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Battle Of The 256MB Graphics Cards - Radeon 9800 vs GeForce FX 5900

Friday, May 23, 2003 by TheDoc

Battle Of The 256MB Graphics Cards
Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB Vs. GeForce FX 5900 Ultra
ATi's Catalyst 3.4 Drivers and 256MB R9800 Pro Vs. The New NVIDIA Flagship
Specifications & Features of The 256MB ATi Radeon 9800 Pro and The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra

RADEON 9800 Pro 256MB

    380MHz Core Clock
  • 256MB of DDR 2 SDRAM - 350MHz DDR (Effective 700MHz)
  • Eight parallel rendering pipelines process up to 3.04 billion pixels per second
  • Four parallel geometry engines process up to 380 million transformed and lit polygons per second
  • High precision 10-bit per channel frame buffer support
  • 256-bit DDR memory interface
  • AGP 8X support
  • Full support for Microsoft® DirectX® 9.0 programmable pixel and vertex shaders in hardware
  • 2.0 Pixel Shaders support up to 16 textures per rendering pass
  • 2.0 Vertex Shaders support vertex programs with an unlimited number of instructions and flow control
  • 128-bit per pixel floating point color formats
  • Multiple Render Target (MRT) support
  • Shadow volume rendering acceleration
  • Complete feature set also supported in OpenGL via extensions
  • State-of-the-art full-scene anti-aliasing
  • New technology processes up to 18.2 billion anti-aliased samples per second for unprecedented performance
  • Supports 2x, 4x, and 6x modes with programmable sample patterns
  • Advanced anisotropic filtering
  • Supports up to 16 bilinear samples (in performance mode) or trilinear samples (in quality mode) per pixel
  • 2x/4x/6x full scene anti-aliasing modes
  • Adaptive algorithm with programmable sample patterns
  • 2x/4x/8x/16x anisotropic filtering modes
  • Adaptive algorithm with bilinear (performance) and trilinear (quality) options
  • Bandwidth-saving algorithm enables this feature with minimal performance cost
  • Hierarchical Z-Buffer and Early Z Test reduce overdraw by detecting and discarding hidden pixels
  • Lossless Z-Buffer Compression and Fast Z-Buffer Clear reduce memory bandwidth consumption by over 50%
  • Fast Z-Buffer Clear
  • 8.8 : 1 Compression Ratio
  • Optimized Z-Cache for enhanced performance of shadow volumes


  • .13u Manufacturing Process
  • 256-Bit GPU - 450MHz Clock Speed
  • Flip-Chip BGA Package with copper interconnects
  • Up To 8 Pixels Per Clock Processing
  • 1 TMU Per Pipe (16 Textures per unit)
  • 2 x 400MHz Internal RAMDACs
  • 256-bit Memory Architecture
  • 850MHz DDR
  • 256-Bit Bus Width
  • 128MB & 256MB Memory Capacity
  • 3rd. Generation Lightspeed Memory Architecture
  • Effective bandwidth - 27.2GB/s actual @ 850MHz
  • 256MB of DDR/DDR2
  • CineFX 2.0 for Cinematic Special Effects
  • 'UltraShadow' Hardware Shadow Acceration
  • 2x floating point pixel shader performance of NV30
  • 256MB High Speed Frame Buffer
  • AGP 4X/8x
  • DVI + VGA + TV / VIVO
  • Full DirectX 9.0 & OpenGL Support
  • 64-Bit Floating-Point Color
  • 128-Bit Floating-Point Color
  • Long Program length for Pixel and Vertex Shading
  • Unified Vertex and Pixel Shading instruction set
  • Unified Driver Architecture
  • nView 2.0 - Multi-Display Technology
  • Digital Vibrance Control 3.0
  • 2nd Generation compression & caching
Intellisample HCT
  • Next Generation Antialiasing, Anisotropic Filtering and Compression
  • Hardware Acceleration for Shadows
Test Setup
  • Pentium 4 Processors at 3GHz - 800MHz System Bus
  • Motherboard and RAM Config
  • Abit IC7-G 'Canterwood' Motherboard
  • 512MB of Kingston HyperX PC3500 CAS 2 RAM
  • CAS Timings were 2-2-2-5
  • NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 256MB
  • NVIDIA GeForce FX 5800 Ultra 128MB
  • ATi Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB
Other Hardware and Software:
  • Seagate Barracuda V SATA 120GB HD
  • Windows XP Professional w/ SP1
  • NVIDIA Detonator FX Drivers Version 44.03
  • ATi Catalyst 3.4 Drivers
  • Intel Release Chipset Driver v5.00.1012
  • Intel Applications Accelerator RAID Edition v3.0.0.229

3DMark 2001 SE Benchmarks

In our first series of tests, we ran Futuremark's 3DMark 2001 SE and 3DMark 2003. Frankly we're a little uncertain with respect to validity of this suite of benchmarks, as rumors and accusations fly in the media of NVIDIA's alleged 'optimizations' (or cheating depending on who you talk to) on both 2001 and 2003 benchmarks. We have yet to prove out some of these claims ourselves in our labs, so for now we'll include these scores as a component of our total performance metric between the two cards. These scores are only a piece of the complete picture and since the tests are 'synthetic' in a general sense, they only correlate loosely with respect to real world gaming performance.

