13 Years of Nvidia Graphics Cards

NV30: Nvidia Loses With The FX 5800

In January 2003, Nvidia released the GeForce FX 5800 (NV30). This card was criticized both for its performance, which was unworthy of a high-end card, and its high noise level. Released at around the same time, ATI’s Radeon 9700 Pro was much more efficient and also faster. The NV30 was a commercial failure, even if Nvidia sometimes says that the failure is one of the best things that have happened to the company — since it proved that you can never rest on your laurels.

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Date releasedJanuary 2003
Card interfacePCI/AGP 8x
Fillrate (Mtexels)3200 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)1600 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines4
Texture units8
Vertex Shader units2
Pixel Shader version2.0a
Chip clock frequency400 MHz
Fabrication process0.13 µ
Number of transistors125 million
DirectX version9
Memory TypeDDR2
Memory (generally)128 MB
Memory clock frequency400 MHz (x2)
Memory bus128 bits
Maximum bandwidth12.8 GB/s
Video out2 x VGA
Video playbackMPEG2 hardware

The Ultra version of the card was faster (or shall we say less slow), with a clock speed of 500 MHz for the GPU and memory (DDR2).

NV3x: Nvidia Releases FX (and PCX) Versions

Even after the failure of the NV30, Nvidia kept the architecture, with the GeForce FX 5900 replacing the GeForce FX 5800. With its 256-bit memory bus and improved vertex calculating power, the FX 5900 managed to hold its own against competing cards like the Radeon 9800 Pro. Nvidia also released entry-level and midrange versions of its GeForce FX: the FX5600 (NV31) and FX5700 (NV36) in the midrange, and the entry-level FX5200 (NV34). These cards are noteworthy in that the earlier midrange card (the GeForce 4 Ti 4200) could outperform them.

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Name of the cardNV35 (FX 5900)NV31 (FX 5600)NV36 (FX 5700)NV34 (FX 5200)
Date releasedMay 2003March 2003October 2003March 2003
Card interfacePCI/AGP 8xPCI/AGP 8xPCI/AGP 8xPCI/AGP 8x
Fillrate (Mtexels)3200 Mtexels/s1300 Mtexels/s1700 Mtexels/s1000 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)1600 Mpixels/s1300 Mpixels/s1700 Mpixels/s1000 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines4444
Texture units8444
Vertex Shader units3131
Chip clock frequency400 MHz325 MHz425 MHz250 MHz
Fabrication process0.13 µ0.13 µ0.13 µ0.13 µ
Number of transistors130 million80 million82 million47 million
DirectX version9999
Pixel Shader version2.0a2.0a2.0a2.0a
Memory (generally)256 MB128 MB256 MB128 MB
Memory clock frequency425 MHz (x2)275 MHz (x2)250 MHz (x2)200 MHz (x2)
Memory bus256 bits128 bits128 bits128 bits
Maximum bandwidth27.2 GB/s8.8 GB/s8 GB/s6.4 GB/s
Video out2 x VGA2 x VGA2 x VGA2 x VGA
RAMDAC400 MHz350 MHz350 MHz350 MHz
Video playbackMPEG2 hardwareMPEG2 hardwareMPEG2 hardwareMPEG2 hardware

Nvidia also released PCI Express cards — the GeForce PCX series — but they were essentially AGP cards with an AGP-to-PCI Express bridge. Some FX 5200 cards had a 64-bit bus (instead of 128-bit) and a slower memory clock frequency (166 MHz instead of 200 MHz).

N40/N45: Nvidia Gets Back In The Race With The GeForce 6800 and SLI

After the failure of the NV30, it was imperative of Nvidia to snap back. And they did, with the NV40, also known as the GeForce 6800. This card was extremely efficient and more powerful than the FX 5900, due to its large number of transistors (222 million). The NV45, also called GeForce 6800, was nothing more than an NV40 with an AGP-to-PCI Express bridge, giving the card support for the new standard, and above all, for SLI. The SLI technology couples two PCI Express GeForce 6 cards to increase performance.

