iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






NVIDIA GeForce FX 5800 Ultra 128MB Video Card Review

February 18, 2003

 As usual, before we proceed to analysis of the new accelerator we recommend that you read the analytic article scrutinizing the architecture and specifications of the NVIDIA GeForce FX (NV30)


  1. General information
  2. Peculiarities of the NVIDIA GeForce FX 5800 Ultra 128MB video card 
  3. Test system configuration and drivers' settings 
  4. Test results: briefly on 2D 
  5. RightMark3D synthetic tests: philosophy and tests description
  6. Test results: RightMark3D: Pixel Filling 
  7. Test results: RightMark3D: Geometry Processing Speed 
  8. Test results: RightMark3D: Hidden Surface Removal 
  9. Test results: RightMark3D: Pixel Shading 
  10. Test results: RightMark3D: Point Sprites 
  11. Test results: 3DMark2001 SE synthetic tests 
  12. Additional theoretical information and summary on the synthetic tests
  13. Information on anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing
  14. Architectural features and prospects
  15. Test results: 3DMark2001 SE: Game1 
  16. Test results: 3DMark2001 SE: Game2 
  17. Test results: 3DMark2001 SE: Game3 
  18. Test results: 3DMark2001 SE: Game4 
  19. Test results: 3DMark03: Game1 
  20. Test results: 3DMark03: Game2 
  21. Test results: 3DMark03: Game3 
  22. Test results: 3DMark03: Game4 
  23. Test results: Quake3 ARENA 
  24. Test results: Serious Sam: The Second Encounter 
  25. Test results: Return to Castle Wolfenstein 
  26. Test results: Code Creatures DEMO 
  27. Test results: Unreal Tournament 2003 DEMO 
  28. Test results: AquaMark 
  29. Test results: RightMark 3D 
  30. Test results: DOOM III Alpha version 
  31. 3D quality: Anisotropic filtering
  32. 3D quality: Anti-aliasing
  33. 3D quality in general
  34. Conclusion 

Practical Tests

Now comes the most interesting part where we will show and comment the data obtained on the accelerators of two main families - ATI RADEON 9700 PRO and NVIDIA GeForce FX 5800 Ultra. The card of the previous generation - GeForce 4 Ti 4600 - is used as a reference one. 

Pixel Filling

  1. The test measures the frame buffer fill rate (Pixel Fillrate). Constant color, no texture sampling. The scores are given in million pixels per second for different resolutions both in the standard mode and in 4x MSAA:

  2. In theory, the GFFX working at a higher frequency is capable of more things than the RADEON 9700, but the FX outdoes the latter only in the lowest resolution and then the 9700 PRO takes the lead thanks to the greater memory throughput. This also proves the FX's slowdown in the AA mode in low resolution. 

    In all resolutions except the lowest one the difference corresponds to the difference in the peak memory throughput. 

  3. Frame buffer fillrate with simultaneous texturing. Sampling of one simple bilinear texture is added, and we will estimate how the competitive read stream from memory cuts down the fill effectiveness. The results are given in million pixels per second for different resolutions in the standard mode and at 4x MSAA: 

  4. In general, the picture is the same but the peak values are a little lower. Let's see whether the reality goes along with theoretical limits based on the core's frequency and number of pipelines: 

    Product Theoretical maximum Measured maximum (without texture) Measured maximum (with 1 texture)
    GeForce4 Ti 4600 1200 1175 1150
    RADEON 9700 PRO 2600 2340 2184
    GeForce FX 5800 Ultra 4000 1957 1848

    So, the GeForce FX uses only half of its potential because of the insufficient memory bandwidth. In fact, it's enough to make a similar chip with the 256bit memory bus to speed up the operation 1.5 times. 

  5. Now look at the dependence of the Texturing Rate (pixels sampled and filtered from textures, per second) on the number of textures applied in a pass: 

  6. Starting from two textures per pixel (the minimum of all modern games) the efficiency of the NV30 goes up sharply! The optimum is reached with 4 textures, in contrast to the R300 which benefits from 2 textures. Such behavior can be explained. As the number of textures grows up, the sampling and filtering efficiency which depends mostly on the core's frequency has a greater effect. If in case of 1 texture the performance was limited by the frame buffer write speed, in case of two and more the core's clock speed becomes more influencial. Besides, NVIDIA has an original pipelined design of the texture units which provides per-clock return without delays. So, the dynamic pool of the pipelined texture modules is successful - the NV30 leads in texture sampling. However, later we will see whether such performance is affected by the insufficient memory bandwidth in dealing with real applications. 

    Such advantage of the NV30 must have an effect mostly on games with multilevel texturing without multiple pixel calculations, like DOOM III. 

    Product Theoretical maximum Reached maximum Measured maximum (max. textures)
    GeForce4 Ti 4600 2400 2223 (4 textures) 2223 (4 textures)
    RADEON 9700 PRO 2600 2070 (2 textures) 1430 (8 textures)
    GeForce FX 5800 Ultra 4000 3178 (4 textures) 2324 (8 textures)
  7. Dependence on the texture format: 

  8. The results remain almost the same - all the chips were optimized for 32-bit textures long ago and unpack compressed textures without any delays. 

