It's going to cost you, but if you demand the ultimate in 3D gaming power, you needn't look further than the XFX GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics card. Powered by Nvidia's high-end GeForce FX 5950 Ultra GPU (graphics processing unit), XFX's card is one of the fastest to pass through CNET Labs. With both the core clock and the 256MB of DDR memory running at 475MHz, the card represents the pinnacle of consumer graphics technology. Of course, at nearly $500, its price is sky-high, too.
More than an exceedingly fast 3D processor, the XFX card has the potential to be a very flexible display-management tool. In addition to dual-monitor support, DVI (digital video interface) and S-Video outputs mean you can connect to a digital LCD or send a signal to a television--a great way to watch DVD movies if you have a DVD-ROM drive but not a standard DVD player. And thanks to an S-Video input via the included Y-adapter, you can also transmit a video feed to your PC from a variety of sources.
Installing the bulky XFX card is a bit more complex than your standard PCI/AGP card upgrade. You will need a potent power supply (think 450 to 500 watts if you have a number of extra components) and a free internal power-supply connector. If your PC doesn't have a free connector and you choose to install the card anyway, a warning message pops up that the card will run at a slower clock speed and may damage your system. Adding a cable-connector splitter to the bundle, as Hercules does, is an easy way to remedy the problem, and by not doing so, XFX misses an opportunity to demonstrate an appropriate level of customer care, given the price of the card. And thanks to Nvidia's power-hungry chipset, the necessary cooling fan and plastic shroud force the XFX card to spill over into the space of the adjacent PCI slot.
Where the XFX card's bundle shines is with the included games. With 4 full games, including Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon and 12 game demos, you will certainly have something to throw at your new card once you get it installed. Demo versions of three video-oriented CyberLink titles are also included: PowerDirector Pro VE for video editing, PowerDVD XP 4.0 Deluxe for DVD viewing, and PowerVCR II for MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 recording. Finally, a CoolBits overclocking utility that appears as a driver tab is available via a registry-key download.
Hard-core gamers looking for the fastest 3D graphics performance available, need look no further than the XFX GeForce FX 5950 Ultra. As the card's name indicates, it is powered by the Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra GPU (graphics processing unit), a speedier version of Nvidia's FX 5900 Ultra with faster memory. The main rivals for this high-end graphics card are those powered by ATI's Radeon 9800 XT GPU, such as the Hercules 3D Prophet 9800 XT. We were disappointed to see that neither the XFX card nor the Hercules card offers significant leaps in performance over their immediate predecessors. This does help us illustrate though, that the price/performance sweet spot for graphics cards is generally found a step or two down from the top of the line, with cards powered by both the 9800 Pro and the 5900 Ultra chips selling for at least $100 less. Also of note is that a new and most likely faster generation of cards is only a few months away.
On our benchmark tests, the FX 5950 and the 9800 XT tied for a dead heat on our Unreal Tournament 2003 and Splinter Cell tests at multiple resolutions and image-quality settings. On our Flight Simulator 2004 test, however, the FX 5950 pulled out ahead of the 9800 XT by a small margin. This difference does not necessarily mean that the FX 5950 is a faster card than the 9800 XT; it's just that the FX 5950 is faster than the 9800 XT on this particular title. It is very likely that there are other popular titles that are better optimized for ATI GPUs and would give the edge back to the 9800 XT.
The version of the drivers being used has a large impact on how well a graphics card performs. The particular drivers with which we tested (the latest publicly available drivers at the time of testing) produced evenly matched performance between the two cards. Updated drivers might skew that balance somewhat. Not every driver is perfect, either: When testing with the ForceWare 53.03 drivers, we discovered that 8X antialiasing would not work at a resolution of 1,280x1,024. An Nvidia representative assured us that this problem would be fixed with a subsequent driver release. Driver differences notwithstanding, the performance of these two cards is close enough to be considered a tie.
| Unreal Tournament 2003 test: Flyby-Antalus (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
| Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell test (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
| Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Performance analysis written by CNET Labs Manager Daniel A. Begun.
Find out more about how we test graphics cards.
Though the English was somewhat imperfectly translated, we found the XFX GeForce FX 5950 Ultra's manual helpful, for both physically installing the card and navigating the driver software. It even described the S-Video port and the cables and offered suggestions for how we might put it to use.
Users seeking technical support are directed to the retailer from which they purchased the card or to the XFX Web site. There you will find only driver downloads in the tech-support section, though a toll-free tech-support phone number is located behind the Contact Us link at the bottom of the page.