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BFG Asylum FX 5900 Ultra

After 1 year with ATI products, I’ve finally returned to the NVIDIA corner for a review of the BFG Asylum GeForce FX5900 Ultra. This is one cool card that among other things does have 2 LED illuminated fans. The performance isn’t too shabby either.

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Introduction


As many of our readers might know, I’m one of the few on our site who has been using ATI cards for the past year. Because of this, it took a bit longer for me to finally get my hands on an NVIDIA FX 5900 Ultra card, and I’ve been looking forward to it. I looked forward to it not just because I love to play with the new and cool stuff. No, the most important reason is that during the year I’ve been using the ATI cards, NVIDIA somehow has gotten a bad reputation. If you listen to some sites, NVIDIA cards now are slow, have bad Image Quality and quite frankly suck. I really wanted to find out if this was true. Are NVIDIA’s cards no longer worth buying?

BFG was kind enough to supply me one of their top of the line Asylum FX5900 Ultra cards for this review.


About BFG Technologies


When you say BFG to any teenager, most will probably think of the Big F… Gun in Doom/Quake. I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if the guys behind BFG Technologies actually were thinking about that when naming their company. BFG was founded by some ex-Visiontek employees when Visiontek was slowly moving out of the picture and is a company that aims to please the gamers among us. Their philosophy is: “By the Gamer For the Gamer”. Their commitment to gamers is evident by the fact that they themselves host LAN events several times a year.

BFG Tech has so far only released NVIDIA cards, and it is no surprise that they now also have brought out an NV35 based card, the FX 5900 Ultra. Their whole product line goes by the name ‘Asylum,’ and that theme is evident on their site, their box art and their manuals.

The box art is a bit special


Features and Specifications


The FX5900 Ultra is currently the top of the line card from NVIDIA. The specifications and features are:

Specifications

Memory: 256 MB DDR
Core clock: 450 MHz
Memory clock: 850 MHz (effective)
RAMDAC: Dual 400 MHz
Connectors: VGA, DVI, VIVO
Memory bandwidth: 27.2GB/sec

Features

AGP 8X (compatible with 4X and 2X AGP 2.0 compliant slots)
Up to 8 pixels per clock rendering engine
Up to 16 textures per pass
NVIDIA® CineFX™ 2.0 engine
Microsoft® DirectX ® 9.0 with Vertex Shader 2.0
and Pixel Shader 2.0
NVIDIA® UltraShadow™ technology

The bundle is not as impressive. The card comes with VIVO cables, DVI to VGA adapter, drivers, Windowsblinds BFG/Asylum Win XP skin, NVIDIA NVDVD 2.0 and VideoStudio 7 SE DVD.

The bundle

When you buy a card as high priced as the FX 5900 Ultra, you want to make sure the warranty is good. Many companies use a lifetime warranty that only lasts as long as the card is still being made or kept in stock. With the speed that graphics cards are getting outdated these days, it could mean that a lifetime warranty really is just a warranty for 1-2 years. BFG however sees things differently.

BFG Technologies is proud to warrant the original purchaser of the hardware products included in this package (“Products”) that the Products will be free from defects in material or workmanship for the lifetime of the product when given normal wear and proper usage. This warranty is valid if the product(s):

1. Were not damaged while being installed.
2. Were not damaged by software or hardware from a company or individual other than BFG Technologies or by motherboard incompatibility.
3. Were operated in accordance with BFG Technologies specifications, instructions and any technical support directions.
4. Were not damaged by overclocking, tampering, user error, accident, disaster, abuse, misuse, power supply, power application, alteration, repair, modification, a fix or replacement by someone other than BFG Technologies.

BFG Technologies reserves the right to inspect and verify the defectiveness of any product returned. This warranty does not apply to any software component



Installation


Early reviews on other sites have shown a card that follows the reference design from NVIDIA. However – the retail card that I got from BFG shows a card that deviates from the reference design.

The old BFG 5900 Ultra
The new and improved BFG FX 5900 Ultra with 2 blue led fans

Instead of the one fan design of the reference design, BFG has two fans on the front of the card. While it still is a two-PCI solution, the actual cooling system does not really use so much space over the second PCI slot as some other solutions I’ve seen.

