the earlier NX7900GT models.  In any case, it's not the color of the card but the performance of the GPU that we are concerned with.  MSI doesn't let us down here, as they have taken the 7900 GT and boosted the default core and memory speeds from 450/660 MHz 500 and 760 MHz, respectively.  It's not outwardly noticeable on the packaging that this has been done so, save for the single word "OverClocking" on the front of the box.

      

       

A slightly oversized copper heatsink is situated over the GPU and RAM, although the latter is connected by the way of small adhesive pads.  It's somewhat dubious about how well these chips are being cooled in this setup, as the RAM does not make a direct connection to the copper of the heatsink.  Still, the heatsink is slim and not overly heavy.  A smallish fan sits off-center, pushing cooler air through the vents while generating little noise.  Airflow is restricted slightly as a row of capacitors runs almost flush with the far end of the cooler.

       

Removal of the heatsink is straightforward enough - simply remove four screws and it comes right off.  In doing so, we reveal the G71 core, covered in some thermal paste and the aforementioned RAM with adhesive pads used to secure the heatsink.  The card itself is rather clean - almost all of the transistors and major circuitry are placed at the end of the card where the power connector is found.  Finally, as with all of the other GeForce 7 cards, the SLI connector is found just above the memory, an inch or two from the bracket. 

 


     

As far as the bundle goes, we've got a little bit of good and bad.  With the addition of HDCP support, it was incumbent on MSI to provide more than the typical S-VIDEO cable, and they have gone ahead and included a more robust, video component cable.  Also included were DVI-to-VGA adapters as well as a 6-pin PCI-e power cable.  This is all well and good, and the CDs in the box include a driver CD, a multimedia sampler, and a game.  However, said game is Serious Sam II, which was new and cool in 2004.  Pushing old games with new hardware just doesn't make much sense other than to promote that "free stuff" mentality amongst buyers.  In our eyes, it's doubtful that anyone will make a purchase of the NX7900GT based on its inclusion of this older title.

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Asus EN7900GS TOP & EN7950GT

 

ASUS EN7900GS TOP & EN7950GT
A pair of Asus or two of a kind?

You may wonder why it seems we only have one set of pictures on this page, when two cards, the EN7900GS TOP and EN7950GT are in the title. It's because both cards are identical except for the serial and model number stickers.

      

      

Comparisons to the NX7900GT are obvious.  Asus' GeForce 7 cards come in the more expected green coloring of NVIDIA based cards and the heatsink is much more compact, with the fan placed to the right rather than the left.  This puts the fan more squarely over the GPU as opposed to MSI's design.  It also means the airflow is directed more towards the brackets, and hence the outside of the case.  The smaller size of the heatsink also leaves the memory uncovered.  Whether or not this will come into play during operation, or overclocking, we will have to check in with later.

      

From there, everything else is as expected.  The heatsinks come off easily, exposing the core, which we cleaned off for the sake of the review, but then reapplied some Arctic Silver to form a good bond between the GPU and heatsink.  As we mentioned, the Hynix memory sits uncovered in a close array to the GPU. And, as with MSI's card, just about all major circuitry is placed in a small section of the card, with a 6-pin power connector placed in the upper corner. 


     

Differences between the cards from Asus and MSI do not stop with the cards themselves.  The cables included with Asus' cards consist of a component out video cable, PCI-e power splitter, and the ubiquitous DVI-VGA adapter.  Nothing too different there, although MSI's video cable offers many more connection options.  The difference in mindset comes down to the software, as one might have expected from my earlier rant.  Sure, there's a driver/utility CD, an online manual and a game, all with a CD wallet.  The game, however, is the newly released Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.  Unlike Serious Sam II, GRAW is a title that will truly show off the potential of the cards, saving the buyer a few bucks in the process.

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Test System and 3DMark06

 

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEM: We tested the GeForce cards from Asus and MSI on the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI - an nForce 4 Intel Edition SLI X16 chipset-based motherboard - powered by an Intel Pentium 4 550 processor and 1GB of Corsair XMS2 DDR2 memory. The first thing we did when configuring this test system was enter the BIOS and load the "High Performance Defaults."  The hard drive was then formatted and Windows XP Professional with SP2 was installed. When the installation was complete, we installed the latest nForce 4 chipset drivers, installed all of the other necessary drivers for the rest of our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were then disabled, the hard drive was defragmented, and a 1536 MB permanent page file was created on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows' Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of the benchmarking software, and ran the tests. 

