Summary: Today ATI and NVIDIA are introducing new sub-$250 cards vying for your attention. In one corner lies ATI's Radeon 4890. Sporting a new RV790 GPU, the card has been enhanced to run at higher clocks and lower temps. In other other corner is NVIDIA's GTX 275. Thanks to blazing clocks, it performs similarly to NVIDIA's GTX 280. Which card comes out on top in the end? Find out inside!
Despite a drop in consumer demand and declining revenues, both companies appear to be willing to sacrifice their margins in order to keep in step with each other.
This tit-for-tat battle that started with last year’s arrival of the Radeon 4800 series appeared to be thawing when ATI decided not to respond to the arrival of the GeForce GTX 285 and GTX 295 earlier this year, but in the last 30 days we’ve seen a flurry of activity.
NVIDIA kicked things off with the launch of the GeForce GTS 250. Essentially a rebadged GeForce 9800 GTX+, the GTS 250 incorporated a number of tweaks that were designed to make the board more affordable for NVIDIA and their partners to produce. Consumers benefited from the reduced power consumption, smaller board design, and most importantly, the 1GB frame buffer and reduced price points, with cards ranging from about $130-$170 at launch.
ATI responded to the arrival of the GeForce GTS 250 with aggressive price cuts. The Radeon 4870 512MB’s price was slashed from around $200 to just $150, while the 1GB Radeon 4870 SKU took over the $200 price point. ATI’s Radeon 4850 went from $150 to about $125 as a result of the cuts.
NVIDIA’s board partners were then forced to respond with cuts of their own to the GeForce GTX 260. You can now find these cards online for prices starting right around $160 after rebate on etail sites like Newegg.
While all this was going on however, ATI was working behind the scenes to bring up the launch of their highly anticipated Radeon 4870 successor, the Radeon 4890. Rumors have been swirling for months in the hopes that we’d see an enhanced architecture with more shading units and higher clocks based around TSMC’s smaller 40-nm manufacturing process, but that’s not what we’re getting today. Instead ATI’s latest graphics offering is based on their original RV770 GPU, only they’ve made tweaks to the architecture to enable higher clock speeds.
Not wanting to be outdone by ATI, NVIDIA has rushed a new card of their own into service based on their brand new GT200b GPU launched in January with the GeForce GTX 285 and GTX 295. This new GPU has been designated as the GeForce GTX 275.
As its name indicates, NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 275 slots right in between the GeForce GTX 260 and GTX 285 in performance.
Together, these two new GPUs encompass the last hurrah for the DirectX 10 era of gaming. Later this year we’ll see the debut of the first DirectX 11 cards from ATI and NVIDIA. Presumably these next-generation cards will deliver higher performance, but they probably won’t be cheap either. With today’s GeForce GTX 275 and Radeon 4890 launch, ATI and NVIDIA are aiming for the price/performance sweet spot of the market. Both GPUs are being offered at or below $250. Let’s see how they compare to one another…
Based on ATI’s RV790XT GPU, the Radeon 4890 is fundamentally very similar to the RV770 architecture launched last year with the Radeon 4850/4870. The chip boasts the same 800-shader architecture as RV770, with the same basic configuration as ATI’s previous offering: you’ll see that all the fundamental pieces of the chip (number of texture units, ROPs, memory interface, etc) carry over unchanged. The biggest difference between RV770 and RV790 lies in clock speeds: the Radeon 4890 is clocked 100MHz higher on the GPU than the 4870. Because they’re so similar, the Radeon 4870 and 4890 can be combined together for mix-and-match CrossFire, just like the 4850 and 4870.
ATI says they’ve completely reworked the ASIC to enable higher frequencies; some 3 million transistors have been added to RV790, and the chip boasts a slightly larger die than its predecessor. So where did the new transistors go? With RV790, ATI has added decoupling capacitors in order to reduce the signal noise you’ll inevitably encounter as you begin to crank up the clock speeds. A decap ring completely encircles the ASIC. ATI also says they’ve retimed the entire chip to run at the higher frequencies. Power delivery has also been tweaked to the point where RV790 actually consumes slightly less power than RV770 at idle.
