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Nvidia’s GeForce 7950 GT graphics card

Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief Author expertise
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THESE DAYS, VIDEO CARDS ARE like shark’s teeth: one pops out, and another one moves up to take its place. The most recent GeForce to come loose is the 7900 GT; it was dislodged by last week’s launch of the GeForce 7900 GS, which offers the same performance for about a hundred bucks less. The 7900 GT’s demise leaves Nvidia with a hole it its lineup at around $299, and so the GeForce 7950 GT makes its debut today as the 7900 GT’s replacement.

Like a host of GeForce 7900 and 7950 cards before it, the 7950 GT is based on the G71 graphics processor, which Nvidia has been milking like nobody’s business. You can buy a whole line of graphics cards based on this chip situated at different price points, with performance finely attenuated to match—all the better to separate you from your money. The GeForce 7950 GT makes hitting that “submit” button at Newegg even easier because it promises substantially better performance than the 7900 GT it replaces.

Of course, this is a technology product we’re talking about, so the decision about what to buy can never be simple. The GeForce 7950 GT’s life is complicated by one very strong rival: the 256MB version of the Radeon X1900 XT that ATI introduced earlier this month. Like the 7950 GT, the X1900 XT 256MB is slated to go on sale at online retailers today. This new ATI card packs half the memory of the 7950 GT, but sports ATI’s exceptionally powerful R580 GPU with a daunting 48 pixel shader processors. Oh, and the ATI card’s price tag is a tad bit lower, too.

That means we have the opportunity for at least one more head-to-head matchup between the green and red teams before ATI melts into AMD, changing the landscape forever. Can the newest GeForce fend off a feisty competitor from ATI, or has the balance of power in graphics shifted? More importantly, what video card actually makes sense to buy these days? Read on for the answers.

The cards and chips
I don’t think there’s terribly much more I can say about the G71 graphics processor at this point. If you’re unfamiliar with it, let me suggest reading our initial article from March about the G71 and family. The most important thing to know about the G71 in this application is that it’s not been neutered, spayed, or hobbled in the least—in the 7950, all of the relevant 3D graphics bits are working, including the 24 pixel shader processors and eight vertex shader processors.

Beyond that, the 7950 is just implementation details—such as a default core GPU clock speed of 550MHz and 512MB of GDDR3 memory humming along at 700MHz. The cards themselves share their basic PCB design with the GeForces 7900 GT and 7900 GS, and the stock Nvidia cooler is the same modest little unit that those cards have. Thus, the BFG Tech version of the GeForce 7950 GT may look oddly—or perhaps comfortingly—familiar to you.

What’s new and different about these puppies isn’t apparent in the pictures. For one thing, all GeForce 7950 GT cards are required by Nvidia to support HDCP, whereas the decision to include HDCP support is up to the card maker in other GeForce 7-series products like the 7900 GS. That means you can rest assured that any 7950 GT should be able to play back HD DVD and Blu-ray movies when used with the right player software.

Another thing that sets the 7950 GT apart from its brethren is the presence of 512MB of fast GDDR3 memory from Infineon that’s rated for operation at—surprise!—700MHz. Nvidia uses lower density Hynix RAM on the 7900 GS, also rated to 14ns, and clocks it a little bit slower.

Cards makers, of course, may take liberties with those clock speeds. The BFG Tech GeForce 7950 GT OC cards you see pictured above come with 715MHz memory and 565MHz GPU frequencies, a tad above Nvidia’s stock speeds. BFG bundles each card with a component TV output dongle, a pair of DVI-to-VGA adapters, a power cable, and a lifetime warranty. These cards should be selling for between $349 and $299, depending on the outlet. I’d expect online retailers to be listing them in the lower part of that range.

If you’d prefer something with a little more pizzazz, then feast your eyes on the XFX GeForce 7950 GT 570M Extreme.

No, your eyes don’t deceive you, and neither does my photography. Strapped to the side of this 7950 GT is a completely passive cooler, with a heatpipe snaking up into rows of aluminum fins that extend around the back of the card. There’s no fan or blower present.

Man, Spalding has nothing on XFX.

