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We’ve witnessed an awful lot of chest-thumping in the ATI and nVidia camps over the past few months, with both companies hurling rocks at each other over who’s bigger, who’s faster, and who’s better looking. Of course, it all boils down to which videocard deserves your dollar, and when it comes to high-end videocards for gaming, we think it’s nVidia and its GeForce 7900 GTX.
The bulk of our 3D benchmark scores tell us that one 7900 GTX is just slightly faster than a single Radeon X1900 XTX. We saw similar results running two of these monsters in SLI. It’s not a blow-out, but two 7900 GTX cards did pull out in front of two of ATI’s best in CrossFire mode to claim the dual-card performance crown.
There’s one area, however, in which ATI maintained the lead it established when it finally shipped drivers that unleashed the power of its Avivo technology: video image quality. However unlikely the scenario might be, if you use your PC primarily to watch DVD movies, we think ATI has the better solution—and it doesn’t cost anything extra. This advantage disappears in CrossFire mode; in fact, you must disable CrossFire in order to enable Avivo. Still, obtaining the best video performance nVidia’s hardware can offer means buying either nVidia’s $30 PureVideo decoder or the latest DVD player software from CyberLink (PowerDVD) or InterVideo (WinDVD), which now come with PureVideo built in.
The 7900 GTX isn’t the first nVidia GPU to use a 90-nanometer manufacturing process, but it is the first time nVidia has used this technology to build its flagship GPU (nVidia’s first 90nm part was the entry-level 7300 GS, introduced back in January). The new process enabled the engineers to shrink the part’s die size to 196 square millimeters (the previous top-end chip, the 7800 GTX, measured 334 square millimeters; ATI’s X1900 XTX is 352 square millimeters). It also allowed engineers to realize design efficiencies that helped them reduce the new chip’s transistor count from the 7800 GTX’s 302 million transistors to 278 million.
The benefits of these design changes manifest themselves in both a higher core-clock speed—650MHz—and lower power consumption (our tests indicated 275 watts at peak for a system with a single card and 360 watts at peak running two cards in SLI). The new card’s 512MB of memory is actually clocked slower than that of the 512MB 7800 GTX (800- vs. 850MHz). Less power draw equals less heat, which lets nVidia use the same quiet dual-slot cooler from the 512MB 7800 GTX (which had a 550MHz core).
You’ll encounter another benefit of architecture simplification when you go shopping for a new videocard powered by the 7900 GTX: nVidia anticipates its manufacturing partners will price their cards starting at just $500. At press time, this was in the same range as the typical 256MB 7800 GTX card, and it was considerably less than the average-priced card powered by ATI’s Radeon X1900 XTX.
So how does all this translate to real-world performance? As you can see from the benchmark chart, the 7900 GTX spanks ATI’s X1900 XTX in 3DMark03 in both single- and dual-card scenarios. nVidia is way ahead in Doom 3, too. (It’s a mystery to us why ATI hasn’t figured how to write better OpenGL drivers.) ATI’s card pulls out a solid win in 3DMark05, but nVidia pulls within a hair’s breadth of a tie when you compare dual-card scenarios. The two cards’ 3DMark06 scores are also very close, with nVidia beating ATI in single-card mode and ATI squeaking out a win in the dual-card contest.
For folks who want superior video on their PC, and who are committed to a single-videocard lifestyle, ATI and its Avivo technology are pretty compelling. For gamers looking for pure power, however, ATI’s dual-card CrossFire solution falls short where nVidia’s GeForce 7900 GTX soars. Indeed, the 7900 GTX will win the hearts and minds of gamers who want the total package.
Month Reviewed: May 2006
+ GREEN TEA: Bests competition in most 3D benchmarks; SLI is a superior dual-card solution.
- GREEN CHEESE: Lags the competition when it comes to video image quality.