Zotac has become a prominent UK Nvidia partner in recent years thanks to a slew of impressive products and a highly active marketing department. The past six months have been tough, however, as ATi’s 5000 series has unquestionably risen to become the dominant force in PC gaming. This has been exacerbated by the late release of Nvidias own DirectX 11 hardware, codenamed Fermi. Thankfully the wait is now over and we finally have retail silicon to look at in the form of this GeForce GTX 480.
Zotac’s card comes adorned with the firm’s familiar yellow and gold livery but is otherwise a reference clone. The clock speeds are therefore set to 750MHz for the GPU and 3600MHz for the memory, and the card has the same ‘cheese-grater’ exposed heat spreader as Nvidia’s original design.
Feeding the bulky heat sink are four heat pipes, each of which transports heat generated by the GPU into a different layer of the fins. Nvidia has then used a double-height radial fan to blast air through the card and directly out of the case through the vented backing plate. It is clearly an effective cooler, but the amount of energy generated by such a vast slab of silicon means that it has to work hard to keep the card’s temperatures in check.
When idle the card is subdued enough; only a little louder than the ATi competition and its predecessors. When shooting our way through the busiest parts of Crysis Warhead the card becomes far more audible, even topping the noise level generated by ATi’s mammoth dual-GPU 5970. It’s a power hungry brute as well; the card proved to be a step too far for an OCZ 600W PSU we initially had as part of our test rig, requiring an upgrade to a Corsair 750W for full stability.
Zotac’s bundles are usually amongst the most generous available and we have become used to seeing a full game included to show off our new purchase. In this case all we get is a DVD containing various technical demos: more than some other firms provide but still a little disappointing for a card at this price. Fortunately the manufacturer redeems itself with a good accessories package comprising a DVI-VGA adaptor, a Mini-HDMI to full-size HDMI dongle and two power adaptors allowing you to convert four Molex plugs into the required PCI Express connectors.
Regardless of its shortcomings in other areas the Zotac GTX 480 is a fearsomely fast gaming card. Across our test suite of 8 titles the GeForce managed to best Sapphire’s overclocked 2GB “Toxic” edition of the Radeon 5870 in five titles, with the Radeon picking up slender victories in Aliens Vs Predator, Stalker: Call of Pripyat and Crysis Warhead.
In seven cases the respective leads were small enough to go unnoticed in actual gameplay, with the exception being the GeForce card’s victory in GTA IV. Rockstar’s massive sandbox world clearly favours modern Nvidia hardware, with the game feeling silky smooth at maximum detail and 2560 x 1600 on the GTX 480 but a little jerky in places when using the Radeon.
It needs to be noted that Nvidia’s cards also have the advantage of offering PhysX support, though with slow industry take-up this is proving to be less of a draw than it was once seen to be. Direct X 11 technical demos show the GTX 480 to be a tessellation power-house. If game developers start to use these features heavily in future releases, we can expect the performance gap to swell.
Markedly improved performance in just a single game is not enough for us to overlook the Fermi card’s other limitations. You’ll need a top-of-the-range case to keep the GTX 480 cool enough to prevent wind-tunnel like noise levels, as well as a premium PSU to cope with its peak power requirements. The GeForce card also acts like a miniature oven inside your case so you can expect a significant increase in CPU and motherboard temperatures if upgrading from a GTX285 or similar.
Were the GTX 480 the same price as the Radeon 5870 we’d have a real battle on our hands, but the reality of the situation precludes that scenario. ATi’s hardware can be picked up for under £300 now, whereas the cheapest we could find this Zotac for was more than £100 extra. Given the card’s extremely slender lead over the 5870 (around 3 to 8 percent over the spectrum of our tests), we just don’t see a justification for this extra expenditure.
When initial demand dies down and these cards fall in price a little, choosing a high end video card will be tough. Many gamers will be happy to pay a little extra for the GeForce’s higher performance and perceived superior drivers, and the bonus of incredible Cuda compute performance and PhysX is icing on the cake.
As things stand, however, we still currently recommend the Radeon 5870 1GB. It’s much cheaper, quieter, easier to power and gives a similar gaming experience in almost every current PC game. The GeForce GTX 480 is therefore recommended for forward-thinking PC gamers who agree with Nvidia’s prediction that tessellation will prove to be the most significant DirectX 11 feature.