Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 £399

9th Nov 2010 | 14:00

Nvidia GeForce GTX 580

The Fermi card we've always deserved

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

Like:

Fast; Cooler; Very quiet; Not as thirsty as GTX 480

Dislike:

You have to pay for the power

Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 - Overview

Coming almost out of nowhere is Nvidia's latest, greatest graphics card to date: the GeForce GTX 580.

This new card has been extrapolated from the age-old adage, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

Nvidia's inaugural DirectX 11 card, the GeForce GTX 480, was a little broken, so Nvidia has been beavering away for most of this year trying to fix it.

In terms of performance, though, the GTX 480 was a very good card. In single-GPU metrics, it was the fastest card available, despite AMD's launch of its second-generation DX11 cards: the Radeon HD 6870 and HD 6850.

That was until this new chip turned up anyway.

In fact, the broken part of the GTX 480 came from what Nvidia promised for the first Fermi GPU. Originally, the GF 100 was touted as having a full compliment of 512 CUDA cores. But when the GTX 480 hit our test benches, the GF 100 GPU inside it was sporting a cut down 480 cores.

Rumours abounded that this was all down to poor chip yields from silicon wafers with the full core count. Cutting that count to 480 then increased the numbers of usable chips in each wafer and made for a far more viable card.

Nvidia is still denying that there were any yield problems with the GTX 480. However, as Nvidia's Technical Marketing Director, Tom Petersen, told us at the GTX 480 launch, it wasn't "the perfect chip".

The GF 110 housed in the GTX 580 could well be that perfect Fermi chip, though. It has the full 512 core count and the same Streaming Microprocessor configuration as the GTX 480.

But we weren't expecting the next generation of Fermi cards to be coming quite so soon. Nvidia has kept this one quiet for a long time and it wasn't until last week that we actually found out what it was up to.

So spoiling the launch of AMD's latest cards, as well as getting the jump on its high-end Caymen-powered cards, is something that Nvidia will be feeling rather proud of.

With this launch, the GTX 580 is retiring the GTX 480 and slotting into exactly the same place and price point as its outgoing sibling.

There's been no strange reordering of Nvidia's card nomenclature to match what we've seen from its competitors.

Since AMD have replaced the HD 5870 with a slower card – in the shape of the increasingly clunky-looking HD 6870 – Nvidia was at pains to point out that this is a "100 per cent replacement for the GTX 480". Tom Petersen suggests stock of the GTX 480 will rapidly disappear and demand will be replaced by this new card.

What's more, this new graphics behemoth is also heralding the approach of the 500 series of second-generation Fermi cards, with the lesser-lights of the card family filtering through fairly soon after.

So is this new card a worthy successor to what was already the fastest single-GPU graphics card out there? Or is it just a hefty, hot, atavistic GPU from the green side of the graphics divide?

Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 - Architecture

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580

The big change is obviously the addition of the final Streaming Microprocessor (SM) that was removed from the GF 100 chip in order to garner yields large enough to make the GTX 480 a viable card.

This means an extra 32 cores and one extra Polymorph engine added to the GTX 580's architectural make-up.

Essentially, then, it's the same chip as the one that powered the inaugural Nvidia Fermi card some seven months ago, although with the culled parts reintegrated into the final card.

Running with a core and shader clock of 772MHz and 1,544MHz respectively, it's also clocked higher than the GTX 480's 700/1,400MHz setup. The memory speed has also been upped to a jot above the 4GHz mark at 4,008MHz, a boost of some 312MHz.

It still comes with the same 1.5GB of GDDR5 graphics memory – running on a 384-bit memory bus – the GTX 480 had. With the possibility of AMD's top-end Caymen-powered cards coming with a 2GB memory block as standard, that could be a sticking point in big-screen gaming terms.

But there have also been some improvements in the GPU to improve performance. These include tweaks designed to boost the card's power in some texture-heavy applications. There's also an enhancement that will, according to Nvidia, improve the Z-cull efficiency – namely, the speed at which it analyses three dimensional depth on the GPU.

But that's not the whole story. If this were simply a slightly faster GTX 480, we wouldn't be quite so interested. As fast as that card was, it was also an incredibly hot and rather loud beastie.

The new GTX 580 isn't. We've had a conversation in a quiet room with twin GTX 580s in SLI running at full load without having to shout to be heard.

