The overall design philosophy for high-end graphic cards has been undergoing significant changes, and both ATI and NVIDIA have reexamined the need for a single, ultra-powerful GPU. Instead, a one-size-fits-all architecture has emerged, with a single-GPU format being used for the performance market, and then incorporating it into a dual-GPU design for the enthusiast market. ATI performed this trick with the Radeon HD 3870 X2, which is essential dual Radeon HD 3870 GPUs on a single card, and then NVIDIA followed this up with the GeForce 9800 GX2.
The GeForce 9 Series of DirectX 10/SM4.0 cards included the GeForce 9600 GT and GeForce 9800 GTX single-GPU boards, along with the dual-GPU GeForce 9800 GX2. This last model is a dual-GPU design based on a pair of 65nm G92 graphics processors, similar to a cross between dual GeForce 8800 GT and 9800 GTX cards. The physical specifications include 256 Stream processors, 128 texture units and 32 Raster Operator units. But unlike ATI and the Radeon HD 3870 X2, the GeForce 9800 GX2 was clocked lower than the standard 9800 GTX card.
Default clock speeds for the GeForce 9800 GX2 are set at 600 MHz core, 1500 MHz shader, and 2000 MHz memory, which are higher than a GeForce 8800 GT, but slightly lower than the 675/1688/2200 MHz speeds of a standard GeForce 9800 GTX. The dual-GPU design does allow for a very high fillrate of 76,800 MT/second, while the dual 256-bit memory interfaces translate into 128 GB/second of bandwidth. The GeForce 9800 GX2 is a native PCI Express 2.0 card, and features 1GB (2x512MB) of onboard GDDR3 memory.
The PNY version of the GeForce 9800 GX2 is a fairly standard design, and the clock speeds are set at the defaults of 600 MHz core, 1500 MHz shader, and 2000 MHz memory. It is a PCI Express 2.0 card and features a full 1GB of onboard GDDR3 - 512MB for each GPU. Other standard features include DirectX 1.0/SM4.0/OpenGL 2.1 support, Quad SLI, HybridPower Technology, Luminex Engine, NVIDIA PureVideo, and hardware decoding of H.264, VC-1, WMV and MPEG-2 HD and SD movies.
The PNY XLR8 GeForce 9800 GX2 is driven by dual 400 MHz RAMDACs, and the card's backplate features HDCP-capable dual Dual-link DVI and HDMI outputs. There is also an exhaust port that pumps hot air out of the case, but this is supplemented with a side-mounted, case-oriented air exhaust. The top of the card features an audio port (for HDMI output) and 8-pin and 6-pin power connectors, both of which need to be attached for operation. Our Cooler Master 850W power supply (PNY recommends a 580W minimum requirement) has the necessary connections, but if not, then you can use an 8-pin adapter.
The PNY XLR8 GeForce 9800 GX2 1GB is a very large and heavy card, owing to its dual-GPU design. At 1120 grams (1.12 kg), the card compares to other single-GPU models like the GeForce 8800 GTS/GTX/Ultra at 650 grams and the Radeon HD 3870 at 400 grams. It is approximately 10.5 inches, and is again a bit longer than the 9 inches of a standard high-end ATI or NVIDIA card. This large dual-slot format does enhance overall cooling, and the PNY card ran stable the entire time and the ambient noise from its cooling fan was only noticeable during boot up. The card also has limited LED lighting, which is not obtrusive, but also nothing to write home about.
While some card vendors pull out all the stops on the retail bundle, PNY offers only the very basics. Included with the XLR8 GeForce 9800 GX2 card is a hardware manual, a driver/utility CD, two DVI-to-VGA dongles, and an audio pass-through cable. The PNY website makes no mention of the audio cable, and lists a "Y" power adapter, but it was not in this box. The bundled manual was a real surprise, as we opened it hoping for some information on the various connectors, only to find a very generic outline of their GeForce 8 series. There is also no bundled game, and this is another area that PNY could definitely improve on.
As the newer graphics cards offer a unified shader architecture, it's difficult to compare the latest products in terms of "pipelines" and other common terms of the previous GPU generations. Instead, we have assembled a set of specifications and performance metrics that should illustrate exactly where the PNY XLR8 GeForce 9800 GX2 1GB fits in:
Radeon HD 3850
GeForce 9600 GT
GeForce 8800 GT
Radeon HD 3870
Radeon HD 3870
Radeon HD 2900
Radeon HD 3870
Of course, the best performance metric is real-world testing, and to that end, we've assembled a wide range of game benchmarks.