by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
09/01/2010 | 02:35 PM
Today’s graphics cards priced at $300 and more are, as a rule, replicas of the reference samples developed by AMD or Nvidia. Such a sample is duplicated in many copies at contracted facilities, embellished with corporate stickers of AMD’s and Nvidia’s partners, packed into boxes and sold in retail shops. As a result, the customer has to choose from tens and hundreds of virtually identical graphics cards which differ only with their packaging and accessories and, occasionally, with the level of factory overclocking. There is nothing wrong about that, actually. Any top-end graphics card is a highly sophisticated product whose parameters would have seemed fantastic just a few years ago and this manufacturing approach helps ensure consistent quality.
But although it is justified from the manufacturers’ point of view, the lack of choice is rather boring for the end user. Moreover, some customers may need capabilities which are missing in the reference sample, for example a handy way of controlling the graphics card’s voltages for safe extreme overclocking. Others may want a quiet but effective cooler or beautiful highlighting which would look splendid in a windowed system case. There are many users with varying demands and the reference sample cannot embrace them all. Major manufacturers of computer components that have vast research & development resources are aware of this demand and often release unique components that have no analogues. Besides targeting the small but wealthy group of especially demanding users, they thus show their technological superiority over their opponents and chart out the possible ways of development for their future product series. This is absolutely true for top-end gaming graphics cards. Reviewing them is a real pleasure.
So today we are going to enjoy reviewing a Matrix series product from the world-famous ASUSTeK Computer. The slogan of the series reads “I Rule My Game!” suggesting an unprecedented level of control over the hardware no other manufacturer but ASUS can offer. Every Matrix series product features a custom-made PCB and cooler, high-quality components, and a number of overclocking tools and options. We reviewed one Matrix card before and were pleased with it despite some of its shortcomings (it was the ASUS Matrix GTX285 model) and now we are going to take a look at the new ASUS Matrix 5870 P/2DIS/2GD5 which is based on the ATI Radeon HD 5000 architecture.
Like the previous Matrix series product we tested, this one comes in a large retail box. Well, some product boxes from ASUS used to be even larger, resembling a small suitcase even, but you can hardly look at a shop shelf without noticing the Matrix 5870 on it. The face panel of the box is designed in the same way as we saw with the Matrix GTX285.
The uniform package design makes the Matrix series consistent, creating an easily identifiable style, which is quite imposing, sober and not gaudy at all. A sticker on the box informs the potential buyer that the GPU is pre-overclocked to 900 MHz. You can get more info on the product by flipping back the flap.
These are mostly marketing statements but, as we found out in our ASUS Matrix GTX285 review, most of them are true. Particularly, Matrix series cards do offer unique opportunities in terms of controlling GPU and memory parameters. A window here allows you to take a look at the card without opening the box up. So, the packaging of the Matrix series is high quality and very informative.
Inside the external box, there is another one made from black riffled cardboard with gold embossing. Inside it, the ASUS Matrix 5870 graphics card rests on a thick layer of protective material. There is one more flat box below the card. It contains the following accessories:
There is everything you need to make full use of the graphics card. The handy CD case included into the box has a magnet lock. We must confess we still use such a CD case (taken from the Matrix GTX285 accessories) for storing frequently used installation discs with drivers and benchmarking software. It is handier than the round plastic cases ASUS used to include with its earlier products.
We described the exclusive iTracker 2 utility in our Matrix GTX285 review but can remind you the basic points here.
This program is part of the hardware and software toolkit that gives the user flexible control over the parameters of a Matrix series graphics card, up to updating its BIOS and restoring BIOS code if it gets corrupted. No other manufacturer but ASUS offers such broad functionality. Gigabyte’s GamerHUD and MSI’s Afterburner are close to iTracker 2 in functionality but they are not backed up by hardware components on board the graphics card.
So, like the previously reviewed Matrix GTX285, the Matrix 5870 gets our praise for its high-quality packaging and good accessories. Let’s move on to the more interesting things, though.
The graphics card is rather heavy and doesn’t look like a regular ATI Radeon HD 5870. It is more like the ASUS Matrix GTX285, at least visually. The protrusion in the top part of the card contains LEDs to highlight the letters “Matrix” on the card’s butt-end. They are also part of a special diagnostic system. This protrusion may provoke some problems with the installation of the card into short system cases but such top-end products as the ASUS Matrix 5870 are usually accommodated in huge premium-class gaming chassis.