Nvidia rates the 7950 GT’s power consumption at 82W, so this passive cooler certainly has its work cut out for it. We will explore its performance shortly, but for now, note that the cooler isn’t your traditional dual-slot design. The fins on the back of the card may interfere with the expansion slot on the back side of the card, but not necessarily so. The notched cutout in the fins should allow room for smaller PCI or PCI-E cards to coexist with this beast.

XFX offers two versions of the GeForce 7950 GT, both passively cooled. One of them runs at a stock 550MHz GPU and 700MHz memory, but the 570M Extreme cards pictured above sport a 570MHz GPU and 730MHz memory. XFX bundles the same basic set of cables as BFG Tech, but also adds an S-Video extender and one very nice extra—a full retail version of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. That’s about as far from a lame, stale bundled game as you can get. (Mini-review: I died too often and didn’t think there were enough save points when I played it, but GRAW is an engaging, immersive, stunningly gorgeous game that will satisfy those who enjoy tactical first-person shooters.) XFX says its stock-clocked 7950 GT will list for $299, while the “overclocked” one will be priced at $329. I would expect to these cards selling very close to list price at online vendors soon.

Even if that happens, the cheapest of these 7950 GTs may cost more than the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB. One of ATI’s board partners, Connect3D, told us to expect its version of the X1900 XT 256MB to debut at about $275 at online stores. Let’s have a look and see whether the GeForce 7950 GT and its 512MB of memory can justify that higher price tag.

 

Test notes
We did run into a few snags in our testing, although none of them affected the GeForce 7950 GT. Most notably, when we tried to run a pair of GeForce 7600 GT cards in SLI, we encountered some odd image artifacts that we couldn’t make go away. The image artifacts didn’t appear to affect performance, so we’ve included results for the GeForce 7600 GT in SLI. If we find a resolution for the problem and performance changes, we’ll update the scores in this article.

Also, the 3DMark06 test results for the Radeon X1950 XTX CrossFire system were obtained using an Asus P5W DH motherboard, for reasons explained here. Otherwise, we used the test systems as described below.

Our testing methods
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and the results were averaged.

Our test systems were configured like so:

Processor Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz
System bus 1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped) 1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped) 1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard Asus P5N32-SLI Deluxe Intel D975XBX Asus P5W DH
BIOS revision 0204 BX97510J.86A.1073.2006.0427.1210 0801
North bridge nForce4 SLI X16 Intel Edition 975X MCH 975X MCH
South bridge nForce4 MCP ICH7R ICH7R
Chipset drivers ForceWare 6.86 INF Update 7.2.2.1007
Intel Matrix Storage Manager 5.5.0.1035
INF Update 7.2.2.1007
Intel Matrix Storage Manager 5.5.0.1035
Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz
CAS latency (CL) 4 4 4
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 4 4 4
RAS precharge (tRP) 4 4 4
Cycle time (tRAS) 15 15 15
Hard drive Maxtor DiamondMax 10 250GB SATA 150 Maxtor DiamondMax 10 250GB SATA 150 Maxtor DiamondMax 10 250GB SATA 150
Audio Integrated nForce4/ALC850 with Realtek 5.10.0.6150 drivers Integrated ICH7R/STAC9221D5 with SigmaTel 5.10.5143.0 drivers Integrated ICH7R/ALC882M with Realtek 5.10.00.5247 drivers
Graphics Radeon X1800 GTO 256MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-035722C-ATI drivers
Radeon X1900 XTX 512MB PCI-E + Radeon X1900 CrossFire
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-035515C-ATI drivers
Radeon X1900 XT 256MB PCI-E + Radeon X1900 CrossFire
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-035515C-ATI drivers
Radeon X1900 GT 256MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-035722C-ATI drivers
Radeon X1950 XTX 512MB PCI-E + Radeon X1950 CrossFire
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-03584E-ATI drivers
 
Radeon X1900 XT 256MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-03584E-ATI drivers
   
Radeon X1900 XTX 512MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-03584E-ATI drivers
Radeon X1950 XTX 512MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8.282-060802a-03584E-ATI drivers
   
BFG GeForce 7600 GT OC 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.47 drivers
   
Dual BFG GeForce 7600 GT OC 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.47 drivers
   
XFX GeForce 7900 GS 480M Extreme 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.47 drivers
   
Dual XFX GeForce 7900 GS 480M Extreme 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.47 drivers
   
