From hardcore gaming to everyday use, there’s a new MSI laptop for everybody
- Single-card SLI solution, leaves room for more expansion cards, very powerful, Hybrid Power mode supported, quad-SLI potential, native HDMI
- Power cable requirements, price, no DirectX10.1 and Shader Model 4.1 support, HDMI doesn't natively support audio
An excellent single-card SLI option with a tonne of rendering power up its sleeve. The potential for quad-SLI is mouth watering, and the single-card SLI design means space savings for cramped PC cases.
Price$ 879.00 (AUD)
First, let's clear any doubt about it; the new GeForce EN9800GX2, as you may have suspected, is essentially two G92 GPUs (similar to what can be found on the 8800GTS 512MB cards) sandwiched together in a move that reflects AMD's HD3870X2 release earlier this year and, lest we forget, NVIDIA's own 7950GX2 of mid-2006 fame.
Although we don't believe the production of dual GPU boards encourages a particularly healthy culture for graphics card advancement, the solution has admittedly brought greater performance to the bench. Special kudos must also be given for the excellent SLI performance on this single card, SLI-solution. We took a look at the ASUS GeForce EN9800GX2, a reference sample of NVIDIA's latest high-end gaming board, to see if it held up against NVIDIA's previous flagship, the 8800 Ultra, and AMD ATI's twin GPU beast, the HD3870X2.
On paper this 65nm GPU offers 256 stream processors running at a 1500MHz clock speed, a 600MHz core clock and 1GB (2x 512MB) of GDDR3 with a clock speed of 1000MHz (2GHz effective speed). Its claimed 512-bit external memory bus is technically two 256-bit pipelines with a PCI Express 2nd generation controller running the two cards in SLI.
Receiving a product like this always brings on a couple of emotions. The first is invalidated elation. The term 9800 has been thrown around for some time and has generated a degree of expectation to precede it. The second is apprehension, a sensation that history has burned in through countless heartaches. So let's look at both sides of the story.
On the down side the EN9800GX2 is quite pricey. With an opening price tag of $879 it's no pocket change exchange. Granted it's a few hundred dollars cheaper than the 8800 Ultra was when it launched, but that doesn't sweeten the sting this card will leave in your bank statement. Rather than the two 6-pin power cables, the series-8 cards in this new monster requires one 6-pin and one 8-pin PCIe power cable just to function, let alone run any games. The ASUS EN9800GX2 does include an adapter, though, gone are the days of molex-to-6-pin adapters. Now it's assumed your power supply either has a 6-pin and an 8-pin, three 6-pin (two for the 8-pin adapter), or enough spare molex power cables to connect the exorbitant number adapters together into the required two cables.
The GPU still doesn't support Microsoft's upcoming release of DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1, which is going to be an irritation to owners of the card come Vista's Service Pack 1 update. Admittedly, DirectX 10.1 isn't an essential feature, but it's a plus in ATI's camp that NVIDIA hasn't yet caught up with.
Also, we are pleased to see an HDMI port included on the board itself, rather than in a DVI to HDMI adapter, but this addition is still marred by NVIDIA's inability to feed digital audio through the HDMI port. Rather, an SPDIF cable must be connected from the card to the motherboard. Two DVI ports are still included for dual-monitor output.
However, a native HDMI port is still a plus and a good point to launch off the positives of this card. Naturally it's HDCP compliant, so there are no issues with Blu-ray or HD-DVD movies. The SLI performance is impressive, hammering competitors cards in benchmarks, and doing so without the bulk of two fully-fledged graphics boards mounted onto the motherboard. This leaves you with more room for a sound card or other PCI expansion card.
At 197 watts the power consumption is quite reasonable for a dual-GPU board. The card uses a single fan with the PCBs stuck on the outside of the cooling system. It does wind up a bit at peak performance, but nothing gamers aren't used to. The outer casing of the card maintains a comfortable temperature. We noticed some heat escapes through a grill on the side of the cards, recirculating back into the case, rather than escaping, unless of course you have a side extraction fan. On the plus side, noise wasn't much of a problem during our tests.
In the benchmarks we saw some very nice results that looked favourable against the 8800 Ultra and the HD3870X2, though the DirectX9 performance didn't hold up quite as well. We expect that driver updates should sort this out.
Our first DirectX 10 test was Crysis, running in high quality settings, and at the maximum resolution of our Samsung monitor, 1920x1200. In this test we saw an impressive 39.7fps (frames per second). In Lost Planet: Extreme Condition's DirectX 10 benchmark, with all DirectX 10 features turned on and at the maximum resolution, the ASUS EN9800GX2 scored an average of 69.1fps, beating the 8800 Ultra on 42.3fps and the HD3870X2 on just 27fps. In the Call of Juarez benchmark (at default settings) we were unable to get the test running in SLI, so we switched to single GPU mode and still got impressive scores. In this test the EN9800GX2 averaged 46.6fps, beating the Ultra on 30.4fps, but not quite matching the HD3870X2 on 50.9fps, though an SLI test should jump this hurdle.
In DirectX9 tests we got good, playable frame rates that managed scores above, or on par with competing cards. In Half-Life 2 at the maximum resolution and quality settings it averaged 115fps, which is no better or worse than its competitors. However, in FEAR at 1600x1200, and with all high quality settings turned on, including 4x antialiasing, the EN9800GX2 managed to average 131fps, well above its competitors. 3DMark 2006 also saw good results with a score of 13,015.
There's little more to say other than that this is clearly the fastest card available today. If you've got the cash, go for it. It also offers room for improvement with the potential for quad-SLI. All it requires is a second EN9800GX2 card. Support for NVIDIA's Hybrid Power mode is a bonus. This technology allows the card to turn off completely during less graphically intense tasks (such as on the Windows desktop), but it must be used in conjunction with an NVIDIA on-board graphics chip.
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