Summary: With 256 stream processors running at 1500MHz and 1GB of memory running at 1GHz, NVIDIA's GeForce 9800 GX2 is one incredible performer. Join us as we explore what this card can do in this article!
Fortunately NVIDIA has used this time to bolster their mainstream graphics lineup. The $250+ graphics segment got a major boost with the introduction of the GeForce 8800 GT last fall. Delivering performance that was generally better than NVIDIA’s $350+ GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB, all while residing in a single-slot package, the GeForce 8800 GT was the most significant PC hardware introduction in 2007 in our opinion (yes, we really feel it was bigger than Vista, Phenom, and Intel’s Penryn line of CPUs). A few months later, NVIDIA rewrote the rules of performance again, dropping the $300+ GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB on the market. In our testing, a factory overclocked GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB card from ASUS was capable of giving a stock GeForce 8800 GTX a run for its money in some cases.
Then, just last month, NVIDIA unveiled the GeForce 9600 GT for the sub-$200 graphics market. We found that the GeForce 9600 GT ran anywhere from 2.0-2.5X faster than the GeForce 8600 GTS in games, and when two cards are combined together for SLI, the 9600 GT SLI combo is faster than not only the GeForce 8800 GTX, but in some cases the two cards combined can outrun the GeForce 8800 Ultra! Never before have we seen a sub-$200 card dethrone NVIDIA’s flagship offering like this.
With these new mainstream graphics cards delivering such incredible levels of performance, the line that used to separate high-end cards from mainstream models has been blurred. As a result it’s getting harder and harder to recommend pricey cards like the GeForce 8800 GTX and 8800 Ultra. Quite simply, the price/performance ratio for cards like the 8800 GT/GTS and 9600 GT is much higher.
With these latest GeForce cards increasingly encroaching on the GeForce 8800 GTX and Ultra, NVIDIA is finally set to do something about it. NVIDIA’s been dropping hints about their dual GPU, GeForce 9800 GX2 card for roughly a month now, and rumor sites have been reporting on the GeForce 9800 GTX for just as long. Today NVIDIA and their board partners are officially launching the GeForce 9800 GX2 to the public, and as the pictures released during CeBIT revealed, the card looks quite daunting. But does it boast performance to match its menacing looks? That’s what we’re here today to find out!
With its “9800” moniker, you’d naturally expect the GPU behind the GeForce 9800 GX2 to be based on a next-generation architecture, or at least an enhanced derivative of an existing GPU. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, as the GeForce 9800 GX2 is based on the same G92 GPU that was originally launched in the GeForce 8800 GT last October. The dual G92 GPUs inside the GeForce 9800 GX2 share some specifications with the GeForce 8800 GT 512MB, and some with the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. The following chart summaries the key features found in the 9800 GX2, and how they compare to the rest of NVIDIA’s GeForce lineup:
As you can see, the graphics core and shader speeds of the GeForce 9800 GX2 are the same as the GeForce 8800 GT 512MB: 600MHz core and 1500MHz on the stream processors. Where the 9800 GX2 surpasses the GeForce 8800 GT is in the number of stream processors: 128 per GPU (for a grand total of 256 combined stream processors on the 9800 GX2 card) in the 9800 GX2 versus 112 for the 8800 GT. With 1GB of memory running at 1GHz (512MB per GPU and 2.0GHz effective clock speed), the 9800 GX2 also boasts faster memory than either the GeForce 8800 GT or the 8800 GTS 512MB.
Based on these raw specifications, the GeForce 9800 GX2 should run faster than any single GeForce card NVIDIA has produced to date, but with its slower clocks the 9800 GX2 shouldn’t be able to keep up with a GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB SLI setup. This is where NVIDIA’s Quad SLI technology comes in.
The GeForce 9800 GX2 is NVIDIA’s second-generation Quad SLI part. In theory when two GeForce 9800 GX2 cards are combined together for Quad SLI, you should see nearly double the performance of a single GeForce 9800 GX2 card in some applications. Unfortunately Quad SLI benchmarks are still under embargo so we can’t present those numbers for you just yet, but we will soon. And for those of you worried about power consumption, a single GeForce 9800 GX2 draws a maximum of 197 watts according to NVIDIA. (NVIDIA recommends a 580W PSU at the minimum for a single GeForce 9800 GX2 card.)
