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Review: MSI GeForce FX5900 Ultra

by Ryszard Sommefeldt on 31 July 2003, 00:00 4.0

Tags: MSI Geforce FX5900 Ultra, MSI

Quick Link: HEXUS.net/qas3

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Tarinder was the lucky one at HEXUS when the FX5900 broke cover on the 12th May. I was knee deep in XP3200+ at the time, and while it was nice to be looking at AMD's latest and greatest, I was a little jealous that he got the nod for NV35, especially since it looked like something special, plus it was the monster Ultra version with 256MB of card memory.

But the good thing about product launches and reference boards, is that retail samples from board partners are usually not too far away. We've had the odd paper launch this year, but on the whole, we've not had to wait very long for retails samples of all the good stuff.

So since the 12th of May, I've been playing the waiting game. MSI were first to break my NV35 duck with their FX5900 board, and I get the pleasure of their products this time around too, with the grand daddy of their consumer graphics lineup. Staid NVIDIA top tier partners (remember the 'MSI to do Radeon' rumours earlier in the year?), MSI are enthusiastic enough in their support for the Californian graphics giant, that when a new product hits for them to work with, they really go to town.

Non reference coolers, big boxes, great software bundles and performance by the bucket load are what have set apart recent MSI entrants, at all sectors of the market.

So it's no different this time around with the FX5900 Ultra VTD256, it's a flash cooling, big boxed monster yet again, just like the regular FX5900.

But before we take a look at the card itself, here's a quick comparo between the two behemoths that sit atop todays consumer graphics lineup.

GeForce FX 5900 UltraRadeon 9800 Pro 256MB
Render pipelines 8** 8
Texture units per pipeline 1** 1
Shader units per pipeline 1** 1
Core clock 450MHz 380MHz
Memory clock 850MHz DDR 700MHz DDR
Memory bus width 256-bit/32-byte 256-bit/32-byte
Memory bandwidth ~27.20GB/sec ~22.40GB/sec
Pixel fillrate 3600Mpixels/sec 3040Mpixels/sec
Texel fillrate 3600Mtexels/sec 3040Mtexels/sec

As always, when talking about NV35, it's worth talking about its split personality. Depending on the render setup of the application using the card, it's either an 8x1 architecture, or a 4x2. What that means is, the card either renders 8 pixels per clock with a single texture unit per pipeline, over 8 pipes, or 4 pixels per clock with dual texture units, over 4 pipes. So depending on whether it's in 8x1 or 4x2 mode, it can have up to half the pixel processing power as it ideally should have. Theoretical texture fillrate is the same at all times, it's just the raw pixel fillrate that drops. If the render setup pushes the card into 4x2 mode and isn't setup for effecient use of both texture units, the card doesn't paint a picture as quick as it should, simple as that.

Radeon 9800 Pro, based on their excellent R350 silicon, has no such split personality issues. It's a straight runner in 8x1 mode at all times.

If you are interested in how both cards do AA, AF, texture compression, bandwidth optimisations or any of the other base tech issues that you'd like to know about, check out our previous articles on both cards. It saves me a little finger action in HomeSite and we get to move on a bit quicker.

So, the Ultra version of FX5900 sports the biggest numbers in the business, 3.6 trillion pixels per second, over 27GB/sec of GPU to memory bandwidth and 256MB of memory to squeeze all those textures, AA and AF samples and final framebuffer output into.

But before we look at the speed, let's look at how it looks.