For you modders out there with case windows, you will be happy to hear that the fans actually have a blue LED in them to spread a nice blue light inside the case. I tried to take some photos but found it impossible to get any good pics, but you can trust me when I say it looks quite cool.

The backplate of the card. It still takes up 2 PCI slots.

Installing this beast is anything from almost impossible to easy, depending on the motherboard and the case. On my original Chieftec Fulltower case, I had some problems with the drive cage and hard drives. I had to move the hard drive so that no HD was in the path of the card. When I switched to a Thermaltake V2000 case, I had no problems since the drive cage for the hard drives is no longer near the card. Nothing on the motherboard (MSI nForce 2) was in the way for the card.

After installing the card, I expected to have no problems after installing the drivers, and initially that was the case. However – every time I started a game or a benchmark the computer would freeze. To make sure no registry keys or files from the previous ATI card still were present, I did a fresh install of XP and tried again. Same problem. In the end, it turned out to be the BIOS in my MSI K7N2 Delta nForce2 motherboard that needed to be upgraded due to an incompatibility problem with the FX 5900 Ultra. After the update, everything was fine.

The contents of the CD

As I mentioned before, the bundle isn’t exactly exciting. I was especially surprised that it looks like BFG does not supply the coolbits registry entry that allows you to overclock your card. A card aimed for the gamer should never be without means for overclocking.


Benchmarking


The catch-phrase for the BFG FX5900 Ultra is “Turn it all on.” Basically, it means that you never should have to turn Anti-Aliasing and/or Anisotropic Filtering off anymore.

For this review, I used the following setup:

CPU: AMD Athlon XP 2500+
Motherboard: MSI K7N2 Delta
Memory: 1024 MB TwinMos PC3200 DDR (running 333MHz), 2.5CL
OS: WinXP SP1 with all updates installed
Videocard 1: ATI 9800 Pro 256MB with Catalyst 3.6
Videocard 2: BFG 5900 Ultra with Detonator 45.23
Videocard 3: ATI 9700 Pro with Catalyst 3.6
  • 3DMark2001SE – we run both the default benchmark to get a baseline score and at 1600×1200 with 4x AA and 8x AF.
  • Papyrus Nascar Racing Season 2003 Demo (D3D) – Scott recorded a complete race, and we use Fraps to capture the average framerate for the first 4 minutes of the race.
  • IL2-Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles v1.00 (OpenGL) - I use the The Black Death demo and record the average framerate of the first 2.10 minutes with Fraps.
  • Gun Metal benchmark (D3D,DX9) – Right now this is our current DX9 benchmark. We run Benchmark 1 with 4x AA (anti-aliasing) and Application AF (anisotropic filtering).
  • UT2k3 (D3D) – Regardless of all controversy we choose to keep this benchmark. Since we run all cards with the AF set in the control panel, both the ATI and NVIDIA cards will use a mix of trilinear and bilinear filtering, and the scores thus will be comparable.
  • X2 – Threat rolling demo (D3D, DX9) – Just as the original X- Rolling demo was an interesting benchmark for DX7, this sequel looks like an interesting benchmark for DX9.
  • Tron 2 single/multiplayer demo (D3D, DX9) – Another DX9 benchmark. We played both the FPS section of the game as well as a light cycle race. The FPS was measured with Fraps.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean (D3D) – This is a game with stunning graphics. We measured the FPS during the game with Fraps.

3DMark 2001 SE

1024×768 (noAA/Application AF) – Default
GPU
3DMark
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 14946
BFG FX5900 Ultra 13234
ATI 9700 Pro 14534
1600×1200 4xAA/8xAF
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 7692
BFG FX5900 Ultra 7154
ATI 9700 Pro 6055

The default benchmark in 3DMark20001SE no longer puts any real strain on today’s cards. It is still interesting to see that the 9700 Pro beats the FX 5900 Ultra.

At 1600×1200 with 4xAA and 8xAF, the results are more as expected. The Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB leads, with the FX 5900 Ultra trailing just behind, and the Radeon 9700 Pro being left in the dust.