Speaking of power, one new feature that the GeForce 9800 GX2 supports is NVIDIA’s HybridPower technology. With HybridPower, the GPU can be completely turned off when not in use. Then, when a game is loaded, the graphics card powers up for maximum performance.
Like the GeForce 7950 GX2 before it, the 9800 GX2 utilizes a dual GPU, dual PCB board design. This increases the manufacturing cost of the board, as dual PCBs are required, but with dual PCBs NVIDIA has more freedom when routing traces from the GPU to memory. NVIDIA also mentions that their dual PCB design allows heat from the GPU and its power circuitry to be dissipated by its own dedicated PCB, rather than spreading heat from two GPUs across one PCB.
See the vents on the back edge of the card, directly underneath the power connectors? These vents are for the card’s fan. Air from within the case is drawn in from both sides of the graphics card through these vents. This air is then pushed by the fan over the GPUs, where they are both cooled. The air then exhausts out the side of the graphics card as well as outside the system case. Like previous high-end GeForce GPUs, the fan used by NVIDIA on the GeForce 9800 GX2 is a variable speed fan and it runs quietly. NVIDIA continues to completely enclose their high-end cards to reduce the chance of accidental damage during shipping (say for instance, a capacitor breaks off) as well as protect the card from electrostatic discharge.
Powering the GeForce 9800 GX2
The GeForce 9800 GX2 ships with two power connectors, a 6-pin PCIe connector and an 8-pin PCIe 2.0 connector. Both the 8-pin and the 6-pin connector are required in order for the card to operate. One interesting snag that we literally ran into with the GeForce 9800 GX2 was related to the 8-pin connector.
We’ve been told by NVIDIA that their socket conforms to PCIe specifications and it’s the power supply manufacturers who have been producing PCIe 2.0 power cables that don’t comply with the spec. The bottom line is that the power cables on some power supplies fit better than others, so you will want to check NVIDIA’s list of 9800 GX2-certified power supplies on slizone.com beforehand to avoid running into this issue.
Bling on the 9800 GX2
The GeForce 9800 GX2 card is filled with LEDs. There’s a bank of LEDs surrounding each power connector, and more LEDs on the card’s backplate, as well as the exhaust area beside the primary DVI connector. The LEDs located next to the power connector are used to alert the end user if the card’s power is connected incorrectly: green LEDs indicate that the connector is properly connected, but if the LEDs shine red you know you hooked the card up wrong. Say for instance you hook the card up to your power supply solely using dual 6-pin PCIe connectors. Since the GeForce 9800 GTX requires an 8-pin connector and a six-pin connector, the LEDs surrounding the 6-pin connector would light up green, while the LEDs around the 8-pin connector would glow red.
Obviously if you’ve got the GeForce 9800 GX2 card housed inside your system chassis and your case is closed (and it doesn’t have a window on the side allowing you to peek inside), you won’t be able to see if the LEDs are glowing red or green. In this case, NVIDIA provides an additional power LED on the backplate of the card. Located above this LED is a blue LED which is used for indicating the primary display. This LED is useful for Quad SLI setups where the primary graphics card driving your monitor may be difficult to identify.
On the backplate of the GeForce 9800 GX2 card itself you’ll notice two DVI connectors, as well as an HDMI connector. The HDMI connector and the DVI connector next to it are bootable, while the secondary DVI connector can be used to drive an additional display. For sending audio over HDMI, NVIDIA also provides a SPDIF connector on the GeForce 9800 GX2 located next to the PCIe power connectors. This connector must then be hooked up to the SPDIF header located on your motherboard or sound card.