Looking at the design of the RV790 reference board itself, we can see that ATI has made a few tweaks to enable higher clocks. With the board’s higher clock speeds comes higher power draw at load, in order to address this ATI adds more powerful capacitors to RV790. It also looks like additional power phases have been added to enhance power delivery.
On the cooling front, at first glance it looks like ATI has adopted the same cooler first introduced on the Radeon 4870. Considering how hot the Radeon 4870’s stock cooler is known for running, in addition to the higher temps that are inevitable as you crank up the clock speeds, sounds like a recipe for disaster doesn’t it?
Fortunately this isn’t the case, if you look a little closer you’ll actually see that while the same all-copper heatsink/fan unit is carried over from the Radeon 4870, a third copper heatpipe has been added to the mix for the 4890; previously the Radeon 4870 relied on just two heatpipes to draw heat off the GPU. With the addition of a third heatpipe, the Radeon 4890 actually runs cooler than the 4870, despite its higher clock speeds.
Finally, ATI outfits the Radeon 4890 reference board with 4.0Gbps GDDR5 memory modules from Qimonda.
Retail Radeon 4890 cards
In addition to the ATI reference board, so far we’ve managed to get our hands on cards from Sapphire and ASUS. Both of these cards are identical to the ATI reference design from a hardware perspective, with both companies electing to use the reference board design and clock speeds, although we’ve been told that both companies plan on offering more exotic Radeon 4890 cards with higher clocks in the near future.
Meanwhile, ASUS plans to differentiate themselves from other ATI board partners with their software. ASUS ships their Radeon 4890 boards with their Smart Doctor utility.
What’s special about Smart Doctor is that it provides the ability to not only OC the graphics core and memory, but you can also adjust these parameters based on usage. Three modes are provided: 3D (Smart Doctor automatically OC’s the card to the highest clocks when you boot up a 3D app), CPU (Smart Doctor will dynamically adjust clocks based on CPU usage), and by temperature (much like Overdrive used to do, Smart Doctor adjusts clocks based on the GPU’s current temp with four levels of OC’ing provided based on how cool the GPU runs).
Another neat feature that Smart Doctor provides is fan control. Like ATI’s Overdrive utility, you can manually adjust the fan’s RPMs with a simple slider, or you can go much further than that, with Smart Doctor’s Smart Cooling feature, you can define how fast the fan will spin at four different temperature boundaries. The temp boundaries can be as high or low as you’d like, with five different predefined fan speed settings to choose from: slow, medium, fast, and fastest, with fastest being 100% RPMs.
The ASUS box even mentions the ability to adjust GPU and memory voltages, although this feature unfortunately wasn’t working yet in our build of Smart Doctor, so we didn’t get a chance to test it. As anyone who has OC’ed a CPU can tell you, the ability to adjust voltage is crucial to getting the max OC out of your processor when overclocking. Once ASUS provides this functionality into Smart Doctor, you should theoretically be able to hit even higher clock speeds when OC’ing than you’d be able to reach with the standard GPU and memory voltage.
Smart Doctor also provides full hardware monitoring functionality, with the ability to set alarms if certain thresholds are hit.
In terms of price and availability, ATI has told us that Radeon 4890 cards will sell for as low as $229 after mail-in rebate. Cards will be made available starting today from ATI’s board partners, with two SKUs generally offered at launch: the stock offering with an 850MHz clock speed, and an OC SKU with clock speeds starting at 900MHz core and going up from there.
ATI says they’re binning RV790 GPUs, with the best chips going into the OC SKUs. Besides the 900MHz baseline, ATI hasn’t set any hard guidelines for their board partners when it comes to the OC SKU, so conceivably you could see some board partners go to 950MHz or even 1.0GHz if they’d like. It’s all up to them.