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Date releasedApril 2004March 2005
Card interfaceAGP 8xPCI Express 16x
Fillrate (Mtexels)6400 Mtexels/s6400 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)6400 Mpixels/s6400 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines1616
Texture units1616
Vertex Shader units66
Chip clock frequency400 MHz400 MHz
Fabrication process0.13 µ0.13 µ
Number of transistors222 million222 million
DirectX version9c9c
Pixel Shader Version3.03.0
Memory TypeGDDR3GDDR3
Memory (generally)256 MB256 MB
Memory clock frequency550 MHz (x2)550 MHz (x2)
Memory bus256 bits256 bits
Maximum bandwidth35.2 GB/s35.2 GB/s
Video out2 x VGA2 x VGA
RAMDAC400 MHz400 MHz
Video playbackMPEG2 hardwareMPEG2 hardware
Multi-GPU supportN/A2

Cards based on the NV41 and NV42 were also produced. The NV41 is an NV40 with fewer processing units (12 pipelines and 5 vertex units) used in certain GeForce 6800 cards; the NV42 is an NV41 fabricated with a 110 nm process (and thus, less expensive to produce).

GeForce 6 Invades The Planet

After the GeForce 6800, Nvidia needed to introduce cards that were slower and less expensive. The NV40 was powerful, but its 222 million transistors limited fabrication yields and increased the price, so the two cards built from it, the GeForce 6600 and 6200, had only moderate success. The GeForce 6600, fabricated at 110 nm, was based on the NV43 and offered good performance at a decent price. The PCI Express versions of these cards could even operate in SLI mode.

The GeForce 6600 was the first natively PCI Express Nvidia card; AGP versions used a PCI Express-to-AGP bridge. The GeForce 6200 was an entry-level card — not very powerful but not very expensive. PCI Express, AGP, and PCI versions were produced, and there were also versions built into laptops.

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Date releasedAugust 2004August 2004
Card interfacePCI Express 16xPCI Express 16x
Fillrate (Mtexels)4000 Mtexels/s1400 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)2000 Mpixels/s700 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines42
Texture units84
Vertex shader units33
Chip clock frequency500 MHz350 MHz
Fabrication process0.11 µ0.11 µ
Number of transistors143 million77 million
DirectX version9c9c
Pixel Shader version3.03.0
Memory TypeGDDR3GDDR3
Memory (generally)128 MB64 MB
Memory clock frequency450 MHz (x2)350 MHz (x2)
Memory bus128 bits64 bits
Maximum bandwidth14.2 GB/s5.6 GB/s
Video out2 x VGA2 x VGA
RAMDAC400 MHz400 MHz
Video playbackMPEG2 hardwareMPEG2 hardware
Multi-GPU support2N/A

The GeForce 6200 was the first TurboCache card from Nvidia. In addition to the dedicated memory (16 to 512 MB), the card can use system RAM as video memory. Some manufacturers took advantage of this to tout the GeForce 6200 as “256 MB,” when in fact it had only 64 MB of dedicated memory. Note also that a built-in version of the NV44, the GeForce 6100, was included in certain Nvidia chipsets. The chip used a 90 nm process and had a single rendering pipeline and no dedicated memory.

G70 and G71: Nvidia Changes Its Nomenclature

In 2005, Nvidia announced the GeForce 7. The GPUs’ code name, which had traditionally been NVxx, changed to Gxx. The first card was the G70 (GeForce 7800), followed fairly quickly by the G71 (GeForce 7900). More powerful than the 6800 series, the GeForce 7800 was a success for Nvidia. The cards were sold in many different versions, such as the GTX and GS. AGP versions with a PCI Express-to-AGP bridge were also sold.

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Date releasedJune 2005March 2006
Card interfacePCI Express 16xPCI Express 16x
Fillrate (Mtexels)13200 Mtexels/s15600 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)8800 Mpixels/s10400 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines1616
Texture units2424
Vertex units88
Chip clock frequency550 MHz650 MHz
Fabrication process0.11 µ0.09 µ
Number of transistors302 million278 million
DirectX version9c9c
Pixel Shader version3.03.0
Memory TypeGDDR3GDDR3
Memory (generally)512 MB512 MB
Memory clock frequency850 MHz (x2)800 MHz (x2)
Memory bus256 bits256 bits
Maximum bandwidth54.4 GB/s51.2 GB/s
Video out2 x VGA2 x VGA
RAMDAC400 MHz400 MHz
Video playbackMPEG2 hardware, WMV9 semi-hardwareMPEG2 hardware, WMV9 semi-hardware
Multi-GPU support24 (2x2)

With the GeForce 7900 Nvidia also used, for the first time, a technique its competitors had already been using: dual-GPU cards. The 7900GX2 and 7950GX2 had two G71s in parallel. The company was to re-use this technique in 2008 with the GeForce 9800GX2.

