The history of Nvidia's G92 graphics processor is a long one, as these things go. The first graphics card based on it was the GeForce 8800 GT, which debuted in October of 2007. The 8800 GT was a stripped-down version of the G92 with a few bits and pieces disabled. The fuller implementation of G92 came in December '07 in the form of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. This card initiated the G92's long history of brand confusion by overlapping with existing 320MB and 640MB versions of the GeForce 8800 GTS, which were based on an entirely different chip, the much larger (and older) G80. Those cards had arrived on the scene way back in November of 2006.
As the winter of '07 began to fade into spring, Nvidia had a change of heart and suddenly started renaming the later members of the GeForce 8 series as "new" 9-series cards. Thus the GeForce 8800 GTS 512 became the 9800 GTX. And thus things remained for nearly ten weeks.
Then, in response to the introduction of strong new competition, Nvidia shipped a new version of the G92 GPU with the same basic architecture but manufactured on a smaller 55nm fabrication process. This chip found its way to market aboard a slightly revised graphics card dubbed the GeForce 9800 GTX+. The base clock speeds on the GTX+ matched those of some "overclocked in the box" GeForce 9800 GTX cards, and the performance of the two was essentially identical, though the GTX+ did reduce power consumption by a handful of watts. Slowly, the GTX+ began replacing the 9800 GTX in the market, as the buying public scratched its collective head over the significance of that plus symbol.
Which brings us to today and the introduction of yet another graphics card based on the G92 GPU, the GeForce GTS 250. This is probably the card that, by all rights, the 9800 GTX+ should have been, because it consolidates the gains that switching to a 55nm fab process can bring. Although its base clock speeds remain the same as the 9800 GTX+738MHz for most of the GPU, 1836MHz for the shaders, and 1100MHz (or 2200 MT/s) for the GDDR3 memorythe GeForce GTS 250 is a physically smaller card, at nine inches long rather than 10.5", and it has but a single six-pin auxiliary power connector onboard.
The reduction in power connectors is made possible by a new board design that cuts power consumption sufficiently to make the second power input superfluous. Although, we should note, Nvidia rates the GTS 250's max board power at 150W, right at the limits of the PCI Express spec for this power plug configuration.
Along with the G92's umpteenth brand name comes a price cut of sorts: the 512MB version of the GTS 250 will sell for about $130, give or take a penny, well below the price of 9800 GTX+ 512MB cards today. The GTS 250 also offers another possibility in the form of a 1GB variant, which Nvidia and its partners expect to see selling for about $150. That's quite a nice price in the context of today's market, where the GTS 250's most direct competition, the Radeon HD 4850, sells for about $150 in 512MB form. Then again, things change quickly in the world of graphics cards, and Nvidia doesn't expect GTS 250 cards to be available for purchase until March 10, a whole week from now.
Heck, they may have changed this thing's name again by then.
There are some benefits to GPU continuity. As you can see in a couple of the pictures above, the GTS 250 retains the dual SLI connectors present on the 9800 GTX, and Nvidia says the GTS 250 will willingly participate in an SLI pairing alongside a GeForce 9800 GTX+ of the same memory size. Unfortunately, though, 512MB and 1GB cards will not match, and Nvidia's drivers won't treat a 1GB card as if it were a 512MB card for the sake of multi-GPU cross-compatibility, like AMD's will.
The card we have in Damage Labs for review is EVGA's GeForce GTS 250 Superclocked 1GB. Like many GeForce-based graphics cards, this puppy runs at clock speeds higher than Nvidia's baseline. In this case, we're looking at a fairly modest boost to a 771MHz core, 1890MHz shaders, and 1123MHz memory. You'll pay about ten bucks for the additional speed; list price is $159. EVGA also plans to sell a 1GB card with clocks closer to stock speeds for $149. Odds are, neither of those cards will look exactly like the one in the pictures above, which is an early sample. EVGA intends for the final product to have a swanky black PCB and an HDTV out port, which our sample conspicuously lacks.
The Radeon HD 4850 goes to 1GB, too
When we go to review a new graphics card, we tend to look for the closest competition to compare against it. In this case, the most obvious candidate, at least in terms of similar specifications, seemed to be a Radeon HD 4850 card with 1GB of memory onboard. Several board makers now sell 4850 cards with a gig of RAM, and Gigabyte was kind enough to send us an example of theirs.
That handsome cooler is a Zalman VF830, which Zalman bills as a "quiet VGA cooler." Gigabyte takes advantage of the thermal headroom provided by this dual-slot cooler to squeeze a few more megahertz out of the Radeon HD 4850. The end result is a GPU core clock of 700MHz, up 20MHz from stock, with a bone-stock 993MHz GDDR3 memory clock.
Right now, prevailing prices on this card are running about $189 at online vendors, well above the GeForce GTS 250's projected price. I wouldn't be surprised to see AMD and its partners cut prices to match or beat the GTS 250 in the next couple of weeks, but given current going rates, the new GeForce would seem to have a built-in price advantage against the 4850 1GB.