GPU powerhouse: the XFX 9800GX2

Author: Kevin Spiess
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, March 18th, 2008
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/xfx9800gx2/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

If you have a weak heart you might want to skip this review, because it features an absolute monster, the stroke-inducing XFX GeForce 9800 GX2. This dual-PCB, dual-GPU behemoth is the second new release from NVIDIA's new ninth generation of video cards, following last month's introduction of the 9600 GT. The 9800 GX2 is unabashedly reaching for the performance crown, and is promised to outperform -- by a large margin -- even the 8800 Ultra. The only video card that might be able to stand up to the terrific tyranny of the 9800 GX2 is ATI's HD3870X2, which came out last month. In the end, which side will be able to say that they make the fastest video card on the planet? The hardcore of the hardcore gamers are very interested in finding this out.

While the 9600GT was a successful product, offering very good value for its power, some would complain that the unveiling of this first card to bear the 9xxx mark on the box could have been more exciting. Perhaps spoiled by the launch of the ground-breaking 8800 GTX, the 9600 GT's launch -- only in comparison -- was a bit lackluster. Their were no significant enhancements or architectural changes to the 9600GT, instead, it just seemed like the next logical step in the optimization of the GPU since the late October's release of the 8800GT.  With today's 9800GX2, it is a bit of a similar case, albeit on a different scale: while no ground-breaking changes are being introduced with the 9800GX2, this card nonetheless has the potential to offer extreme levels of performance -- and for many of us, that is exciting enough.

You could consider the 9600GT and 9800GX2 brother cards in name only, as the 9600GT and 9800GX2 are targeted towards much different markets: the 9600GT was made for the gaming masses, while the roughly $600 9800GX2 was made for the gaming maniacs. But I do mean gaming maniacs in the positive sense of the word -- anyone interested in buying a 9800GX2 knows that they have to pay big bucks to get the best, but that the best, is... well, the best. 

If you think you can handle it, let's take a gander at this new dual-GPU powerhouse from XFX.


The XFX 9800 GX2 (model PV-T98U-ZHF9) reminded me of that space ship from the beginning of the movie Space Balls. It just seems to go on forever. Make no mistake: this is a monster card. Not much else come to mind when I first laid my eyes on the XFX 9800 GX2: I just thought to myself: This is one serious video card. Its big. Its heavy. Handling the card lends you the certitude that as you soon as you plug it into your system you are going to see fireworks go off; the XFX 9800GX2 just somehow communicates the impression that this a top-end card through its lack of flash and raw dimensions.

As mentioned, the 9800 GX2 is dual-PCB, double-width GPU sandwich. As you can see from below, the front and the back of the card look pretty much the same, which is fairly unusual as video cards go.  In the middle of the card, a heavy-duty fan and heat sink connects both PCB's together, working to cool both G92-based GPU's.

The 9800 GX2 also has a few LED's inside the plastic shroud, which is a nice touch. There is a set around the power connectors, and a pair towards the end of the card. Besides looking cool, they also help out by communicating any troubles by blinking, or changing color.

Following are some of the XFX 9800 GX2's vital numbers. Keep in mind that while the 9800GX2 has 256 stream processors, a 512 bit memory interface, and a 1GB of GDDR3, it has half of each of these resources on each separate PCB, which limits their performance, in the same manner as it does with the HD3870X2:

 

 

XFX 9800 GX2

9600GT (reference)

8800GT 512MB (reference)

8800 GTS 512MB (reference)

HD 3870 (reference)

HD3870X2 (reference)

Stream Processors

 256 (128x2)

64

112

128

320

640 (320x2)

Core Clock

 600

650

600

650

775

825

Shader Clock

 1500

1625

1500

1625

775

825

Memory Clock

 2000

1800

1800

1940

2250

1800

Memory Interface

 512 bit (256x2)

256 bit

256 bit

256 bit

256 bit

512 bit (256x2)

Memory Type

1024MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR4

1024MB GDDR3

Memory Bandwidth (GB/s)

 124.0

57.6 

57.6

62.08

72.0

115.2

Texture Fillrate (billion/sec)

 76.8

20.8

33.6

41.6

12.4

26.4

Fabrication Process

65nm

65nm

65nm

65nm

55nm

55nm

Left: Size comparison between the Asus EAH3870X2.         Right: Size comparison between the XFX 8800 GTS 512MB.