When it comes to OC’ing, thanks to the improvements ATI has incorporated into RV790, hitting 1.0GHz isn’t a pipe dream either. It’s a very real possibility with some chips. We’ve tested five different Radeon 4890’s so far, and managed to get one of them up to the 1.0GHz ceiling currently imposed by Overdrive. Two others hit speeds of 975MHz and 980MHz. Boards four and five hit GPU speeds of 940 and 960MHz. (All of them managed to hit memory speeds of 1.1GHz or more.)
These are much better OC’ing results than the 4870 could ever achieve.
As far as ATI is concerned, a Radeon 4890 X2 could be produced at some point if the demand is there. Right now they’re unsure if system vendors would be willing to put up with a card that draws up to 300W of juice; they’re polling them now to see where the interest level is. Obviously if the system builders won’t get onboard, the chances of a Radeon 4890 X2 ever seeing the light of day dwindle significantly, as it doesn’t appear ATI would do this without them considering where the economy is right now.
Based on the exact same GT200b GPU used in the GTX 285 and 55-nm GTX 260 launched earlier this year, the GeForce GTX 275 is a bit of a hybrid of sorts in the sense that it features the full 240-shader architecture found in the GTX 280 and GTX 285, yet it retains the 448-bit memory interface used on the GTX 260, with 896MB of memory onboard.
To further separate the GeForce GTX 275 from the GTX 260, NVIDIA also cranks up the clocks rather significantly, as the GTX 275 runs at 633MHz – just 15MHz shy of the flagship GTX 285 – while the stream processors are clocked at 1,404MHz. These speeds are significantly higher than the GTX 260, and even the GTX 280, which was once NVIDIA’s most powerful GPU.
The GeForce GTX 280 eclipses the GTX 275 in only one category: its memory subsystem. While it runs at slower clocks, thanks to one additional 64-bit memory controller, the GTX 280 boasts a 512-bit memory interface with 1GB of memory. This gives the GTX 280 a slightly larger frame buffer and memory bandwidth advantage, but the GTX 275’s texture filtering advantage gives it the edge in cases where the memory subsystem doesn’t come into play.
As you’ll see in our benchmarks, the GTX 275 and GTX 280 run neck-and-neck with each other for the most part, so essentially with the GeForce GTX 275 NVIDIA’s giving you GTX 280 performance at a new lower price point of $249 before rebates.
The GTX 275 board itself is based on the same design and cooling used for other GT200b GPUs. We’ve found that while it gets the job done adequately enough, due to compromises that have been made in the cooling to cut costs, we don’t see the temp reductions we expected out of a smaller, less power hungry 55-nm chip. Load temps are at best on par with, and usually a little higher than their 65-nm counterparts.
Fortunately NVIDIA’s GT200 GPUs were never known for running hot (at least in comparison to RV770), but if you were expecting a cooler-running alternative to the GTX 280 and GTX 260, you’ll likely be a little disappointed. We have found that GT200b GPUs tend to cool down significantly faster than GT200 when going from load down to idle though.
The GeForce GTX 275 is expected to sell for an MSRP of $249, with boards hitting retail in some regions by the end of today, and worldwide retail availability expected by April 14th.
Besides the new graphics card, another new feature NVIDIA is launching today is the addition of ambient occlusion in their ForceWare 185 release driver. The feature is enabled via application profiles, with the ForceWare 185 driver currently capable of supporting ambient occlusion in 22 games:
(Note: STALKER: Clear Sky and Crysis natively support ambient occlusion in the game’s graphics menu options)
As of right now the feature is unique to D3D titles, with no plans to add OpenGL support at the moment. The feature looks better in some games than others, with the aforementioned titles in bold delivering the most distinctive improvement visually according to NVIDIA. The neat thing about it is that it’s a feature that can be used to enhance older titles such as those based on the HL2 engine, which already run at blazing frame rates anyway (the performance hit generally ranges from 20-40% according to NVIDIA). NVIDIA provided us with the following before/after screenshots:
Intel Core i7-920
6GB OCZ Reaper HPC DDR3-1600
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 280
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 216-shader
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 275
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX
ATI Radeon 4890 1GB
ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB
300GB Western Digital Caviar SE
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit w/Service Pack 1
Call of Duty 4
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. – DirectX 9
H.A.W.X. is capable of using DX10.1 to accelerate screen space ambient occlusion effects; as you can see this gives the Radeon cards a performance advantage in this title, with the 4890 delivering the best overall performance of any GPU tested. The Radeon 4890 ran up to 9% faster than the 4870 at 2560x1600, while the GTX 285 trailed the 4870 by 6% at the same resolution. The GTX 275 ran up to 16% faster than its predecessor, the GTX 260, although you can see that it generally ran a little slower than the GTX 280 in the majority of our benchmarks with HAWX.
