The Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX graphics card impresses with its efficient design and big performance, but what's really exciting is the 3D-gaming future the card foretells. Yes, it's faster than its predecessor, the GeForce 6800 Ultra. And yes, it's faster (for the most part) than ATI's performance leader the Radeon X850 XT Platinum Edition. It's more than a mere frame-rate booster, however: the GeForce 7800 GTX showcases new rendering techniques that not only make prettier 3D pictures, but also enhance the gameplay experience as a whole.
At $600, the card sits among the most expensive graphics cards on the market, but the good news is that, as always, the price will drop and the capabilities will eventually wind up on more moderately priced hardware. Some gamers will of course scoop up this card as soon as it hits the shelves, but the rest of us should consider the GeForce 7800 GTX a preview of the exciting new 3D technologies to come.
The Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX takes up a single PCI Express slot, making it a more compact piece of hardware than the dual-slot GeForce 6800 Ultra. It also uses less power. Nvidia recommends a 330-watt power supply (500 watts if you double up to an SLI configuration), a lower requirement than the 6800 Ultra's 350-watt specification.
Because it's more efficient, you can install the GeForce 7800 GTX in a wider variety of systems than its predecessor (small-form-factor PCs, for example), and you won't need to upgrade your power supply to do it. You still need to connect the card directly to your power supply, though, so if you have a number of components already drawing power, you might have to make a sacrifice. ATI has already been doing a great job of keeping its card designs both lean and mean, but we must give Nvidia credit for catching up.
The GeForce 7800 GTX uses 256MB of 600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; we may see a 512MB version eventually, but 256MB is plenty for current texture sizes. The core clock runs at a default 430MHz, and Nvidia also includes the CoolBits overclocking application (which you need to access via a registry tweak), so you also get the ability to eke out a few more frames. As for its default performance, the GeForce 7800 GTX dominates on most tests, but we can't say that it's the fastest card across the board.
On CNET Labs' Half-Life 2 benchmark--a test where ATI's Radeon cards traditionally dominate Nvidia's--the GeForce 7800 GTX posted a score of 81.4 frames per second at the highest resolution (1,600x1,200 pixels), an astonishing 54 percent leap over the ATI Radeon X850 XT Platinum Edition and its 52.8fps. Same goes for Doom 3 at the same resolution: the GeForce 7800 GTX outpaced the ATI card by 43 percent. Far Cry, however, was a different story.
On CNET Labs' Far Cry benchmark at 1,024x768 resolution, the GeForce 7800 GTX achieved a virtual tie with the Radeon X850 XT Platinum Edition, but as the resolution went up, ATI pulled ahead. That the GeForce 7800 GTX threatens the ATI card on the lower resolution test is admirable; the previous-generation GeForce 6800 Ultra consistently lost to ATI on that test. Despite its claims to the contrary, however, Nvidia still fails to dominate on the DirectX 9-based Far Cry, a game which the company uses to showcase its new graphics capabilities. Among other reasons, we suspect that the beta driver software has something to do with the GeForce 7800 GTX's mediocre Far Cry scores, and we look forward to retesting with an updated release.
As we said, though, the Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX is about more than just frame rates. Even with the GeForce 6800 Ultra card, Nvidia highlighted its support for Pixel Shader 3.0 (PS 3.0), a rendering technique that enhances 3D surfaces to accurately reflect light and portray texture. The GeForce 7800 GTX maintains PS 3.0 support and also introduces High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting, a significant advance in graphics rendering. In short, HDR lighting makes white light shine extra white and shadows appear extra dark, without losing the texture detail underneath.
Only three games on the market currently support HDR lighting and PS 3.0: Far Cry; Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory; and the Painkiller expansion, Battle Out of Hell. The effect of HDR lighting in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is especially dramatic, considering that the focus of the gameplay involves moving in and out of shadows. Nvidia has also highlighted demo clips from the Unreal Engine 3 currently in development at Epic Software to showcase the effects of PS 3.0, HDR lighting, and other tricks (14X antialiasing, for example). If those images represent the next generation in 3D graphics, Hollywood is in more trouble than ever in terms of giving consumers the most convincing make-believe.
If you find that a single GeForce 7800 GTX card doesn't give you enough performance, you can always buy two. The standard card comes SLI capable, although the same rules apply: you must connect cards of the identical make and model. The GeForce 7800 GTX is also dual-DVI capable, so you can output to two LCD monitors. The card can also aid in displaying HD video content up to 1080i.