The GFFX5900 Ultra and the 256MB R9800 Pro are neck and neck here, when you look at the standard scores, without Anti-Aliasing in the mix. Actually, the R9800 card has a more significant lead in the default benchmark, until you invoke 4X AA. Then the GFFX5900 Ultra pulls ahead by a healthy margin, with its higher over all memory bandwidth most likely giving it the edge.

Supposedly, 3DMark 2003 is the benchmark that NVIDIA has taken aggressive steps to optimize the most. Perhaps this is why the over all scores here for both the NV30 and NV35 are ahead of the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card by such a significant lead. As you'll see in the upcoming in-game benchmarks, the NV30 doesn't stand a chance against the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card but the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is another story altogether.

Let's dig into some less controversial test conditions and fire up a few of the more popular game engines, for a spin with new Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB and the GeForce FX 5900 UItra.

Serious Sam SE Testing

Serious Sam The Second Encounter, will provide a decent perspective of OpenGL gaming performance, with its bright and detailed textures and DX7 lighting effects. Let's have a look...

At a medium resolution of 1024X768, Serious Sam's game engine is hardly stressing any of the cards in this round-up. Even the GFFX 5800 Ultra keeps close pace with the GFFX 5900 UItra and the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB. However, at 1600X1200, the pack spreads out a bit with the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra stealing the show with 4X AA enabled. Without AA, again all of the cards are within close proximity of each other. However, we're reminded of NVIDIA's lesser quality AA output. In our opinion, 4X AA image quality is not quite up to par with Radeon 9800 Pro 4X AA image quality, at this point in time. We are hopeful that NVIDIA will release a driver update soon that will tighten up their AA fidelity. At this point in time, users need to ask themselves if they want a few extra frames per second at the slight expense of image quality. We feel that although the GFFX 5900 Ultra is faster than the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card, in certain AA modes, the card just isn't doing the work that a Radeon 9800 Pro is capable of. Again, in the end it's up to you to decide for yourself on the IQ of each card and the associated performance levels you're getting. In our opinion, NVIDIA has more homework to do on their drivers.

Quake 3 Arena will tell the story of OpenGL performance levels of each card, with one of the most popular and widely exploited game engines of all time. Doom3 is right around the corner and it seems that in the not so distant future, we'll be replacing all our Q3 benchmark efforts with Id's latest gory shoot 'em up thriller. Until then, we'll provide you numbers based on the latest Quake 3 point release.

Quake 3 Arena Time Demos

At standard settings, again it's a close race for both the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB and the GFFX 5900 Ultra. However, the AA and Aniso Filtering modes displayed here paint a very different picture. Clearly, the GFFX 5900 Ultra has a bandwidth advantage with 4X AA enabled. However, turn on 8X AF and the frame rates take a nose dive, allowing the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card to pass it by with 10 fps to spare.

And then we see the Radeon 9800 card hit a bandwidth and fill rate wall at 1600X1200 res, with 4X AA enabled, with or without AF. The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra smokes the Radeon card here by almost 30 fps at 4X AA and retains a small margin lead on the R9800 Pro 256, even with 8X AF enabled. What is impressive actually, is how little the R9800 Pro 256 drops off going from 4X AA to 4X AA with 8X AF. While the 5900 UItra suffers roughly a 40 fps drop, the Radeon 9800 Pro 256 drops only by about a 16 fps penalty. This is more proof that NVIDIA needs to optimize their AF performance as well, although their AF image quality is clearly impeccable and every bit as good as the Radeon 9800 Pro.

Unreal Tournament's Fly By Demos are perhaps the most relevant gaming benchmarks we can show you at this point in time. Not only are Unreal II and UT2003 extremely popular games but the game engine itself showcases leading edge DX8 3D rendering effects and impressive eye candy. If you're looking for 'real-world' performance metrics, this benchmark is the one to focus on, at least for now. However, when Doom3 appears, you can be sure we'll be relying on it heavily around the lab here, for next generation Graphics Card performance analysis.

