Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 £570
24th Mar 2011 | 13:00
Can Zotac's take on Nvidia's latest win the top graphics card crown?
Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 590: Overview
Vying for the fastest graphics card ever title is Zotac's Nvidia GeForce GTX 590.
So tick follows tock, as Intel and that bloke off the Guiness ad would say, and one big graphics card release follows another. It was barely a few weeks ago that AMD hit the shelves with its latest dual-GPU monolith, the AMD Radeon HD 6990, and now Nvidia is here with its first attempt at a DirectX 11 multi-GPU card.
That's not to say this Zotac GeForce GTX 590 represents Nvidia's first foray into the world of the dual-GPU card. Oh no, Nvidia was there in the good ol' days of broken SLI support with the 7950GX2, then the 9800GX2 and finally its last in the shape of the GeForce GTX 295.
They were never particularly popular cards though. Indeed, the 750GX2 was discontinued almost as soon as it hit the shelves. Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but if you'd just paid through the nose for a brand new card to see Nvidia discontinue support for it a few months later you'd be a little peeved. To say the least.
But the GTX 295 wasn't a bad card and with that we thought Nvidia was back in the dual-GPU card game. We expected that, like AMD before it, Nvidia might hit the DirectX 11 scene running.
The GeForce GTX 480, its long-touted first Fermi-class GPU was very, very late. It was also very quick, but along with that it ran incredibly hot and very power-hungry to boot. That combo of whopping power draw and insane heat-production meant the first GF100 GPUs weren't something that would be at all happy sharing a piece of PCB with a twin chip.
Fast forward to late last year and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 sneaks out and we find ourselves sitting down with Nvidia's Tom Petersen in a quiet room at its Reading HQ.
All the talk about the GTX 580 was about how cool, quiet and efficient it was in comparison with the GTX 480.
"Does this mean we can start talking about a multi-GPU card from Nvidia again?" we asked.
"With the extra cooling and power efficiency I wouldn't rule it out."
The seriously high-end fruits of the GF110's transistor-level tweaking is here right now; the Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 is one seriously fast little card.
Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 590: Architecture
But what's it made of? Moon-dust and magic? Two GTX 580s?
No to both, though it is almost a single-card version of SLI'd GTX 580s. What we have in the GeForce GTX 590 is a pair of the GF110 GPUs that power the standard GTX 580, but rather clocked-down versions.
The GF110 is the full-fat Fermi GPU and that means the full 16 Streaming Microprocessors (SMs) with a grand total of 512 CUDA cores. With all that graphical goodness you've also got 48 ROPs.
That's a lot of impressive numbers, which only get more impressive when you remember that they're all doubled with twin GPUs linked together on the GTX 590s single slab of PCB.
One card with nearly one hundred render output units is something quite special. The AMD Radeon HD 6990 by contrast has only 64 in total.
The transistor-level tweaks the Nvidia engineers worked into the GF110 GPU to lower its power consumption and heat production were impressive in the GTX 580. The fact they also managed to open up the full 16 SMs with the 512 core count compared with the somewhat miserly 480 in the GTX 480 meant you also got some sterling performance increases over the first Fermi card too.
In short the GTX 580 quickly became the best single-GPU card on the market, even AMD's Cayman-powered cards couldn't compete with it.
Having two of these GPUs running together in one card then was always only going to do good things.
Well, so long as the cooling design is good enough.
And on the GeForce GTX 590 it is. Just about.
With the top two GTX 5xx series cards, the GTX 570 and GTX 580, Nvidia introduced vapour-chamber coolers to its GPU chillers. In the GeForce GTX 590 it has smartly opted for two completely separate vapour-chambers to cater for each individual GPU.
Like the AMD Radeon HD 6990, Nvidia has set up its GTX 590 in a symmetrical way, with the fan located slap bang in the centre of the PCB with the dual chips arrayed either side of it.
The idea, again as with the HD 6990, is to ensure that both GPUs get equal levels of cooling.
With previous generations they were laid out like traditional single-GPU cards, with a fan at the far end blowing air across the GPU/heatsink array and out the vent in the PCIe bracket.
