This is the day that all PC gamers dread. The graphics card they just sank a couple hundred dollars into is no longer the graphical king of the hill. The new heir to the throne: Nvidia's GeForce 9800 GX2. And it'll only cost you between $600 and $650.
So what makes this card such a big deal? The 9800 is a powerhouse. In fact, it physically feels like two 8800 GTX's sandwiched into a single card and the specs justify that notion -- it has two 128 Processor Cores (256 advertised on the box), two times the 512MB GDDR3 memory (512MB per GPU). With a 600-MHz core clock, 1500-MHz shader clock and 1000-MHz memory clock, it promises to crush benchmark scores.
I say "promises" and not "definitely" because final retail cards are only now trickling into the office (first out the gate: cards from Asus and EVGA) and we weren't able to get testing done in time for this morning's announcement. Stay tuned for some definitive answers on who can build the better graphics-chugging hotrod.
Why Should You Care?
The 9800 GX2 will no doubt eat benchmarks for breakfast and do all sorts of nifty things like support DirectX 10, and the company uses buzzwords to talk about the GPU's 16X antialiasing performance, 128-bit floating point high dynamic-range lighting, and ability to run physics computations.
Beyond generating top-flight graphics, the 9800 GX2 also delivers 2560-by-1600-pixel video with support for High-Definition Content Protection (HDCP) over both the card's DVI and HDMI outputs. The card bears the brunt of video decoding for H.264, VC-1, WMV, and MPEG-2 high-definition (and standard-definition) movies; plus, it will handle the all-important 3:2 and 2:2 pull-down corrections for videophiles that crave accurate video reproduction. (Also referred to as motion judder, the pull-down is a ratio correction for frame rates when you transfer film to video. It introduces a slight image lag.)
As an environmentally conscious gamer, I'm actually happy to see this PCI Express 2.0-ready board show off Nvidia's HybridPower technology. This cuts down on wasted wattage: When you're performing tasks that don't require the card's full-blown horsepower, it'll throttle down the GPU and switch over to the integrated graphics card on Nvidia-branded motherboards.
Look Before You Upgrade
The only negatives right now, besides the price, are the size and power requirements to get this beast up-and-running. If you have one of those slim-profile PCs, you might as well look the other way: This card won't fit your chassis. The double-wide card measures about 11 inches, spanning from the built-in fan on one side to the two dual-link DVI ports (and one HDMI port) sprouting out of the back. Before you starting making upgrade plans, make sure you'll have ample room inside your case before you even consider this card.
Concern number two: power consumption. This requires about 197 watts to run. You'll need a beefy power supply if you hope to get even one card off the ground. Another potential snag: Your power supply may not have the right power connectors to work with 9800 GX2. In order for the 9800 GX2 to get the correct amount of juice, it requires both an 8-pin and a 6-pin power connector, a combination that remains uncommon.
Will this card be for you? Not unless you're ready to swallow the $600-plus sticker price or you're a bleeding edge-gamer (with an inferiority complex). It's one of those things to admire from afar that only tech editors and technophiles can afford. And for those who set their calendars to Moore's Law, you've got another 18 months in the clear before your current high-powered monsters become obsolete. At least until Nvidia's next announcement comes along (and I expect that to be sooner, rather than later). Enjoy 'em while you can.