After giving up the single-GPU performance crown to the Radeon 5870 six months ago, NVIDIA’s finally back on top in its long-running war with ATI: the GeForce GTX 480 is without a doubt the new 3D performance champ as far as GPUs go.
Sure, the Radeon 5870 did manage to remain ahead of the GeForce GTX 480 in Crysis with very high settings, and the two boards finished in a virtual dead heat under the game’s high graphics settings, but the GTX 480 definitely delivered a better balance of performance across the 10 different games we tested.
As expected, the GTX 480 really shined in DirectX 11 apps. The card ran 16-19% faster than the Radeon 5870 in Metro 2033, and 13% faster in DiRT 2 at 1920x1200. The GTX 480 wasn’t quite as dominating in STALKER: Call of Pripyat, but a 6% win at 1920x1200 is still a victory. One interesting trend we noticed in STALKER, DiRT 2, Crysis with high settings, and many other titles though was that the Radeon 5870 tended to gain on the GTX 480 at 2560x1600. This could be a sign that the GeForce board isn’t as efficient at handling its available memory bandwidth as the Radeon 5870 is.
When compared to its direct predecessor, the GeForce GTX 285 and 280 (look at the GTX 275 scores to see how a 280 would perform, as we’ve found that it essentially delivers 99.9% of the performance of the GTX 280 in games) you can see that the GTX 480 doesn’t always deliver a 2X performance improvement over the prior generation. In fact, with only a handful of exceptions (most notably Far Cry 2, and thanks to DX11 shaders, STALKER) the GTX 275 SLI setup proved to be faster than GTX 480.
This is the same complaint we had with the Radeon 5870 back in September.
However, our biggest complaint with the GeForce GTX 480 isn’t the lack of a 2X performance improvement over the prior generation, instead it’s the enormous amount of heat the board generates. Under load the board gets scorching hot, you definitely wouldn’t want to make the mistake of touching the 480’s exposed heatpipes after an extended gaming session. GPU temps were typically in the 90 degree range – that’s more than 10 degrees higher than where we’d like them to be ideally.
As a result, this ends up creating an enormous hotspot in your chassis that you’re going to have to deal with. You’ll definitely want to pick up a case with a good side vent that can supply fresh, cool air from outside the chassis to the GPU. And although it’s definitely not overwhelming, the GTX 480 runs louder than the Radeon 5870 too. Quiet operation has been a hallmark of NVIDIA’s high-end boards dating all the way back to the GeForce 7900 GTX, so this is definitely a bit of a departure for NVIDIA.
And finally, $499 is a bit of high price to pay considering that the GTX 480 board doesn’t always deliver a significant improvement over the Radeon 5870, particularly at 2560x1600 as we noted earlier.
Still, if you simply must have the fastest GPU on the planet, look no further than the GeForce GTX 480.
Similarly, the GeForce GTX 470 generally outruns its competitor, the Radeon 5850. The showing isn’t quite as dominant as the GTX 480 was over the 5870 though, with the 5850 sweeping all of our performance testing with Crysis, and it also manages to pull ahead of the GTX 470 in games like Bad Company 2, Resident Evil 5, and DiRT 2 at 2560x1600. Again, this could be an indication that the Radeon boards are a little more efficient at handling their memory bandwidth. Technically the 470 has a slight bandwidth advantage over the 5850 (133.9GB/sec vs 128GB/sec).
The GTX 470 really shined against the 5850 in Metro 2033, Far Cry 2, Batman, and Modern Warfare 2 though. It even maintained a double-digit lead over the 5850 in the ATI sponsored DX10.1 game HAWX at 1600x1200 and 1920x1200. In DX11 apps like DiRT 2 the GTX 470’s edge ranged from 7-9% at those same resolutions, and slimmed to 6% in STALKER.
It doesn’t run as loud or as hot as the GeForce GTX 480 either, although we still think the GPU temps are a bit too high. Again, ideally you don’t want to see your GPU temps go above 80 degrees, and some enthusiasts even scoff at that. So NVIDIA’s definitely missed the mark in this regard with both GeForce GTX 400 boards.
One aspect of the GTX 400 boards that’s a little more difficult to cover today is the future. More specifically, how extensively will game developers incorporate DX11 features like tessellation? Clearly with their new PolyMorph Engines, NVIDIA’s betting big that game devs will crank the tessellation up to 11, as seen in something like Unigine’s Heaven benchmark, where the GTX 470 manages to outrun the Radeon 5870 even under the benchmark’s “moderate” tessellation setting. If this is indicative of the direction game developers will take with their upcoming DX11 titles, the future for the GeForce GTX 400 boards looks extremely bright – clearly this is the more future-proof architecture.
The question is, how soon should we expect scenes like Heaven to become the norm in games rather than the exception? It’s certainly challenging for someone like Unigine to put together a fancy benchmark filled with eye candy, but it’s an even greater challenge to deliver that level of visuals and still deliver a game that’s playable. Just ask Crytek.
By the time we do get games that really push the limits of what DX11 can do, the GTX 400 and Radeon 5800 cards may be a distant memory.
If you’re a performance junkie who must have the fastest hardware money can buy, or you need a long term investment that’s going to last you for a few years, and you don’t mind the power and heat concerns, the GeForce GTX 470 and 480 would be the safer bet, provided you can afford to pay the premium NVIDIA’s asking for them. ATI’s once again going for that sweet spot, price/performance gamer that doesn’t necessarily crave the absolute highest frame rates, but instead delivers good performance, good thermals, and more attractive pricing. And of course, for that ultra enthusiast who wants the very best, the Radeon 5970 is still the world’s fastest graphics card (even if they’re nearly impossible to find in stock online).
Going forward, it will be interesting to see which direction NVIDIA goes next. Will they follow ATI’s strategy, and target the $100-$200 segment dominated by the Radeon 5700, or go straight for the OEMs with a Radeon 5400/5500 competitor? Enthusiasts on a budget would love to see a competitor for the recently introduced Radeon 5830.
We’ll also be keeping a close eye on availability. Clearly TSMC still isn’t able to crank out enough 40-nm GPUs to keep up with demand, which has led to higher GPU prices. The GPU price wars from a year ago probably won’t return until this situation is resolved, which is obviously going to disappoint a lot of gamers.
At least the Radeon 5800 series finally has some competition though. Or at least, it will in a few weeks. For the sake of NVIDIA and their board partners, they can’t afford any more delays…