Summary: Based on the GeForce FX 5600 GPU, MSI's FX5600-VTDR128 has built-in hardware monitoring and MSI's incredibly quiet T.O.P. Tech cooler. To round out the package, MSI even includes a remote control unit! But how does the GeForce FX 5600 core perform against its competitors? Find out in this review!
Although we all love to debate about ATI’s RADEON 9800 PRO/9700 PRO and NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra/5800 Ultra on the high end, we all know by now that the real bulk of sales for both companies come from the segments below that. According to a survey conducted by NPD last summer, 44% of sales came from graphics cards less than $100, while 39% spent up to $149. 9% of sales were between $150 and $249, while just 1% came from graphics cards above $350. In the grand scheme of things, clearly we’re talking about a very small portion of the graphics market.
It’s partially because of this that NVIDIA has maintained their share in PC graphics. Even the most diehard NVIDIA fan will admit that ATI has had a technology and performance advantage over NVIDIA for consecutive quarters. But largely thanks to GeForce4 MX 440 and GeForce4 Ti 4200, NVIDIA has continued to ship GPUs by the truckload. Just look at the extraordinary level of participation NVIDIA is getting from its board partners. MSI, NVIDIA’s biggest graphics customer, has 10 Ti 4200 variants available alone, not including Ti 4400 and Ti 4600 cards. Do you want your MSI Ti 4200 card with dual DVI outputs? MSI’s got that. 64MB or 128MB? MSI’s got you covered there too. Why don’t we throw in a VIVO module while we’re at it? MSI has one of those as well. In fact, you can get a different combination of all three! In comparison, many of ATI’s board partners only offer two or three products based on one family. As the Burger King commercial goes “you can have it your way” thanks to MSI.
From NV28 to NV31
NVIDIA now has the difficult task of replacing a perennial best seller in the GeForce4 Ti 4200 (NV25/28). To accomplish this they’ve constructed the GeForce FX 5600 and GeForce FX 5600 Ultra, previously known by the codename “NV31”. Today we’re looking at the GeForce FX 5600 in the form of MSI’s FX5600-VTDR128.
Like GeForce FX 5800 and GeForce FX 5900, the GeForce FX 5600 family is built on TSMC’s 0.13-micron manufacturing process. In addition, both GPUs support the same 2.0+ pixel and vertex shaders NVIDIA has been boasting about since last summer. As a result, GeForce FX 5600 shares the same feature set and capabilities of NVIDIA’s flagship, albeit with lower performance.
The key difference between the 5600 series and 5800/5900 lies in its fixed function units. While GeForce FX 5900 offers four pixel pipelines with two texture units per pixel pipeline (4x2), the GeForce FX 5600 family is built on a more conservative four pixel pipeline with one texture unit per pixel pipeline architecture (4x1). This results in a reduced peak texel fill rate if the chips were clocked similarly but is largely responsible for GeForce FX 5600’s reduced transistor count: approximately 80 million in GeForce FX 5600 versus 125 million in GeForce FX 5800. With fewer transistors, GeForce FX 5600 cores are cheaper to produce for NVIDIA.
An additional difference between GeForce FX 5600 and FX 5800 lies in its memory subsystem. For GeForce FX 5600, NVIDIA has implemented twin 64-bit memory controllers; GeForce FX 5800 utilizes four 32-bit controllers while GeForce FX 5900’s memory subsystem is composed of four 64-bit controllers. GeForce FX 5600 also employs more widely available DDR memory rather than the DDR-II memory present on GeForce FX 5800.
GeForce FX 5600 models
Two GeForce FX 5600 variants are available: GeForce FX 5600 and GeForce FX 5600 Ultra. Like previous NVIDIA products, the “Ultra” product possesses higher clock frequencies than the non Ultra. Initially NVIDIA announced a core clock frequency of 350MHz for the GeForce FX 5600 Ultra, however this has recently been increased. Unfortunately, we can’t disclose the exact figures for this newer GeForce FX 5600 Ultra, but we can tell you that the GeForce FX 5600 operates at a core clock frequency of 325MHz with a memory clock of 275MHz (550MHz effective). This results in a peak fill rate of 1.3Gigatexels/sec and up to 8.8GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth.
