The new standard of fast: XFX 9800 GTX

Author: Kevin Spiess
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, April 1st, 2008
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/xfx9800gtx/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

If you pulled a random person out of a crowd at your local computer hardware store and asked him or her to name the first fast video card that popped into their head, there is a good chance that their responsive would have the letters 'G', 'T', and 'X' in it. The last big GTX, the 8800 GTX, was a radical product that introduced a new unified shader architecture that ushered in a new era of video card performance. When the 8800 GTX came out in November of 2006, it left virtually every other card it faced well behind, trailing in the dust. And since then, not much else has come out that has been far faster. But every reign has to end sometime -- and now, after more than two years, the 9800GTX has touched down at Neoseeker's hardware lab. So, probably many are wondering: will this new GTX bring the same sort of leap forward? XFX is going to help us answer this question.

As you are probably aware, NVIDIA's ninth generation of video cards has only recently appeared. The first ninth-gen'er was the 9600 GT, which had only 64 stream processors, but was able to keep up the pace with the ATI's HD 3870 and NVIDIA's 8800 GT. The second ninth gen card on the scene came two weeks ago, with the 9800 GX2. The 9800 GX2 impressed us here at the lab -- while it was not for everyone with a price tag of over $600, it was a true monster of card, that ripped through games like a Ferrari on fire. Today's 9800 GTX is the third card coming out of generation nine, and it will be retailing for between $300 and $350, placing it one step up from the 8800 GTS 512, and one larger step down the 9800 GX2.

As mentioned in the 9600 GT review, NVIDIA's nine series isn't as innovative as perhaps the eighth series was. The NVIDIA R&D budget seems to have been spent (for now), and this time around its more about optimization and tweaks to the G92 core that first appeared with popular 8800 GT. In many ways, the 9800 GTX does seem much like a faster 8800 GTS 512MB. It has higher clock speeds and 16 more shader processors than the 8800 GTS 512MB, but as you will see in this review, both cards seems closely related.

Does this new GTX have what it takes to get people excited? Let's find out.

Impressions

The XFX 9800GTX is a very large card -- not as monstrous as the 9800GX2 or HD3870X2, but almost as big -- and it'll hang off the end of your motherboard, and take up every millimeter of it's double-slot width. Compared to a 8800 GTX, both PCBs are of the same length, but the cooler on the 9800GTX stretches even further along than its predecessors. In regards to the cooler, the one on the XFX 9800 GTX is from the standard, reference design -- XFX have not changed it in anyway. The cooler has an appearance that is strongly reminiscent of the one found on the 8800 GTS 512MB cards: it has the same fan (set at the same angle), and the same array of heat fins. For all purposes, it is pretty much the same cooling design -- the only difference being that the is slightly extended, to accommodate the 9800GTX's stretched PCB. Again similar to the 8800 GTS 512MB, when in normal operation, the 9800 GTX fan is quite quiet, and can only really be heard if it is manually set to run near its maximum speed.

From my experiences with the 8800 GTS 512MB, this cooler design seems fairly solid to me: it both maximizes heatsink coverage and pushes warmed exhaust air out of the rear of your case. The fan is also robust enough (powerful enough) that it should allow for reasonable overclocking headroom, if fully engaged.

Following in the path of the HD3870X2 and 9800GX2, the 9800GTX makes use of LEDs. There is one present on the end of the card, which can assist in basic troubleshooting. Beside the LED, on the card's bracket, you have your standard pair of dual-link, HDCP-enabled DVI-I output ports, and a HDMI output.

One of the reasons that the XFX 9800 GTX is longer than the 8800 GT or 8800 GTS 512MB is pictured above: this high-end card has two SLI connectors. With two SLI connectors, if you feel so inclined, you could run up to three 9800 GTX cards at a time with NVIDIA's 3-way SLI. That's right: three 9800GTX cards can run in SLI. Of course, even if you already have a motherboard with the requisite amount of PCIe slots you'd probably do not want to drop over $1000 on three cards right now, this feature is nonetheless nice to have, as someday far down the road 3 9800GTX cards may be much more affordable.

One new connector that you might not be familiar with is the SPDIF audio connector, that is on the top of the 9800 GTX. This was also present on the 9800GX2. With the SPDIF cable included in the bundle, if feel so inclined, you can connect your 9800GTX directly to your sound card, so that high-quality passes through the video card, to be transmitted via the HDMI output.

Specifications

Below is a fantastic and handy chart, displaying relevant specifications on our XFX 9800 GTX in comparison with some familiar faces from the world of GPUs.