Call of Duty 4 – DirectX 9
While it’s based on an older game engine, CoD 4 is still incredibly popular, which is why we continue to benchmark with it. Because it’s engine is a little dated, all of today’s cards represented here were able to run the game incredibly well, although as you can see the GeForce boards have a decisive advantage in this game. The GTX 275 manages to outrun not only the GTX 260, but also the GTX 280. This is likely due to its superior texturing horsepower. ATI’s Radeon 4890 still falls behind the GeForce GTX 260 in our testing with this benchmark.
Crysis – DirectX 10
The Radeon 4890 managed to eke out ahead of the GeForce GTX 275 in Crysis, but as you can see it was a very close finish with both cards running even with each other by 2560x1600. The Radeon 4890 continues to exhibit CrossFire scaling problems in Crysis as well.
Far Cry 2 – DirectX 10
While Far Cry 2 has traditionally been a toss-up for us between ATI and NVIDIA, in the last month or so, the Radeon 4800 series cards have managed to begin to open up a small lead in this benchmark. This continues with the Radeon 4890 pulling ahead of the GTX 275 and even the GTX 285 in our benchmarks, which was a bit of a surprise to us. The CrossFire setup appears to be held back by the Core i7-920 CPU at 1600x1200 and 1920x1200, only at 2560x1600 does it begin to pull away from the single-GPU configs. The Radeon 4890 continues to outpace the 4870 by nearly 9% while the GTX 275 runs up to 13% faster than the GTX 260.
STALKER – DirectX 9
The DirectX 10.1 effects in STALKER tend to focus on eye candy rather than performance, which is probably good for NVIDIA as the GTX 275 manages to pull ahead of the 4890 at 1600x1200 and 1920x1200. In our testing the margin separating these two cards is as great as 13%, before they’re ultimately even at 2560x1600 and the unplayable frame rate of 14 fps.
We get a little more variability in our test sequence with Dawn of War 2, so considering that the margin separating the GTX 275 and Radeon 4890 is less than 1 fps at 1920x1200 and up, we’re going to call this one a draw between the two GPUs.
Because of Valve’s constant updates to Left 4 Dead, this is probably the fourth time we’ve had to redo our demo we use for testing with this game. We’ve finally settled on the very end of the single player campaign, as it’s a pretty graphically demanding scenario that stresses even the latest high-end cards once we crank up the AA 8x.
BattleForge was our final attempt at including a DX10.1 title, although this time it didn’t go over as well as HAWX, as the game would consistently kick us back to the desktop during testing with the GeForce cards. This is a rather obscure title, so we’re honestly not sure how much, if any time, NVIDIA has spent on optimizing for this RTS game, but this is clearly a title that favors ATI’s Radeon architecture.
On the GeForce front, the GeForce GTX 275 basically gives you GeForce GTX 280 performance at GTX 260 prices. Thanks to its 240-shader architecture and blazing clock speeds, it’s more than capable of keeping up with the GTX 280 in most situations despite its narrower memory interface and 896MB frame buffer. Unless you’re gaming at 8xAA and 2560x1600 screen resolution, we doubt you’d notice the difference between either card.
The beauty of it is that the GTX 275 is able to accomplish this while also drawing less power; only two PCIe power connectors are needed. Our reference board also OC’ed like a banshee. Hopefully this is a positive indication of what we can expect from retail boards and not an isolated case. NVIDIA does say that their board partners will be providing factory OC’ed GTX 275 SKUs, with non-reference cooling also on tap for the board.