As with most recent video cards, the XFX 9800 GX2 supports DirectX10 and Shader Model 4.0, as well as conforms to the new PCIe 2.0 standard. Beyond gaming, if you ever feel like watching a movie you'll be all set with the 9800 GX2 as it has the second generation / revision of the NVIDIA's PureVideo HD technology, which allows you to play HD DVD and Blu-ray movies with GPU-based hardware acceleration. The HDMI connector port on the 9800 GX2 allows for audio and high-def video (with a maximum resolution of 2560x1600) and audio to be sent to your HDTV.

This 9800GX2 is also capable of HybridPower, if you have a motherboard that is capable of this feature. HybridPower allows for you to use Windows and other applications using your motherboard's integrated GPU, while keeping the 9800GX2 in a standby mode to only be activated when 3D mode is required. This is nice feature to have for a card of this magnitude, because it does use a significant amount of power.

I'm not sure about you, but I'm quite anxious to see what this 9800 GX2 can do. Let's move along.

 

Box

On the front of the XFX 9800 GX2's box, we have a machine nine. It looks almost like a bomb of sorts.

The back of the box boasts performance gainst of up to 50% above a 8800 Ultra. The benchmarks will have to see if this is accurate.

 

Bundle

The XFX 9800 GX2 comes with 2 DVI/VGA adapters, a driver CD, a full version of the excellent RTS Company of Heroes, a molex-to-PCIe adapter, a 'Do Not Disturb' placard, a manual, a quick installation guide, and a S/PDIF cable.

All in all, a complete bundle.

This would also be a good place to mention that this 9800 GX2 is protected by XFX's Double Lifetime Warranty, which lasts for the life of your card, and also covers a second owner, if you ever choose to sell it. Remember to register your XFX card within 30 days to be eligible for this warranty.

Overclocking

Using RivaTuner, we tried to find out what this 9800 GX2 was capable of, following that age-old adage that an extremely powerful video card is good, but an overclocked extremely powerful video card is even better.

Setting the fan to 100% we began our overclocking adventure.

The stock clocks for the XFX 9800GX2 are 600, 1500, 2000 (core, shader, memory, in MHz.) As it turned out, the XFX 9800 GX2 had a lot more to offer than we expected, in the overclocking department. After a bit of experimentation, we had success sustaining benchmarks at clock settings of 703 / 1786 / 2308 -- which wasn't all that bad at all. That's a roughly 16% overclock across the board. For comparison, our EAH3870X2 we tested overclocked around the 5% mark.

Two important things to note about this overclocking, however: first off, the fan is pretty loud at 100%, and you'd probably not want your video card this loud all the time; and second, while the video card never crashed, there was brief flashes of darkness every once in a while during Crysis, indicating these clock speeds were a bit close too the edge and might not be healthy for your card to sustain, with standard cooling methods.

Watching the benchmarks fly-by at these overclocked speeds was a pleasure. Let me tell you: overclocked by about 16%, this card was fast. 

Really, really, really fast. 

Hardware Setup

For this we review, we had a couple of routes we could go. One big question was whether to go with a SLI motherboard or CrossFire motherboard. In the end, we decided on the following configuration:

As for the video cards to use in the benchmarks, we chose the following: a Asus EN8800 GTX, a XFX 8800 GTS XXX 512, a BFG 8800 GT OC, a Palit 9600 GT Sonic, a VisionTek HD 3870, and a pair of Asus HD 3870 T.O.P's.  We would have like to tested our 3870X2 against the 9800GX2, but the 3870X2 had a untimely death in our lab. Instead, we tested a single HD3870, and two and three HD3870 cards running in a CrossFireX setup. The 3870X2 performs similarly to a pair of HD3870's running in CrossFire mode, so this will give us a clear indication of the relative performance of both dual-GPU solutions.

Software Setup

We use a fully-patched Microsoft Windows Vista to test out our cards. As for drivers, the NVIDIA cards all used Forceware 169.44, except for the 9600GT which used Forceware 174.12 Beta drivers, and the 9800GX2 which used 174.53 drivers. The ATI cards all were tested using the Catalyst 8.3 drivers.

For the games we decided to bench, 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, feel free to ask us in the forums.

