Summary: As its name implies, MSI's GeForce FX5900U-VTD256 is based on NVIDIA's latest GPU, the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra. This board boasts a 450MHz core and 256MB of DDR memory among its list of features, and one of the largest bundles among GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards. In today's review, we compare this card against the latest 128MB and 256MB RADEONs, as well as a few other GeForce FX cards. Read all about this card and MSI's upcoming NBox bundle inside!
After surrendering the high-end segment of the 3D graphics market to ATI for consecutive quarters, the big green machine known as NVIDIA is finally back with its GeForce FX 5900 line of graphics cards. NVIDIA isn’t coming halfway either, the company plans to offer three GeForce FX 5900 cards, with retail prices at $300, $400, and for the gamer who must have it all, a 256MB GeForce FX 5900 Ultra at $500 (the other GeForce FX 5900 cards ship with 128MB of memory, although this may change with second generation cards).
We’ve already taken a look at eVGA’s e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, the first GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card to hit retail shelves, and MSI’s 128MB GeForce FX 5900 card (you must check out the dual-sided copper cooler this card boasts!), the FX5900-TD128. Today we’re evaluating MSI’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra board, the FX5900U-VTD256.
MSI has earned a well-established reputation for building innovative NVIDIA-based graphics cards, their T.O.P. Tech coolers are quiet, yet highly effective, and MSI has gone so far as to include remote control units with some of their graphics cards! Because of this, we were eager to see what MSI has come up with for their GeForce FX 5900 Ultra board.
If you recall, the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra sets itself apart from the $400 GeForce FX 5900 in memory size (all Ultra boards ship with 256MB of DDR memory) and core clock frequency. While the GeForce FX 5900 core clocks in at 400MHz, NVIDIA has bumped the core clock frequency for Ultra boards to 450MHz. Physically, both chips are the same, supporting the same array of features (2.0+ pixel and vertex shaders, as well as full-floating point precision and a 256-bit memory interface among the highlights). NVIDIA simply verifies that 5900 cores that operate at 450MHz successfully become Ultras, 5900s aren’t tested as thoroughly but may be just as capable of hitting this clock speed.
NVIDIA has been doing this speed binning for years in products dating all the way back to their RIVA graphics line. Consumers like it, because they can often overclock regular cards to Ultra levels without any problems, while NVIDIA is able to charge a premium for the high-quality Ultra parts, which can often be very worthy overclockers as well. For instance, eVGA is shipping their e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra at 500MHz core/900MHz memory, 50MHz over NVIDIA’s reference specification in both regards. This gives them a performance advantage over other GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards. GeForce FX 5900 cards aren’t quite yet capable of hitting 500/900 consistently, much less the 520/951 clock speeds we ultimately overclocked the e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra to.
Wondering how high we were able to overclock the FX5900U-VTD256? Read on to find out!
SIDEBAR: MSI FX5900U-VTD256 Webpage
As we mentioned in our e-GeForce FX 5900 Ultra review, NVIDIA is handling all board production for the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra. This means that regardless of the manufacturer you choose, you’re getting the exact same GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card. As a result, MSI’s FX5900U-VTD256 looks virtually identical to the eVGA card, and every other GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card on the market for that matter. The only physical difference lies in the sticker on the FX 5900 Ultra fan. As you can see, MSI adorns their FX5900U-VTD256 fan with the company logo, no real surprise here.
This is kind of disappointing, as we know from experience that MSI has the engineering expertise to make some of the most clever board designs in the industry, adorning their second-generation GeForce4 cards with features like built-in hardware monitoring and the aforementioned T.O.P. Tech coolers we love so much, but for now MSI must play by NVIDIA’s rules. They don’t want to risk their vaunted Tier One board partner status after all.
By keeping all board production in-house, NVIDIA is able to ensure a consistent level of quality regardless of manufacturer and they’re able to strictly control board availability. After all they’re not only bringing Ultra cards to market via their board partners, they’re also controlling who’s first to market and when. ATI is pretty much doing the same thing with its high-end products, so you really can’t do anything as a third-party card manufacturer but grin and bear it.
The downside of handling all board production is that card manufacturers have fewer means of differentiating themselves from each other -- they’re literally selling the same piece of hardware as the next guy. Other than taking the eVGA approach (overclocking the card, which can be risky), the only other means a card manufacturer has at his disposal are price, which can hurt your bottom line, or with the software bundle, which can also be difficult to get right because we gamers tend to be picky when it comes to the games we like.
MSI has made the best of a difficult situation by bundling their FX5900U-VTD256 with one of the more robust software bundles among GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards, and with retail packaging that is even more impressive, but more on this later. Let’s look at more of the hardware that comes with the card.
Since NVIDIA is shipping all GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards with Philips’ popular MPEG encoding chip, the MSI FX5900U-VTD256 sports video editing support among its list of features, hence the “V” in the VTD256 designation. MSI includes its VIVO breakout box for connectivity, S-Video and Composite inputs and outputs are offered. The VIVO breakout box offers better display quality than the VIVO cable that is shipped with most GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards thanks to its gold-plated connectors, but at the cost of flexibility, as the breakout box is considerably shorter than the dedicated cables provided with other boards.
Other than this difference, nothing else separates the FX5900U-VTD256 from other GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards from a hardware perspective.
SIDEBAR: You can read up on the Philips encoder chip here
The accessories within the packaging are very well laid out and include a DVI-to-VGA adapter, MSI case badge, a 4-pin Molex power adapter (in case your power supply is short on plugs), an S-Video cable, a small MSI notepad, and the aforementioned VIVO breakout box.
MSI includes a wealth of software with its graphics cards, and the FX5900U-VTD256 is no exception. For gamers, full retail versions of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Morrowind: The Elder Scrolls III, and Duke Nukem Manhattan Project are included as well as a 7-in-1 game bundle CD that includes demo versions of The Sum of All Fears, IL-2 Sturmovik, Serious Sam: The Second Encounter, Rally Trophy, Beam Breakers, Zax: The Alien Hunter, and Bungie’s Oni are also offered. We’ve discussed this bundle at length in the past so we won’t rehash it too much again here, but to make a long story short what was once an excellent bundle is beginning to grow a bit old and played out.
3DMark 03 Patch 330
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
3D Mark 2003 – DirectX 9
3DMark03 – Wings of Fury
3DMark03 – Battle of Proxycon
3DMark03 – Troll’s Lair
3DMark03 – Mother Nature
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
Unreal Tournament 2003
Unreal Tournament 2003
NBox looming: With MSI’s excellent NBox gaming bundle right around the corner, we have a feeling that some of you would rather hold out for either (a) prices to drop on existing MSI FX5900U-VTD256 cards and their older bundle or (b) purchase the NBox version of the FX5900U-VTD256, the N5900 Ultra, so you can enjoy the newer games it ships with. This could potentially put a damper on MSI’s sales in the short-term, it just depends on which cards they decide to deliver first: the 5600 Ultra and 5900 Ultra cards, or perhaps their less expensive cousins? We’ll just have to wait and see.
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