Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 £429

27th Mar 2010 | 07:01

Nvidia GeForce GTX 480

Is the GTX 480 the fastest and best graphics card ever built?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

So the GTX 4800 is fastest commercial single-GPU on the planet at the moment, but it comes at a price

Like:

Fastest single-GPU card Brand new architecture Tessellation-happy Only needs 8-pin and 6-pin power All the CUDA and PhysX goodness included

Dislike:

Not as fast as HD 5970 Very, very hot Very, very power hungry Very, very loud Very, very expensive

Nvidia GeForce GTX 480: Overview

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 is indeed the fastest single GPU graphics card in the world.

The air of relief is palpable as the great and the good of Nvidia gather beside this latest graphical opus in its downtown Paris office.

The relief is not just our ours at having finally gotten hold of a working sample of the GeForce GTX 480, but representing the culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of missed launch slots and a lot of rumour-mongering in the world's tech press.

It's one hell of a relief for everyone at Nvidia associated with the GeForce brand.

The opening slide of the inevitable PowerPoint-a-thon is simply one word standing clear on a black background: finally.

So yes, finally it is here. The GF100 GPU - known as Fermi - exists outside of the rumour mill and has its first derivative card; the GTX 480.

GeForce 400-series

There will be others along very soon, most noticeably the cheaper GTX 470, but this graphical behemoth represents the top-end of Nvidia's Fermi launch.

Originally pencilled in for a pre-Christmas debut, the DX11 riposte to AMD's HD 5xxx series of graphics cards has seen innumerable delays, sparking fears that something had gone badly wrong with Nvidia's brand new silicon.

We had expected the fastest derivative of the new Fermi architecture to be around the £600 mark - putting it in direct competition with AMD's fastest graphic card, the ATI Radeon HD 5970.

Nvidia gtx 480

But with a recommended launch price of just over £400, it's immediately obvious where this card sits without even having to look at the benchmarks.

It sits slap-bang in between the two top AMD cards - the Radeon HD 5870, still topping £300, and the HD 5970, knocking on the door of £600.

Having a completely redesigned architecture and a half-year delay, there's no way Nvidia could afford to under-cut the competition with this part. So we'd already expected the performance to completely reflect the pricing.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 480: Specifications

gtx 480

With this focus Nvidia's hoping that, unlike when the first DX10 cards came out, this top-end card will still be a worthy part when full DirectX 11 games hit the shelves with heavier and heavier reliance on tessellation.

We've already seen the DX11-lite titles such as STALKER: Call of Pripyat and DiRT 2, which bolted on some effects to buddy up with the launch window and possibly some shared budgets with AMD, but it's only really the likes of Metro 2033 that are developed with DX11 more in mind.

The GeForce GTX 480, representing the top-end of the Fermi spins, does hint at some trouble in the yields from Nvidia's 40nm wafers.

Problems with production?

The full GF100 chip sports 512 CUDA cores (previously known as stream processors, or shader units) across its 16 streaming multiprocessors (SMs). However, the GTX 480 is only sporting 480 of those CUDA cores, supporting the rumour that in order to improve the yields of the 40nm Fermi wafers Nvidia had to sacrifice some of the shader units.

As Tom Petersen, Nvidia's Technical Marketing Director, told us, "it's not the perfect [GF100] chip."

So it's wholly possible that yields of fully functional chips, running all 512 cores, were so low as not to be commercially viable. Switching off 32 of these units is thought to have upped the number of usable chips from each of its 40nm wafers enough to make a commercially viable chip.

Of course, Nvidia doesn't agree this is what was responsible for the many delays to the launch of a Fermi-based card. Nvidia puts the blame for the delays down to DirectX 11 itself. The big, sexy buzzword surrounding Microsoft's latest graphics API is tessellation, and it's this feature Nvidia claims was responsible for the card's tardiness.

gtx 480 review

Nvidia sees tessellation as the great hope for PC gaming going forward and was so desperate to make sure it had the best architecture to take advantage of Microsoft's new API that it was willing to wait half a year before releasing a graphics card capable of using all that tessellated goodness.

While initially this seemed like a risky strategy, it looks like it could pay off well for the green side of the graphics divide

AMD made sure it had DX11 cards ready and waiting (though not necessarily on the shelves thanks to its own yield issues) for the launch of DX11, but in relative architectural terms Nvidia claims it only really pays lip-service to tessellation.