The key to this is the vapour chamber tech that Nvidia is now using in its reference cooler design.

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - vapour chamber

Instead of the standard heat-sink/fan array, there's now a small pool of liquid in a chamber sitting atop the GPU. Once this heats up, it turns to vapour, transferring the heat away from the chip. Then it hits a condenser and turns back into liquid again. The heat is transferred into the heatsink on top of the condenser and a fan moves air across that in the usual fashion to finish the job.

All of which means the GTX 580 is quieter than any of Nvidia's last three top-end graphics cards.

Power consumption has been improved compared to the juice-hungry GTX 480 too. This is down to the improvements the green technicians have made at the transistor level. The key has been the use of low-leakage transistors on non-timing sensitive pathways, and higher-speed ones on critical paths where speed is of the essence.

What this all boils down to is a graphics card that is at once, faster, cooler, quieter and less power-hungry than the card it's replacing.

You listening AMD?

Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 - Benchmarks

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580

Test System:

  • Intel Core i7 930 @ 2.8GHz
  • Asus P6X58D-E
  • 6GB Corsair DDR3 @1,333MHz
  • Ikonik Vulcan 1,200W PSU
  • Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit

All the results below were taken at 2560x1600 and at the highest settings possible with 4x Anti-aliasing turned on.

As you can see below, the GTX 580 has the edge in pretty much any benchmark you care to throw at it.

Only the combined might of the GTX 460 in SLI trim and the more expensive HD 5970 are in any position to make the latest Nvidia card sweat. Even then, only in a few, older benchmark tests.

AMD's top card can manage a performance win in only one DirectX 11 benchmark and Alien vs Predator isn't a particularly striking example of DX11 implementation.

The distance the HD 5970 lags behind in Heaven and Metro 2033 is more telling.

In the legacy benchmarks, the twin GPUs and extra graphics memory of the HD 5970 and GTX 460 in SLI do give them the lead against the GTX 580, though. But each of those also have their drawbacks against the newer card.

Would you really want to pay more for the venerable HD 5970 just to have better performance in older games, but worse in future titles?

Unlikely.

The outgoing GTX 480, however, is resoundingly beaten across the board – on average by a little over 17 per cent over the eight tests.

We haven't included the figures for the now-defunct Radeon HD 5870, since it's been replaced by the new HD 6870. And we haven't included the latter's figures here, because they're nowhere near the GTX 580 in terms of placement or performance.

DirectX 11 Tessellation Performance

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

DirectX 11 Gaming performance

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

DirectX 10 Gaming Performance

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580 - benchmarks

Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 - Performance

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580

Forget all the architectural shenanigans, though, the real proof is in the performance. So how does Nvidia's new flagship card stand up to our test bench scrutiny? The answer is: very well indeed.

In sheer performance terms alone, the GTX 580 averages a boost of 17.5 per cent at the top end, compared with the standard GTX 480 across our suite of benchmarks. Only in Metro 2033 and Just Cause 2 does the percentage framerate gain drop below a 10 per cent boost. And in DiRT 2, we hit a 27 per cent increase on the GTX 480, almost making the projected 30 per cent boost Nvidia had spoken about pre-launch.

AMD's bizarre switch-around with the HD 5870 and HD 6870 aside, this is almost exactly the sort of performance figures we'd expect to see from a card being sent out to replace another, older generation of GPU. And given that it's based on the same Fermi architecture, we didn't really expect a huge leap in performance.

But this boost is still very significant.

What is important is that with the increased clockspeed and extra CUDA cores, this is a card that is now outperforming AMD's best card, the dual-GPU HD 5970, in all but one of our DirectX 11 benchmarks.

That's something the GTX 480 couldn't boast at launch and it leaves AMD in hot water.

There are a couple of benchmarks, such as the Just Cause 2 and Far Cry 2 results, that put the twin-GPU card on top, but they're older-generation technology. In the DirectX 11 benchmarks, the GTX 580 shows its performance chops.

They also show that it's a more long-lived card.

When compared with AMD's top single-GPU card, the HD 5870, it's Britney Spears vs Goliath out there – and there are no pointy stones lying around to help the singer out either. The HD 5870 was a way behind the GTX 480, but now it staggers around in the GTX 580's wake like some punch-drunk little Disney Mouseketeer.