The HotHardware Test System
Only the strongest survive

Processor -

Motherboard -



Video Cards -




Memory -

Audio -

Hard Driv
e -

 

Hardware Used:
Intel Pentium 4 550 (3.4GHz)

Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal
nForce4 SLI X16 chipset

Asus EN7950GT/HTDP/512M/A
Asus EN7900GS TOP/2DHT/256M/A
MSI NX7900GT-VT2D256E-HD
HIS Radeon X1950 Pro
Sapphire X1900 GT


1GB Corsair XMS2 DDR2

Integrated

2x Western Digital SE16 (RAID 0)

7,200RPM - SATA II - 250GB

Operating System -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers
-




Synthetic (DX) -

DirectX -
DirectX -

DirectX -
OpenGL -
OpenGL -
Relevant Software:
Windows XP Professional SP2
nForce Drivers v6.86
DirectX 9.0c

NVIDIA Forceware v92.91

ATI Catalyst 6.10


Benchmarks Used:
3DMark06 v1.0.2
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory v1.05
F.E.A.R. v1.0.7
Half Life 2 - Lost Coast
Quake4 v1.2
Prey

Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06 v1.0.2
Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

3DMark06
Futuremark recently launched a brand new version of its popular benchmark, 3DMark06. The new version of the benchmark is updated in a number of ways and now includes not only Shader Model 2.0 tests but also Shader Model 3.0 and HDR tests as well. Some of the assets from 3DMark05 have been re-used, but the scenes are now rendered with much more geometric detail, and the shader complexity is vastly increased as well. Max shader length in 3DMark05 was 96 instructions, while 3DMark06 ups the number of instructions to 512. 3DMark06 also employs much more lighting, and there is extensive use of soft shadows. With 3DMark06, Futuremark has also updated how the final score is tabulated. In this latest version of the benchmark, SM 2.0 and HDR / SM3.0 tests are weighted, and the CPU score is factored into the final tally as well.

  

 

The three cards in our roundup form a stepping pattern, leading from the earlier 7900 GT based card from MSI, to the 7900 GS and finally the 7950 GT, the latter two both manufactured by Asus.  Compared to the ATI camp, there's little competition from the X1900 GT, but the X1950 Pro proved to be a worthy rival coming in third in the overall score, and a close second in HDR/Shader Model 3 testing.

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Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

 

 

Performance Comparisons with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory v1.05
Details: http://www.splintercell3.com/us/

SC: Chaos Theory
Based on a heavily modified version of the Unreal Engine, enhanced with a slew of DX9 shaders, lighting and mapping effects, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is gorgeous with its very immersive, albeit dark, environment. The game engine has a shader model 3.0 code path that allows the GeForce 6 & 7 Series of cards, and the new X1000 family of cards, to really shine, and a recent patch has implemented a shader model 2.0 path for ATI's X8x0 generation of graphics hardware. For these tests we enabled the SM 3.0 path on all of the cards we tested. However, High Dynamic Range rendering was disabled so that we could test the game with anti-aliasing enabled (a future patch should enable AA with HDR on the X1K family). We benchmarked the game at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1600x1200, both with and without anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering.

 

 

 

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory results were more or less a showcase for NVIDIA's trio of cards as they placed first, second, and third at both resolutions - at least until we enabled Anti-aliasing and some Anisotropic Filtering.  Unfortunately for the GeForce 7 Series, enabling both of these items pushed the Radeon X1950 Pro to the top of the charts.  Within our set of cards, there was a slim margin of difference between the GS and GT variants, with the larger memory based 7950 GT enjoying a 2-4 frame per second lead throughout the testing.

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Prey

 

 

Performance Comparisons with Prey
Details: http://www.prey.com/

Prey
After many years of development, Take-Two Interactive recently released the highly anticipated game Prey. Prey is based upon an updated and modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and as such performance characteristics between the two titles are very similar.  Like Doom 3, Prey is also an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a plethora of dynamic lighting and shadows.  But unlike Doom3, Prey features a fare share of outdoor environments as well.  We ran these Prey benchmarks using a custom recorded timedemo with the game set to its "High-Quality" graphics mode, at resolutions of 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,600 x 1,200 with 4X AA and 8X anisotropic filtering enabled simultaneously.

