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Nvidia's GeForce 7900 GS graphics card

About the same... for less

AH, AUTUMN. Temperatures start to drop, students head back to school, the leaves begin to turn colors, and video card prices fall all around us. The autumn round of price cuts has become a happy tradition in PC graphics, a time when previously expensive video cards shed their high-priced summer attire and slip on their festive holiday-season price tags.

We've already seen ATI make its first moves in this seasonal ritual, lifting the curtains on the Radeon X1950 XTX and its more affordable cousin, the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB. Now it's Nvidia's turn to respond with a new GeForce that knows one very cool trick: how to perform like a $300 card while selling for about two hundred bucks. This new GeForce 7900 GS will make your phosphor glow in successive colors almost as rapidly as the GeForce 7900 GT, but it runs quieter and costs less. This isn't exactly a revolutionary upsurge in graphics power, but it's better than burning your hand on a Pentium 4.

How exactly does Nvidia's newest measure up to, well, almost everything else out there at the same price and above? What else do ATI and Nvidia have planned in the autumnal price-slashing fest? Could anything I have to say possibly top this? Keep reading to find the answers.

The long road to $199
The GeForce 7900 GS may seem like a new thing, but it's not really. Early last summer, Nvidia introduced its first GeForce 7-series product, the GeForce 7800 GTX graphics card, which offered about 10 gigatexels/s of fill rate and just under 40GB/s of memory bandwidth. The GTX had 256MB of memory, 24 pixel shader processors, and eight vertex shader processors. That card was at the top of the GPU performance game at the time, and it cost a princely $599.

Around a year ago, then, the green team uncorked the GeForce 7800 GT, which offered most of the power of the 7800 GTX, but the G70 GPU had one of its vertex shader units and one "quad" of pixel shader processors disabled. Card vendors shipped the thing at $399, and they cranked up the stock clock speeds on the 7800 GT to the point where the boards delivered 9 gigatexels/s of fill rate and about 34GB/s of memory bandwidth┬Śnot far off the specs or performance of the GTX, but for substantially less dinero.

Next, this past spring, came the GeForce 7900 GT. Thanks to a die shrink to 90nm, the G71 GPU on the 7900 GT was able to deliver the same basic technology and performance as the 7800 GTX while running cooler and costing less to produce. The 7900 GT debuted at around $299 and packed about 11 gigatexels/s of fill rate and 42GB/s of memory bandwidth.

Now we come to today and the GeForce 7900 GS. The GS is based on the same G71 GPU as the 7900 GT, but like the 7800 GT before it, it's had the tubes snipped to one of its vertex shader units and one of its pixel shader "quads." That leaves the GS with seven vertex shader units and 20 pixel shader processors. Board vendors have compensated for the fact, of course, by raising the stock clock speeds of the GPUs. Memory has gotten cheaper over time, too, so the 7900 GS gets 256MB of fast Hynix GDDR3. The end result? Well, in the case of the BFG Tech version of the 7900 GS, you get 10.5 gigatexels/s of fill rate and 42GB/s of memory bandwidth for around two hundred bucks.

Thus the GeForce 7800 GTX's basic mix of GPU and memory performance has made its way from the rare air at $599 to one third of that amount inside the span of a little more than a year. Not a bad progression, don't you think?

Fortunately, the GeForce 7900 GS has picked up a trick or two along the way. For reasons I have yet to understand, its predecessor, the 7900 GT, completely lacked any form of temperature-based fan speed control. As a result, the cards were much louder at idle than they needed to be. Temp-based fan speeds are back in the 7900 GS, much to our relief. 7900 GS cards also have the option to support HDCP, the evil necessary for playback of Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies. (Whether or not the cards support this feature will depend on the card vendors' implementation, so you'll want to check specs before you order if HDCP matters to you.)

A couple flavors of GS
We already have a couple of flavors of the GeForce 7900 GS on hand here in Damage Labs. First to arrive was a pair of XFX cards suited up in a suave green-and-black color scheme.

XFX is actually prepping two models of 7900 GS. The ones you see pictured above are the faster model, clocked at 480MHz GPU and 700MHz memory. These are the cards we've used in our testing in the following pages. These puppies will start at $229. XFX also has a version of the GS clocked at a bone-stock 450MHz GPU and 660MHz memory for $199. Both versions should be available starting today at major online retailers, and these cards come out of the gate with a $20 mail-in rebate deal attached.

7900 GS cards have Hynix DRAMs rather than the Samsung chips on the 7900 GT

BFG Tech's version of the 7900 GS arrived in Damage Labs just yesterday morning. We haven't had time to test them yet, but you can see that BFG has taken a different approach to the 7900 GS color scheme.

I don't think I'd choose aquamarine for my carpet and light green for my wallpaper, but to each his own, I suppose. The BFG 7900 GS OC won't have to get by on its looks alone thanks to an eye-popping 525MHz GPU clock speed. BFG couples this with a stock 660MHz memory clock, but the GPU speed boost alone should yield some nice performance dividends. The BFG 7900 GS OC will list for a suggested retail price of $249, but street prices should range as low as $199. BFG Tech expects these cards to be "available for purchase from leading e-tailers this week."

Shuffling the decks
In addition to the GeForce 7900 GS, Nvidia is also introducing a successor to the GeForce 7900 GT in the $299-349 range dubbed the GeForce 7950 GT. This new card will also be based on the G71 GPU, but without any functional units disabled. The 7950 GT's stock clocks will be 550MHz for the GPU and 700MHz for the RAM, and cards will ship with 512MB of memory onboard. Nvidia is positioning this card as a direct competitor to ATI's just-introduced Radeon X1900 XT 256MB, only with twice the memory. Like the 7900 GS, the 7950 GT will come with variable-speed fans, and on these cards, HDCP support will be standard. We don't yet have a 7950 GT to test, but we should have one soon; the GT is scheduled to reach shore shelves next week, on September 14. Around that time, BFG Tech plans to introduce a version of the 7950 GT with a 565MHz core clock and 715MHz memory with a suggested retail price of $349. Street prices may be closer to $299 at online vendors.

These new cards are prompting Nvidia to shuffle the deck a bit. The current 7900 GT will be phased out in the favor of the 7950 GT, while the GeForce 7600 GT will move down-market to make room for the 7900 GS, landing in the $149 to $170 range. The GeForce 7900 GTX will remain at $399.

You may be wondering, meanwhile, what ATI sells at around $200 that would compete with the GeForce 7900 GS. Good question. ATI introduced the Radeon X1800 GTO back in March for $249, along with a 256MB version of the Radeon X1800 XT for $329. Both cards are now scarce, and the X1800 XT 256MB never did seem to materialize in large volumes. Some time later, ATI very quietly introduced the Radeon X1900 GT, but never sent us one for review. Nevertheless, the Radeon X1900 GT is probably ATI's best representative in this price range, selling for about $220 with 256MB of memory and 36 pixel shader processors. We made arrangements to have an X1900 GT to include in this review, but unfortunately, they fell through at the last minute, so we had to sub in the Radeon X1800 GTO as ATI's representative at the $199-249 price point. My apologies for not having an X1900 GT.

Truth be told, it doesn't much matter, anyhow. ATI is widely rumored to be preparing a new contender in this price range, the Radeon X1950 Pro, and I would expect it to hit store shelves in the next few weeks. This new card will be the true competitor to the GeForce 7900 GS, and we'll review it as soon as we can get our hands on one.