As you might surmise from the numbers, the 9800GTX does seem to be closely related to the 8800GTS 512MB -- you could see it as a logical, more powerful extrapolation of this previous product. Well I haven't tested the card yet, these numbers suggest that an overclocked 8800GTS 512MB would offer fairly similar performance to a 9800 GTX -- but only testing will be able to confirm this.

While NVIDIA GPU engineers do not often solicit advice from Neoseeker regarding video card design, if they did, I would suggest to them boosting the memory capacity of the 9800 GTX to 1GB. Although the extra memory would not substantially increase regular performance, it would help at higher resolutions (and higher AA settings) and would be make for a nice distinction between the 8800 GTS 512MB, and would help SLI setups. Alas, the NVIDIA engineers have not yet called. Perhaps some future editions of the 9800GTX will have 1GB.

  XFX 9800 GTX

XFX 9800 GX2

9600GT (reference)

8800GT 512MB (reference)

8800 GTS 512MB (reference)

HD 3870 (reference)

HD3870X2 (reference)

Stream Processors

128

 256 (128x2)

64

112

128

320

640 (320x2)

Core Clock

675

 600

650

600

650

775

825

Shader Clock

1688

 1500

1625

1500

1625

775

825

Memory Clock

2200

 2000

1800

1800

1940

2250

1800

Memory Interface

256 bit

 512 bit (256x2)

256 bit

256 bit

256 bit

256 bit

512 bit (256x2)

Memory Type

512MB GDDR3

1024MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR4

1024MB GDDR3

Memory Bandwidth (GB/s)

70.4

 124.0

57.6 

57.6

62.08

72.0

115.2

Texture Fillrate (billion/sec)

43.2

 76.8

20.8

33.6

41.6

12.4

26.4

Fabrication Process

65nm

65nm

65nm

65nm

65nm

55nm

55nm

Size comparison between the XFX 9800 GTX and the XFX 8800 GTS 512MB.

Further Specifications

Although they are hard to make out, the 9800 GTX has in the neighborhood of 754 million transistors. (This is a pretty astounding number if you think about it for a moment.) In a calculated  effort to help out in demanding games such as Crysis, the 9800GTX has 64 texturing processors, and sixteen render back-end units (ROPS), capable of creating images at a maximum resolution of 2560x1600.

There are two more features of the 9800GTX that are particularly worth mentioning. The first is HybridPower. If your motherboard supports this, HybridPower will keep the your 9800GTX in stand-by mode, only bringing it to full power when required by your games and applications. The second is the PureVideo2 engine. With this, the 9800GTX has an easy time decoding HD-DVD and Blu-ray movies, keeping the processing burden off of your CPU's shoulders.

 

 

 

 

Packaging

The front of the XFX 9800 GTX's box bears a stylistic '9', that looks something like a rocket.

The back of the box describes the "extreme" features of the 9800 GTX, and features a concept art picture from upcoming game,  S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky.

Inside the box, there is an ample layer of foam that protects the video card quite sufficiently.

Bundle

The XFX 9800 GTX comes with more than the XFX 9800GX2 came with, which is a surprise. The bundle includes 2 DVI/VGA adapters, a driver CD, a full version of the excellent RTS Company of Heroes (with additional DX10 upgrade CD), 2 molex-to-PCIe adapters, a DVI / HDMI adapter, a 4-pin cable, a S-Video cable, a 'Do Not Disturb' placard, a manual, a quick installation guide, and a S/PDIF cable.

Not only is a Company of Heroes a great game, but that is also awful lot of cables, so all in all I have to say that this is a solid bundle.

As with all XFX cards, this 9800 GTX is also covered by XFX's Double Lifetime Warranty. This warranty covers you for the life of your card, and furthermore, covers a second owner as well, if the 9800GTX is registered within 30 days of purchase on the company's website.

 

Power Usage

To measure power usage, we used a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter. Note that the above numbers represent the power drain for the entire benchmarking system, not just the video cards themselves. For the 'idle' readings we measured the power drain from the desktop, with no applications running; for the 'load' situation, we ran a demanding part of 3DMark06.

The 9800GTX uses appreciably less power than the 8800 GTX. The optimization of the unified shader architecture has come a far way in the the last two years. Compared to the 8800GT, the XFX 9800GTX requires a reasonable amount of power -- about where you'd expect to be. NVIDIA recommends a 450W power supply or greater for the 9800GTX, while XFX recommends a 620W power supply or greater. 620W seems to a bit conservative -- a 500W or greater should do the trick, I would think. However be wary if you have a cheaper 500W PSU, you might be starving your system of a steady supply of power.