  9. Dependence on the filtering type: 

  10. With the significant anisotropy settings the NV25 starts losing its performance. It was discussed in depth in our previous reviews. But the NV30 loses efficiency only a bit faster than the R300. The absolute scores are greater than those of the R300 by the value greater than the gap in the cores' frequencies because of the more effective pipelining in operation of the texture units. 

    The speed decrease with the activated anisotropy is adequate, but is the quality identical as well? Later we will look into it. The 4-texture version was chosen as it is typical for games released this year - there are not many who still use only 2 textures, and 8 textures are used only in some objects on the scene. Below you will see how the GeForce FX deals with anisotropy in real applications including the most interesting mode - FSAA. 

Geometry Processing Speed

  1. Fixed TCL performance (for NV30 and R300 - performance of the shader that emulates it): 

  2. The scores are sorted out according to the complexity of a lighting model used. The lowest group is the simplest variant which corresponds to the peak accelerator's throughput for vertices. Here everything depends on the core's clock speed and number of vertex processors. On one hand, the NV30 has only three vs. 4 of the R300, on the other hand, the frequency difference is greater than three fourths. 

    In case of more complicated models it goes ahead; the TCL emulation implemented by NVIDIA was always superior. What is the cost of the NV25's results which is so close to the R300 although it always looked paler in vertex processing. It seems that NVIDIA integrated some hardware units into the chip for more efficient TCL emulation while the R300 just executes a standard shader-emulator without any additional capabilities which is compiled a standard way.

  3. Vertex Shaders 1.1: 

  4. The NV30 is still leading except the simplest peak case. The advantage is not so considerable now, but the high frequency still prevails over one missing pipeline. The R300 with its 4 pipelines wins only once in case of the simplest shader. As the overheads for the startup of vertex processing become tangible compared to a short and simple shader, the R300 gets an advantage with its 4 simultaneously working pipelines. 

  5. Shaders 2.0 with loops: 

  6. Do you remember we mentioned high overheads of the R300 for loop execution? ATI says they are actively working on the internal shader optimizer integrated into the drivers, and the overheads must be cut down soon. The NV30 has even greater overheads related with loop execution! Well, the dynamic control of the instruction flow must trigger great delays in the loop execution. Speed is the cost of flexibility - in case of loops the NV30's advantage melts away. It's interesting though that the simplest shader is executed twice faster if complied as 2.0. 

    The T&L hardware emulation of ATI is less efficient that that of NV and is comparable in effectiveness to the vertex shader 2.0. The NV30's strongest point is TCL emulation, the weakest one is loops. In this respect, ATI can use much more aggressive optimization in the drivers thanks to the static execution of transitions and loops. So, the second version is not free for all the chips - the loops make the performance noticeably lower by a greater degree than we could expected from one loop command, - by several tens of usual commands. 

  7. 4. Cross dependence on the geometry detail degree and shader's complexity: 

  8. The higher the shader's complexity and the scene's detail level, the more advantageous the NV30's position is (vertex caches and other balancing aspects). This architecture is more future-oriented. The more there are polygons in a model, the better the results, but the dependence is extremely weak, and starting from the second detail level and the second complicated shader, it can be considered sufficient. 

Hidden Surface Removal

  1. Support and maximum performance of HSR percentagewise depending on resolution and number of triangles (early Z cull is not counted): 

  2. So, in the NV25 the HSR technology is still deactivated which is demonstrated by the synthetic test (as we later found out, the HSR can be enabled in the latest drivers but only with tweakers, for example, RivaTuner; the HSR is disabled by default). But the NV30 does have it, though its effectiveness is lower that that of the R300 - the R300 uses an hierarchical structure and the surfaces are often removed on a higher level, while the NV30 has only one decision-making level combined with tiles which are used for depth information compression. In 1600x1200 the HSR on the R300 becomes much less effective - probably the hierarchical depth buffer is not used anymore (e.g. for the sake of memory) and the decisions are made like in the NV30 - only one the lowest level combined with the compressed blocks in the depth buffer. 

    Dependence of the HSR effectiveness on the scene's complexity: 

    For the NV30 with its single tile level the HSR is more effective if there are fewer polygons on the scene, while the R300 keeps to the golden mean. 

  3. Support and maximum efficiency of the HSR percentagewise depending on resolution and number of triangles, scene with textures (Early Z Cull is accounted for): 

  4. Both NV30 and R300 perform better here. The NV25 has only a 5% gain while the newer chips have the more effective early Z cull. In case of textures both chips prefer scenes with fewer polygons. 

  5. Effectiveness in case of the sorted and unsorted scenes, with textures and without: 

  6. Nothing new, but in some tests the R300 is still far ahead. The NV30 performs worse in this non-peak but more verisimilar comparison of the rendering efficiency of the sorted and unsorted scenes with textures. But the NV25 shows a 13% gain on the scene with textures. 

    So, in case of the originally unsorted scene the gain is not great. The boost is the most considerable in case of a small or average number of polygons. So, if you want to use the benefits of the HSR (unfortunately it's disabled in many chips) sort the scene before rendering. The performance may increase several times. In case of an unsorted scene the growth may come to several tens of percent. By the way, portal applications do sort scenes before rendering, and most modern FPS engines belong to them. That is why the HSR game is worth the candle, especially for this type of games. 

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Andrey Vorobiev (anvakams@ixbt.com)
Alexander Medvedev (unclesam@ixbt.com

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