GeForce 7900 GT 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.31 drivers
   
Dual GeForce 7900 GT 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.31 drivers
   
XFX GeForce 7950 GT 570M Extreme 512MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.47 drivers
   
Dual XFX GeForce 7950 GT 570M Extreme 512MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.47 drivers
   
GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.31 drivers
   
Dual GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.31 drivers
   
GeForce 7950 GX2 1GB PCI-E
with ForceWare 91.31 drivers
   
OS Windows XP Professional (32-bit)
OS updates Service Pack 2, DirectX 9.0c update (August 2006)

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. Their quality, service, and support are easily superior to no-name DIMMs.

Our test systems were powered by OCZ GameXStream 700W power supply units. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.

Unless otherwise specified, image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults.

The test systems’ Windows desktops were set at 1280×960 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

 

Pixel-filling power
Since the 7950 GT is one of many spins on the same basic GPU technology, it’s instructive to look at how it compares with other cards in some key specifications. The table below mainly concentrates on peak theoretical fill rate, or the ability to draw pixels or textured pixels (texels) on screen. However, keep in mind that graphics card performance these days is also limited by some other important factors, including the computational throughput of a card’s vertex and pixel shader processors, as well as memory bandwidth. We have included memory bandwidth numbers below.

  Core
clock
(MHz)
Pixels/
clock
Peak
fill rate
(Mpixels/s)
Textures/
clock
Peak
fill rate
(Mtexels/s)
Effective
memory
clock (MHz)
Memory
bus width
(bits)
Peak memory
bandwidth
(GB/s)
Radeon X1650 Pro 600 4 2400 4 2400 1400 128 22.4
GeForce 7600 GT 560 8 4480 12 6720 1400 128 22.4
All-In-Wonder X1900 500 16 8000 16 8000 960 256 30.7
Radeon X1800 GTO 500 12 6000 12 6000 1000 256 32.0
GeForce 7800 GT 400 16 6400 20 8000 1000 256 32.0
Radeon X1800 XL 500 16 8000 16 8000 1000 256 32.0
GeForce 7800 GTX 430 16 6880 24 10320 1200 256 38.4
Radeon X1900 GT 575 12 6900 12 6900 1200 256 38.4
GeForce 7900 GS 450 16 7200 20 9000 1320 256 42.2
GeForce 7900 GT 450 16 7200 24 10800 1320 256 42.2
XFX GeForce 7900 GS 480M 480 16 7680 20 9600 1400 256 44.8
GeForce 7950 GT 550 16 8800 24 13200 1400 256 44.8
BFG GeForce 7950 GT OC 565 16 9040 24 13560 1430 256 45.8
Radeon X1900 XT 625 16 10000 16 10000 1450 256 46.4
XFX GeForce 7950 GT 570M 570 16 9120 24 13680 1460 256 46.7
Radeon X1800 XT 625 16 10000 16 10000 1500 256 48.0
Radeon X1900 XTX 650 16 10400 16 10400 1550 256 49.6
GeForce 7900 GTX 650 16 10400 24 15600 1600 256 51.2
GeForce 7800 GTX 512 550 16 8800 24 13200 1700 256 54.4
Radeon X1950 XTX 650 16 10400 16 10400 2000 256 64.0
GeForce 7950 GX2 2 * 500 32 16000 48 24000 1200 2 * 256 76.8

The 7950 GT is intended to be positioned between the 7900 GS and the 7900 GTX, and overall, it is. Yet the gaps between the various Nvidia offerings aren’t too big, especially once you take into account the “overclocked-in-the-box” versions of the 7900 GS and 7950 GT from XFX—both of which we’re testing here. Then there are ATI’s offerings, which are a little low on multitextured fill rate, although that rarely seems to affect performance. The Radeon X1900 XT 256MB matches the XFX 7950 GT’s memory speed almost exactly. Let’s see how the cards handle in a synthetic fill rate test.

The 7950 GT slots into the GeForce lineup about where expected. Also as expected, the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB doesn’t quite have as much oomph. That may not matter much when it comes time to run newer games with lots of shader effects, though.

 

Quake 4
In order to make sure we pushed the video cards as hard as possible, we enabled Quake 4’s multiprocessor support before testing.

