The GPU Flashback Archive: Nvidia RIVA Series and the Riva TNT2 M64 AGP Card

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The GPU Flashback Archive: Nvidia RIVA Series and the Riva TNT2 M64 AGP Card

Having exhausted most of history’s CPU platforms and motherboards, this week we are launching a new series of historical articles that focus on Graphics Cards, GPUs and 3D benching. The series kicks off with arguably the first successful, commercial GPUs from industry leader Nvidia, the Nvidia RIVA series. Join us as we take a look at the technologies that arrived with the RIVA series of graphics cards, the most popular cards that have been used by overclockers on HWBOT and also a few of the more notable score submissions that have been made using Nvidia RIVA cards.

Nvidia RIVA: Overview

The Nvidia RIVA 128 graphics chip (codenamed the NV3) was the first version of the RIVA GPU series. It arrived on the scene in April of 1997 and was arguably the company’s first ever commercially successful graphics processing unit. The RIVA 128 was actually a departure from the very first Nvidia GPU series, the ST-G-2000 (NV1) being the first GPU on the market from Nvidia that could manage both 2D and 3D video acceleration. Unlike its predecessor the Nvidia RIVA was designed specifically to accelerate rendering of Direct3D 5.0 and OpenGL 1.0 API workloads.

The RIVA 128 was fabricated on the 350nm manufacturing process, supported both PCI and AGP 2x interfaces and arrived with the GPU clocked at 100MHz with 4MB of SGRAM (Synchronous graphics RAM) also clocked at 100MHz with a memory bus width of 128-bits. Cards based on the RIVA 128 GPU were able to rival equivalent offerings from industry leader Voodoo.

In March 1998 the RIVA 128 was replaced by the RIVA TNT GPU (codenamed NV4). It supported Direct3D 6.0 and OpenGL 1.2 and was pitted at the time against the Voodoo 2.0 and Matrox G200 GPUs. Its key feature was a second pixel pipeline which effectively allowed for rendering speeds double that of the RIVA 128. It arrived with 8MB of SDRAM with support for up to 16MB. The card arrived later than expected due to overheating issues and as a result was clocked a little lower at 90MHz, a fact that meant it performed somewhat less well than expected.

In March 1999 Nvidia launched two new cards series. In doing so the company essentially created a product lineup that spanned low-end to high-end price segments. The more affordable low-end VANTA series served price sensitive segments while its new flagship, the RIVA TNT2 included Ultra and Pro variants to occupy the upper echelons of the product stack. The TNT2 Ultra arrived with a NV5 GPU and a considerably boosted clock frequency of 150MHz with memory clocks also boosted to 183MHz. Memory capacity options were upped to 32MB also. The RIVA TNT Pro used slightly more modest configurations with a GPU clocked at 143MHz and memory at 166MHz. These GPUs were manufactured on a more efficient 250nm process and supported the faster AGP 4.0 standard.

Moving on to October 1999 we find Nvidia again creating a new sub category with the launch of the popular RIVA TNT2 M64 series. The TNT M64 was in most respects similar to the TNT2 card with an NV5 B6 GPU and clocks of 125MHz and 150MHz. The key differentiator being the less attractive 64-bit memory bus from which it took its name.

In terms of the RIVA Series as a whole, the TNT2 Ultra stands tall as the flagship graphics card of its day. It arrived in March 1999 with a price tag of $299 USD, a very substantial wedge of cash for a graphics cards in that era. The GPU itself had a die size of 90 mm² and contained 15 Million transistors (for context, compared this with the 12 Billion transistors found on today’s modern Pascal GPUs). In terms of rendering it featured 2 Pixel Shaders, 2 Texture Mapping Units (TMUs), 2 Render Output Units (ROPs) and could manage a pixel rate of 200 MPixels/sec. The board design of most TNT2 Ultra cards included 1x VGA output (plus optional s-video outputs).

A shot of a RIVA TNT Ultra card from ASUS:

Most Popular Nvidia RIVA Series Graphics Card, the Riva TNT2 M64 AGP

With Nvidia at this time doing a good job of serving all price points and segments with a full array of offerings, we find that the most widely used RIVA graphics card on the HWBOT database is in fact not the most expensive model. The Nvidia RIVA TNT M64 tops our table this week with the TNT2 / Pro card coming in second place. Here is the top ten RIVA cards in terms of submissions to HWBOT.

  • -RIVA TNT2 M64 AGP – 31.75%
  • -RIVA TNT2/TNT2 Pro – 24.99%
  • -VANTA PCI – 10.61%
  • -VANTA LT (16MB) – 9.34%
  • -VANTA – 5.50%
  • -RIVA TNT2 Ultra – 4.18%
  • -RIVA TNT2 PCI – 3.90%
  • -RIVA 128/ZX AGP – 3.61%
  • -RIVA TNT2 M64 PCI – 2.64%
  • -RIVA TNT AGP – 2.46%

The RIVA TNT2 M64 AGP was indeed marketed as an affordable alternative to the TNT2 / Pro and Ultra versions of the card, the key difference being the smaller 64-bit memory bus. This would have made the card less capable with higher resolution displays, a fact that may not have been a deal breaker when the vast majority of users were using displays with 1024 x 768 pixels. In terms of value, this is what Mike Andrawes wrote in October 1999 in his review:

“NVIDIA took their TNT architecture and refined it to create the TNT2. Now they’ve taken the TNT2 and cut some corners – implementing a 64-bit memory bus in the case of the M64 – in order to produce a value solution. As such, we have a fully featured chip with solid drivers in the M64 that can only push the industry forward. For around a $100, it’s tough to beat an M64 based card.”

Find the RIVA TNT2 M64 review from Anandtech here.

Here’s photo of a RIVA TNT M64 card in a system:

Nvidia RIVA: Record Scores

We can now take a look at some of the highest scores posted on HWBOT using Nvidia RIVA series cards.


Looking at older generation graphics cards invariably means looking at older benchmark scores too. We start with the classic 3DMark01 benchmark from Futuremark. The highest score submitted to HWBOT using an Nvidia RIVA card was made by Ukrainian overclocker RomanLV. He pushed a RIVA TNT2 Pro card to 205 MHz (+64.00%) on the GPU side with graphics memory at 255 MHz (+70.00%) to make a hardware first place score of 3,316 marks. The rig he used also featured an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 ‘Wolfdale’ processor and dual-channel DDR2 memory clocked at 3,151MHz (CL3-3-3-9-2T).

You can find the submission from RomanLV here on HWBOT:

3DMark 90 MAX

Looking at the even older 3DMark 99 MAX benchmark we find that the fastest score submitted using an Nvidia RIVA card comes from Christian Ney (Switzerland) who managed a score of 14,526 marks using an ASUS Riva TNT2 Pro card with the graphics card pushed to 200MHz (+60%) and graphics memory at 230MHz (+53.33%). Here’s a shot of the rig used which also involves what Christian refers to as Turrican’s clamps and the cooling system of a much newer 8600GT card.

You can find the submission from Christian here on HWBOT:


In the classic Aquamark benchmark we find Christian Ney is also the man to beat. His score of 7,308 marks was made with a Guillemot Nvidia RIVA TNT2 Ultra card with the GPU clocked at 199 MHz (+32.67%) and graphics card memory at 225 MHz (+22.95%). The CPU used was an Intel Yorkfield Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 processor which was mounted on an ASRock PT800 Ultra motherboard.

You can find the submission from Christian here on HWBOT:

Thanks for joining us for our first ever GPU Flashback Archive article. Next week we will return with a look at the Nvidia GeForce1 series of graphics processors and cards.

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