With the single tessellation unit of AMD's Cypress chips compared to the 16 tessellation units wrapped up in each of Fermi's SMs it's immediately obvious where Nvidia sees the future of PC graphics.

Despite the fact the GF100 GPU is a big, blazing hot, power-hungry beast of a chip, it is also rather neatly designed. In terms of layout it's very much like a traditional CPU, with independent sections all emptying into a shared Level 2 cache.

This means that it's designed from the ground up to be well versed in the sort of parallelism that Nvidia is aiming for from its CUDA-loving graphics cards.

Fermi

This parallelism was initially taken as proof positive that Nvidia was abandoning its gaming roots, making more concessions architecturally to the sort of high performance computing (HPC) that gets used to solve advanced computing problems.

The GTX 480, for example, is the first GPU to be able to achieve simulation speeds of 1ms/day when plugged into the Folding@home network.

But speak with Nvidia's people and it becomes clear that this architecture is also perfect for taking advantage of today's demanding 3D graphics too. The full GTX 480 chip has sixteen separate stream microprocessors, each housing thirty of Nvidia's CUDA cores.

Each of these SMs can tackle a different instruction to the others, spitting the results out into the shared cache, before starting another independent instruction.

This means the GTX 480 is able to switch between computationally-heavy computing - like physics for example - to graphics far quicker than previous generations. Each of these SMs has its own tessellation unit too, so for particularly intensely tessellated scenes the chip is able to keep running other instructions at the same time.

AMD's solution outputs its data directly into the DRAM, compared with Nvidia's solution that keeps everything on the chip. This means the GTX 480 isn't overloading the valuable graphics memory quite as much.


Nvidia GeForce GTX 480: Performance

gtx 480

With this focus Nvidia's hoping that, unlike when the first DX10 cards came out, this top-end card will still be a worthy part when full DirectX 11 games hit the shelves with heavier and heavier reliance on tessellation.

We've already seen the DX11-lite titles such as STALKER: Call of Pripyat and DiRT 2, which bolted on some effects to buddy up with the launch window and possibly some shared budgets with AMD, but it's only really the likes of Metro 2033 that are developed with DX11 more in mind.

In our tests it was Metro 2033 that brought the GTX 480 to its knees, especially when we ramped up all the effects at Nvidia's target resolution of 2560x1600.

So it will run the DX11 games of the future, but maybe not at such eye-bleedingly high resolutions. Still, AMD's HD 5870 struggled to even manage a single frame per second on Metro 2033's top settings compared to the, still judderingly slow, GTX 480 numbers of 18fps.

So there it is then in black and white; the GTX 480 is definitely faster than AMD's HD 5870. But then we all knew it would be; Nvidia could in no way justify coming out with a card six months later than its main competition and not be faster.

But how much faster? Contrary to popular tech press rumours, it is by a fair margin across the board.

Impressive performance

The first DX11 benchmark, Unigine's Heaven 1.0, is a test that heavily incorporates, and ably demonstrates, the power of tessellation. At the standard HD res of 1920x1080 the GTX 480 is over 35 per cent faster than the HD 5870 and in the mutated DX11 goodness of STALKER: CoP it's more than twice as fast.

Call up AMD's flagbearer of DX11, DiRT 2 and the GTX 480 comes in at 52fps. As you'll see on the next page, in the more modest surrounds of the DX10 stalwarts, Far Cry 2 and World in Conflict, the numbers still favour the Nvidia card .

But the GTX 480 is definitely not the fastest graphics card on the planet. Nvidia will have to make do with the runners-up prize of the "the fastest single-GPU card on the planet" tagline as AMD's dual-GPU HD 5970 still rules that roost, dropping frames to the GTX 480 only in DiRT 2 and STALKER: CoP.

Nvidia fermi

In the only tessellation-heavy benchmarks we've got outside of Nvidia's own tech-demos, Heaven and Metro 2033, the AMD card still shows a fair lead. Of course that ought to be expected from a multi-GPU solution, but shows that even with only two of its Cypress tessellation units it can best the GTX 480's 16.

The HD 5970 though is still, at cheapest, a £560 card and only then if you can find it in stock anywhere. And this brings us to something of a surprise feature of the first Fermi-based cards; the price.