Only one conclusion can be drawn by examining the graphs below: it looks like only one of the XFX 9800 GX2 GPU's is operating in Bioshock.  It is likely that the NVIDIA driver team will get it working fairly soon -- but until then, playing Bioshock with a 9800GX2 would not be much different than playing it with a 8800 GTS 512MB. Actually, it is interesting to see precisely how close the performance of the 1 GPU 9800 GX2 matches up with a 8800 GTS 512MB.

The XFX 9800 GX2 maintains a narrow lead over the Crossfire'd pair of HD 3870's, but can't maintain this lead at the highest resolution with AA enabled. Compared to the other NVIDIA cards, the XFX 9800 GX2 does very well.

Whoa -- very impressive. No question about it -- the 9800 GX2 is the card to get the best experience and framesrates out of Crysis.  It blows away every other card, even getting a solid jump on the triple-CrossfireX'd HD3870's. One catch to this performance however is that if you do have 9800 GX2, you are going to want a monitor capable of higher resolutions in order to get the most out of your card.

The XFX 9800 GX2 doesn't do poorly in this test, but it doesn't really stand out as much either. The double HD3870 setup delivers the most consistent frames here. But with a 115 FPS at 1920x1200, there is not all that much to complain about.

The XFX 9800GX2 comes up aces in this benchmark. Although the Quake Wars engine is getting a bit long in tooth, at 1920x1200 8xAA this benchmark it is still a punishment for any card to run through. At the max resolution, max quality setting, the XFX 9800GX2 delivers a very impressive performance here, more than tripling the performance of the 8800 GT. Very impressive.

Please note though that it looks like the Catalyst 8.3 CrossFireX drivers can't really handle Quake Wars very well at this point. Besides there being virtually no difference between the three and two card HD3870 benchmark runs, there was additionally a great deal of distortion on the screen during this benchmark. If the Catalyst drivers worked for Quake Wars in Vista, you can expect  that the numbers would be much closer -- but the simple point is that they don't at this point, which must be terribly annoying for Quake Wars fans out there, with multiple HD3870 cards. The CrossFireX drivers are still fairly new, so hopefully this will be rectified in the near future.

Perhaps exhausted from the last benchmark, the XFX 9800GX2 doesn't really put on much of a show in the World In Conflict benchmark. While it does turn in very good numbers when the AA is on, getting a decent lead on the competition -- including a lead over the three HD3870's -- it doesn't astound here like it did last benchmark. Nonetheless the 9800GX2 does well.

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.

Remember, the XFX 9800 GX2 requires both a 6-pin and 8-pin PCIe power connector.

The XFX 9800 GX2 requires a great deal of power for operation, but not an unreasonable amount. Make no mistake though, this isn't exactly 'green gaming.' NVIDIA recommends a 580W or higher PSU, while XFX recommends a 630W or greater for smooth operation. We tested with a Corsair HX620W power supply, which likely is fine in most cases; but if you are going to get this demanding video card, you might as well go the extra distance and get yourself a quality PSU; all the more so if you have multiple hard drives and optical drives. If you are hoping to cut the mustard with your $50 500W power supply, you might be in for a nasty shock -- not to mention possible hardware death.

 

Conclusion

 

The XFX 9800 GX2 isn't for everyone -- but for the small amount of people that this card is for, well, they are some very lucky gamers. This video card truly is a monster, and if you put down the coin to capture this creature, it'll serve you well. You can expect to run any possible game you have at the absolute maximum settings possible without any hiccups. In fact, one of the biggest 'problems' of having this card would be that right now, there really isn't all that much out there that'll make use of all this power -- except for Crysis, anyways. But rest assured, it will not be long until the new titles of 2008 will be demanding of entirely new levels of juice, and come that time, you be ready if you have this Godzilla of a video card in your rig.

If you are interested in this level of performance -- i.e, the ultimate level of performance -- then I would recommend getting the XFX 9800 GX2. You may however want to hold off on this purchase, for even just a month from now though, to wait for prices to fall, as they surely will when the rest of the NVIDIA line comes out (which is rumored to happen soon). That being said, I fully expect the performance crown to still be sitting on the head of the 9800GX2 when the dust settles after the revealing of the new NVIDIA GPU's. In fact, I would put money on it that the performance crown will not be usurped from the 9800 GX2 anytime soon.

If you are willingly and able to pay the price, then you can buy a ticket straight to gaming Valhalla with this giant and heavy, solid bar of graphics processing power that is the XFX 9800 GX2.

 

 

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