NVIDIA promotes its new GeForce FX 5900 Ultra chip as "the fastest GPU in history". It may be, but if so, it isn't by much. In tests with current games, our 5900 Ultra reference card, equipped with 256MB of SDRAM, gave a relatively small performance boost over an MSI FX 5800 Ultra-TD and a reference card based on ATI's Radeon 9800 Pro chip (both with 128MB) in the same PC.
The 5900 Ultra is far quieter than NVIDIA's GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, but it still occupies two slots. We're advised that boxed retail versions should average about the $1000 mark, allowing for price differences between the 256MB and 128MB versions.
Upon testing the 5900 Ultra, games such as Serious Sam 2 and Unreal Tournament 2002 improved by just a few frames per second over a 5800 Ultra-based card at 1280x1024. Only at 1600x1200 did the 5900 pull markedly ahead of the 5800.
Similarly, ATI's 9800 Pro produced about 10fps more than the 5900 at lower resolutions of UT, but it also dropped off at higher ones.
In the UT anti-aliasing test, the 5900 trailed both of its main rivals. And although the 5900 has a reworked anisotropic filtering engine, the ATI card provided superior image quality in our subjective tests. Anti-aliasing softens jagged edges on 3D images, and anisotropic filtering helps smooth scenes in which textured images, like a tiled floor, start in the foreground and extend back.
The 5900 Ultra's features are more tuned to forthcoming games. One such feature, UltraShadow, renders shadows and scenes more efficiently, making games such as the upcoming Doom III and Half-Life 2 run more quickly and smoothly, NVIDIA says.
In brief: NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra
[reference board, not rated]
Our 5900 Ultra reference board had a slim edge over the 5800 and ATI's 9800 Pro at higher resolutions, but it dropped behind ATI's 9800 Pro at standard resolutions. At higher resolutions, however, the 5900 looks set to take a turn at the front of the pack.