In dual-GPU cards like the GeForce GTX 295 and the Radeon HD 5970 that led to one chip being cooled well and the second in line simply having hot air blown across the top of. That meant one GPU had a significantly shorter shelf life.
The down side of having the air split across both the GPUs is that now the hot is getting pushed both out of the chassis and back inside from the other end. In most cases that means blowing hot air almost directly onto your HDD brackets.
Nvidia has also taken a leaf out of motherboard manufacturer's books and has doubled the amount of copper in the PCB. This 2oz of thermally efficient material means that heat is dissipated a lot more evenly across the board, hopefully ensuring a longer life.
Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 590: Benchmarks
As you can see below the Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 and AMD Radeon HD 6990 trade blows across our benchmarking suite.
Almost every other result sees a different winner.
It's also interesting to see how the top two single-GPU cards from the two manufacturers fare when paired up against the two dual-GPU cards.
The GTX 580 in SLI is an impressive beast, though rather pricey, but it's the performance of the Radeon HD 6970 in CrossFire that takes the plaudits.
You may need a chunky chassis to fit them both in, but for the same price as the dual-GPU cards you can buy two of these cards and get faster results. An impressive pairing.
All the results are taken at 2560x1600 at the highest settings with 4x antialiasing.
DirectX 11 tessellation performance
DirectX 11 gaming performance
DirectX 10 gaming performance
Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 590: Performance
The most important thing for the Zotac GeForce GTX 590 to be able to do is beat the competition. That means that this latest Nvidia card has to beat the AMD Radeon HD 6990 across the board.
The fact Nvidia waited until AMD had released its own dual-GPU card before making any serious noise about its own card meant that we were expecting something special in performance terms.
Surely Jen-Hsun's minions were just waiting to see how fast the HD 6990 would go before making sure their own card was capable of taking it to the cleaners.
Well, which of the graphics card manufacturers has the single fastest graphics card available right now then? Unfortunately there is no definitive answer; it all depends on which benchmarks you use and how much weight you put behind their particular test.
You see, despite fairly different architecture being used in both these monstrous cards, they're actually very, very close in terms of performance.
Across the breadth of our benchmarking suite of tests the AMD Radeon HD 6990 and Zotac's Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 trade blows. In some tests the AMD card will take pole position and in others the Nvidia dual-GPU beast has the edge.
It's not even like it's a split between DirectX 11 and DirectX 10 games, or between heavy use of tessellation either.
Take the real system-killers, Heaven 2.5 and Metro 2033. Both those tests really push DX11 cards to the ragged edge, with heavy use of tessellation to create some really impressive amounts of geometry in scenes.
In the Heaven benchmark the GeForce GTX 590 has the edge by about 4fps, though when you switch that around to looking at the Metro 2033 test the Radeon HD 6990 takes the lead at both high and medium resolution settings.
This theme carries on with the Nvidia GTX 590 coming out top in Lost Planet 2 and the AMD HD 6990 taking the lead again in Aliens vs. Predator.
So there's nothing to separate the top two graphics cards on the market today then? Things change when you start adding in CrossFire and SLI setups of the single–GPU cards.
If you take two GeForce GTX 580s in SLI, effectively the same GPUs but at their standard, higher clockspeeds, then they cream both the AMD HD 6990 and the GTX 590. Being able to hit practically 40fps at the very highest settings in Heaven at 2560x1600 is nothing short of incredible.
But then you're also talking £760-odd for a pair of these sterling cards.
More reasonable is AMD's next top offering, a twin-set of Radeon HD 6970s. A CrossFire'd pairing of these two cards will set you back about the same amount as a Radeon HD 6990 – about £550 – and again pretty consistently outperforms the two dual-GPU cards.
It's not by the same fantastical margins as the twin GTX 580 pairing, but it's also much cheaper.
Which doesn't bode well for Zotac's Nvidia GeForce GTX 590.
Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 590: Verdict
At the very least Nvidia has given people pause for thought when they consider what is the most powerful graphics card around today. Unfortunately, though, Nvidia cannot lay claim to the fastest graphics card mantle unfettered, as I'm sure they would have preferred.
It's slightly disappointing that with this Zotac GeForce GTX 590 it couldn't have pushed the performance past what we've already seen in the AMD Radeon HD 6990. The fact is Nvidia has created a card that to all intents and purposes performs almost identically for a little bit more money.
We fully expected the Nvidia card to beat the AMD dual-GPU monster hands down. After all, its engineers will have had time with the Radeon HD 6990 to see what it could do and would have thought they might have been able to tweak its card to beat it.
It's possible that's what Nvidia was trying to do by holding the launch or any previews back until the AMD card had been launched, but was unable to get the drivers working to a stage where it could comfortably sail past the HD 6990.
We didn't see a card until about two weeks after they were in the country due to the drivers not being finalised yet, and to me that smacks of optimisation.
An early source also informed us of a far higher MSRP, closer to the £700 mark, before we got hands on with the board. Whether that really was a clerical error, or whether Nvidia genuinely believed it might be able to sell the card for that, may never actually be known.
So mildly underwhelmed would be a good assessment then.
Which has surprised me given that I was, possibly unfairly, expecting performance beyond the realms of what I'd seen before. Especially for the cash.
This month I've played with two different graphics cards, one at £550 and one at nigh-on £600, and an £800 processor in the shape of the Intel Core i7 990X Extreme Edition.
And I'm fairly confident I've still heard the words 'global economic crisis' used in the present tense recently.
Has nobody told the technology world that people can't afford this?
But then these aren't products for the consumer. These are components that companies use as tech-demos to show what is possible.
'We can do this, and if you want to give us stupid amounts of cash you can have one.'
The sad thing for both this Zotac GeForce GTX 590 and the AMD Radeon HD 6990 is that far more commercially viable, and effective, setups are available.
As we mentioned the Radeon HD 6970 in CrossFire is the same price as the HD 6990 and cheaper than an Nvidia GTX 590, and yet outperforms both.
With the fact that anybody with a motherboard less than three years old will probably be able to run two AMD graphics cards in their machine, PSU willing, that's looking like a world-beating setup.
Add in the fact that certain Radeon HD 6950s can be unlocked to function like HD 6970s, for a good deal cheaper, and it really is a no-brainer as to where the smart graphics money gets spent.
For all that though Zotac's Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 does represent some impressive technological engineering.
Being able to run two GF 110 GPUs on a single PCB without melting a hole in the side of your chassis is impressive. As is the fact that it actually runs quieter and cooler than the competing AMD HD 6990 too.
It's a much more elegant solution too, being nearly an inch shorter than the competition and a little thinner too.
Unfortunately they do both still generate a lot of heat and the symmetrical design means a great deal of warm air is being pushed back into your case as well.
So decent airflow is a must, but also a lot trickier to create with the turbulence the GTX 590's fan will create.
But for us it's all about performance and Zotac's Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 just doesn't have the wow-factor to really justify that huge outlay.
We were hoping for something a bit more special, and, to be honest, we're a little disappointed.
Mounting two of its top-end Fermi GPUs onto a single slab of PCB, and still being able to get it running without a meltdown is impressive.
As is the noise. It's by no means a silent card – you'll definitely know it's there – but it's nowhere near as bad as a twin GTX 580 setup.
It's also a very elegantly-designed card too. It's only a tad longer than a single-GPU GTX 580, and significantly smaller than the Radeon HD 6990.
Sadly our big problem is the performance.
It's still a very fast card, but given that Nvidia waited until the competition was out we expected the GTX 590 to take the speed crown, even if it was only by a small margin.
What's happened is that each company has its own benchmark wins and no across-the-board winner.
We're also a little unsure about the symmetrical design. We appreciate the need to cool both chips equally, but blowing so much hot air back into the case is not going to do good things for the rest of your components.
Water-cooling is the only way forward then…
So in the end we have a very fast card, as fast as AMD's very fast card. But is there really a place for such a beast in the world today?