G72 and G73: Low-end GeForce 7s

As has become its habit, Nvidia released two other versions of its high-end architecture — one entry-level (G72, GeForce 7300) and one midrange (G73, GeForce 7600). Both chips were fabricated with a 90 nm process and offered adequate performance. As is often the case, the mobile versions used the midrange chips, and the GeForce 7300 Go was very popular.

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Date releasedJanuary 2006March 2006
Card interfacePCI Express 16xPCI Express 16x
Fillrate (Mtexels)2200 Mtexels/s6720 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)1100 Mpixels/s4480 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines28
Texture units412
Vertex Shader units35
Chip clock frequency550 MHz560 MHz
Fabrication process0.09 µ0.09 µ
Number of transistors112 million177 million
DirectX version9c9c
Pixel Shader version3.03.0
Memory TypeGDDRGDDR3
Memory (generally)128 MB256 MB
Memory clock frequency400 MHz (x2)700 MHz (x2)
Memory bus64 bits128 bits
Maximum bandwidth6.4 GB/s22.4 GB/s
Video out2 x VGA2 x VGA + 2 x TDMS
RAMDAC400 MHz400 MHz
Video playbackMPEG2 hardware, WMV9 semi-hardwareMPEG2 hardware, WMV9 semi-hardware
Multi-GPU supportN/A2

Slower (7200 Go) and faster (7400 Go) portable versions were also produced, and an 80 nm version of the G73 was also sold by Nvidia.

Nvidia And The 8800: GeForce 8 Or GeForce 9?

In November 2006, Nvidia announced the G80. This chip and its derivatives were destined to have a long life. In fact, as of 2008, some of the fastest cards available from NVIDIA were still using a chip that’s very close to this G80 (the G92). Nvidia got as much mileage as possible out of the G80 and the move to a 65 nm process with the G92 allowed the company to save money on the cost of the chip. Nvidia varied the number of stream processors, the width of the memory bus, and clock speeds, in order to produce a plethora of GeForce 8800 and 9800 versions. There’s even a version with 2 GPUs: the GeForce 9800GX2.

The GeForce 8800 series cards were all DirectX 10 compatible, and Nvidia scored a great success with this series, pending the arrival of the GeForce GTX.

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Date releasedNovember 2006April 2008
Card interfacePCI Express 16xPCI Express 16x (2.0)
Fillrate (Mtexels)18400 Mtexels/s43875 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)13800 Mpixels/s10800 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines2416
Texture units3264
Stream Processors128128
Chip clock frequency575 MHz675 MHz
Fabrication process0.09 µ0.065 µ
Number of transistors681 million754 million
DirectX version1010
Pixel Shader version4.04.0
Memory TypeGDDR3GDDR3
Memory (generally)768 MB512 MB
Memory clock frequency900 MHz (x2)1100 MHz (x2)
Memory bus384 bits256 bits
Maximum bandwidth86.4 GB/s70.4 GB/s
Video outNVIO2 x TDMS (DualLink), HDCP
RAMDAC400 MHz400 MHz
Video playbackMPEG2 hardware, WMV9 semi-hardwareMPEG2 hardware, H.264 hardware
Multi-GPU support33

Just for a laugh, let’s run through all the GeForce 8800 series cards that have been released: the 8800GS 374, 8800GS 768, 8800GTS 320, 8800GTS 640, 8800GTS 640 v2, 8800GTS 512, 8800GT 256, 8800GT 512, 8800GT 1024, 8800GTX 768 and 8800 Ultra 768. Then there’s the 9600GSO 512, 9600GSO 384 and 9600GSO 768, and the 9800GX2 and 9800GTX — not to mention the future 9800GTS and 9800GT. And that’s not counting the mobile versions!

Entry-Level GeForce 8s

To be able to market economy versions of the card, Nvidia had to severely modify the G80. Given the number of transistors, it was out of the question to use it as-is. So the company offered three chips, more or less: the GeForce 8400 (G86), GeForce 8600 (G84) and GeForce 9600 (G94). Other versions existed (GeForce 8300, 8500, and so on), but those three models are the major ones. The G84 was much used in notebooks, as a high-end card, whereas in desktop PCs it was only a midrange GPU.