 

A quick glance at the Prey graphs, shows results similar to the Splinter Cell frame rates, except when it came to the 4XAA/8XAF tests.  In Prey, the NVIDIA cards all but swept both the standard and AA/Aniso benchmarks, and the only time the Radeon X1950 Pro did manage to overtake an NVIDIA based card, it did so by a mere 0.3 fps.  The EN7950GT remains the undisputed king of the middleweights, while the 7900 GS and 7900 GT cards dueled it out for second - each card taking two of the runs.

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F.E.A.R.

 

 

Performance Comparisons with F.E.A.R.
Details: http://www.whatisfear.com/us/

F.E.A.R.
One of the most highly anticipated titles of 2005 was Monolith's paranormal thriller F.E.A.R. Using the full retail release of the game patched to v1.0.7, we put the graphics cards in this review through their paces to see how they fared with a popular title. Here, all graphics settings within the game were set to the maximum values, but with soft shadows disabled (soft shadows and anti-aliasing do not work together currently). Benchmark runs were completed at supported resolutions of 1280x960 and 1600x1200, with and without anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.

 

 

Unfortunately, our F.E.A.R. testing didn't reveal anyting new to chew on.  The line of progression at 1280x960 starts with the two ATi cards, and marches directly on up from the 7900 GT to the 7900 GS, and finally the 7950 GT.  The only difference between F.E.A.R. and Prey testing was that the X1950 Pro took a surprising leap at 1600x1200, where it came in directly behind the EN7950GT but ahead of the two 7900 cards.  This lead was shortly held, as the AA/AF testing summarily dropped it back into fourth place.

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Half Life 2: Lost Coast

 

 

Performance Comparisons with Half Life 2: Lost Coast
Details: http://www.half-life2.com/
Thanks to the dedication of hardcore PC gamers and a huge mod-community, the original Half-Life became one of the most successful first person shooters of all time. So, when Valve announced Half-Life 2 was close to completion in mid-2003, gamers the world over sat in eager anticipation. Unfortunately, thanks to a compromised internal network, the theft of a portion of the game's source code, and a tumultuous relationship with the game's distributor, Vivendi Universal, we all had to wait until November '04 to get our hands on this classic. A new addition to the HL family, we benchmarked the add-on 'Lost Coast' at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 using the built-in video stress test.

 

Contrary to what we've been seeing in the past few benchmarks, Half Life 2: Lost Coast paints a much prettier picture for ATI's Radeons than it does for the GeForce trio.  The X1950 Pro easily handled the included video test, posting the four fastest frame rates.  The X1900 GT, on the other hand, started out directly behind the X1950 Pro at 1280x1024, but couldn't keep up the pace at 1600x1200 where it fell behind all of the GeForce cards.  When it came to comparing the cards from MSI and Asus, there isn't much to tell.  All three were grouped together with barely a frame separating the lead 7950 GT from the 7900 GT.

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Quake 4

 

 

Performance Comparisons with Quake 4
Details: http://www.quake4game.com/

Quake 4
id Software, in conjunction with developer Raven, released the latest addition to the wildly popular Quake franchise, Quake 4. Quake 4 is based upon an updated and slightly modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and as such performance characteristics between the two titles are very similar.  Like Doom 3, Quake 4 is also an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a ton of dynamic lighting and shadows, but unlike Doom3, Quake 4 features some outdoor environments as well. We ran these Quake 4 benchmarks using a custom demo with the game set to its "High-Quality" mode, at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 without anti-aliasing enabled and then again with 4X AA and 8X aniso enabled simultaneously.

 

 

The fortunes of the GeForce cards turned just as soon as we could boot up Quake 4.  All three cards moved right back to the forefront, easily capturing each run back from the X1950 Pro with the sole exception of the 1280x1024 test with AA and AF enabled.  Testing at the higher resolution was especially better for the 7 Series, with even the "slowest" GeForce outpacing the competition by nearly 20%.

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Overclocking Results

 

 

Each card poses an interesting question.  The NX7900GT and EN7900GS TOP come pre-overclocked, so it's a bit of a crapshoot figuring out how much further they can be pushed.  The EN7950GT already led the other two cards at default speeds.  Here in the HH labs, we won't stop until the silicon faulters, so we installed Coolbits and started raising those speeds until we began to see artifacts in the graphics.  We then backed off a few MHz until fully stable, and re-ran a couple of benchmarks at each card's higher clock and memory speeds.