Regardless of what PSU you have, you'll need two six-pin PCIe power connectors to use your card. The bundle does come with one molex-to-PCIe adapter though, so if your PSU only has one PCIe connector, you should be fine.

Overclocking

After numerous experiments, we had trouble overclocking this video card in Vista. This will probably not be a factor with later driver revisions, but for now, it seems that overclockers are best suited to experiment using Windows XP.

We had high hopes for overclocking the XFX 9800 GTX, thanks primarily to the effective cooler it utilizes. These high hopes were met in our overclocking expeditions. While the stock clocks for this card are 675 / 1688 / 2200 (core / shader / memory), after setting the fan run at a 100% using RivaTuner, we were very happy with how far we could push the XFX 9800 GTX. We had no stability problems running the card at a 819 / 2050 / 2520 setting, which is very impressive, most especially in regards to that shader clock overclock.

It is possible that this card can be pushed even further, and we will be investigating this.

XFX definitely has ample opportunity to release a 'XXX' version of this card. With a volt mod or extravagant cooling measures, it'll be interesting to see how this video card can be pushed.

 

 

This time around, we used the following system for our benchmarking:  

We wanted to give you a great sense of where the XFX 9800GTX stands, so we collected a huge gaggle of cards for our performance graphs. In no particular order, we used the following cards: an Asus 8800GT TOP (512MB), a XFX 9800GX2, a Gigabyte HD3870, a Powercolor HD3850, a MSI RX2600XT, a XFX 8800 GTS 512MB, a Palit 9600GT, and a Asus 8800 GTX. With this selection of cards, we should be able to get a clear picture of where the 9800GTX stands.

We'd also like to take this opportunity to thank XFX for supplying us this video card, as well as our recently reviewed 9800 GX2.

Software Setup

We tested all of our cards using Microsoft Vista. As for drivers, things got a little complicated this time around, with different drivers not working with different cards. While all of ATI cards used Catalyst 8.3 drivers, the NVIDIA drivers were a bit more of a mash-up. Both the 9800GX2 and 9800GTX used Forceware 174.74 drivers, while the rest used 164.28 Forceware drivers.

For our games we using for benchmarking, here is some information on our chosen settings:  

Bioshock: For this benchmark, all of the Detail settings were set to 'High'. All of the graphic option switches were set to 'On', with the exception of the following three settings: Vsync, Windowed mode, and Force Global Lighting. We used FRAPS to measure frame rate performance. The FRAPS run was 138 seconds, triggered from pulling the switch in the sub at game's beginning. The sub's dive involves many big models moving around, which should strain the GPU's and be a good measure of the game's engine.

Call of Juarez: We used the stand-alone Call of Juarez DX10 benchmarking program for these results. For our AA testing, we used a setting of 2x.

Crysis: These benchmarks were performed using 'fly-by' GPU test found within the single-player pre-release demo version of the game. All graphic settings were on High.' For AA, we used a setting of 4x. DX10 mode was used. The game has also been fully patched (1.1).

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars: We use this id FPS benchmark to test out higher resolutions (1280x1024,1600x1200,1920x1200). We used the highest possible detail settings. We tested the resolutions at 4x AA as well as at 8x AA. 16x AF was also used.  

Unreal Tournament 3: We tested the game using a fly-through of the vehicle capture-the-flag map 'Suspense.'ShangriLa (map) running for 90 seconds. Details were set to 'High', and a AF setting of 16x was used.

World In Conflict: We used the built-in benchmark of the demo version of this game. We ran the benchmark in DX9 rendering mode, with a 'High' level of quality. For the AA testing, we used a setting of 4x, and a setting of 16x for AF.

If you would like any further information about our benchmark settings, our would like to heckle us without mercy, please feel free to make use of our forums.

The XFX 9800GTX puts in some surprisingly unimpressive numbers in the fill rate, vertex, and particles test, lending the suspicion that the Forceware Vista drivers may not be currently up to snuff.

Let's see how it performs in some games.

In our first gaming benchmark, Unreal Tournament 3, the XFX 9800GTX comes in top place, even beating out the 9800GX2, once again proving the old adage that 'sometimes one GPU is better than two.'

If I were to predict the performance of the 9800GTX, I would've guessed that its performance to be exactly how it turned out here: below the 9800GX2 (of course), but leading the rest of the pack. The card does quite well here, living up to the GTX name.

