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The GeForce 9 series multi-GPU extravaganza

The GeForce 9800 GTX arrives—with friends

OK, I've been doing this since the last century, but I really have no idea how to frame this article. It might be a review of a new graphics card. Nvidia just recently introduced its GeForce 9800 GTX, and this is our first look at that card.

But we didn't really stop there. We threw together two and then three 9800 GTX cards in order to see how they perform in some incredibly powerful and borderline ridiculous configurations. Then we totally crossed in the line into crazy-land by doubling up on GeForce 9800 GX2 cards and testing the new generation of quad SLI, as well. What's more, we tested against the previous generation of three-way SLI—based on the GeForce 8800 Ultra—and against the competing CrossFire X scheme involving three and four Radeons.

Most of you probably care incrementally less about these configurations as the GPU count—and price tag—rises. But boy, do we ever have a hefty amount of info on the latest GPUs compiled in one place, and it's a pretty good snapshot of the current state of things. Keep reading if you're into that stuff.

GT to the X
A new video card doesn't come along every day. Seriously. About three Sundays ago, not a single product announcement hit my inbox. Most days, however, it seems that at least one new variant of an already known quantity hits the streets with some kind of tweak in the clock speeds, cooling solutions, product bundles, or what have you.

Such is the case—despite the GeForce 9-series name—with the GeForce 9800 GTX. This card is, ostensibly, the replacement for the older GeForce 8800 GTX, but it's very, very similar to the GeForce 8800 GTS 512 released in December—same G92 GPU, same 128 stream processors, same 256-bit memory path, same PCI Express 2.0 interface, same 512MB of GDDR3 memory. Even the cooler has a similarly angled fan enclosure, as you can see by glancing at our trio of 9800 GTX cards pictured below.

GeForce 9800 GTX cards from Palit, BFG Tech, and XFX

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The G92 is a very capable GPU, and we liked the 8800 GTS 512. Just don't expect earth-shaking miracles in the move to from GeForce series 8 to 9. In terms of specs, the most notable differences are some tweaked clock speeds. By default, the 9800 GTX ships with a 675MHz core, 1688MHz shader processors, and 1100MHz memory. That's up slighty from the defaults of 650MHz, 1625MHz, and 970MHz on the 8800 GTS 512.

The GeForce 8800 GTS 512 (left) versus the 9800 GTX (right)

As is immediately obvious, however, the 9800 GTX departs from its younger sibling in some respects. Physically, the GTS 512 is only 9" long and has but one six-pin aux power plug and one SLI connector onboard. The 9800 GTX is larger at 10.5" long and has dual six-pin power connectors and two SLI "golden fingers" interfaces along its top.

These dual SLI connectors create the possibility of running a triumvirate of 9800 GTX cards together in a three-way SLI config for bone-jarring performance, and we're set to explore that possibility shortly.

Another feature new to the 9800 GTX is support for Nvidia's HybridPower scheme. The idea here is that when the GTX is mated with a compatible Nvidia chipset with integrated graphics, the discrete graphics card can be powered down for everyday desktop work, saving on power and noise. Fire up a game, though, and the GTX will come to life, taking over the 3D graphics rendering duties. We like the concept, but we haven't yet seen it in action, since Nvidia has yet to release a HybridPower-capable chipset.

The three 9800 GTX cards we have gathered here today present strikingly similar propositions. Prices for the BFG Tech card start at $329.99 at online vendors. In typical BFG style, there's no bundled game, but you do get a lifetime warranty. XFX ups the ante somewhat by throwing in a copy of Company of Heroes and pledging to support its card for a lifetime, plus through one resale, for the same starting price of 330 bucks. The caveat with both companies is that you must register your card within 30 days after purchase, or the warranty defaults to a one-year term. Palit, meanwhile, offers a two-year warranty and throws in a copy of Tomb Raider Anniversary, for the same price. All three cards share the same board design, which I understand is because Nvidia exercises strict control over its higher-end products. That's a shame, because we really like the enhancements Palit built into its GeForce 9600 GT and wouldn't mind seeing them in this class of card, as well.

Another attribute all three cards share is Nvidia's stock clock speeds for the 9800 GTX. That will impact our performance comparison, because the EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 512 card we tested came out of the gate with juiced up core and shader clocks of 670MHz and 1674MHz, respectively, which put it very close to the 9800 GTX. That's not to say 9800 GTX cards are all wet noodles. Already, BFG Tech has announced GTX variants ranging up to 755MHz core, 1890MHz shader, and 1150MHz memory frequencies. I'd expect similar offerings from some of the other guys soon, too.