SIDEBAR: Interestingly enough NVIDIA has removed the GeForce FX 5800 from its website
While we don’t have a reference GeForce FX 5600 card to compare the FX5600-VTDR128 against, we can tell you that MSI’s GeForce FX 5600 card is built on a six-layer PCB, just like the GeForce4 Ti 4200. In contrast, GeForce FX 5600 Ultra cards are built with eight-layer PCBs. By keeping the number of board layers to six, production cost is reduced at the loss of some signal quality. Since the GeForce FX 5600 is running at lower clock frequencies however, this isn’t too much of a concern.
Another important difference between the GeForce FX 5600 and GeForce FX 5600 Ultra board design lies in the use of less expensive TSOP memory on the GeForce FX 5600 in the place of BGA chips on the FX 5600 Ultra. In the case of our MSI FX5600-VTDR128, MSI has elected to use 3.6ns memory from Samsung, good for 550MHz. This puts the FX5600-VTDR128 right at spec. You will also notice that GeForce FX 5600 cards do not require an external power source like GeForce FX 5600 Ultra.
Like all of MSI’s retail video cards, the FX5600-VTDR128 sports the familiar red PCB we’ve grown accustomed to. MSI adds a Philips video decoder chip for video input support, as well as a Winbond W83L785R chip for hardware monitoring.
T.O.P. Tech Cooling
As graphics processors have grown more advanced, the cooling requirements of these devices have increased as well. NVIDIA’s FX Flow heat pipe cooler required for GeForce FX 5800 Ultra is the most talked about example of an extreme graphics cooler, but even cards based on ATI’s RV300/R300 (RADEON 9500/9700) and its follow-up (R350) require pretty hefty cooling: heatsinks are used on the voltage regulator modules for RADEON 9800; a metal plate (that gets quite hot) accomplishes this task for RADEON 9700. And while the heatsink/fan unit on these cards is fairly mundane, they’re known for being pretty hot graphics cards.
MSI starts with a copper plate that is attached to the GeForce FX 5600 core and memory modules on the top of the card. MSI then embeds a folded copper sheet, which acts like the fins you see on a traditional heatsink, increasing surface area. A plastic duct is then placed on the copper heatsink apparatus, when combined with the near silent fan MSI uses hot air is drawn off the copper plate and then blown away from the graphics card.
The end result is an ingenious design that is incredibly effective without an excessive noise level. The low RPM fan is comparable in noise level to the chipset cooler used on many motherboards.
SIDEBAR: In 2D mode, GeForce FX 5600 cards operate at 270/550MHz.
As we mentioned previously, the FX5600-VTDR128 supports video input thanks to its Philips SAA7108AE video encoder/decoder chip, hence the “V” in its VTDR128 name. For connecting your FX5600-VTDR128 to external devices, a breakout box is included in the packaging. S-Video and composite outputs are provided, as are S-Video and composite inputs.
MSI also manufactures a 128MB variant of the FX5600, the FX5600-TD128 at a reduced cost. Therefore, if you really want the video editing capabilities of the FX5600-VTDR128, we suggest you read the fine print before making your purchase, especially if you’re dealing with an online vendor.
Remote control unit
The “R” in VTDR128 designates the remote control unit that comes with the FX5600-VTDR128. That’s right MSI’s GeForce FX 5600 video card comes with a remote (batteries included)! This is meant to correspond with MSI’s Media Center Deluxe II software package, which is also included in the FX5600-VTDR128’s packaging.
Hardware monitoring utility
With the built-in hardware monitoring capabilities of the FX5600-VTDR128, 3D! Turbo can be used to monitor such functions as fan speed and the graphics core’s temperature and voltage. You can also use 3D! Turbo to alert you if the graphics core begins to overheat.
Overall it’s a nice design on paper but in practice the use of Macromedia Flash seems a bit unnecessary. The point of utilities like 3D! Turbo is to monitor these critical graphics functions with a minimum of system resources, 3D! Turbo requires you to overclock your card and/or monitor these functions through a web browser that is filled with flashing lights and is gaudier than a gold-colored Cadillac with matching gold rims. Quite frankly, the usefulness of the 3D! Turbo Experience is its only saving grace.
Besides the aforementioned 128MB cards, MSI also offers a 256MB GeForce FX 5600 card, the FX5600-TD256. As its name implies, the FX5600-TD256 ships without the video input support (the VIVO breakout box mentioned above) or the remote control unit, but still retains MSI’s T.O.P. Tech cooling (the fan is a different design but its also very quiet). Due to extenuating circumstances we were unable to test the 256MB board we received, but in our RADEON 9800 PRO review we tested both the 128MB and 256MB boards and noticed little or no performance difference until you really cranked up the anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering. For now we just don’t see the purpose of a 256MB GeForce FX 5600 card, in situations where the extra memory may show benefits, the GeForce FX 5600 core simply lacks the horsepower to provide a playable frame rate.