The 7950 GT has the slightest of edges on the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB in Quake 4. In my experience, though, that doesn’t tend to matter too much when you’re playing the game. Both cards are able run many areas of the single-player game quite smoothly at 2048×1536 resolution with 4X antialiasing enabled. In certain places, though, they both stumble, with frame rates dropping into the teens. I tried cutting back to 2X AA on the 7950 GT, and it helped, but not quite enough to make the game as responsive as I’d like. You may have to settle for 1600×1200 if you’re running a single card. That’s, uh, really quite good enough for me anyhow.

Crazy-high resolutions like 2048×1536 are the only reason I could justify recommending a pair of 7950 GTs or X1900 XTs in a multi-GPU setup specifically for Quake 4. Even then, a couple of 7900 GS cards would be more than sufficient.

 

F.E.A.R.
We’ve used FRAPS to play through a sequence in F.E.A.R. in the past, but this time around, we’re using the game’s built-in “test settings” benchmark for a quick, repeatable comparison.

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about these results is the trouble that the three CrossFire configs have running this game. Their minimum frame rates are relatively low, and the X1900 XT CrossFire rig gets the worst of it, perhaps because it has less memory than the other two. This must be the product of some sort of driver bug. Whatever the case, I’d disable CrossFire for running F.E.A.R. unless and until ATI produces a fix.

Notice, also, that the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB’s higher average frame rates here don’t seem to count for much. At higher resolutions, that card’s minimum frame rate matches the 7950 GT’s.

F.E.A.R.’s developers did a nice job with their “test settings” sequence. The game seems to run fine in many areas at 1600×1200 with Max Quality settings on the 7950 GT and X1900 XT 256MB, but you’ll run into areas on both cards where things slow down, as reflected in the median low frame rate numbers above. I’d recommend playing at a lower resolution or quality level on these cards.

 

Half-Life 2: Episode One
The Source game engine uses an integer data format for its high-dynamic-range rendering, which allows all of the cards here to combine HDR rendering with 4X antialiasing.

The Radeon X1900 XT leads the GeForce 7950 GT by a significant margin in Half-Life 2: Episode One. As with Quake 4, that fact really only comes into play at 2048×1536. At lower resolutions, both cards are plenty fast. And heck, by the seat of my pants, I think they both play this game very well at 2048×1536 with HDR lighting and 4X AA.

You’ll notice one missing score above, for the X1900 XT CrossFire setup at 2048×1536. The game kept crashing on me when I tried to run it at that resolution.

 
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
We tested Oblivion by manually playing through a specific point in the game five times while recording frame rates using the FRAPS utility. Each gameplay sequence lasted 60 seconds. This method has the advantage of simulating real gameplay quite closely, but it comes at the expense of precise repeatability. We believe five sample sessions are sufficient to get reasonably consistent and trustworthy results. In addition to average frame rates, we’ve included the low frames rates, because those tend to reflect the user experience in performance-critical situations. In order to diminish the effect of outliers, we’ve reported the median of the five low frame rates we encountered.

We set Oblivion’s graphical quality settings to “Ultra High.” The screen resolution was set to 1600×1200 resolution, with HDR lighting enabled. 16X anisotropic filtering was forced on via the cards’ driver control panels.

Yow. The race between the 7950 GT and the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB remains close here. I did notice that the Radeon ran the game better during the first of our five test runs. During the first run on the GeForce 7950 GT, things seemed to slow down as new objects came onscreen—probably due to some kind of texture upload issue. The problem was perceptible both with a single card and in SLI.

Nvidia’s default texture filtering routine also produces quite a bit more moire and pixel crawling in this game than ATI’s. Neither is perfect, though.

Personally, I thought that both the Radeon X1900 XT and the GeForce 7950 GT ran Oblivion reasonably well at these settings. They might be stretching a little, but not much.

Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter
We tested GRAW with FRAPS, as well. We cranked up all of the quality settings for this game, with the exception of antialiasing. However, GRAW doesn’t allow cards with 256MB of memory to run with its highest texture quality setting, so those cards were all running at the game’s “Medium” texture quality.

It’s close again in GRAW, proving these two cards are a very good match for one another. Remember, however, that the X1900 XT has to run at lower texture sizes since it has less RAM.