UT2k3 Asbestos (Full game, maxdetail)

1280×960 – 4xAA 8xAF
GPU
FPS
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 70
BFG FX5900 Ultra 67,4
ATI 9700 Pro 53,8
1600×1200 – 4xAA 8xAF
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 47,7
BFG FX5900 Ultra 48,5
ATI 9700 Pro 35,7

The Asbestos botmatch shows a similar picture, although the FX 5900 Ultra manages to nudge ahead at 1600×1200.



UT2k3 Antalus (Full game, maxdetail)

1280×960 – 4xAA 8xAF
GPU
FPS
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 41,8
BFG FX5900 Ultra 38,0
ATI 9700 Pro 36,3
160×1200 – 4xAA 8xAF
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 30,3
BFG FX5900 Ultra 26,3
ATI 9700 Pro 25,2

The 9800 Pro 256MB manages to keep its main rival, the 256MB BFG FX 5900 Ultra, behind. Note that the 9700 Pro isn’t far behind.


Gun Metal Benchmark 1

1024×768 – 4xAA Application AF
GPU
Average FPS
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 25,9
BFG FX5900 Ultra 30,6
ATI 9700 Pro 22,2

Note: Since setting AF in the control panel creates strange shadow artifacts on the ATI cards, I chose to run with AF set at application.

Gun Metal is a very demanding DX9 benchmark. The FX 5900 Ultra manages to leave the 9800 behind. The game was first released on the Xbox a year ago, and it is possible that this is why it runs better on an NVIDIA card. The actual benchmark is a visibly smoother on the FX than on the 9800 Pro.


IL-2 Forgotten Battles

1280×960 – 4xAA 8xAF
GPU
Average FPS
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 26
BFG FX5900 Ultra 31,5
ATI 9700 Pro 24,1
1600×1200 – 4xAA 8xAF
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 18,9
BFG FX5900 Ultra 23,4
ATI 9700 Pro 15,8

In this benchmark, we see the FX 5900 Ultra beat the 9800 Pro 256MB. Both cards once again manage to produce excellent image quality even at lower resolutions than those shown here.


Nascar Racing Season 2003 Demo

1280×960 – 4xAA 8xAF
GPU
Average FPS
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 32
BFG FX5900 Ultra 28,1
ATI 9700 Pro 24,1
1600×1200 – 4xAA 8xAF
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB 24,5
BFG FX5900 Ultra 19,0
ATI 9700 Pro 21,9

The four minute demo we use to bench runs well on all cards even though the final score does indicate that you would like to run it at a lower resolution for better FPS. I’m a bit surprised that the 9700 Pro beats the FX 5900 Ultra at 1600×1200.

Tron
Since the demo doesn’t have any benchmark feature (as far as I know), I chose to simply play the single player level as well as one light cycle race while monitoring the framerate with Fraps. The game was played at 1600×1200 with everything set to max in the game.

Setting Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB BFG FX5900 Ultra
Single Player Level:
no AA/Application AF 65-85 fps 50-75 fps
4xAA/8xAF 50-75 fps 45-60 fps
Cycle Race:
noAA/Application AF 30-40 fps 25-35 fps
4xAA/8xAF 25-30 fps 15-20 fps

The light cycle section of the game is a lot more demanding than the single player section.

Pirates of the Caribbean
As you will see in the IQ / screenshot section later in this review, this is one gorgeous game. Once again, I chose to measure the FPS with Fraps while playing.

Setting Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB BFG FX5900 Ultra
1152×864 4xAA/8xAF 30-75 fps 25-50 fps

The game plays great on both cards. This is the type of game that doesn’t need insane framerates to be enjoyable.

X2 – The Threat rolling demo
Several years ago, Egosoft released a rolling demo for X. The game was actually pretty good, but the demo got more widespread as a good benchmarking tool. Now Egosoft has done the same again with the sequel, X2 – The Threat. I decided to take it for a spin with both cards. Shadows were turned off as was Automatic Quality.

Overall the demo performs better on the ATI 9800 Pro.