Asus Matrix 5870 (left), ATI Radeon HD 5870 reference (right)
It is next to impossible to see anything interesting in the graphics card’s design with its cooler in place because even the reverse side of the PCB is covered with a metallic plate. We can only spot an ASUS Super Hybrid Engine chip which constitutes the hardware part of the control system. There are also a row of ProbeIt contact points in the top part of the PCB. You can use them to measure the card’s key voltages with a multimeter. Let’s now strip the card of its cooler and take an indecently closer look at it.
Asus Matrix 5870 (left), ATI Radeon HD 5870 reference (right)
If there is any resemblance, it is only because all graphics cards of the same class and dimensions look similar. The power section of the ASUS product is awe-inspiring. There are as many as eight phases for the GPU alone. There are also a couple of 2-phase voltage regulators for the memory chips and the GPU’s auxiliary circuitry.
The GPU voltage regulator is based on a 12-channel uP6208 controller from uPI Semiconductor. The uP6205 chip you can see next to it is responsible for the graphics memory. This pair of chips was also used on the ASUS Matrix GTX285, by the way. A second such chip with accompanying power components is located near the CrossFire connectors. The graphics card has two 8-pin PCIe 2.0 power connectors but has no protection against your connecting two 6-pin power cables to them (and works normally in this case).
As we wrote above, the protrusion at the top of the cooler’s casing contains a few multicolored LEDs which highlight the word “Matrix” you can see nearby. The color of the highlighting depends on the current GPU load and varies from green to red. It is most often blue, indicating medium load, as in the photo. This feature should be appreciated by people whose system case has a side window, but it has little functional worth. The highlighting won’t be visible at all in an ordinary system case.
The Matrix 5870 carries a double amount of local graphics memory, 2 gigabytes, so it has twice the usual number of GDDR2 chips which are placed on both sides of the PCB, eight chips on each side. These K4G10325FE chips from Samsung have a capacity of 1 Gb (32 Mb x 32), the HC04 suffice denoting a rated frequency of 1250 (5000) MHz. AMD’s reference card uses the same memory and has the same memory frequency like the ASUS Matrix 5870, namely 1200 (4800) MHz. We’ll check out its overclocking potential soon.
The GPU is neither new nor exceptional. It is a regular RV870 Cypress with an open die and an incomprehensible marking. It was manufactured on the 50th week of 2009. The GPU is overclocked from the reference frequency of 850 MHz to 900 MHz but GPU-Z reports 894 MHz due to the specifics of the clock generator’s operation. The GPU frequency can be lowered to 600 or 300 MHz in power-saving modes: the first mode is for such tasks as HD video decoding while the second one, for desktop applications. The default GPU voltage is 1.15 volts but the ASUS Matrix 5870 offers virtually unlimited opportunities to increase it. Using iTracker 2, we easily increased the voltage to 1.4 volts. We stopped at that value to avoid any risks and because we couldn’t get any overclocking benefits from increasing the GPU voltage more.
The ASUS Matrix 5870 has only one DVI-I connector (it supports analog connection, too). It also has one DisplayPort and one HDMI connector. Although this selection of interfaces is quite up to date, the card does not allow to easily use three DVI-interfaced monitors simultaneously although this feature is implemented in AMD’s GPUs. You’ll have to purchase a DisplayPort à DVI-D adapter for a third monitor which costs from $12 to 30. ASUS might have included such a cheap adapter into the box. Besides, the HDMI à DVI-D adapter doesn’t sit firmly in the card’s connector when the cable is attached to it.
The Safe Mode button can help restore the card to life in case you’ve set too high frequencies. This hardware solution is necessary because the changed values of frequencies and voltages are written right into the BIOS of the card. Pressing the Safe Mode button rolls the card back to its failsafe factory BIOS settings. This is a very handy feature that may be of much help for overclockers, but you shouldn’t forget that it cannot restore the card if your too-high voltage/frequency settings have physically damaged the latter.
Nothing special can be expected from the cooling system installed on the ASUS Matrix 5870. It represents the time-tested classic design with a centrifugal fan. The hot air is exhausted outside through the slits in the card’s mounting bracket. This cooler design is employed on each fast graphics card from both AMD and Nvidia, its specific implementations varying but slightly in such details as the size of heatsinks, the model of the fan, and the thermal interface for the GPU die.
