The GTX 480 is the new jewel in NVIDIA’s crown, representing the fastest single GPU card ever released by the Santa Clara-based company. As the long-awaited response to ATi’s mighty 5800 series, we can’t remember a more eagerly-awaited video card launch. So after a delay of close to six months, we finally have in our hands the legendary “Fermi”. The question is; was it worth the wait?
Having spent significant amounts of time with the new card we have to conclude that, from a performance perspective at least, yes it was. With an incredible 3 billion transistors, the GF100 chip is easily the most complicated GPU ever made and, unlike the 5870, represents quite a departure from the architecture that made the previous generation of cards tick.
When viewed from a purely architectural standpoint, NVIDA has worked long and hard to make the GF100 much more of a multi-purpose GPU, designed to be capable of tackling far more than just pushing pixels. NVIDIA is clearly gambling on GPGPU applications taking off in a big way, otherwise it would have been far faster and easier to “double” the architecture of the GTX 285 and tack on DirectX 11 features, essentially as ATi has done with the 5870. In our folding @ home benchmarks, Fermi certainly hits the spot, delivering smashing performance almost 4x that of its predecessor on our benchmark work unit.
In its GeForce incarnation it’s the gaming performance that’s really relevant to us today, however. Fortunately the card doesn’t disappoint, delivering performance consistently faster than the Radeon 5870. Those expecting a massive reshuffle of the performance standings will be disappointed: on average the card is 15 percent quicker than ATi’s fastest single GPU solution and the 5970 is still easily the fastest card available overall. Still, the extra 500MB of memory on the GTX 480 certainly helps when resolution and detail settings are at their highest levels and, due to generally higher minimum frame rates, some games feel a little smoother on Fermi than they do on their ATi equivalents.
The strengths of more memory are spectacularly demonstrated in GTA IV, where at maximum detail the GTX 480 is 47 percent faster than ATi’s finest. In other titles the results are far closer, with leads of 16 percent and 5 percent in Dirt 2 and Call of Duty MW2 respectively, and a dead heat in both Crysis Warhead and Stalker: Call of Pripyat. The GTX 480 is therefore fast, but ATi won’t be losing too much sleep: its 5970 is still king of the castle in 95 percent of current titles.
For the gamer happy to compromise everything for performance then, the Fermi is a great card. For the rest of us it comes with some important caveats. Firstly, it is a far hotter card than ATi’s equivalents. 3 billion transistors create a terrifying amount of heat under full load and we were too scared to touch the card whilst running Furmark for fear of burning ourselves. Power consumption numbers are also extremely high: our same test rig equipped with the Radeon 5870 pulled 25W less from the wall whilst idle and a colossal 100W less at full load. Given the fact that many of us leave our systems on all day, this is not a difference to be sniffed at.
All in all we are relieved that Fermi is here and, although it isn’t quite the uber-card some industry spectators were hoping for, it still reclaims the performance crown in the single-GPU marketplace. Let’s just hope for NVIDIA’s sake that ATi doesn’t release a 5800 series speed bump any time soon.
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