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The card
Before we dig into the GPU performance stuff, though, we should stop and talk about the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra card itself. Words can't do it justice, so let's just skip to the pictures:


BFG Tech's Asylum GeForce FX 5800 Ultra


The passive cooler on the back side of the card is no slouch, either


The Radeon 9800 is smaller in every dimension than the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra It's big. Double-stacked big. Like an indulgent Oreo for the obese, it takes up twice as much room as a standard AGP card, encroaching on the nearest PCI slot to get room for its cooler.

You may not be able to tell this from the picture, but the GeForce FX card is also heavy. The card's cooler has more copper in it than a roll of pennies, and using my highly scientific "hold one in each hand" method, I've determined the GeForce FX card weighs about the same as three Radeon 9700 cards.

The most infamous feature of the GFFX 5800 Ultra card, though, has to be its Dustbuster cooler. (I coined the term in reference to the FX cooler in this article, thanks very much.) NVIDIA's "FX Flow" cooler design is reminiscent of the cooler on Abit's OTES card, which we reviewed a while back. A heat pipe design pulls heat from the surface of the GPU and into the copper fins. The FX Flow's blower pulls air into the PC case through the lower set of vents, then pushes the air out over the copper fins you see in the upper chamber of its plastic case.

Incidentally, this card and cooling design is not the work of BFG Tech, even though we're looking at their card. All GeForce FX 5800 Ultra cards are essentially the same, because for this product, NVIDIA generally is supplying its partners with complete cards rather than chips. Likewise, the cooler you see on our BFG Tech card is NVIDIA's reference cooler with an Asylum sticker slapped on the side. Other NVIDIA partners have cooked up alternative cooler designs for the FX 5800 Ultra, but most cards will probably be similar to this one.

For general non-3D applications, the FX Flow blower on our BFG Tech card doesn't run at all, leaving the cooling job to the card's massive copper heat sink apparatus. The copper heatsinks on the card get too hot to touch, even when the PC is sitting in power-save mode, but the fan stays silent, and all is peaceful. Once we kick off a 3D game or application, the blower spins up to speed, emitting a high-pitched whine that elicits flashbacks to my days on the flight deck. And I was never even in the service. After the 3D application ends, the blower will generally spin right back down to a stop. Sometimes it stays on for a while afterwards to bring the chip's temperature into check.

To give you an idea how loud it is, I used a digital sound level meter (Extech model 407727) to measure the sound of our test system with the GeForce FX and with a Radeon 9800 Pro. The meter was mounted on a tripod about two feet away from our test system, whose only other real noisemakers are a bog-standard AMD Athlon XP retail cooler and a Codegen PSU with a fairly quiet fan inside. (The hard drive is a Maxtor DiamondMax D740X.) I tested noise levels at the Windows desktop and running Unreal 2003. Here are the results:

This thing is loud. Decibels come on a logarithmic scale, so the numeric difference you see here may not capture the difference in noise levels adequately.

Let me be brutally honest here. I hate this cooler. It's louder than a bright plaid leisure suit, and the white noise repeatedly lulled me to sleep as I was trying complete this review. I didn't like Abit's original OTES card, and I don't like NVIDIA's expensive knock-off of it any better. Perhaps I'm just not hard-core enough about this stuff—I don't like high-CFM CPU coolers, either—but this thing isn't for me. You will want to think long and hard before you decide that you can live with one of these cards in your PC.

Now, let's get on with testing this thing in action.