The GeForce FX 5800 was nVidia flagship card in early 2003. The long overdue card, also known as the NV30, was supposed to challenge the ATI Radeon 9700 Pro.

This card was quite the beast for its day, some numbers should illustrate this:

  • The GPU has 125 million transistors (a Pentium 4 has around 55 million, the Radeon 9700 Pro around 107 million and the GeForce4 Ti4400 around 63 million) and runs at 500 MHz.
  • The card weighs about 1.32 lbs, that's around 3 times the weight of a GeForce4 Ti4800 or Radeon 9700 Pro. Most of this is due to the hefty cooling system.
  • 500 Mhz DDR-II. This may sound better than the 9700's DDR memory system, but ATI choose to use a 256-bit bus and keep the clock rates moderate whereas nVidia went the other way, keeping a 128-bit bus. Overall ATI win on bandwidth, by 19.6 GB/s to 16 GB/s.
  • Power consumption of up to 75 watts. There was a time when a whole computer could run off this amount of power. Like the Radeon 9700 Pro the Geforce FX requires an additional power cable. If you don't plug in the extra power the card will downclock the GPU to 250 Mhz (and downclock the memory accordingly).
  • Massive cooling system: even with it, the heatsink is said to get as hot as 70 Celsius.
  • Complex 12 layer PCB
As you might expect this is a card that comes with niceties such as AGP 8x support, more/better pixel shaders and twice the number of pixel pipes when compared to the GeForce4 Ti. The GeForce4 Ti could however process 2 textures per pipe, whereas the FX can only handle one.

Fried egg anyone?

The cooling system is unusual enough to deserve a paragraph of its own. A powerful fan sucks cool air from outside of the case, pulls it over the heatsink and blows it back outside. There are two downsides to this:

  • It's big: The cooling system basically takes up the PCI slot next to the AGP slot. The vents through which the air is drawn are where your PCI card would have been.
  • It's noisy. Reviewers have likened it to having a hoover running in the same room. During basic 2D use the card slows down the GPU and memory system to 300 MHz/600MHz, reducing noise to more acceptable levels, but fire up a 3D intensive application and all hell breaks loose. Anandtech reckoned the noise from the GeForce FX was around 77dB, and the Radeon 9700 Pro weighed in at 64dB.
Despite this the heatsink still reaches a toasty 70 Celsius under heavy use. The noise is a definite point against the GeForceFX. It is possible that the cheaper version (GPU running at 400 MHz) may need less cooling and thus be quieter. Also it is possible that other manufacturers will come up with quieter or smaller cooling systems, although it is a fair bet that the GPU must churn out a fair amount of heat for nVidia to use such a radical solution. And of course if your motherboard is slightly unconventional and has the AGP slots the other side of the PCI slots (as is the case with recent Apple towers) then you're screwed.


nVidia had previously announced that the GeForce FX would be up to 50% faster than the Radeon 9700 Pro. Tests have shown that nVidia's latest offering wass indeed faster, but only by a fairly small margin, often around 15% (and sometimes less than 5%). However these tests used beta versions of the drivers and nVidia have a good record for producing well optimised drivers so this gap will widen, but the battle was far from won. The impressive cooling system made it difficult for nVidia to push the card much harder. The more modestly clocked Radeon (GPU @ 325 MHz) on the other hand had more room for expansion. When the GeForce FX was released, the 9700 card had been out for a few months and rumourd abounded that higher clocked versions were to be available in weeks to come.

These initial fears proved to be wise, as ATI released the Radeon 9800 shortly after. Later on when nVidia released the GeForce FX 5950Ultra, ATI creaped ahead once more with the 9800XT.

Image Quality

As usual with recent cards, there are quality options to use up all of that power (who really needs their games to run at 150 FPS?). The GeForceFX offers anti-aliasing up to 8x, and anisotropic texture filtering. Both of these will incur a performance hit, but with a card like this there's quite a bit of headroom. It's impossible to discuss this properly without pictures, but the general consensus seems to be that at equivalent image quality the ATI card delivers better performance.The ATI card also seems to fare especially well with very high anti-aliasing settings, losing 40% with 6X anti-aliasing, whereas the GeForce FX loses 66%.

The GeForceFX is a very fast card, there is no doubt about it, but performance has a price here. I for one would be willing to drop a few frames for second in exchange for some peace and quiet. nVidia will be pricing it quite aggressively, and it is expected to retail for about the same price as the ATI Radeon 9700 Pro ($399 currently). The cheaper version (400 MHz GPU, 800 MHz memory system) is expected to retail for $299.

In the end the GeForce FX was something of a failure for nVidia. It was supposed to let them retake the performance crown which it did not, and for each iteration of the GeForce FX, ATI was able to respond with an improved Radeon design. The noise problems gave the card a lot of bad press, even though the issues were somewhat remedied once the card went into production. The recently released GeForce 6800 series however is another story, improving massively on existing cards. ATI however is releasing there next generation card in early May 2004, but that is a story for another node...