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Date releasedApril 2007June 2007February 2008
Card interfacePCI Express 16xPCI Express 16xPCI Express 16x (2.0)
Fillrate (Mtexels)3600 Mtexels/s8640 Mtexels/s20800 Mtexels/s
Fillrate (Mpixels)1800 Mpixels/s4320 Mpixels/s10400 Mpixels/s
Rendering pipelines4816
Texture units81632
Stream Processors163264
Chip clock frequency450 MHz540 MHz650 MHz
Fabrication process0.08 µ0.08 µ0.065 µ
Number of transistors210 million289 million505 million
DirectX version101010
Pixel shader version4.04.04.0
Memory (generally)256 MB256 MB512 MB
Memory clock frequency400 MHz (x2)700 MHz (x2)900 MHz (x2)
Memory bus64 bits128 bits256 bits
Maximum bandwidth6.4 GB/s22.4 GB/s57.6 GB/s
Video out2 x TDMS (DualLink), HDCP2 x TDMS (DualLink), HDCP2 x TDMS (DualLink), HDCP
RAMDAC400 MHz400 MHz400 MHz
Video playbackMPEG2 hardware, H.264 hardwareMPEG2 hardware, H.264 hardwareMPEG2 hardware, H.264 hardware
Multi-GPU supportN/A22

The GeForce 8600 and GeForce 8400 were as mediocre as the G80 and GeForce 8800 were successful. The spread between high-end and midrange cards (before the arrival of the GeForce 9600) is very wide for this generation, which causes problems for gamers.

Nvidia introduced its current GPU in June. It’s based on the G80 and improves on its performance and architecture (512-bit bus, 240 stream processors, etc.) You can read our review of the new top-of-the line GeForce GTX 280 and 260 here.

In conclusion, this article should have shown you that it hasn’t been all successes for Nvidia along the way, and that the company didn’t have an easy time of it in the early days. But it also shows how two companies have managed to do away with most of the competition in the field of graphics cards for gamers. Still, remember that the company that sells the most graphics solutions for PC is neither Nvidia nor AMD/ATI, but Intel.

We intentionally left out the characteristics of professional graphics cards (Quadro) and mobile versions. The former were omitted because the differences have to do mostly with prices and drivers, and the latter because Nvidia’s clock speeds for portable models are only recommendations, which means that there can be huge differences between two cards with the same name.

  • geckoar
    Nice Job with this... Now could we see a look back on ATI and all of their years?
  • No way will nvidia release a 9800GT or 9800GTS as stated in the article, because there is already a 9800GTX, unless nvidia wants to kill themselves.
  • shmuls
    Here's a fun game for all the family: Can you name all the games pictured by their screenshot and year alone? I got 11 out of 19, can anyone name all 19? I'm sure lots of you can name the more recent ones, but how many hardcore gamers out there can get the earlier ones as well?!

    p.s. Great article, now lets see what Nvidia has in store for us in Q3/4!!
  • giovanni86
    Great article. I like how at the end the one selling the most is Intel. Good stuff.
  • radnor
    Not a bad article, but comes with a strange timing behind it. Is Nvidia selling THAT bad ?

    To make this a top of the line article, ya should include the Matrox Cards (Excelent in the early days), 3Dfx cards (V3000 and SLI V2 would still eat TNT2 in Image quality and performance), and last but not least (the sole survivor) ATI cards.

    Now that would be a sight for sore eyes.
  • Malovane
    So is this a history lesson or a eulogy?
  • dieseldre2k
    awesome trip down memory lane. thanks for the article. was wondering if could u make an ATI article also.

    and then maybe an AMD and Intel one too =P
  • JonnyDough
    I would like to see the pictures organized in the order they are here in the slideshow. Also, could you perhaps rename them according to both card AND game so that when I scroll over them I can see what game it is? It would be of interest to me to research and consider purchase or download of an emulator of these old games.

  • hurbt
    My first thought when reading this article was that it's an obituary... lets review the history of Nvidia because ATI is kicking the crap out of them with their 4800 series... I know Nvidia isn't going anywhere, but that was just my first thought...

    I owned a TNT back when I first went to college. Descent 2 was so great on it, as was Total Annihilation. Half-life wasn't half bad on it either. It couldn't hold a candle to a couple Voodoo2's in SLI, though :) Too bad I had to return one of them, b/c I couldn't go without beer money. You gotta have your priorities straight in college, or you will get side-tracked...
  • invlem
    My 3D evolution:

    Hercules 3d Prophet (2mb!!)
    Diamond Voodoo 2 (8mb)
    3DFX Voodoo 3 3000 (16mb)
    ATi 7500 Pro (64mb)
    ATi 9800 Pro (128mb)
    eVGA 8800 GT (640mb)