Running around other areas of the game, I got the impression that the 7950 GT was a little faster than the X1900 XT 256MB. Both played the game acceptably, for the most part. Our FRAPS session produces some pretty low numbers because we’re blowing stuff up. Just sneaking around the city, you’ll see higher frame rates than these. And if you run SLI, you’ll be treated to playable frame rates at 2048×1536, as well.

 

3DMark06

The Radeon X1900 XT 256MB manages a slight lead in 3DMark06 overall, and its advantage tends to increase with the display resolution.

The 7950 GT comes out ahead in two of these three quick synthetic performance tests, despite turning in a slower overall score in 3DMark.

 

Power consumption
We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using an Extech power analyzer model 380803. The monitor was plugged into a separate outlet, so its power draw was not part of our measurement. We tested all of the video cards using the Asus P5N32-SLI SE Deluxe motherboard, save for the CrossFire system, which required a different chipset. For that system, we used an Intel D975XBX motherboard.

The idle measurements were taken at the Windows desktop. The cards were tested under load running Oblivion using the game’s Ultra Quality setting at 1600×1200 resolution with 16X anisotropic filtering.

The difference in idle power consumption between the GeForce 7950 GT and Radeon X1900 XT 256MB is minimal, but a 60W difference opens up between the two while running a game. The gap widens to 100W when we switch to multi-GPU setups. Obviously, Nvidia’s current GPUs are simply more power efficient than ATI’s.

 

Noise levels and cooling
We measured noise levels on our test systems, sitting on an open test bench, using an Extech model 407727 digital sound level meter. The meter was mounted on a tripod approximately 14″ from the test system at a height even with the top of the video card. The meter was aimed at the very center of the test systems’ motherboards, so that no airflow from the CPU or video card coolers passed directly over the meter’s microphone. We used the OSHA-standard weighting and speed for these measurements.

You can think of these noise level measurements much like our system power consumption tests, because the entire systems’ noise levels were measured, including CPU and chipset fans. We had temperature-based fan speed controls enabled on the motherboard, just as we would in a working system. We think that’s a fair method of measuring, since (to give one example) running a pair of cards in SLI may cause the motherboard’s coolers to work harder. The motherboard we used for all single-card and SLI configurations was the Asus P5N32-SLI SE Deluxe, which on our open test bench required an auxiliary chipset cooler. The Asus P5W DH Deluxe motherboard we used for CrossFire testing didn’t require a chipset cooler, so those systems were inherently a little bit quieter. In all cases, we used a Zalman CNPS9500 LED to cool the CPU.

Of course, noise levels will vary greatly in the real world along with the acoustic properties of the PC enclosure used, whether the enclosure provides adequate cooling to avoid a cards’ highest fan speeds, placement of the enclosure in the room, and a whole range of other variables. These results should give a reasonably good picture of comparative fan noise, though.

We measured the coolers at idle on the Windows desktop and under load while playing back our Quake 4 nettimedemo. The cards were given plenty of opportunity to heat up while playing back the demo multiple times. Still, in some cases, the coolers did not ramp up to their very highest speeds under load. The Radeon X1800 GTO and Radeon X1900 cards, for instance, could have been louder had they needed to crank up their blowers to top speed. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary in this case, even after running a game for an extended period of time.

You’ll see two sets of numbers for the GeForce 7950 GT below, one for the XFX cards with their passive cooling and another for the BFG Tech cards, which use the stock Nvidia active cooler. I measured them both for an obvious reason: they’re going to produce very different results.

Let’s talk about the BFG Tech results first, since those are the simplest to discuss. The variable-speed fan on the stock Nvidia cooler is nice and quiet at idle, right in line with the best of the bunch. As soon as you launch a 3D game, however, the BFG 7950 GT’s cooler kicks into a higher gear, seemingly before the thing has any chance to warm up. Obviously, this is a mighty small cooler for such a big, fast GPU, so nobody’s taking any chances. The end result is a card that’s louder than anything else we’ve tested here. The second loudest card is the GeForce 7600 GT, which mates the same cooler with a much smaller GPU. The shame of it all is that Nvidia has vastly superior coolers in its stable, including the superb one on the GeForce 7900 GTX. You’d think Nvidia and BFG could have sprung for something a bit beefier for a video card that costs three hundred dollars or more.