The cooling system installed on the ASUS Matrix 5870 has a higher-performance fan than the reference cooler. It features direct-touch technology: the heat pipes are flattened and polished off and contact the graphics core directly. In theory, this helps minimize the loss of heat as it is being transferred from the cooler’s sole to the heat pipes. However, the RV870 die is rather large and has no heat-spreading cap, and the trace of the thermal grease makes it clear that the two outermost pipes out of the total five do almost nothing. This design flaw may have a negative effect on the performance of this otherwise thought-through cooler. Besides, the direct-touch technology leaves the row of memory chips above the GPU without any cooling whereas the memory chips on the right have contact with the cooler’s base through an elastic thermal pad. Another such thermal pad is used to dissipate heat from the power system components. By the way, the frame that all of the cooler elements are mounted on is a sheet of metal rather than a massive cast frame as in some other coolers. Its thermal capacity is lower, so it may cool the auxiliary components less effectively.
We don’t have many complaints about the heatsink. It is a standard thing consisting of thin aluminum fins fitted on the heat pipes and soldered to them. The heatsink is large enough to cope with an RV870 even if the latter is overclocked. So, we only have some apprehensions about the two outermost heat pipes which do not do much work.
Overall, the cooling system installed on the ASUS Matrix 5870 seems to be able to cope with its job, yet it is not free from certain flaws which may affect its performance negatively. We will discuss the noise factor in the next section but we want to note that Gigabyte avoided the abovementioned drawbacks using a simpler cooler. A more complex solution is not necessarily the best one.
We already measured the power consumption of the reference Radeon HD 5870 in our earlier tests, but the ASUS Matrix 5870 is an original solution. So, we measured its power draw on our specially designed testbed configured like follows:
The new testbed for measuring electric characteristics of graphics cards uses a card designed by one of our engineers, Oleg Artamonov, and described in his article called PC Power Consumption: How Many Watts Do We Need?. As usual, we used the following benchmarks to load the graphics accelerators:
Except for the maximum load simulation with OCCT, we measured power consumption in each mode for 60 seconds. We limit the run time of OCCT: GPU to 10 seconds to avoid overloading the graphics card's power circuitry. Here are the obtained results:
We did not expect the Matrix 5870 to be an economical solution as it is targeted at users who don’t care much about that factor. Its power consumption in every mode is comparable to that of the dual-processor Radeon HD 5970 rather than of the single-processor Radeon HD 5870. The card’s first 8-pin power connector is loaded twice as heavily as the second connector and its peak current may be as high as 14 amperes, which equals about 170 watts. We wouldn’t recommend saving on your power supply for this card. A high-quality 600W or better PSU should be used together with the Matrix 5870.
Using the direct-touch technology and a fast fan, the cooling system of the Matrix 5870 copes with its job but doesn’t show anything special. It is even inferior to the reference cooler from AMD in the 3D mode. The ASUS card’s higher heat dissipation should be taken into account, yet we think that this cooler might do even better if it were not for some flaws in its design that we described in the previous section of our review.
The Matrix 5870 is not good in terms of noisiness considering that the background noise in our test lab is 37 dBA. Our testbed itself is not silent, even with the new CPU cooler and power supply, but the Matrix 5870 was perfectly audible when we launched heavy 3D applications. A reference Radeon HD 5870 is much quieter even under load. Alas, this is another consequence of the flaws in the cooler’s design. For example, the Gigabyte GV-R587SO-1GD, even though not exactly silent, did not irritate us with the rattle of its blower as the ASUS card does.
As for overclocking, we used iTracker 2 to increase the GPU and VDDCI voltages to 1.4 and 1.226 volts, respectively, and make the GPU of our Matrix 5870 stable at a frequency of 1010 MHz or 1 GHz.
The graphics card passed all our tests at that frequency but produced much more noise. The graphics memory could only be overclocked to 1225 (4900) MHz. We couldn’t reach the rated frequency of the K4G10325FE-HC04 chips, which is 1250 (5000) MHz. This may have been due to the cooling system because it doesn’t cool all of the GDDR5 chips installed on the card. Anyway, our overclocking experiment was successful enough for us to be interested in its practical benefits. Therefore we will benchmark the ASUS card at the overclocked frequencies as well.
