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MSI Geforce FX 5800 Ultra - getting acquainted
Rarely a day goes by without questions being asked regarding NVIDIA's "upcoming" high-end desktop unit, the Geforce FX 5800 Ultra. Launched at Comdex last November, it promised cinematic computing, but what stole the headlines were the pictures of a card that took up two slots and produced noise akin to a vacuum cleaner.

Last year wasn't a good year for the guys in green. ATI's Radeon 9700 PRO took graphics performance to another level, shattering the Geforce 4 Ti4600 (NV25) and the FX was seen to be NVIDIA's answer to this. But the 5800 Ultra doesn't have to compete with the 9700 PRO, ATI have released a new contender, the Radeon 9800 PRO, which raises the performance bar yet again.

Today we take a look at the Geforce FX 5800 Ultra from MSI, one of NVIDIA's biggest board partners. At CeBIT we learnt that many manufacturers weren't happy with NVIDIA's handling of the Geforce FX 5800 Ultra situation. From separate sources we have had the following confirmed :-
  • NVIDIA does not allow their board partners to produce the PCBs for the FX 5800 Ultra - board partners are allowed to manufacture PCBs for non Ultra versions, apparently NVIDIA believe board partners would not be able to produce these PCBs consistently to high standards.
  • Extremely limited numbers of GPUs - numbers available to them aren't enough to justify mass production in many cases.
  • Limited scope - NVIDIA does not allow board partners to assert their creative "juices" to FX 5800 Ultras. We aren't sure how true this is, as some manufacturers like Leadtek have produced fairly innovative cooling solutions.
  • Many believe that the FX 5800 Ultra has come at least 5 months too late for NVIDIA and however revolutionary this 0.13micron GPU is, there will always be an alternative that might not match it on performance, but will be considerably lower in price than NVIDIA's part. NVIDIA to their credit, have launched a set of GPUs a few weeks at GDC which will bring DirectX 9 support to the masses. In many ways that is more important than producing the fastest high-end board for the desktop.

    MSI have built up a good name in the graphics card market through producing reliable products. MSI cater for the mass market and have earned many awards from NVIDIA's channel partner awards. From the outset you can see a huge amount of effort has gone into the presentation of this card and for around 380 you certainly expect a spectacle.

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    The picture really doesn't convey how huge this box is. It's about 25% longer than Radeon 9700 PRO box, 50% wider and 25% deeper. However MSI doesn't stop there. The front cover folds up to provide a huge amount of information regarding the GPU and it's technology. Never have we seen so much information present on a box. The lid is held in place by two pieces of Velcro.

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    Most people will find the information slightly bland, although MSI have done well in trying to inform potential customers about the technological properties that is present at the heart of this product. The rear of the packaging does have mistakes, however with this sample being mainly for journalists there were several mistakes on the rear, however these should be corrected for the retail version.

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    Inside we find a nice bundle, although the packaging was damaged by a previous reviewer, so MSI took the cautious view of adding extra padding around the card.

    The card itself hasn't had it's appearance changed a great deal since it's November outing.

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    The front features plastic ducting to channel air into and out of the fan which (as further close-up pictures show) is tilted slightly in order to draw air into the fan. The reverse of the card features a copper heatsink over the 500MHz DDRII modules. It also comes complete with a retainer for the large copper heatpipe that is at the front of the unit.

    Before taking a closer look at the cooling we decided to do some size comparisons. First up we compare it to an ATI Radeon 9700 PRO and secondly a Sapphire Atlantis 9600 (RV350) unit.

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    The 5800 Ultra is a large card in all proportions and this will cause problems for people who want to use this card in smaller systems. Whilst space wasn't a problem in our test machine, as you can see from the two pictures below, the 5800 Ultra takes up a fair chunk of real-estate.

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    The back of this card features a dual slot design, with one slot having the single D-SUB, TV-OUT and DVI connector and the second slot accommodating the cooling functions that will be described in greater detail below. MSI supply a DVI to D-SUB converter to help those wanting a dual monitor setup.

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    The macroscopic details of this card has long been flaunted and a closer look around the unit displays the amount of technology and effort has gone into cooling this behemoth. Rarely has such cooling technology been used in desktop computers to ensure the efficient operation of a component. Heatpipes are nothing new on notebooks, they are the preferred method of cooling with fans being the last alternative, but when we first saw this technology on the FX 5800 Ultra many thought it was a marketing ploy to make the card look neat and cool, but when we realized that it was really required to make the unit operational this sent some of us into a spin.

    A shrinking in manufacturing process usually means better thermal properties. In CPU terms, better thermal properties usually means running cooler. So when we saw this unit it sent out all the wrong signals. Why does a 0.13micron GPU need so much cooling present? NVIDIA explained that with the thermal gains they obtained from shrinking the die, they were able to clock this chip higher. The cynics amongst you will take your own view, however there is no doubting that a frequency of 500MHz is some way higher than ATI had managed with their R300 and R350 cores. So lets take a closer look at this monster cooling.

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    The copper heatpipes stretch for almost half the length of the 5800 Ultra and has a heatsink on the end to dissipate the energy (in the form of heat). The heatsink is then actively cooled by air channelled through the plastic ducting. The heatsink itself is a sheet of copper which has been folded several times to form the heatsink. The fan is in a tilted position in order to suck air into itself. The air is drawn through a separate duct, which certainly will have problems in the long term with dust clogging up the intake, and then accelerated through the YSTech blower.

    Noise has been an issue with this cooling solution from the time it was conceived. Some manufacturers told us they have managed to lower it, however judging from this unit we doubt whether MSI have done anything to reduce it. During normal operation, such as using Windows or desktop applications (Microsoft Word, etc) the 5800 Ultra operates silently - the fan does not run. Running a game or any other taxing application for the graphics card causes it to be easily audible over all other components. In our labs we have several computers in close proximity of each other and when the 5800 Ultra was running our benchmarks, it was the loudest piece of hardware by a country mile. There is no question that few people will find this level of noise acceptable in their home.

    What worried us the most was how hot the card got after 7 hours of benchmarking. It's not very surprising that the heatsink would be hot or the memory modules would be searing after such a long period of intense use, but when removing the card, holding only the edges of the PCB it was almost burning through the skin. You could almost smell the heat off the heatsinks and by putting your hand in close proximity, feel the energy radiating out. According to NVIDIA's thermal gauge the card runs at around 65C during normal operation. After running a few instances of 3DMark 2003, we still found it to hover around 65-68C. NVIDIA set the default threshold for warning to be 140C.
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