Even though it eats a second slot, I prefer the cooler ATI put on the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB. That cooler is quieter under load and directs hot air out of the rear of the case. Even with its higher power consumption, the X1900 XT 256MB looks—err, sounds—pretty good compared to the BFG. Hard to believe the 7950 GT is this loud and yet draws 60W less power than the X1900 XT 256MB.

The folks at XFX must have been thinking along these lines when they decided to opt for passive cooling on their rendition of the 7950 GT. As you might have guessed, the cards are silent while running a game. Why does the actively cooled GeForce 7900 GTX produce noise meter readings in the same league? Probably because its whisper-quiet cooler moves air around the area of system and also keeps the cards themselves cooler. Like many passively cooled solutions, this XFX card tends to run quite hot, and that may be causing the system’s chipset cooling fan to work a bit harder.

The XFX card’s sound level readings come with a great, big caveat, though. Passive solutions like this one depend on air circulating inside of a PC case in order to work effectively. They are not really and truly passive coolers, able to radiate all of the necessary heat into the environment without the aid of a fan. We experienced this reality first-hand when the second of our XFX cards in an SLI setup on our open-air test bench began hitting the 130°C temperature threshold in the Nvidia drivers and slowing itself down. This card was positioned away from the CPU cooler and out of the path of any airflow from a cooling fan on another system component, and that proved to be a problem.

Being the self-sacrificing kind of guy I am, I decided to slap this pair of XFX 7950 GTs into my own PC for some real-world temperature testing while gaming.

The things I do for you guys. It’s incredible.

Somehow I suffered through an extended session of Quake 4, after which I popped out to the desktop and found GPU temps of 89°C for GPU 1 and 85°C for GPU 2—much better than on the open-air test bench. I also did some additional testing by running a graphics demo in a window on the desktop as I worked one morning. The demo didn’t take advantage of SLI, so only one GPU was active, but its temperature climbed slowly to as high as 102°C before reaching an apparent equilibrium and staying within the 100-102°C range. As Paris Hilton would say, that’s hot. Whether or not that temperature is cause for concern, well, I’m not sure. Passive solutions tend to run at high temps. XFX does warrant this card for its lifetime, into its second owner, so I suppose they are confident in their product. Personally, I’m going to have to do some more game testing in SLI mode before I know for sure what to think.

Lots more, no doubt. Gotta finish Quake 4.

The moral of the story here is that passive solutions like this one are not inherently silent. They simply transfer the burden of moving air around elsewhere. In the hands of a smart system builder or inside of a good PC enclosure, that can be a very good thing indeed. Large, low-RPM case fans can be very effective while remaining nearly silent. When stuffed inside of your average PC case, though, the passive XFX card won’t necessarily lead to a significantly quieter system overall.

Overclocking
Given the overheating problems we had with the XFX cards on our open-air test bench, I decided to test the overclocking potential of the GeForce 7950 GT using the BFG Tech cards instead. I also thought it would be interesting to see how well the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB could overclock, too. In both cases, I used the built-in auto-overclocking feature in the GPU maker’s drivers to determine how high I could take things.

The BFG 7950 GT topped out at 598MHz GPU and 790MHz memory clocks in a single-card config, and somewhat less in SLI. The Radeon X1900 XT 256MB topped out at 698MHz GPU and 720MHz memory frequencies with a single card. The X1900 CrossFire rig wouldn’t go any higher than 655MHz GPU and 720MHz memory clocks using ATI’s frequency finder tool.

Overclocking puts the 7950 GT within a hair’s breadth of the GeForce 7900 GTX, which isn’t a bad place to be, although it doesn’t mean much in terms of frames per second at this resolution. (Hey, I wanted to test something really intensive!) The X1900 XT 256MB gains some, too, from the higher clock speeds, but not in CrossFire mode, where slow memory frequencies probably hold back performance.

 
Conclusions
So let’s see if we can sort this out. The GeForce 7950 GT and Radeon X1900 XT 256MB offer roughly equivalent performance. By my scorecard, the Radeon came out slightly ahead overall, but there weren’t any really meaningful performance differences between the two cards in our testing. Both played the games we tried equally well at the same display resolutions and in-game quality settings, and both stumbled at approximately the same points when we tried to push them a little too hard.

