After having taken a long hard look at GPUs last fall, it is time, once again, to see what the graphics card vendors have to offer the world. We wanted to get our hands on as many cards as possible in order to put together a roundup of epic proportions.

There is more to buying a graphics card than an IHV's chip, and the tender loving care that the OEMs give their cards is where much of the end user value comes from these days. In this review, we will take a look at each card and what it has under the hood, along with its GPU. Beyond the gaming experience, we will be looking at fan noise and heat dissipation as well as which memory modules the vendor decided to use. Some of the cards are even pre-overclocked for our gaming pleasure.

We will see everything from two-fan cooling solutions to LCD temperature and fan speed readouts. After looking at what each card has to offer above and beyond the performance, we will put them all to the test. Obviously, if the cards all run at reference speeds, they will all perform similarly to earlier tests that we have already completed. We've got something more special in mind.

We are going to overclock each card to its highest stable core and memory speed, and then run a few select benchmarks to cover the most recent few DirectX releases as well as OpenGL. All told, 23 cards were benchmarked, so we didn't have the ability to run a whole suite of tests on each one.

Keep in mind, when looking at overclocking, that every single card is different. We are only hoping to get an idea of what a particular vendor's cards can do. Heat sink and fan selection are very important to overclocking, as is RAM cooling and board layout. Though these issues impact overclocking a great deal, they, alone, do not dictate success or failure at any given clock speed. Each GPU, RAM module, capacitor, etc. has different limitations, which can only be determined experimentally.

Beyond understanding what the vendors are doing, we will be able to glean a little more information about the IHV's GPUs. Hopefully, our tests will tell us what kind of speed increases we can expect from each core, and what impact core and memory clock speed have on performance. But that's enough talk. Take a look at the cards in our lineup.

UPDATE: As the performance tests in this article place a heavy weight on overclockability, it is important to note that the Radeon 9800 (R350/R360) based cards are fabbed on a 150nm process and will have a little more trouble overclocking than the 130nm parts that make up the rest of the cards we tested. Also, NVIDIA GPUs underclock themselves when running in 2D mode, so their idle temperatures will be lower on average than the ATI based solutions. We appologize for having omitted this information from initial publication.
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  • KristopherKubicki - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    Very well done.
  • Icewind - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    I'd like to know how the freak the Nvidia cards outdid the ATI's in Halo and UT2k3, thats just beyond me.
  • TheSnowman - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    hum Derek, i don't suppose you know why the nvidia based high end cards idle at so much lower temperature when compared to the ati based offerings?
  • AnonymouseUser - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    Nice roundup. The 5900se (priced similar to the 5700 Ultra and 9600XT) is what I find most impressive.
  • Abraxas - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    great review, this is the first of its type that i've seen and it really changed my mind on what card to buy. I would like to see 1280x1024 or even 1600x1200 in a future review, but even at 1024 it is nice.

    53.03 is really that much faster? that's just amazing.

    #7 ATI held a huge advantage on older drivers in HALO, just as much as in HL2. if the new drivers are that much faster... it appears that nvidia should never have been doubted :)
  • DerekWilson - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    Sorry Icewind, we didn't include numbers for stock 9800pro, 5900(ultra/non-ultra/se/xt) or any stock card other than the newest releases. Most other reviews cover reference cards running stock numbers, but we just needed one reference point to show where these numbers fell and give people a basis to judge performance increase.

    Iger, there are a few reasons for what you are seeing. I would say that your questions were the correct ones to ask.

    We could only use a couple benchmarks, and the couple we chose are standardish (UT2K3), based on very common engines (JKJA), or one of the few available (Halo having PS2.0 support). These were not the games with huge performance gaps between them (like Tomb Raider or Tron). Also, since we were including 5700 and 9600 parts, we wanted to stick with the standard-but-lowish 1024x768 resolution rather than bump up a 1280 flavor.

    There is also one other thing that has been overlooked. Since the fall, there have been some driver changes. We've moved up to 53.03 for NVIDIA (which brough some noticeable performance increases) and the CATALYST 4.1 drivers which we have yet to give a good work out.

    In future reviews of this type, we plan on going with higher resolutions even if we include midrange cards. So the question we leave to the readers is this: how high do we go? 1152x864, 1280x960, 1280x1024 or 1600x1200 ...
  • Lonyo - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    Most 9800's seem to be able to hit about 450MHz at the very max. Even the 9800 non-pro's (mine can get to 440MHz, but I run at 430MHz).
    Seems like a limit of the chip at about that sort of level.
  • drpepper1280 - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    To answer a few questions, the passivly cooled 9600xt is on newegg, its the ultimate version. If you search by category it is at the bottom. Also the reason the nvidia cards do well against the ati cards is because they are overclocked in the bench marks (I'm pretty sure), also none of the bench marks are Half Life 2, lol. I had one question even before viewing the article, how does sapphires 9600xt 256mb stand up. Unfortunetly it was not reviewed, but I did read the the 9600xt could benifit from a memory increase. This makes me wonder if the 9600xt 256mb is actually a really good deal (it only cost 170 dollars), or if it is like many 256mb cards that actually decrease performance.
  • Iger - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    It's strange it almost doesn't correspond with the fall test of FX5950 against 9800XT... There 9800XT looked much stronger... Now even the reference XT looks weaker, than FX. Maybe that's because the fall test was at higher resolutions? Or just not enough tests to see the big picture?
  • tfranzese - Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - link

    Good article. Impressed with both camp's overclocking headroom.

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