The mainstream market has always been the most lucrative market for any graphics card manufacturer. You get this market and you can be sitting pretty on your rocking chair. This is true even if your flagship offering isn’t doing that great. Some of the less known manufacturers doesn’t even have a flagship card to start with. So basically, if you get this market, you have won the $ race.
nVIDIA and ATI of course knew this too well. There’s no point winning the graphics crown when your mainstream card isn’t doing too good. You may get the accollade for having the fastest card but you won’t get the bucks which is more important. Thus the need to dominate this market. nVIDIA has been dominating this market until recently. Remember the Ti4200? At the time, there was no other card than you call competition against that mighty mainstream card. nVIDIA was producing so much Ti4200s that so many graphics companies were born with only the purpose of selling this highly sought after card. It was so in demand then that there were times that the Ti4200 was in shortage everywhere. Yeah those were the days that nVIDIA would definitely want to experience again.
Recently though ATI has proved to be a very tough competition for nVIDIA. The release of their Radeon 9500Pro saw the sudden death of nVIDIA’s mainstream glory. This consumer card from ATI was so good that even nVIDIA’s flagship at the time, the Ti4600, was struggling to get past it. Together with the 9700Pro, ATI handed nVIDIA the double whammy with the 9500Pro.
After Ti4200, the next mainstream card that nVIDIA released was the FX 5600 Ultra. It’s life was short lived as the second revision was soon developed due to its lackluster performance against ATI’s new mainstream card then, the 9600Pro. The new FX 5600 Ultra core though showed very good performance but failed to fully capture or dominate the mainstream market. It’s hold on this position has now been shared with the equally excellent 9600Pro. Of course that’s not good enough for anyone most especially nVIDIA. So whats’ next?
In a bid to break the deadlock, nVIDIA quickly came back with a new mainstream card. Based on the NV36 core, this card aims to take solo lead in this highly targetted market. Does the new NV36 core have what it takes to convincingly defeat its ATI counterpart? Will it dominate the Radeon 9600Pro and the newest ATI offering, the 9600XT? Let us see if nVIDIA can reclaim its old glory in this department. Introducing, the nVIDIA GeForce FX 5700 Ultra!
The FX 5700 Ultra is very interesting indeed. Unlike the FX 5950 which is just an overclocked FX 5900, the FX 5700 Ultra is based on a different technology as the FX 5600 Ultra. One can easily describe the FX 5700 Ultra as a FX 5900 Ultra with half the pipelines and half the 256bit memory bus. Its clock speed is also faster than the FX 5600 Ultra. Its core is now at 475MHz, almost 20% faster. Another big change is the jump back to DDR2. Yup that’s right folks, the FX 5700 Ultra uses 128mb of the more expensive DDR2. Clocked at 900MHz DDR, it is 12% faster than it’s old brother. Having said all of that, it definitely sounds like a very big improvement over the FX 5600 Ultra. But will it be enough to challenge and dominate it’s ATI competititon, the Radeon 9600Pro and 9600XT? Below is a table comparing the FX 5700 Ultra to all of the current mainstream cards.
When it comes to size, the FX 5700 Ultra is on the big side. Its pcb is exactly the same size as the FX 5950 Ultra. It dwarfs all the other mainstream cards like the FX 5600 Ultra, the Radeon 9600 Pro and 9600XT. The FX 5700 Ultra’s cooling mechanism is very simple and not as elaborate as the FX 5950 Ultra. The heatsink is made of aluminum and covers both the core and the entire chips. It also acts as ramsink and heatspreader for all the memory modules on the front side resulting in better heat dissipation. The design allows the fan to cool the core directly below it and the fins surrounding it. At the back, you will also find a heatsink whose sole purpose is to cool the memory chips behind the card. An nVIDIA plate can also be seen beside the heatsink. The noise level is very good as I can barely hear the fan running on top of all my other case fans.
The card only occupies the AGP slot therefore no PCI slot will be rendered useless. However, we advise users to leave the 1st PCI slot vacant, if possible, as to not impede airflow to the HSF. If occupied, the PCI card would block the airflow and cause the temps to rise than normal. As we know, DDR2 are hotter than than standard ones.
The FX 5700 Ultra card uses 128mb of Samsung DDR2 BGA chips. Rated at 2.2ns, its maximum theoretical speed is 900MHz DDR. That means that these modules are already running at their maximum. This leaves no headroom for overclocking. Whether the cooling system will somehow help in pushing the memory some more, we will find out soon. As for the core, it comes in a FCPGA package therefore extra care is needed when removing/replacing the heatsink. As you can see, our reference card uses an engineering sample NV36 core.
Unlike its ATI counterpart, the FX 5700 Ultra needs extra power via a molex power connector attached to the card. Luckily, it didn’t follow the FX 5950 Ultra design where the placement of the molex is really awkward. The FX 5700 Ultra’s molex connector allows for side connection which is really good as to limit wire bending.
Amazingly even though the memory is already running at its maximum, the FX 5700 Ultra surprised us by producing a very impressive overclock. Using the built in overclocking feature in nVIDIA’s Forceware (coolbits enabled), the maximum 100% stable overclock we could get the FX 5700 Ultra to run solidly without artifacts is 550MHz core and 1050MHz memory. That’s a 16% boost on the card’s overall clock speed. This is indeed unexpected as the memory, already running at its maximum theoretical speed, still managed a huge 150mhz OC. Benchmarking results at this overclocked speed will be compared to those of the other cards.
Finally, nVIDIA has a card that clearly outperforms the competition. The GeForce FX 5700 Ultra definitely takes the mainstream graphics crown in our opinion. Showing very strong performance against the Radeon 9600XT, this card shined in almost all tests against its ATI counterpart. The improved performance under AA/AF has taken this nVIDIA card to the top. Its been such a long time, but today, I can safely say that nVIDIA has finally outclassed ATI with this offering.
The increased clock speed, the improved pixel and vertex shader and the move to DDR2, all contributed to the success of this card. The NV36 has resurrected nVIDIA’s hopes to be the leading graphics card manufacturer again. Having the mainstream market is definitely one way of reaching that goal.
Pricewise, the FX 5700 Ultra is at the same $ level as the 9600XTs. Both cards are similarly priced with each card sometimes more expensive than the other. Having better performance though across the board, the FX 5700 Ultra gives more bang for your buck. When overclocked, you get even more value for your money. We were very impressed by its excellent overclocking capability. Hopefully all FX 5700 Ultra cards will be like this.
If the performance of this reference card will be representative of all FX 5700 Ultra retail cards, then we highly recommend this card for the mainstream market. Among the current crop of cards in its league, The FX 5700 Ultra proved to be the best among the lot. Don’t know though for how long as knowing ATI, they will be coming back soon with a vengeance. For the meantime, nVIDIA can relax a bit and sigh a breath of relief…or not?