MSI also bundles copies of Virtual Drive 7, Restore It 3, MSI 5.1-channel DVD player, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Morrowind, and Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project. There’s also a 7-in-1 games pack, which includes demos taken from a selection of games.
SIDEBAR: The build of 3D! Turbo included with the FX5600-VTDR128 doesn’t offer native support of the GeForce FX 5600 GPU yet (so no overclocking) but it can still be used to monitor fan speed and temperature.
Quake III: Arena version 1.17
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
The GeForce cards perform well at low resolutions in Serious Sam, but at higher resolutions it doesn’t have the fill rate to keep up with the RADEON 9500 PRO/9600 PRO or GeForce4. At 1600x1200 it trails the RADEON 9500 by 5%.
Splinter Cell - DirectX
We’ve noted in previous articles the fill rate requirements of Splinter Cell, so it was no shocker to see the FX5600-VTDR128 finish behind GeForce4 and the RADEON PRO graphics cards in this test. It was a bit of a surprise to us however to see the RADEON 9500 finish ahead of the GeForce FX 5600, we would’ve expected its fill rate and memory bandwidth advantage to be enough to come ahead of the RADEON 9500 but clearly it wasn’t capable of achieving this. Even the overclocked card had its hands full.
Quake III - High Quality
We were quite surprised to see the FX5600 finish ahead of the 9600 PRO in Quake 3, so we re-ran the numbers a total of 9 times and got similar results. Still puzzled, we looked back at our CATALYST 3.4 article, and sure enough, the 9600 PRO topped out around 115 frames per second while 9500 PRO finished at 132.9 frames per second, the same results we see here. The FX5600-VTDR128 is still behind GeForce4 by 15% at 1600x1200.
Comanche 4 demo
Comanche may be a test that relies more heavily on the CPU than our previous benchmarks, but we still see an overwhelming disadvantage for GeForce FX 5600 in this test.
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Flyby performance in Unreal Tournament continues to favor GeForce4 over GeForce FX 5600, but as you can see the FX5600-VTDR128 is able to outpace its direct competitor (RADEON 9500) by roughly 15% at 1280x1024 and up (the same margin it trails GeForce4 by).
Jedi Knight II – High Quality
For the most part, Jedi Knight II results mirror what we saw earlier in Quake 3.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch
Once anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are enabled we see that the GeForce FX 5600 card is able to overtake GeForce4. In fact, in some cases it offers 1.5 times the performance of GeForce4 Ti 4200. Likewise, ATI’s RADEON 9500 isn’t able to keep up. ATI’s RADEON 9500 PRO still offers dramatically better performance than all of these cards however.
Quake III – High Quality
Once again GeForce4 trails GeForce FX 5600 once anti-aliasing is enabled. On a surprising note however, RADEON 9500 beats GeForce FX 5600 by 14% at 1600x1200. This directly contradicts our UT anti-aliasing results on the previous page. Perhaps NVIDIA has some driver work to do here, as we also see the overclocked card having a hard time besting the stock RADEON 9500.
Quake III – High Quality
Performance: Since it lacks the texel fill rate of GeForce4 Ti 4200-8X, the GeForce FX 5600 GPU the FX5600-VTDR128 is based on is outperformed by its predecessor in games that use multi-texturing (read: all the games we tested). Fortunately, due to its 8.8GB/sec of memory bandwidth (the highest in its class) and improved Intellisample anti-aliasing engine, the GeForce FX 5600 outshines GeForce4 Ti 4200 in performance once anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are enabled. Results against ATI’s competitor, RADEON 9500 are mixed; the GeForce FX 5600 wins in some cases, and loses in others.
Value: The GeForce FX 5600 performs competitively with other graphics cards in its class however, the current market situation has pitted it largely against the RADEON 9500 PRO and RADEON 9500 (RADEON 9600 PRO cards are just now arriving at retail as well) in addition to GeForce4 Ti 4200. Against the RADEON 9500, its true intended competition, the GeForce FX 5600 is able to put up a good fight, but once GeForce FX 5600 is paired against RADEON 9500 PRO/9600 PRO it tumbles to the canvas quickly. GeForce4 Ti 4200 offers better performance as long as anti-aliasing is disabled and does so at a lower price point.
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