Without question, one of the hottest topics throughout the industry this year has been the advent of the discrete physics processor or "PPU" (Physics Processing Unit). Developed by a new startup company called Ageia, this new physics processor gives game developers the opportunity to create entirely new game-play characteristics that were not considered possible using standard hardware. Since its original inception, both CPU and GPU vendors have come to the spotlight to showcase the ability to process physics on their respective hardware. However, the Ageia PhysX PPU is the only viable solution which is readily available to consumers.
For the foreseeable future, the only vendors which will be manufacturing and selling physics processors based on the Ageia PhysX PPU are ASUS and BFG. With ASUS primarily focusing on the OEM market, BFG will enjoy a monopoly of sorts within the retail channel, as they will comprise the vast majority of all available cards on store shelves. Today, we will be running a retail sample of BFG's first ever Physics processor through its paces. Judging from the packaging alone, you can tell that this box contains something out of the ordinary. Housed in an unusual triangular box with a flip-down front panel, consumers can glimpse the card's heatsink assembly through a clear plastic window.
Flipping the box, consumers are presented with a quick listing of features complete with summaries and a small screen-shot. Most importantly, the package also lists the small handful of games which actually support the PPU hardware. This short list consists of City of Villains, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and Bet on Soldier: Blood Sport.
Upon opening the packaging, we are presented with a standard fare of accessories. Beyond the actual card itself, we find a power cable splitter, a driver CD, a demo CD, and a quick install guide. Somewhat surprisingly, we also find a neon flyer warning of a driver issue with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter that instructs users to download the latest driver from Ageia to avoid the problem. This is a bit disheartening as there are only three games which currently support this hardware. With this in mind, it is hard to not feel as though the hardware is being rushed to market a bit sooner than it probably should have.
Directing our attention to the card itself, we find a rather unassuming blue PCB with a somewhat standard aluminum active heatsink assembly. Amidst the collection of power circuitry, we also find a 4-pin molex power connector to feed the card as a standard PCI slot does not provide adequate power source for the processor. At first glance, the card looks remarkably similar to a mainstream graphics card. It's not until you see the bare back-plate with no connectivity options that you realize this is not a GeForce 6600 or similar product.
Thankfully, the BFG PhysX card does not incorporate yet another massive dual-slot heatsink assembly as so many new pieces of high-end hardware do these days. Rather, we find a small single-slot active heatsink that manages to effectively cool the PPU while keeping noise at a minimum. Removing the heatsink, we were pleased to find that BFG has done an excellent job of applying the proper amount of thermal paste and that the base of the heatsink was flat with no dead spots. After powering the system, we see that BFG has dressed the card up with three blue LED's to appease those with case windows.
With the heatsink removed, we have our first opportunity to glimpse the Ageia PhysX PPU in all its glory. Manufactured on a 0.13u process at TSMC, the die is comprised of 125 million transistors. Overall, the size of the die is slightly larger than the memory modules which surround it. Looking closely at the board, we see that the 128MB of memory consists of Samsung K4J55323QF-GC20 GDDR3 SDRAM which are rated for a maximum frequency of 500MHz. Unfortunately, neither BFG nor Ageia have disclosed what frequency the PPU memory and core operate at, so we are unsure how close to the theoretical limit these components are running. We have been hearing rumors of PhysX card running memory at speeds over 700MHz, though these are obviously different cards than the BFG model seen here as the chips would be running in excess of 200MHz over their maximum rated operating frequency.