Gameplay tests and screenshots


While benchmarking of course does tell you one side of the gameplay story, playing the games extensively tells you more. I decided to simply play through several of the newest games/demos with this card to get a ‘feel’ of the card.

Pirates of the Caribbean
This game isn’t fast-paced and thus does not need an insane framerate. The game was perfectly playable at 1280×1024 with 4x AA and 8x AF and looks stunning. Just check out these screenshots.

Tron 2.0
After using the demo for benchmarking, I did run out and buy myself the full game. I recommend the game to any FPS lover because I think it is different enough to break the mold. Don’t let the demo fool you – the game is much more fun in my humble opinion. We old guys who actually remember the old Tron movie are in for a real treat.

While I could play the game at 1280×1024/4xAA/8xAF with the 9800 Pro 256 MB, I had to drop down a notch to 1152×868 to get the same feel of fluid gameplay on my 5900 Ultra. It does look great though.

Call of Duty demo
I’m not sure what I think about this demo. It does have a lot of atmosphere, but on the other hand, it does feel a bit like Medal of Honor all over again. Regardless – the game runs perfectly on the 5900 Ultra, and I had no problems running the game fluid with everything set at max at the resolution of 1280×1024/4xAA/8xAF.

BF1942: Secret Weapons of WW2
This is an expansion pack for BF1942, and thus, the graphics are not really improved much. The game still looks great and runs fine at 1152×868.

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Overclocking


NVIDIA cards have always been good overclockers, and BFG’s FX 5900 Ultra does not disappoint. With the coolbits installed, I could crank the card up to 490/950 MHz without any problems. As the benchmarks below show, we saw up to 10% increase in performance just as expected .

3DMark 2001 SE

1024×768 (noAA/Application AF) – Default / 4xAA/8xAF
 GPU
 3DMark
 
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 490 950 13949
BFG FX5900 Ultra 450 850 13234
1600×1200 4xAA/8xAF – Default / 4xAA/8xAF
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 490 950 7810
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 450 850 7154

We see almost a 10% increase in performance.

UT2k3 Antalus (Full game, maxdetail)

1280×960 – 4xAA 8xAF
 GPU
 FPS
 
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 490 950 41,2
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 450 850 38
1600×1200 – 4xAA 8xAF
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 490 950 29,1
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 450 850 26,3

8-10% increase in framerate.

UT2k3 Asbestos (Full game, maxdetail)

1280×960 – 4xAA 8xAF
 GPU
 FPS
 
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 490 950 68
BFG FX5900 Ultra 450 850 67,4
1600×1200 – 4xAA 8xAF
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 490 950 53,5
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 450 850 48,5

10% increase in performance at 1600×1200.


Gunmetal Benchmark 1

1024×768 – 4xAA Application AF
 GPU
 Average FPS
 
BFG FX 5900 Ultra 490 950 32,6
BFG FX5900 Ultra 450 850 30,6

Here we see a 6.5% increse in performance.


Image Quality


This section actually will be similar to the one I made for my Radeon 9800 Pro 256 MB review (link). I can just say the same thing I said in that review: both cards have excellent image quality, and switching back and forth, I cannot really crown a winner. The FX 5900 Ultra has a slightly ‘softer’ image than the Radeon.

UT2k3
I chose to take screenshots from the Curse map. To see the mipmaps, I used the command “firstcoloredmip 1.”

Anisotropic Filtering set to 8 in the control panel

Radeon 9800 Pro FX 5900 Ultra
Radeon 9800 Pro FX 5900 Ultra

Looking closely, you see that the 9800 definitely has the upper hand here even with the mix of bilinear/trilinear filtering that both use.

Both the 9800 and the 5900 use a mix of trilinear and bilinear filtering, which is clearly visible when colouring the mipmaps.

Radeon 9800 Pro Application AF FX 5900 Ultra Application AF
Radeon 9800 Pro Application AF FX 5900 Ultra Application AF

When we set the control panel to Application AF and then set 8x AF and trilinear filtering in the ut2k3.ini, things change. While the FX 5900 Ultra still uses a mix of bilinear and trilinear filtering, the 9800 Pro switches to use trilinear filtering. This is the core of the complaints regarding NVIDIA’s latest drivers. When a user chooses application AF, the drivers should ‘listen’ to the application, in this case UT2k3, and use the correct filtering. NVIDIA has promised to fix this in their next drivers, so hopefully this will be a moot point soon.