In comparison to the GeForce GTX 260 it displaces, the GTX 275 runs anywhere from 6-13% faster overall, with the exact difference varying depending on the game and resolution being tested. In some cases it’s actually slightly faster. Given its $249 MSRP, we see plenty of gamers splurging on a GTX 275 instead of picking up that GTX 260 you may have planned on purchasing a week ago (NVIDIA and their partners will continue to carry the GTX 260 for now, albeit one rung below the GTX 275).
From ATI, the Radeon 4890 generally runs anywhere from 6-9% faster than the Radeon 4870 it displaces, but most importantly this card has a beefier cooler that addresses the concerns we’ve had with ATI’s previous stock cooler used on the 4870. The heat issues we’ve been nagging ATI about since launch have finally been resolved! Temps go from the 80 degree range to the 60s. ATI has also addressed the other shortcoming of RV770: frequency scaling.
RV790 scales like no other ATI GPU we’ve seen; when ATI told us that 1.0GHz was reachable with 4890, we thought they were referring to a card with exotic cooling or some one-off sample they’d scrounged up in the labs, but we now have no doubt that its achievable with the stock ATI cooler – we didn’t even have to manually crank up the fan speeds in order to hit 1GHz either! In hindsight, it looks like ATI could have introduced an even more extreme 4890 SKU, but it appears they plan to leave that up to their board partners.
In the head-to-head battle between Radeon 4890 and GeForce GTX 275, the 4890 manages to eke out ahead, but it’s definitely a close race. The 4890 manages to outpace the GeForce GTX 275 in Far Cry 2, H.A.W.X., and Crysis, while the GeForce GTX 275 reigns supreme in Call of Duty 4, and STALKER: Clear Sky. Left 4 Dead and Dawn of War 2 are basically a draw. With the exception of H.A.W.X. for ATI, and CoD 4 for NVIDIA, neither card really pulls away from the other though, considering the margin of error in Dawn of War 2, we can’t really call that title, and even the results in Far Cry 2 and Crysis are generally within a few frames per second of each other: unless you’re running benchmarks with FRAPs or some other tool in the background, you’d hardly notice the difference between either card for the most part.
Each side has their own set of advantages however. ATI for instance, used DirectX 10.1 to gain a considerable performance edge over NVIDIA in H.A.W.X. BattleForge (another AMD-sponsored title with DX10.1 support) wouldn’t even run half the time on the GeForce cards, crashing to the desktop, and when it did run the GTX 260 was considerably behind the 4870.
NVIDIA’s ace in the hole is PhysX. While PhysX effects started off a little cheesy, titles like Mirror’s Edge really do look better with PhysX effects enabled. In our Mirror’s Edge PhysX Performance article, we summed it up by saying "the game world really comes alive and looks more like a real city with PhysX enabled." NVIDIA hopes to release a new PhysX title each month for the remainder of 2009, with Sacred 2 just getting PhysX support and Cryostasis coming later this month. With mega publishers EA and 2K Games onboard, and PhysX also supported by Gamebryo and Unreal Engine 3 (the world’s two most popular game engines), the momentum behind PhysX is definitely there and growing.
To make a long story short though, today’s arrival of the GeForce GTX 275 and Radeon 4890 probably doesn’t swing the pendulum in either direction. The tit-for-tat battle between ATI and NVIDIA continues, with both sides offering strong products. Value conscious shoppers are probably going to look for the card with the cheapest price, while the fanboys can continue to support their preferred manufacturer. Each side has their intangibles, not to mention games they run well in versus the other (especially when you factor in SLI and CrossFire), and none of that changes with the latest GPU offerings launching today.
Thanks to the improvements both sides have incorporated into their latest mainstream offerings, you really can’t go wrong with either solution, especially when you factor in the price tags of today’s latest cards. With the GTX 275 and Radeon 4890 offering so much performance for the dollar, you really don’t have to spend more than $250 to get a really good graphics card for gaming.
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