First Look: Nvidia GeForce GTX 480

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Nate Ralph
PC World
Monday, March 29, 2010; 12:19 AM

Is the GeForce GTX 480 fashionably late, or just plain late? ATI has been tooting the DirectX 11 horn for quite some time now, while their competitors labored on a rebuttal. At long last, Nvidia's first DirectX 11 graphics card is here -- and for better or worse, it's quite a beast.

The card is based on Nvidia's new Fermi architecture. The feature-list is considerable: over 3 billion transistors, double the processing units of its predecessors (though ATI and Nvidia count these differently), and a strong emphasis on geometric realism. Nvidia's Fermi page is chocked full of information and demonstrations, and includes white papers detailing the strides they've made.

Priced at $500, the GeForce GTX 480 is squarely aimed at . . . no competing product. The obvious target would be the reigning graphics card champ, ATI's Radeon HD 5870 -- but that card can generally be found for about $400. The 5870's bigger brother would be the next logical step, but that's a dual-GPU card, and it typically falls into the $700 range.

As the GTX 480 is Nvidia's fastest single-card GPU, we opted to center our first look at the part around ATI's fastest single-card GPU, the Radeon HD 5870. To even the playing field a bit, we also took a look at MSI's R5870 Lightning -- a factory overclocked HD 5870 priced at $500.

High-end components deserve a high-end test bed: Ours is equipped with Intel's Core i7-975 Extreme Edition processor, a DX58SO motherboard, 6 GB of RAM, and a 1300W power supply. All tests were performed at 1920-by-1200 and 2560-by-1600 resolutions on a 30" display, and highest settings (unless otherwise noted).

While generally not indicative of real-world performance, synthetic benchmarks are a generally accepted industry standard, and can help us get an general idea of how these graphics cards will perform in the wild.

We started with a look at graphics tests using Futuremark's 3DMark Vantage. 3DMark offers a pair of DirectX 10-based game demos, which emulate a typical game's strain on a graphics card. One test emulates an indoor action sequence, simulating cloth, light and water reflection, and static object rendering. The second test takes place in outer space, simulating shadow-mapping, and rendering large scenes consisting entirely of moving objects. The scores were close: the GTX 480 saw a neglibeble 0.1% gain over the 5870, while the overclocked R5870 took the lead with a gain of almost 4% over the GTX 480.

For our second synthetic test, we used the latest release of Unigine's Heaven Benchmark. Heaven is a DirectX 11-based game engine, designed to make the most of next-generation technologies. There is no actual game behind the benchmark's fantasy setting, but the benchmark cycles through a few scenes, offering an idea of what navigating the world under a variety of settings could look like, and how strenuously it would tax your system.

Nvidia has been beating the geometric realism drum for some time now, and Heaven's tessellation feature set made for an ideal test scenario. Hardware tessellation consists of breaking down polygons into smaller pieces. This results in an improved level of detail, with visually complex in-game models. While the technology isn't new, it has typically been relegated to 3D models in films -- to date, graphics cards haven't been able to achieve a satisfying level of performance while employing tessellation.

The results of our Heaven benchmark are pretty much in line with that assessment. The GTX 480 leads the pack, particularly once anti-aliasing is turned on. Of note: we performed these tests at Moderate tessellation, which is generally indicative of the level of tessellation we'd see in games today. The Heaven benchmark also offers Normal and Extreme tessellation modes, but both of our 5870s posted exceedingly low frames -- on the order of 1 - 3 frames per second -- when we pushed the benchmark to its upper limits.


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