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Nvidia's GeForce 7950 GT graphics card

One more spin on the G71

THESE DAYS, VIDEO CARDS ARE like shark's teeth: one pops out, and another one moves up to take its place. The most recent GeForce to come loose is the 7900 GT; it was dislodged by last week's launch of the GeForce 7900 GS, which offers the same performance for about a hundred bucks less. The 7900 GT's demise leaves Nvidia with a hole it its lineup at around $299, and so the GeForce 7950 GT makes its debut today as the 7900 GT's replacement.

Like a host of GeForce 7900 and 7950 cards before it, the 7950 GT is based on the G71 graphics processor, which Nvidia has been milking like nobody's business. You can buy a whole line of graphics cards based on this chip situated at different price points, with performance finely attenuated to match—all the better to separate you from your money. The GeForce 7950 GT makes hitting that "submit" button at Newegg even easier because it promises substantially better performance than the 7900 GT it replaces.

Of course, this is a technology product we're talking about, so the decision about what to buy can never be simple. The GeForce 7950 GT's life is complicated by one very strong rival: the 256MB version of the Radeon X1900 XT that ATI introduced earlier this month. Like the 7950 GT, the X1900 XT 256MB is slated to go on sale at online retailers today. This new ATI card packs half the memory of the 7950 GT, but sports ATI's exceptionally powerful R580 GPU with a daunting 48 pixel shader processors. Oh, and the ATI card's price tag is a tad bit lower, too.

That means we have the opportunity for at least one more head-to-head matchup between the green and red teams before ATI melts into AMD, changing the landscape forever. Can the newest GeForce fend off a feisty competitor from ATI, or has the balance of power in graphics shifted? More importantly, what video card actually makes sense to buy these days? Read on for the answers.

The cards and chips
I don't think there's terribly much more I can say about the G71 graphics processor at this point. If you're unfamiliar with it, let me suggest reading our initial article from March about the G71 and family. The most important thing to know about the G71 in this application is that it's not been neutered, spayed, or hobbled in the least—in the 7950, all of the relevant 3D graphics bits are working, including the 24 pixel shader processors and eight vertex shader processors.

Beyond that, the 7950 is just implementation details—such as a default core GPU clock speed of 550MHz and 512MB of GDDR3 memory humming along at 700MHz. The cards themselves share their basic PCB design with the GeForces 7900 GT and 7900 GS, and the stock Nvidia cooler is the same modest little unit that those cards have. Thus, the BFG Tech version of the GeForce 7950 GT may look oddly—or perhaps comfortingly—familiar to you.

What's new and different about these puppies isn't apparent in the pictures. For one thing, all GeForce 7950 GT cards are required by Nvidia to support HDCP, whereas the decision to include HDCP support is up to the card maker in other GeForce 7-series products like the 7900 GS. That means you can rest assured that any 7950 GT should be able to play back HD DVD and Blu-ray movies when used with the right player software.

Another thing that sets the 7950 GT apart from its brethren is the presence of 512MB of fast GDDR3 memory from Infineon that's rated for operation at—surprise!—700MHz. Nvidia uses lower density Hynix RAM on the 7900 GS, also rated to 14ns, and clocks it a little bit slower.

Cards makers, of course, may take liberties with those clock speeds. The BFG Tech GeForce 7950 GT OC cards you see pictured above come with 715MHz memory and 565MHz GPU frequencies, a tad above Nvidia's stock speeds. BFG bundles each card with a component TV output dongle, a pair of DVI-to-VGA adapters, a power cable, and a lifetime warranty. These cards should be selling for between $349 and $299, depending on the outlet. I'd expect online retailers to be listing them in the lower part of that range.

If you'd prefer something with a little more pizzazz, then feast your eyes on the XFX GeForce 7950 GT 570M Extreme.

No, your eyes don't deceive you, and neither does my photography. Strapped to the side of this 7950 GT is a completely passive cooler, with a heatpipe snaking up into rows of aluminum fins that extend around the back of the card. There's no fan or blower present.

Man, Spalding has nothing on XFX.

Nvidia rates the 7950 GT's power consumption at 82W, so this passive cooler certainly has its work cut out for it. We will explore its performance shortly, but for now, note that the cooler isn't your traditional dual-slot design. The fins on the back of the card may interfere with the expansion slot on the back side of the card, but not necessarily so. The notched cutout in the fins should allow room for smaller PCI or PCI-E cards to coexist with this beast.

XFX offers two versions of the GeForce 7950 GT, both passively cooled. One of them runs at a stock 550MHz GPU and 700MHz memory, but the 570M Extreme cards pictured above sport a 570MHz GPU and 730MHz memory. XFX bundles the same basic set of cables as BFG Tech, but also adds an S-Video extender and one very nice extra—a full retail version of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. That's about as far from a lame, stale bundled game as you can get. (Mini-review: I died too often and didn't think there were enough save points when I played it, but GRAW is an engaging, immersive, stunningly gorgeous game that will satisfy those who enjoy tactical first-person shooters.) XFX says its stock-clocked 7950 GT will list for $299, while the "overclocked" one will be priced at $329. I would expect to these cards selling very close to list price at online vendors soon.

Even if that happens, the cheapest of these 7950 GTs may cost more than the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB. One of ATI's board partners, Connect3D, told us to expect its version of the X1900 XT 256MB to debut at about $275 at online stores. Let's have a look and see whether the GeForce 7950 GT and its 512MB of memory can justify that higher price tag.