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Nvidia's GeForce 8800 Ultra graphics card

The G80 girds for battle

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU take the fastest video card on the planet and turn up its clock speeds a bit? You have a new fastest video card on the planet, of course, which is a little bit faster than the old fastest video card on the planet. That's what Nvidia has done with its former king-of-the-hill product, the GeForce 8800 GTX, in order to create the new hotness it's announcing today, the GeForce 8800 Ultra.

There's more to it than that, of course. These are highly sophisticated graphics products we're talking about here. There's a new cooler involved. Oh, and a new silicon revision, for you propellerheads who must know these things. And most formidable of all may be the new price tag. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Perhaps the most salient point is that Nvidia has found a way to squeeze even more performance out of its G80 GPU, and in keeping with a time-honored tradition, the company has introduced a new top-end graphics card just as its rival, the former ATI now owned by AMD, prepares to launch its own DirectX 10-capable GPU lineup. Wonder what the new Radeon will have to contend with when it arrives? Let's have a look.

It's G80, Jim, but not as we know it
For us, the GeForce 8800 is familiar territory by now. We've reviewed it on its own, paired it up by twos in SLI for killer performance, and rounded up a host of examples to see how they compared. By and large, the GeForce 8800 Ultra is the same basic product as the GeForce 8800 GTX that's ruled the top end of the video card market since last November. It has the same 128 stream processors, the same 384-bit path to 768MB of GDDR3 memory, and rides on the same 10.5" board as the GTX. There are still two dual-link DVI ports, two SLI connectors up top, and two six-pin PCIe auxiliary power connectors onboard. The feature set is essentially identical, and no, none of the new HD video processing mojo introduced with the GeForce 8600 series has made its way into the Ultra.

Yet the Ultra is distinct for several reasons. First and foremost, Nvidia says the Ultra packs a new revision of G80 silicon that allows for higher clock speeds in a similar form factor and power envelope. In fact, Nvidia says the 8800 Ultra has slightly lower peak power consumption than the GTX, despite having a core clock of 612MHz, a stream processor clock of 1.5GHz, and a memory clock of 1080MHz (effectively 2160MHz since it uses GDDR3 memory). That's up from a 575MHz core, 1.35GHz SPs, and 900MHz memory in the 8800 GTX.

Riding shotgun on the Ultra is a brand-new cooler with a wicked hump-backed blower arrangement and a shroud that extends the full length of the board. Nvidia claims the raised fan allows the intake of more cool surrounding air. Whether it does it not, it's happily not much louder than the excellent cooler on the GTX. Unfortunately, though, the longer shroud will almost certainly block access to SATA ports on many of today's port-laden enthusiast-class motherboards.

If you dig the looks of the Vader-esque cooling shroud and want the bragging rights that come with the Ultra's world-beating performance, you'll have to cough up something north of eight hundred bucks in order to get it. Nvidia expects Ultra prices to start at roughly $829, though they may go up from there depending on how much "factory overclocking" is involved. That's hundreds of dollars more than current GTX prices, and it's asking quite a lot for a graphics card, to say the least. I suppose one could argue it offers more for your money than a high-end quad-core processor that costs 1200 bucks, but who can measure the depths of insanity?

The Ultra's tweaked clock speeds do deliver considerably more computing power than the GTX, at least in theory. Memory bandwidth is up from 86.4GB/s to a stunning 103.7GB/s. Peak shader power, if you just count programmable shader ops, is up from 518.4 to 576 GLOPS—or from 345.6 to 384 GFLOPS, if you don't count the MUL instruction that the G80's SPs can co-issue in certain circumstances. The trouble is that "overclocked in the box" versions of the 8800 GTX are available now with very similar specifications. Take the king of all X's, the XFX GeForce 8800 GTX XXX Edition. This card has a 630MHz core clock, 1.46GHz shader clock, and 1GHz memory. That's very close to the Ultra's specs, yet it's selling right now for about $630 at online vendors.

So the Ultra is—and this is very technical—what we in the business like to call a lousy value. Flagship products like these rarely offer stellar value propositions, but those revved-up GTX cards are just too close for comfort.

The saving grace for this product, if there is one, may come in the form of hot-clocked variants of the Ultra itself. Nvidia says the Ultra simply establishes a new product baseline, from which board vendors may improvise upward. In fact, XFX told us that they have plans for three versions of the 8800 Ultra, two of which will run at higher clock speeds. Unfortunately, we haven't yet been able to get likely clock speeds or prices from any of the board vendors we asked, so we don't yet know what sort of increases they'll be offering. We'll have to watch and see what they deliver.

We do have a little bit of time yet on that front, by the way, because 8800 Ultra cards aren't expected to hit online store shelves until May 15 or so. I expect some board vendors haven't yet determined what clock speeds they will offer.

In order to size up the Ultra, we've compared it against a trio of graphics solutions in roughly the same price neighborhood. There's the GeForce 8800 GTX, of course, and we've included one at stock clock speeds. For about the same price as an Ultra, you could also buy a pair of GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB graphics cards and run them in SLI, so we've included them. Finally, we have a Radeon X1950 XTX CrossFire pair, which is presently AMD's fastest graphics solution.