In short, it looks every inch the retiring technology that it is.

When it comes to the improved power efficiency, though, the story isn't quite as impressive as we'd hoped. There are definite drops in both temperature and in the system power drawn from the wall, but measuring the total system power between a GTX 480 and a GTX 580 setup, we only saw a drop off of around 5 per cent under full load.

Likewise, running the GPU at 100 per cent saw only a 6 per cent difference in the peak temperature reading over time.

What's significant, though, is that it has achieved drops in both heat generation and power draw while still managing to be quieter than any of the last three top-end Nvidia GPUs.

Generally, you'd expect a boost in performance, coupled with better power efficiency and hence lower temperatures, to be linked to a shrink in the manufacturing process. The fact that Nvidia has managed to do this with essentially the same chunky chip design as the overpowered, overheating GF 100 of the GTX 480 is thoroughly impressive.

The only slight fly in the ointment is possibly the impressive SLI performance of the 1GB GTX 460.

It's only in Metro 2033 that the real gulf in technology becomes evident, leaving the GTX 580 king of the pile. For the most part, however, you're looking at single figure percentage drops in performance, and a dip from 34 fps to 32 fps is a difference that few gamers are really going to notice.

That SLI pairing is also £100 cheaper than the single GTX 580 too.

That said, you'd need an SLI-certified motherboard and a heftier power supply than you would with a single card. And despite how good multi-GPU setups have become in terms of reliability and support, a single, powerful card is still a safer bet.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 - Verdict

NVIDIA geforce gtx 580

So here it is, the fastest DirectX 11 graphics card around today. No caveats here. There's none of the GTX 480's distraction over the dual-GPU HD 5970: this is as fast as it currently gets.

AMD will argue that the HD 5970 is still a faster card, but only if you select your tests carefully.

The really impressive thing is the GTX 580's performance boost has come in a cooler, quieter, less power-hungry package. Granted, the power and temperature drops aren't quite as significant as we might have hoped, but the fact they've come without having to follow a die-shrink is definitely worth noting.

It's a simple sell as well. The GTX 480 is being completely replaced by this new card – essentially the card it should have been all along – and comes in at the same price point too.

Still, that's £400 for a graphics card, but with the safe knowledge that it's the fastest, most future-proof thing on a single PCB right now.

And that timing is significant too.

The GTX 580 has sneaked up quietly, stealing the HD 6870 and HD 6850's weak rumbles of thunder. What's more, those cards were just caught up in the crossfire, since what the GTX 580 is really gunning for is the supposedly imminent launch of AMD's new top-end cards: the Caymen GPU-powered HD 69xx cards.

The rumours say they'll appear towards the end of November, but then there have also been rumours that there's some delay keeping stock away from AMD's board partners.

With Nvidia setting out its stall in this fashion, the onus is definitely on AMD to produce something special to try and beat the GTX 580. From speaking with the green company, though, its thinks this latest Fermi card has got the top-end GPU battle sewn up for the foreseeable.

The only slightly sticky point for the GTX 580 is the SLI performance of cheaper cards. A twin GTX 460 setup will come incredibly close to the top-end card's figures and for £100 less. Pair up a couple of GTX 470s and they will spank it for the same price.

So if you're sitting there with a GTX 460 and wondering whether it's time to go the whole hog and buy a GTX 580, have another think. You may be better served paying £250 less and just getting another GTX 460 for your rig.

However, that's only if you've got a PSU beefy enough to cope with SLI and a certified motherboard too.

We liked:

The increased clocks, reengineered parts and reintegrated GPU components all add up to some impressive performance metrics. A new top-end card should deliver those, though. What we weren't necessarily expecting was that all to come alongside quieter, cooler and less thirsty running too.

We disliked:

There's really not a lot to dislike about the GTX 580. Nvidia has addressed pretty much all the issues we ever had with the GTX 480 it's directly replacing. The only remaining niggle is that it's bloody expensive, but bringing this card out for less than £400 would turn the GPU industry on its head.

With no new top-end AMD cards to put the GTX 580 up against there is no clear competition for what is now the fastest DX11 card available. Even the twin-GPU HD 5970 has met its match. Until the Caymen cards make an appearance, this is as good as it gets.

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