First UK Review It has now been a few days since Nvidia announced its latest range of graphics cards and stocks are already running low at most retailers. In Nvidia's defence, there were cards available to buy from day one, although some online retailers charged a fair amount extra for the cards. The first board to arrive at Reg Hardware's office is MSI's not-so-snazzily named NX7900GT-T2D256E, based on the GeForce 7900 GT GPU...
Let's start by taking a look at what has changed from the 7800 series to the 7900 series. The least noticeable change - but an important improvement nonetheless - is that 7900-class GPUs are manufactured using a 90nm process. This results in cooler-running chips that draw less power, which in turn means that they can be clocked faster. It also means that there's no need for big noisy coolers, as ATI has found out with the X1900 series which can get very noisy.
Amazingly, the transistor count has been lowered as well, from 302m to 278m. That's not what you'd expect - normally the transistor count goes up in a new and faster part. For the 7900 GT, the stock clock speeds have increased quite substantially. The core has been bumped up from 400MHz to 450MHz - the same as most 7800 GTX retail cards. The vertex engine is running even faster: 470MHz, compared to the 7800 GT's 440MHz. Memory speeds have also been increased, from an effective 1GHz to 1.32GHz, which is also a fair speed increase.
The improvements don't stop there. Nvidia has increased the number of pixel shaders from 20 to 24, and the vertex shader count has been increased from seven to eight. This puts the 7900 GT ahead of the 256MB 7800 GTX, something that is likely to upset a lot of 7800 GTX buyers as the 7900 GT is rather cheaper.
The rest of the 7900 GT specs are much the same as those of the 7800 series, and I won't bore you with all the details. However, Nvidia is touting the 7900 series as having been designed for what it calls XHD - Extreme High Definition - gaming. I have to say that I'm not quite following Nvidia's reasoning here. Although the 7900 GT is more than able to run games at high resolutions, most affordable TFT screens - read that as 17 and 19in models - are limited to 1,280 x 1,024 resolution. Sure, you can get high-resolution widescreen displays cheaper than ever, but the quoted price of sub-$400 for a 1,680 x 1,050 display might be true in the US, but you can't find them for that on this side of the pond.
Let's take a closer look at the NX7900GT-T2D256E and what's on offer from MSI. The card itself is 3cm shorter than a 7800 GT board, which is a good thing as it will fit more easily into small cases and small form-factor systems. I'm not at all keen on the new cooler - it looks like something from a previous generation mid-range card - as it has a fairly small fan that produces far too much noise. The memory chips aren't cooled by the heatsink, but this shouldn't be an issue as the GDDR 3 memory modules don't get all that hot even after hours of usage.
It's clear that the NX7900GT-T2D256E is a reference card, so hopefully MSI will change the cooler once it brings out its own design for something a bit quieter. There are two DVI and a TV-out connectors. MSI supplies a dongle that provides composite S-Video and component video out, as well as an S-Video cable. Two DVI to D-sub adaptors are also part of the package as well as a power adaptor if your PSU doesn't feature a six-pin PCI Express graphics card power connector.
MSI hasn't included a whole lot of software - all you get is a copy of GT Legends and CyberLink PowerCinema.
The NX7900GT-T2D256E's core is clocked at 440MHz and its memory at an effective 1.32GHz, so we're talking stock speeds here. Rather than selling an overclocked card MSI supplies its own drivers which feature Dynamic Overclocking Technology (DOT). This allows you to set one of six different levels of automatic overclocking for the card, depending on how high the load is. The top level is ten per cent which might not sound like a lot, but it would result in an extra 44MHz on the core and 132MHz on the memory, which isn't a bad boost.
I tested the NX7900GT-T2D256E on an MSI K8N SLI motherboard with 1GB of Crucial Ballistix DDR400 memory, an AMD Athlon FX-60 CPU and a Western Digital SATA hard drive. The benchmark numbers are quite impressive, but this is not a top-of-the-range card, so there are much faster products available. Still, the 7900 GT isn't a bad performer by any means as long as you pay the manufacturer's retail price or less, rather than the inflated prices that some companies feel it's fit to charge for new graphics cards.
Nvidia cards can't do FSAA and HDR at the same time, hence the lack of FSAA benchmarks in 3DMark 06
F.E.A.R. needs 512MB or graphics memory for FSAA at 2,048 x 1,536 resolution and this is why there are no benchmarks at this resolution with FSAA enabled.
Cost-wise the 7900 GT is amazingly affordable for the second-fastest solution from Nvidia, as you can pick up the NX7900GT-T2D256E for about £237 online, although stock seems to be short at the time of writing. There will be tough competition from ATI, and you could get an X1800 XT for similar money, but this is a much noiser card.
MSI might not be the first company you'll think of if you were to get a new graphics card, but it has been in the graphics card business for quite some time now and has a decent track record. And with top-of-the-range Nvidia cards there's generally little that differs from one to the next, unless you're going for an overclocked card.
The MSI NX7900GT-T2D256E is the first 7900 GT to make in to the Reg Hardware lab and it's an affordable high-end graphics card which won't disappoint. You can get much faster cards, both from Nvidia and ATI, but then you have to add another £100 or so to the price tag.