Nascar Racing Season 2003 Demo
I choose to take a screenshot at two points in the saved replay from Scott.

Radeon 9800 Pro, no AA no AF FX 5900 Ultra no AA no AF
Radeon 9800 Pro no AA no AF FX 5900 Ultra no AA no AF

These images are quite interesting. First of all, the 9800 Pro produces a blurry car front on one of the images. The backdrop also is very blurred, and while you can see the mountains on the FX 5900 Ultra, you cannot see them on the 9800. If you look at the grass, you’ll notice that the 9800 produces sharper green / light green stripes than the FX 5900 Ultra.

Radeon 9800 Pro, 4xAA/8xAF FX 5900 Ultra, 4xAA/8xAF
Radeon 9800 Pro, 4xAA/8xAF FX 5900 Ultra, 4xAA/8xAF

When we turn on both 4x AA and 8x AF the images produced are very similar. I’m sure we can find small differences if we dig in extremely close, but I cannot really see anything with the naked eye.


TV In / Out


I’ll admit it. I’m a convert. I’ve never really understood the reason for taking out a signal on the TV and using it for games, videos etc. However – as I said I’m a convert. With the included cable, I connected the TV to the computer and then rebooted the computer. Immediately I was asked to set up the nView applications and afterwards everything was set up to clone or span the desktop to the TV. While reading text is too hard at 1024×768 on a TV, watching a DVD or even playing games works great.

To test the TV-Out, I first chose to watch the Futurama Season 3 DVD with WinDVD4. The image quality on the TV was great. Next, I started up BF1942: Secret Weapons of WW2. The intro movie looked stunning on the TV, much better actually than on the monitor. Playing the game at 1024×768 was quite jaggy and fuzzy on the monitor but looked really good on the TV. I definitely can see myself playing games using the TV if I only had a larger TV than my small 21”.

TV In also is good. I used it with my mother’s old Sony Video 8 camcorder and used the included Ulead VideoStudio 7 SE DVD, and the quality was as expected from an old Hi8 camcorder.



Conclusion


So. is the FX 5900 Ultra a bad card? Is NVIDIA slipping? Nah, I don’t think so. Ok, let’s face the truth. ATI has managed to pass NVIDIA. The Radeon 9800 Pro is a faster card. However – the FX 5900 Ultra is still an excellent card and depending on the bundle and the features (VIVO), it still might be just as good of a choice as an ATI card. BFG’s offering is not bad. The bundle is a bit weak, but on the other hand, you get VIVO functionality and a good overclockable card with a cool (duh) cooling system and an excellent warranty.

If there are some negative points that would make me hesitant, it is the price. The cheapest price I could find for this card was $499.99 at Best Buy or CompUSA. At the same time, you can get an eVGA 5900 Ultra for $400 or even a BFG 5900 for $299.99.

Update 11 September 2003 - After this reviews was released Half Life 2 benchmarks have been released on several sites from Valve. they show the FX5900 Ultra having big problems keeping up with the ATI cards even when using a NV-specific codepath. While I think that Valve and NVIDIA might work together and make sure HL2 runs acceptable/good on the FX5900 Ultra this does raise questions about future DX9 games. I still keep my scores because the card as it is today runs games well. However – we will revisit this in the near future when more DX9 games come out to see how the FX5900 Ultra does fare, especially when the new Det 50′s are out.

Final Score


Performance
8.5
The FX 5900 Ultra is NVIDIA’s fastest card, but it doesn’t manage to catch the Radeon 9800.
Features
9
Good VIVO capabilities, nice cooling system, good overclockability
Bundle
6
NVDVD and VideoStudio 7 SE – not the strongest bundle.
Price
6
It just is too expensive compared to both similar cards, and it’s own little brother, the BFG 5900
Final Score: 7.5 This is a great card that is dragged down by a too high price. The excellent warranty does nudge the score up a few tenths though.

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