First Look: Nvidia 9800 GTX

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Nvidia launches yet another new graphics card today. Nope, this is not an April Fools joke. It was only a week or so back that Nvidia released its double-decker GeForce 9800 GX2 for the few who could afford a $650 graphics card. That two-fer mashes two graphics processing units onto the same silicon. The 9800 GTX is the official one-GPU flavor and--as one might expect--it costs about half the price.

The big-deal features of the 9800 GTX are similar to the GX2. It's loaded with DirectX 10 Shader Model 4.0 support, 128-bit floating point high dynamic-range lighting, physics processing, HDCP capable--the works. EVGA was able to provide its $350 e-GeForce 9800 GTX 512MB card in time for a quick reality check. Too bad the model we received didn't have an HDMI output, or even a DVI-to-HDMI adapter in the box.

While we are currently in the middle of rebooting our graphics gauntlet here in the labs, I took it upon myself to throw a couple quick tests at the newcomer and another card for comparison: BFG Tech's mainstream 8800 GT ($280). Why didn't I also test Nvidia's 9800 GX2? Well, to be perfectly honest, the current test machine I'm using--an upper-middle-class gaming machine at best--lacks the proper power supply. As I await a PSU that cranks out enough juice (and has the eight-pin power connector that the 9800 GX2 demands) I have to settle for the 9800 GTX.

What my makeshift test bed does have, though, is a decent gaming setup with an Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.9-GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, and Windows Vista Ultimate Service Pack 1. For the sake of my tests I wanted to re-create "real-world" use, so I first ran every game at 1280-by-960-pixel resolution with 4X antialiasing and 16X anisotropic filtering turned on. After all, not everyone considering buying this card has a top-end system with a hardcore CPU.

Let the Games Begin

Here it is in a nutshell: The 9800 GTX is faster than the 8800 GT. That doesn't come as much of a surprise, I know. What is interesting is the very slight difference between a $280 8800 GT card and the $350 9800 GTX card.

For test titles I used Crysis (DX10 mode), Unreal Tournament III, and World in Conflict (DX10 mode). Electronic Art's Crysis is an ideal choice because it's not just a game--it's a torture test for machines that haven't even been invented yet. The best performance I could muster was 17 frames per second with the 9800 GTX; the 8800 GT trailed close behind at 15 fps.

Next up, Unreal Tournament III. A number of titles currently available--and coming out--are based upon Unreal Engine 3. What better way to test the engine than the game that hosts it? The 9800 fared much better here, hitting its stride at 50 frames per second. The 8800 GT did well, too--only 5 frames slower.

I saw similar results with World in Conflict. That fantastic-looking, demanding real-time strategy game looks beautiful, but it barely hit 40 frames per second with the 9800 GTX; the 8800 GT came in right behind with 36.

I wondered if I'd see a bigger performance gap between the two cards if I cranked up the resolution to 1920 by 1200. Maybe the CPU was the roadblock at lower resolutions. No dice. In every test, I got the same rough performance difference with only a handful of frames per second (six at most) separating the two. The only variable left for now is waiting for updated drivers. After all, the card ships today.

Semi-economical speed freaks may not get the best bang for their buck, but the drivers for the 9x series GeForce cards are still young.

Once the new and improved lab tests get up and running, we'll give you a better idea of where the 9800 GTX cards stand. For the moment, though, I'd wait.

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