And we should say right now that it takes a lot to push either of these cards too hard. With some of today’s most graphically intensive and visually rich games, we had to get into strong degrees of edge and texture antialiasing, high quality settings, and oftentimes very high display resolutions in order to make these things sweat. For most of us whose monitor budgets don’t involve monthly payments, buying a graphics card that costs this much right now is more about future-proofing than it is about just playing current games well.

Future-proofing in graphics cards is a tricky thing, though. These cards are late-model spins on existing DirectX 9, Shader Model 3.0-class graphics technology. They’re notably cheaper, faster, and better than what was on offer for the same price a year ago—or even last week. Yet they’re also closer to obsolescence than those cards were last year or last week. A new generation of GPUs is coming, likely timed to debut alongside Windows Vista and DirectX 10 late this year or early next. When those new GPUs arrive, they will bring new capabilities and probably set new standards for performance. I have my doubts whether it will matter much whether you paid $199 or $299 for your current-gen graphics card when you’re trying to run games designed for these new GPUs. Both cards may be equally overmatched.

Given all of that, I think the GeForce 7900 GS at $199 and perhaps the Radeon X1900 GT, if you can find a similar price, offer more value if you must buy a video card right now. Going up to the $299-ish range will get you a better card, but each has its drawbacks.

The GeForce 7950 GT is a nice upgrade over the 7900 GS in that it has 512MB of memory, a trait that should help confer some additional longevity. However, I’m a little frustrated by some of the image quality limitations of the G71 GPU, and those frustrations start to matter once you get into the performance and price class of the 7950 GT. To name a few, the G71 lacks multisampled antialiasing modes in sample sizes over four; it can’t do AA in combination with high-quality 16-bit FP lighting; and Nvidia’s anisotropic and trilinear texture filtering algorithms are visibly inferior to ATI’s. The R580 GPU in the Radeon X1900 XT is based on a newer design, and it shows.

The Radeon X1900 XT 256MB matches or outperforms the GeForce 7950 GT most of the time because its GPU is faster, even though it has less onboard memory. But ponying up that much cash for a card with 256MB of memory at this point in history looks like a risky move to me. The X1900 XT also gets demerits for its higher power draw while gaming and for shaky multi-GPU support. We ran into a couple of apparent CrossFire bugs in our testing, and the CrossFire scheme itself is simply more work than we’d like. In order to run an X1900 XT 256MB in CrossFire, you have to buy a much more expensive Radeon X1900 CrossFire card with 512MB of RAM, only to install it in your system and watch it deactivate half of that memory.

So long as you’re not planning on upgrading to a multi-GPU setup down the road, the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB looks like a better value than the GeForce 7950 GT, all things considered. That judgment, though, depends on Connect3D and other ATI board partners coming through with X1900 XT 256MB cards priced at around $279, as we’ve been told to expect. At that price, the Radeon will undercut the 7950 GT by at least 20 bucks.

As for the two brands of GeForce 7950 GT cards that we’ve tested here, only one offers a really attractive alternative to the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB. We love BFG Tech’s quality, service, and best-in-the-industry support, but they shouldn’t have accepted Nvidia’s cooling solution for the 7950 GT. It’s just too loud. XFX was right to go with another solution, and they get copious style points for having the guts to go passive. At $329, the XFX GeForce 7950 GT 570M Extreme lists for nearly 50 bucks more than the expected price of the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB, but for that price you get a card with 512MB of memory, a copy of a GRAW, and one heckuva conversation piece in that cooler. That combo might just be enough to tempt me away from the Radeon. 

The Tech Report - Editorial ProcessOur Editorial Process

The Tech Report editorial policy is centered on providing helpful, accurate content that offers real value to our readers. We only work with experienced writers who have specific knowledge in the topics they cover, including latest developments in technology, online privacy, cryptocurrencies, software, and more. Our editorial policy ensures that each topic is researched and curated by our in-house editors. We maintain rigorous journalistic standards, and every article is 100% written by real authors.

Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief

Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief

Scott Wasson is a veteran in the tech industry and the former Editor-in-Chief at Tech Report. With a laser focus on tech product reviews, Wasson's expertise shines in evaluating CPUs and graphics cards, and much more.

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