Now, at £429, the GTX 480 by no means a bargain GPU, but definitely far cheaper than the £600 price-tag which was being bandied around only a few months ago by people reportedly in the know. Considering the HD 5870 is currently sitting around the £299 mark that gives the GTX 480 a nice little price-point to fall into.

This is obviously how Nvidia has come up with the price, knowing how the GTX 480 compared to the competition. The £429 price is the most it felt it could charge before they expected gamers to figure they might as well go for a HD 5970 instead.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 480: Benchmarks

gtx 480

The extent by which the GTX 480 bests the HD 5870 may be a bit of a surprise to those that expected the card to flop due to its reputed yield issues, but we're still surprised by how much the HD 5970 keeps its lead.

Nvidia is sure it's approach to the key DirectX 11 feature of tesselation is far superior to AMD's HD 5xxx series, the HD 5970 though manages to beat the GTX 480 in all the independent, tesselation-heavy benchmarks we used.

That card isn't even the equivalent of two HD 5870s either, being more akin to a twin HD 5850 instead. Still, it proves the GTX 480 is the fastest single-GPU card available right now.

Nvidia gtx 480

Addendum: The Dirt 2 performance shown here is for the demo which runs in DX9 mode. In the he full release of the game (which does run in DX11 on Nvidia cards), it gets 52fps instead of the 67.5fps shown here.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 480: Verdict

Nvidia gtx 480

So, in essence, the GTX 480 isn't actually competing directly with any other card on the market, sitting as it does slap-bang in between the two top AMD cards in both price and performance terms. The baby brother, the GTX 470, is deliberately priced up against the HD 5870 at £299.

We may well see the first retail boards being priced above that by virtue of the typical price premium manufacturers enforce on new graphics cards.

The relative scarcity of cards may also add to the price depending on how many units Nvidia can actually get to market. It was incredibly cagey about supply on launch stating there will be many customers out there that want boards that wont be able to get them.

Speaking with Asus recently, though, it was surprised as to the volumes it was receiving. It remains to be seen if the yields allow for the sort of production a new board needs.

We liked:

The GTX 480 is definitely a good card in terms of both its performance and the micro-architecture. It's faster than the HD 5870 by a fair amount, which will only increase as tessellation becomes more prevalent.

With the DX11 tessellation feature touted to propel PC gaming far beyond the realms of what its console siblings can offer, the power of the GTX 480's DX11 pipelines should see it staying the course far longer than AMD's top single-GPU card. The red company's dual-GPU solution is a bigger fly in the ointment, keeping Nvidia's top card in its quite monstrous shadow.

We disliked:

Problems loom on the horizon though - AMD is bound to take the butcher's knife to current its pricing scheme. But that's not the extent of it; there are also the spectres of the oft-rumoured 5890 and the overclocked 5970s gradually coalescing. Quite what Nvidia can do to best the 5970 is tough to see,

Obviously the full compliment of 512 CUDA cores may help once yields improve (GTX 485 anyone?) but there looks to be precious little extra to be got from this current GPU. It's already far thirstier in terms of power consumption than AMD's multi-GPU card and in testing our GTX 480 was regularly hitting a finger-blistering (yes, we touched the heat-pipe...) 94 degrees centigrade under load.

If you ramp up the fan to take care of this (in the release drivers the fan speed was locked at around 60 per cent) it quickly becomes a jet-turbine of a card, with a whine you'll hear throughout your domicile.

Verdict:

We may well see Nvidia fighting harder at the lower end of the market then, taking a leaf out of modern AMD's book. The revamped architecture of the Fermi GPU means that it is far more modular than the outgoing GT200 chips so mid-range cards need not have quite so much of their hearts ripped out to hit a certain price point.

But the GTX 480 is here to stay and it looks like it's in for the long-haul thanks to a little architectural revamp to favour DX11's tessellation bent. It does blow the HD 5870 out of the water, but then only really to the extent the extra £150 ought to get you.

So it's the fastest commercial single-GPU on the planet at the moment, beating the competition into a pulp. Unfortunately the dual-GPU joy of AMD's 5970 still wins hands-down. If Nvidia can get units onto the shelves should do well - AMD 5xxx cards are still rare as dog's eggs.

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