Unreal Tournament 2003 Benchmarks

In these final tests, we've narrowed the field down to just the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card and the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra. Here are the results...

Although the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card definitely 'hangs' with the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra at standard settings, enable AA or Aniso Filtering and the GFFX 5900 Ultra begins to distance itself handily. With 4X AA enabled the GFFX 5900 U has a 19% lead. With 8X AF enabled on top of that, the gap closes to 12%. You can't argue with those numbers but you can argue a bit with the IQ of the R9800 Pro 256, which has slightly cleaner looking AA overall. Regardless, NVIDIA's top card has the horsepower to spare obviously and without question, a driver revision could indeed improve the IQ of the card.

More of the same is show here, only at 1600X1200 resolution, the GFFX 5900 Ultra shows its fill rate and memory bandwidth advantage, even with AA or AF enabled. We should also note that our we were informed of a driver bug in NVIDIA's 44.03 Detonator FX drivers, that causes inefficient use of frame buffer memory, when triple buffering is enabled as well as AA, at resolutions above 1024X768 in this test. The scores here are representative of triple buffer being turned off for both cards, while using a standard 'high quality' ini file, that sets both cards to identical high quality rendering modes within the Unreal graphics engine.

The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra has an impressive 29% lead over the Radeon 9800 Pro card at default settings. The lead then expands to 33% with 4X AA enabled but closes down again to 15% when you turn on 8X Anisotropic Filtering. For sure, NVIDIA's card is much more heavily impacted by AF processing overhead. However, it's still faster by a significant margin, no matter how you slice it.

Let's think about our conclusion here, from the 'fortunate enthusiast' perspective. You're about to plunk down $499 on a Graphics Card ( MSRP for both the R9800 Pro 256MB and the GFFX 5900 Ultra, with lower street prices eventually) and you want a 'no compromises' solution with the best frame rates and image quality. Let's REALLY think about this, people. We are definitely in a bit of a conundrum with respect to what our preference would be here at HotHardware. Personally, I can't remember a time in my 5 year career here, as Founder of this site, where I have been so totally on the fence about a competitive product match-up. Let's break this down.

On one hand, we have the 'brute force' all out monster frame rates of the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra. The card takes no prisoners and makes no excuses. It consumes two PCI slots in your PC chassis, is louder (although a quantum leap improvement over the 5800 Ultra) and bulkier than the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card. It punches out overall frame rate that is a notch above the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card, even with ATi's latest extremely mature Catalyst Driver suite, in almost all test conditions. In the end, the 5900 Ultra may end up costing you more, because it clearly must cost more to build. However, you don't care, you are the top end niche' of the Enthusiast PC market. Cost is not an object.

On the other hand the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card takes up one slim PCI slot. Its HSF assembly is nearly inaudible. The card boasts easily the best looking Anti-Aliasing on the market right now (at least until NVIDIA releases a new driver that could clean things up) and when you turn on Aniso Filtering it comes within striking distance of the GFFX 5900 Ultra. You want crisp, sharp, detailed gaming at high frame rates and you are willing to pay for it. The Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB, with its sleek elegant design, looks pretty sexy too, just like your girlfriend's friend (or the other way around for you ladies in our audience).

We usually speak as a 'team' here at XPD8. However, this time I'm going to make an exception and just plain level with all of you, personally. As Computer Hardware Journalists and Media types, we have the ability to run THE best gear in our own rigs, anytime we want. If we need to pull a card out for the test bench, so be it. After the article is done, pop the card back in and reboot. As such, I have my druthers on which 3D Graphics Accelerator I'm going to run personally. I think my needs are fairly representative of a lot of our readers. I like to work, surf the net, watch TV and play games on my computer. When I'm on the desktop, I want the best 2D image quality money can buy. I spend countless hours staring at the screen, on launch article for example. When I game, I want the fastest frame rates and the best image quality. Why? Because I can have it, if I so choose. So, where does this leave me with two of the top 3D cards at my disposal? I am on the fence here and I can't seem to fall off one way or the other. With the impressive frame rates of the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, I would have to lean that way, if and only if, NVIDIA can clean up their AA and take their Aniso performance up a notch. If not, I would lean the way of the Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB card or a 128MB version for that matter. The frame rates are right up there and the IQ is to die for.

Sorry folks, I know it sounds pretty indecisive but we're going to reserve formal comment on this match-up, at least until NVIDIA formally hits production with the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra in June. Maybe then, with a new driver release, the tables will turn more definitively to the GFFX 5900 Ultra, since it is the faster of the two cards, without question. However, frame rate isn't everything anymore. You know that, I know that and so do NVIDIA and ATi. What a coin toss and what a great problem to have.

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