Monday, 1 October 2007

Exploding Gainward graphics cards

Despite the excellent work by XenSource, here at Flying Frog Consultancy we still perceive virtualization as a technology for girly men. As a consequence, we have two main development machines with identical hardware, one running Linux and the other running Windows XP Pro with a button that switches a monitor between the two. This may seem archaic but it actually turned out to be quite useful when the Gainward 7900GT 512Mb PCI-E graphics card in the Windows machine exploded spectacularly on Saturday. Thankfully the rest of the machine is fine and we were able to test it by swapping the graphics card with one from the sister Linux box. When we bought them, those were cheap 512Mb nVidia cards at £280 from Dabs. We only use nVidia here because of their solid reputation for Linux drivers.

Unfortunately for us, the exploded card is 1 month out of warranty. Looking for a replacement, we were pleased to find a BFG 7900GT 256Mb OC card on the shelf in PC World for only £110. Timing was critical in this case because we just landed a source deal for our .NET FFT code and had to get the latest sources tidied up and off that machine.

We were tempted to opt for an nVidia 8 series card but we're not going to develop any DirectX 10 software this year and the nVidia 9 series are apparently scheduled for this Christmas, which will knock down the price of the 8 series. Next year, we'll be examining several different avenues of research including the use of F# in games programming for the XBox using XNA and, consequently, we may well invest in a top-notch 9 series.

Naturally, it was essential that the new graphics card be tested using tools such as Quake 4. Sure enough, the new BFG card kicks ass with high quality 1900x1200 running at 80fps. On a more serious note, the FSAA capabilities of this card are already enough to provide high-fidelity animations from our Smoke Vector Graphics and F# for Visualization libraries.

Looking at the two cards, the new BFG is clearly better built than the old Gainward. In particular, the cooling system on the gainward was a rather inefficient centripetal fan with a heatsink that only had a copper base. In contrast, the BFG has a slimmer cooling unit with no gaps around the fan and a solid copper heatsink. This is reflected in the GPU temperature readings, which showed the Gainward card equilibrating at 80C and the BFG card settling at under 50C.

I think we'll go straight for the BFG next time...

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