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NVIDIA's GeForce FX 5600 Ultra GPU

NV31, take two

ModelApogee FX71 GeForce FX 5600 Ultra
Price (estimated)US$215

FOR THE BETTER part of a year, NVIDIA's GeForce4 Ti 4200 owned the mid-range graphics scene. But that was last year, and NVIDIA's graphics cards have fallen from grace since. The Ti 4200's price/performance crown was eventually usurped by ATI's Radeon 9500 Pro, which yielded to the Radeon 9600 Pro.

NVIDIA took a stab at reclaiming the mid-range graphics title with the NV31 chip and its corresponding GeForce FX 5600 line of graphics cards, but neither the vanilla nor Ultra versions of the 5600 were fast enough to knock ATI off the throne, so NVIDIA went back to the drawing board and came up with a new GeForce FX 5600 Ultra using more exotic chips running at higher clock speeds. The GeForce FX 5600 Ultra's NV31 roots haven't changed, but this new Ultra does come with a core clocked at 400MHz and memory running at an effective 800MHz.

And it doesn't require a Dustbuster.

Can NVIDIA's revised GeForce FX 5600 Ultra knock off ATI's Radeon 9600 Pro? Does either fight dirty with questionable driver "optimizations"? We've wrangled Chaintech's GeForce FX 5600 Ultra-powered Apogee FX71 to find out.

NV31 respun
The new GeForce FX 5600 Ultra's NV31 graphics chip is virtually identical to what was found in the old Ultra, and also in the vanilla GeForce FX 5600. The chip is a four-by-one-pipe design that claims full DirectX 9 support complete with pixel and vertex shaders 2.0. NVIDIA has been cagey about the internal shader structure of its entire GeForce FX line, so I can't tell you how many vertex or pixel shaders the chip effectively has. NV31 apparently has "more parallelism" in its programmable shaders than NV34, which powers the budget GeForce FX 5200 line, and "less parallelism" than NV30 and NV35, which power the GeForce FX 5800 and 5900 lines, respectively.

I could go on about NV31's capabilities, but instead, I'll point you to my preview, and subsequent review of the GeForce FX 5600. I'd rather talk about what makes this new Ultra different from its predecessors.

To meet the new GeForce FX 5600 Ultra's 400MHz core clock speed demands, NVIDIA fabbed up a batch of NV31 graphics chips using the same flip-chip BGA packaging they use with high-end NV30 and NV35 graphics chips.

NV31 in its sexy, shiny new packaging

Apart from its new package and higher 400MHz core clock speed, NV31 hasn't really changed.

The specs
Before I bust out some pictures of Chaintech's Apogee FX71 GeForce FX 5600 Ultra, here's a look at the card's spec sheet:

Core clock400MHz
Pixel pipelines4
Peak pixel fill rate1600 Mpixels/s
Texture units/pixel pipeline1
Textures per clock4
Peak texel fill rate1600 Mtexels/s
Memory clock800MHz
Memory typeBGA DDR SDRAM
Memory bus width128-bit
Peak memory bandwidth12.8GB/s
PortsVGA, DVI, composite and S-Video outputs
Composite, S-Video inputs
Auxiliary power connectorFour-pin Molex

The Apogee FX71's spec sheet is pretty much what you'd expect from a mid-range graphics card. Like much of its mid-range competition, the card sports 128MB of memory. Chaintech's does break from the pack and offer video-in/video-out (VIVO) support, though.

Apart from the card's VIVO support, nothing jumps off the Apogee FX71's spec sheet that differentiates it from the slew of rebadged reference designs currently on the market. To see what really makes Chaintech's GeForce FX 5600 Ultra unique, we have to take a look at the card.

This ain't your momma's reference card