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GeForce 7800 GTX cards compared

Four aces

SO YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT plunking down somewhere north of five hundred bucks on a graphics card, but can't decide which one to get? It's a fantastic problem to have, and it gets simpler when you consider the GPU picture. NVIDIA's GeForce 7800 GTX graphics processor reigns supreme at the high end of the consumer graphics market, thanks to newer technology and stellar performance. We've already established the GeForce 7800 GTX's credentials in our epic review of the GPU. If you're looking to pad your bragging rights, there's no question at present about which GPU to get. The only questions are: Which brand of card should I buy, and how many?

With an eye toward answering these pivotal questions, and another eye on the chance to play around with some really fast graphics cards, we've corralled GeForce 7800 GTX cards from BFG Tech, MSI, and XFX to see what they have to offer. In fact, we even have a matched pair of cards from MSI for some multi-GPU action.

It's a tough job, this computer hardware reviewing business, but somebody has to do it.

It turns out that that each of these cards has its own distinct set of plusses and minuses, despite the fact that they're all rather similar. Your own pick will probably be determined by what you value you most in a graphics card. Read along, and I'll show you what I mean.

One card, many cards
The first thing that should be said in any roundup of GeForce 7800 GTX video cards is that these cards are all essentially the same thing. NVIDIA doesn't just design the GPU; they create a reference design for the whole card, memory and all. NVIDIA's board partners then manufacture those boards according to NVIDIA's specification, usually with very little deviation from the original design. Outside of a few minor differences like the stickers on their coolers, the three brands of boards we're reviewing here today are virtually indistinguishable unless you examine them side by side.

Upon closer inspection, there are some minor differences. The hue of the green dye used to color the PCBs varies slightly from one board to the next. The XFX and BFG boards are made in China, while MSI's are made in Taiwan. But the more important things, like the size, type, placement, and brand of components on each card, don't differ. Even the coolers on all three brands of cards are the same.

What that means is that these products have to compete with one another on the basis of things other than the basic card design. Buy any decent brand of GeForce 7800 GTX, and you're getting essentially the same board. The differences between the products come in the form of warranties, default clock speeds, bundled extras, and the like.

Amazingly enough, once you start doing the math with that assumption in mind, picking out GeForce 7800 GTX cards probably gets harder, not easier. Fortunately, that's true in large part because all three of the brands we're examining today are good choices. Before we look at each brand individually, let's have a look at some of their key features.

Core clock (MHz) Memory clock (MHz) Memory size (MB) Video outputs Video inputs Warranty period
BFG GeForce 7800 GTX OC 460 650 256 DVI (2), S-Video, component video, composite video S-Video, composite Lifetime
MSI NX7800GTX 430 600 256 DVI (2), S-Video, component video, composite video S-Video, composite 3 years parts/2 years labor
XFX GeForce 7800 GTX Overclocked 450 625 256 DVI (2), S-Video, component video, composite video S-Video, composite 2 years

Like proper high-end video cards, all three brands come with a full array of inputs and outputs, including dual DVI ports and component output for HDTVs. They also have inputs and outputs for both types of moldy old TV: S-Video and composite.

The real differences here come in the form of the warranty periods and clock speeds. We'll talk more about warranties when we discuss the individual cards, but I should explain clock speeds up front. The XFX and BFG cards both claim to be "overclocked in the box," and indeed, they both run their GPUs and memory chips at higher frequencies than NVIDIA's recommended speed for its reference design. Whether or not these cards are truly "overclocked," though, is a question of semantics. The BFG and XFX cards have higher default clock speeds, but both firms will warrant their cards' ability to operate properly at those speeds. Real overclocking will void your warranty and quite possibly cause a stream of blue smoke to usher forth from your Pee Cee, and it is rarely approved by a corporate technical support operation. In fact, in a confusing turn, BFG's warranty explicitly rules out replacement of cards that have died due to overclocking. I'm quite certain they're talking about true overclocking, not running the card at its default speed.

Anyhow, that's the story on "overclocked" cards. They just offer a little bit higher default clock frequencies, and in turn, a little bit better performance than cards running at NVIDIA's stock clocks. If you are, like me, not shy about turning up the clock speed yourself, the higher default speed may not mean much. 'tis nice to have the company stand behind the higher clock speed, though.

Now, let's look at each card a little closer.