Ask Dan: Nvidia's ninesDate: 8 April 2008 Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
OK, so GeForce nine-something-something-something cards have been out for a few weeks now, so the nutters who buy new stuff no matter what it costs should have done their thing and now the rest of us can have a go.
But what should we buy?
I mean, there's like eight new models, and apparently the "nines" aren't actually that much faster than the old "eights". I've got a GeForce 7600 GT and so I'm pretty sure all of the new cards are a lot faster than mine, but which one should I buy?
Nvidia's new nine-thousand-series cards are, as you say, not as exciting as you might at first think. It has been observed that there's really nothing about the new "9"-series cards that really makes them different enough from the previous generation to be worthy of a whole new model line. They're still worth buying, but not if you've already got one of the faster cards from the eight-series.
The first nine-series Nvidia card was the GeForce 9600 GT, which is interesting chiefly because it's rather good value for money. Here in Australia, you're talking about $AU225 delivered for a 512Mb 9600 GT, versus around $AU300 for a 512Mb 8800 GT. The 8800 GT is faster, but not necessarily by enough to be noticeable.
The 9600 GT performs, depending on the test, a little slower than an 8800 GT, and a little faster than an ATI Radeon HD 3870. It's a bit faster than a 3870 overall, especially for DirectX 10, but not really so's you'd notice most of the time.
Since the Radeon 3870 currently still seems to cost about the same as an 8800 GT here in Australia (3870 and 3850 prices have been dropped in the USA), that means there's no good reason for most Aussies to buy a 3870 at the moment. But the 9600 GT is quite good value for money.
You'd think that the more expensive ($AU450-ish) GeForce 9800 GTX would, based on its name, be obviously faster than the 8800 GTX that sat at the top of the single-card performance charts for so long (if you don't count the rather-more-expensive, only-slightly-faster 8800 Ultra). And the 9800 GTX does indeed let you build almost the fastest 3D gaming system in existence - if you buy three of them, and a 3-video-slot motherboard to go with 'em.
Let's presume you're not going to do that.
If you buy only one 9800 GTX, you'll get the fastest single-chip G92-based card made so far. The G92 is the same chip that the GeForce 8800 GT and new-style 512Mb 8800 GTS are based on, and the only difference between the new 8800 GTS and the single-chip 9800 GTX is a little more clock speed on the 9800.
What this means is that for most applications, the 9800 GTX and the old 8800 GTX perform very much the same. The newer card costs more and consumes less power, but if you've got an 8800-series card at the moment, upgrading to a 9800 GTX is pointless.
The big news in the nine-series lineup, though, is the 9800 GX2. It's got two G92 processors, clocked a little lower than the single-chip 9800 GTX. Here in Australia it costs around $AU870 delivered - only barely less than two 9800 GTXs.
On the plus side, the 9800 GX2 takes up just the one PCIe x16 slot, and gives you almost the same performance as an SLI-ed pair of 9800 GTXs.
On the minus side, the GX2's lower clock speed means it doesn't give you quite the same performance. And it costs more. And it can't help but run hotter, with all that silicon packed into a single double-width package - that's the main reason why it's clocked lower. So, all things being equal, it won't overclock as far either. Oh, and the GX2's gigabyte of memory means it'll put a huge hole in your memory map, which is particularly notable if you're running a 32-bit operating system and thus can't install more than 4Gb.
None of these objections are important to a certain sector of the GX2 market, because they're determined to push the envelope by buying two of the things, and using a two-video-slot motherboard to create a Quad SLI system. That is the fastest consumer 3D graphics subsystem available today, which is all a certain portion of the market cares about.
It's more than slightly crazy, of course, and not even necessary for most current 3D games unless you've got a huge monitor. But if nothing but the best will do, two 9800 GX2s is, currently, the best.
Back in the land of the sane people, a single 9800 GX2 is a pretty tidy solution for someone who's got a big monitor and wants to play Crysis or something with all of the pretty-settings turned up. The most similar card in the ATI/AMD lineup is the Radeon HD 3870 X2, another two-cards-in-one jobbie - but it's only about as fast as a single-chip 9800 GTX, yet costs $AU600-odd, so nobody in Australia cares much about it right now unless they're running Vista and Nvidia's drivers just ain't workin'.
(If you want to get weird, note that the current ATI drivers let you combine Radeon HD 38x0s in all sorts of peculiar arrangements, motherboard slots permitting, for a Crossfire setup. One 3870 plus one 3850, say, or one 3870 X2 plus one 3870 single. This can be an interesting value proposition if you've already got a 3850 or 3870, but it's only trivia for anyone else, given the ATI/Nvidia price differences.)
If you're shopping for a new graphics card right now, the GeForce 8800 GT is still very much worth considering. It's not vastly slower than a 9800 GTX, yet it's considerably cheaper. M'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market have a Gainward-branded 512Mb 8800 GT for only $AU280.50 including delivery to anywhere in the country, for instance; Australian shoppers can click here to order it.
(If you're shopping for a cheap 8800 GT, make sure you're not buying the recently-released version with only 256, rather than 512, megabytes of memory. The 256Mb versions seem to be only slightly cheaper than the cheapest 512s, which makes them a pretty lousy deal.)
The 8800 GTS isn't such great value. It still seems to be floating around the $AU400 mark, which is an OK deal compared with $AU450 or so for a 9600 GTX, but not mind-blowing.
(If you see a suspiciously cheap 8800 GTS, you should once again check out the amount of memory. If it's got 512Mb then it's one of the newer G92 variants, but if it's got 320Mb or 640Mb then it's one of the older models, which aren't as fast as an 8800 GT.)
The cheapest 9800 GTXs Aus PC Market currently offer are $AU440 delivered. There are two of them, one branded Inno3D (Australian shoppers can click here to order it) and one Galaxy (click here for that one); as usual, there's not actually any significant difference between the brands.
Again, this isn't an amazing mindblowing deal, but it's not a bad one, either; the 9800 GTX may be an evolution rather than a revolution, but at least it hasn't launched with a huge stupid early-adopter markup on it.
If all of this is a bit rich for your blood, the humble 9600 GT is by no means the kind of cut-down rubbish that so often appears at the cheaper end of the market. Thrilling it ain't, but it's also a considerable step up from lots of older cards, including your 7600. It's quite uniformly almost as fast as an 8800 GT, which means that even though it's not that much cheaper than one, it's still worth buying.
You can get a 512Mb 9600 GT with a great big chip cooler on it for $AU220 delivered from Aus PC Market (that's an Xpertvision-branded card; Australian shoppers can click here to order it).
If you go much further down the graphics card ladder than this then the fixed overheads of board manufacturing, packaging and delivery start to seriously impact the bang-per-buck figures. At the high end a $600 graphics card usually won't manage twice the speed of a $300 one, but at the low end a $100 card will usually be quite a bit less than half the speed of a $200 one. The 9600 GT sits just above the point where the lower end of the bang-per-buck curve goes all ugly, so it's not a bad buy at all.
Australian shoppers can buy all kinds of video cards from Aus PC Market.
Click here to order!