Let's see if this holds true in the other games.

The XFX 9800 GTX does well here, but doesn't astonish. It is interesting to notice the similarity in performance offered by the XFX 8800 GTS 512MB, and the XFX 9800 GTX.

The Gigabyte HD 3870 also has a good showing here -- as usually HD 3870 do in this particular benchmark.

The 9800GTX just barely edges out the old King, the 8800 GTX.

You can't ask for much more out of the 9800GTX in World In Conflict. In this demanding benchmark, where every frame-per-second counts, it comes up exactly where it should be: below the 9800GX2, but above everybody else.

While it is not much of a surprise to see the aggressively overclocked Asus EN8800 GT T.O.P out-flank the 9800GX2, it is a little odd to see the XFX 8800 GTS 512MB best the GTX here.

The XFX 9800 GTX does well here, but perhaps not as well as some would have hoped. While it puts in a great performance, it does not separate itself very far from either the 8800GT or the 8800GTS 512MB, and actually gets bested by the 8800GTX at the top resolution, AA-enabled setting. The 8800 GTX does have a superior 384 bit memory interface, so this would make sense that it might be function better at these more extreme quality settings; whereas at lower resolutions (and without AA), you can expect the 9800GTX to out-perform, in thanks to its stream processor optimizations.

It seems that the SLI is not functioning correctly here in Bioshock with the 9800GX2, which allows the GTX to climb well above all competition, securing a strong lead. It is particularly nice to see how well the 9800GTX does against the 8800GTX here -- for a while I was a bit worried -- but with this benchmark, the performance crown slides further from the 8800GTX, to rest upon the head of the new 9800 GTX.

When future computer enthusiasts look back at the development of GPU's over the last five years, it would be impossible not to see the legacy that began with the king of performance, the 8800 GTX. Will the 9800 GTX have the same legacy as the 8800 GTX? Quite simply: no, it will not. While the 8800 GTX was a card that hit the hardware scene like a meteor, the 9800 GTX is going to touch down like a stealth jet on a runway. But this isn't to say anything negative about the 9800 GTX at all -- instead of creating an all new legacy, the 9800 GTX continues the legacy introduced with the 8800GTX, and in doing so becomes as a worthy of a successor to the GTX label as any GTX ever was.

It's a weird situation to think that the 9800GTX is going to become available for the around the same price that 8800GTX cards are currently going for. But that's that thing to keep in mind with the 8800GTX -- while it offered a quantum-jump in performance over other cards when it came it out, it also initially sold for a price of somewhere between $600 and $650 dollars, whereas the XFX 9800 GTX is selling for somewhere around $330. At this price, it falls fairly nicely into the current NVIDIA line-up, that starts with the 9600GT (~$150), goes to the 8800 GT (~$200), then the 8800 GTS (512MB) (~$250), and ends with the 9800GX2 ($600). It'll be interesting to see if the price of the still-fast 8800GTX will now plummet, or remain close in price to the 9800GTX, for the time being.

For this review, as always, it comes down to how much you are willing to spend for the amount of performance you are after. As I suspected in my review of the recent XFX 9800GX2, that's the card that'll be king for sometime -- it does not appear that NVIDIA has anything radically different in the works that greatly surpass the 9xxx series of cards any time even remotely soon (in hardware development terms, of course.) Whether the next big thing from ATI, the RV770 (rumored to possibly be coming in May), will be able to offer a new plateau of performance above what is available now is unlikely (but not impossible.) However, while the 9800GTX offers a very good level of performance, it does have a difficulty facing the fantastic deals that can be found on 8800GT and HD3870 cards, for those looking from a bang-for-buck perspective.

Although it consistently out-performed the competition in the charts, it still would have been nice to see the 9800 GTX bring just a little bit more to the table. That may seem hypocritical to say -- but at times the performance gap between the 9800GTX and the 8800 GT and 8800 GTS 512MB seemed just a little too small. However, the 9800GTX does make up this with its excellent overclocking potential, which is substantial indeed. A moderately overclocked 9800GTX can fairly be labeled as the new flagship of fast, in my book.

In the end, the rest of NVIDIA's current line-up is the 9800GTX's own worst enemy, but it can not be denied that the while perhaps not as exciting as the 8800GTX was, the 9800GTX is a worthy successor to that 'old' performance crown, and while perhaps it is not as ground-breaking in its design, the 9800GTX is still a damn fine piece of engineering, with enough positive features to leave a lasting impression.

 

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