Overclocking Results
Time for Some Turbo Charge Action

 

 

Each card comes with the same core, the G71, basically utilizing the same cooling mechanism which is anything but fancy.  That being said, MSI's NX7900GT prominently promotes overclocking on their package and sports a slightly larger heatsink than the Asus models, covering the RAM as well as the GPU.  It seems that MSI may have reached close to the maximum stable speed available with their card as we were only able to squeeze an extra 13MHz on the core and 35MHz for the memory.  As expected, these minimal speed raises resulted in minimal performance increases.  The seemingly lesser cooling on the Asus cards didn't deter us from gaining 40/55MHz on the EN7900GS and 44/97MHz with the EN7950GT.  Gains were a bit more noticeable, with the 7950 GT nearly reaching the 5000 plateau in 3DMark06.

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Performance Summary and Conclusion

 

 

Performance Summary: The trio of GeForce 7 cards in today's round-up typically outperformed the opposition from ATI, consisting of a Radeon X1900 GT and X1950 Pro.  Within its own grouping, the Asus EN7950 GT, buoyed by an extra 256MB of memory, boasted the highest overall performance, while the Asus EN7900GS TOP and MSI NX7900GT dueled it out for second place.  The results were too close to call on those two, although the overclocking results give a slight nod to the EN7900GS TOP.

 

 

ASUS EN7950GT/HTDP/512M/A

There's a lot to like about the EN7950GT - it's small, fast, and quiet.  It was the only card in our testing suite with half of a GB of memory installed on it, allowing for faster performance at higher resolutions with AA and Aniso enable.  Asus hasn't monkeyed about with the speeds on this card, but it turns out that they didn't have to, as the EN7950GT ruled throughout most of the testing.  Just because Asus hasn't raised the speeds doesn't mean you won't be able to, as we were able get nearly an additional 10% on the core and 15% on the memory.  Throw two of these together into an SLI combination, and you've got a great balance between price and performance.  Asus' EN7950GT is the best deal overall, getting the best performance at standard speeds for a price not much higher than the other GeForce cards. 

 

  • Tops in performance for this round-up
  • 512 MB of Memory leads the pack
  • All 7950 GTs support HDCP
  • Costs the most of any card in this review, albeit just slightly
  • DX10 not supported by the 7950 GT

 

 

ASUS EN7900GS TOP/2DHT/256M/A

Asus performs a twin-killing with the EN7900GS TOP.  While technically limited compared to the 7950 GT and 7900 GT with fewer pixel and vertex shaders, Asus has overclocked the heck out of the EN7900GS TOP, adding an additional 140 MHz to the GPU alone.  In doing so, the EN7900GS TOP has to be the best option if you're in the market for a 7900 GS, or possibly even a GT.  In many of the benchmarks, the EN7900GS TOP was able to stick with or beat the 7900 GT from MSI, which also came pre-overclocked.  Throwing in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter only sweetens the deal.  The Asus EN7900GS TOP can be had for about $260, which makes it just about the most expensive card based on the 7900 GS GPU.  However, that price increase covers the heady overclock, which does put it into 7900 GT territory.

 

  • Overclocked well above standard specs
  • Airflow is towards outside of case rather than in
  • Vanilla models are cheapest option out there for a GeForce 79xx Card
  • Missing Vertex and Pixel Shaders
  • Not compatible with DX10 either

 

 

MSI NX7900GT-VT2D256E-HD

Which brings us to the MSI NX7900GT.  It's a great card: it's got essentially the same core as the 7950 GT, comes with an overclocked GPU and memory, and a free game to boot.  However, that game just happens to be a couple of years old, and the overall performance of the 7900 GT has been eclipsed by the cheaper EN7900GS TOP and similarly priced EN7950GT.  Additional overclocking wasn't a strong point, as we could only get some marginal speed increases.  On the bright side, this version of the NX7900GT supports HDCP, should you be using your system in conjunction with a blu-ray or other high-definition optical device.  With the passage of time typically comes the lowering in prices, and the 7900 GT models can now be had for about $240.  However, looking at the testing results, it might be better just to throw in the extra dollars and pick up the EN7900GS TOP or EN7950GT, which have better performance and gaming bundle.

 

  • HDCP Support added to the VT2D256-E-HD Model
  • SLI Still a hot topic
  • Price on the 7900 GT has come down a bit
  • Heatsink doesn't make contact with RAM
  • Typically beaten by the "weaker" Asus EN7900GS TOP

 

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