Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra

It's that time again. Launching the first assault in the next generation of 3D graphics cards, Nvidia today announces the GeForce 6800, its newest weapon in the ever-escalating conflict with competitor ATI. The GeForce 6800 won't hit retail until early May, but Nvidia lent us a review sample of the high-end 256MB GeForce 6800 Ultra version, and we were able to conduct some hands-on testing, as well as run preliminary benchmarks using beta drivers. The card's design brings up some serious concerns if you don't have a powerfully equipped desktop, but those with the hardware and the bank account to back up this estimated $500 card will be rewarded with a truly impressive example of graphics hardware.

Nvidia's GeForce FX line was one of the first to require a direct connection to a PC's internal power supply. This is still the case with the 6800 Ultra, only now the card requires two power connections from a dedicated cable. Nvidia recommends that the desktop system in which you install the card have a minimum 480-watt power supply. This shouldn't be a problem if you already own a performance-oriented machine, as many high-end PCs have 500-watt power supplies. Midrange-desktop owners and their lower-wattage power supplies are not out of luck though: the GeForce 6800 (note the missing Ultra) card requires only one direct power-supply connection, and it also takes up the space of a single expansion card, while the 6800 Ultra hogs up two.

As to speed, the GeForce 6800 Ultra runs at a core clock speed of 400MHz and a memory clock speed of 550MHz, compared to the 475MHz core and memory speeds from Nvidia's previous high-end card, the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra. Keep in mind, though, that since the two cards are based on different chip technologies, clock-speed differences are not an apples-to-apples comparison. The 6800 Ultra also has a whopping 16 graphics-rendering pipelines, twice as many as the 5950's 8. While all of those pipes seem like a lot of room to move data, you won't really see the difference until the likes of Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and other games with huge model textures and environments hit shelves. And conveniently, since Nvidia maintains the same product-line unity of past GeForce card series, expect different cards in the 6800 line to use the same core technology but at slower clock speeds, with fewer rendering pipes (the non-Ultra GeForce 6800 has only 12), with only 128MB of memory, and for less money.

The GeForce 6800 line's support for next-generation pixel-shading technology; faster, more-realistic shadow rendering; and other advanced technologies is impressive in the Nvidia-generated tech demos. But it's difficult to say for certain what kind of impact the new graphics technology will have as far as rendering more-immersive environments. No real-world games have been released that are coded with these features, although according to Nvidia, we should see patches soon that enable some advanced graphics features in recently released games such as Far Cry and Painkiller. This is almost always the case with new graphics card releases, and although you can preview some theoretical applications via the downloadable tech demos on Nvidia's Web site, these are really just a preview of the features that game developers will be able to incorporate in a few years. We look forward to the possibility of improved lighting diffusion effects and more realistic hair, but so far, the GeForce 6800 Ultra's best new trick is cranking out high frame rates with image-quality settings set to the max.

A graphics card's benchmark performance is the best indicator of its immediate impact, and the GeForce 6800 Ultra does not disappoint. Using beta drivers, we subjected the card to our 3D benchmarks. The result? The GeForce 6800 Ultra turned in the fastest performance to date. The most telling number is its score of 100 frames per second (fps) on the 1,600x1,200 Unreal Tournament 2003 test. While this isn't the most demanding test available, the roughly 40fps increase over both Nvidia's previous high-end GeForce FX 5950 Ultra and ATI's top-of-the-line Radeon 9800XT cards shows that, especially for those who surround the 6800 Ultra with a fast processor and other performance components, the 6800 will deliver games played at the highest image quality settings with the smoothest frame rates we've seen yet.

As always with graphics cards, this is not the end of the story. If history is any indicator, expect ATI to make its own announcement shortly. Personally, we can't wait because the battle for gamer dollars has never been fiercer. With the previous generation's cards, ATI caught up to (and some might even say surpassed) Nvidia, giving the 3D graphics card market its first real competition in years. We're extremely anxious to find out who will emerge victorious in the upcoming round.

Unreal Tournament 2003 test: Flyby-Antalus (in fps)  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,024x768 with 4X antialiasing and 8X anisotropic filtering  
1,600x1,200 with 4X antialiasing and 8X anisotropic filtering  

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell test (in fps)  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600x1,200 with high-quality settings  
1,600x1,200 with medium-quality settings  
1,024x768 with high-quality settings  
1,024x768 with medium-quality settings  

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 (in fps)  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600x1,200 with 4X antialiasing and 8X anisotropic filtering  
1,024x768 with 4X antialiasing and 8X anisotropic filtering  

Find out more about how we test graphics cards.

Editors' note: We normally test graphics cards at the highest-available quality settings within the cards' drivers. With the 6800 Ultra's beta drivers, Nvidia recommended that we benchmark using the second-highest driver setting, Quality, rather than the Highest Quality setting, claiming that the difference in image quality between the two is imperceptible to all but a handful of image-quality fanatics but with a noticeable-enough performance loss at the higher setting that most gamers wouldn't use it. Our anecdotal testing of the two quality levels bore this out, so we obliged, and we conducted our testing at the Quality driver setting. (4/16/04)

Rich Brown, an associate editor for CNET.com, covers desktop computers, graphics cards, and PC audio-related products. He is based in CNET's New York City office and is a proud resident of Brooklyn, New York.