Besides the GeForce 9800 GX2, NVIDIA’s also launching a slew of new nForce 7 series chipsets. At the high-end of the spectrum lie the new nForce 790i Ultra SLI and 790i SLI MCPs. These new nForce 790 chipsets solve the most glaring flaw of nForce 780i – lack of support for Intel’s 1600MHz FSB – they also feature native PCIe 2.0 support and thanks to a new memory controller, they also support DDR3 memory, rather than the 1200MHz DDR2 max supported by the nForce 780i chipset. We’ve included the following chart which highlights the key features found in NVIDIA’s Intel-based nForce 7 series MCPs:
As you can see, looking at the paper specs, the biggest difference between the nForce 790i Ultra SLI and the nForce 790i SLI is the Ultra SKU’s support for faster 2.0GHz DDR3 memory speeds. All of our testing conducting today was using 2.0GHz EPP 2.0 memory modules from Crucial. The nForce 790i SLI chipset is limited to DDR3 speeds of 1.33GHz.
NVIDIA also says that while both nForce 790 chipsets are highly overclockable, chips that scale to the highest clock speeds have been binned to go into nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboards. Therefore if overclocking is important to you, you may want to opt for an nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard.
nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboards aren’t cheap though. We’ve been told that Ultra boards will sell for $350 and up. That’s about $100 more than the nForce 790i SLI, which should start around $250 and up, while the nForce 750i SLI is expected to sell for $120+.
With DDR2 memory modules selling for significantly less than DDR3, the nForce 780i SLI chipset will remain in NVIDIA’s lineup as the high-end DDR2 offering in the $250+ segment. Physically the nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard looks very similar to the nForce 780i SLI reference design. Key changes include a larger cooler on the North Bridge with more fins for drawing additional heat off the MCP. NVIDIA also employs a circular heat pipe design that now totally surrounds the entire CPU socket area; only two sides were enclosed on the nForce 780i SLI design. NVIDIA has also added an eSATA port to the 790i Ultra SLI’s back plate, as well as a coaxial audio connector. Finally, on the motherboard itself, NVIDIA includes an additional SATA port next to the x1 PCIe expansion slot.
None of today’s nForce 7xxi chipsets support HybridPower. As we mentioned earlier, NVIDIA’s first chipsets for the Intel platform with HybridPower support won’t arrive until Q2’08.
We’ll be taking a closer look at all the changes introduced in the new nForce 790i Ultra SLI chipset (including overclocking) in a dedicated article.
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6770
EVGA nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard
2GB Crucial Ballistix DDR3
GeForce 8800 GTX
GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB
GeForce 8800 Ultra
GeForce 8800 GT 512MB
GeForce 9800 GX2 1GB
300GB Western Digital Caviar SE
Windows Vista 64-bit w/Service Pack 1
Company of Heroes 1.71
Crysis High – Direct3D
Not everyone has an SLI motherboard though. Many enthusiasts are gaming happily away on non-SLI compatible chipsets from Intel, like the X38/X48, and P35 Bearlake chipsets, or Socket 939 users who are still happy with their nForce4 Ultra motherboards.
For these types of users, the GeForce 9800 GX2 is a very attractive high-end upgrade. It gives them the performance benefits of SLI, without having to consume two PCI Express graphics slots, which is the primary drawback of SLI.
For the gamer looking to upgrade to quad GPUs, the GeForce 9800 GX2 is a no-brainer. After all, as we just demonstrated with our overclocking results, with a little bit of OC’ing, the GeForce 9800 GX2 can be clocked to run faster than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB SLI setup. We are still curious to see how three GeForce 9800 GTX cards combined together for 3-Way SLI performs though.
This is the beauty of NVIDIA’s current 3D graphics lineup. Whether you want one inexpensive card, one really high-end card, or perhaps you want two, three, or four GPUs, NVIDIA’s got you covered. Sure, AMD supports this feature as well, but as we all know NVIDIA’s GPUs are performing better than AMD’s in DirectX 10 apps right now.
Which path you take is going to come down to your needs and budget. Penny pinchers will probably want to stick with the 9600 GT, 8800 GT, or at most the 8800 GTS 512MB and upgrade to 2-Way SLI as their needs and budget warrants it, while gamers who can afford it may want to opt for the 9800 GTX or 9800 GX2.
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