We are going to investigate the gaming performance of our Asus Matrix 5870 using the following universal testbed:
The ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:
Below is the list of games and test applications we used during this test session:
First-Person 3D Shooters
Third-Person 3D Shooters
Semi-synthetic and synthetic Benchmarks
We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it. We updated our test modes and ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1600x900, 1920x1080 and 2560x1600. Unless stated otherwise, everywhere, where it was possible we added MSAA 4x antialiasing to the standard anisotropic filtering 16x. We enabled antialiasing from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers.
Besides Asus Matrix 5870, we have also tested the following solutions:
Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 3.1.2. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average of the three for the performance charts.
This game is benchmarked in DirectX 11 mode with the highest graphics quality settings.
The Matrix 5870 doesn’t do as a single-processor Radeon HD 5970 even at a GPU frequency of 1 GHz and doesn’t allow playing comfortably at 1920x1080 but our overclocking helps improve the bottom speed to 25 fps at 1600x900. That’s good considering how AMD solutions perform in this test in general. The 2560x1600 results indicate that 2 gigabytes of onboard graphics memory are redundant for graphics cards like Radeon HD 5870.
Our overclocking is the most rewarding at 1600x900 where the Matrix 5870 is close behind the Radeon HD 5970 while consuming the same amount of power. We have a smaller effect from overclocking at the higher resolutions, especially at 2560x1600 where the three versions of Radeon HD 5870 produce almost identical results. The Matrix 5870 doesn’t benefit from its 2 gigabytes of onboard memory, but we can see that its RV870 processor overclocked to 1 GHz can successfully compete with such solutions as the Nvidia GeForce GTX 480.
Overclocking the RV870 chip is not rewarding here. This game runs just as well on the ASUS Matrix 5870 as on any standard Radeon HD 5870. Performance can only be improved greatly by switching to dual-processor solutions such as the Radeon HD 5970.
This is the first time we can see a positive effect from 2 gigabytes of onboard graphics memory: the ASUS Matrix 5870 beats the reference card from AMD at 2560x1600 and has a higher bottom speed than the Radeon HD 5970. Alas, its frame rate is still lower than playable. The results we can see at the lower resolutions suggest that RV870-based products can match senior models based on the Nvidia GF100 chip. They only need a GPU clock rate of about 1 GHz for that.
It is only at 2560x1600 that the ASUS card can match the GeForce GTX 480 in Far Cry 2 in terms of average frame rate. The regular Radeon HD 5870 allows playing at the same resolution while having a lower price and consuming less power whereas the Radeon HD 5970 has a comparable power draw but is faster than the ASUS.
This game is tested without multisampling antialiasing as it worsens the textures and provokes a performance hit.
When overclocked to a GPU frequency of 1 GHz, the ASUS Matrix 5870 is close to the Radeon HD 5970 at 1920x1080 but the dual-processor flagship goes ahead at 2560x1600. Generally speaking, such extreme overclocking is not really rewarding. It doesn’t open up new opportunities and display modes at standard resolutions. As for nonstandard ones, for example with multiple monitors in panoramic mode, something faster than a single Radeon HD 5870 is needed.
We use the game’s DirectX 10.1 and DirectX 11 modes for graphics cards that support them.
Overclocking makes the ASUS card equal to the Radeon HD 5970 at 1600x900. At the higher resolutions the Matrix 5870 can only compete with the GeForce GTX 480, but that’s good, too. Its bottom speed grows up at 2560x1600, yet that’s not enough to make the game playable. The Radeon HD 5970 doesn’t offer a playable frame rate at the highest resolution, either.
This game’s integrated benchmark does not report the bottom frame rate.
The ASUS Matrix 5870 outperforms the reference card at the default frequencies. When overclocked, the ASUS speeds up and wins the test at 1600x900. It is also a mere couple of frames per second behind the Radeon HD 5970 at 1920x1080. The latter card wins at 2560x1600, even though its bottom speed is barely playable then.
The game has too modest system requirements for such a top-end solution as the ASUS Matrix 5870 to show its best. Anyway, the card delivers high performance at 1600x900 and 1920x1080 when overclocked to 1 GHz. It cannot match the Radeon HD 5970 at 2560x1600 yet its speed is high enough for comfortable play.
We enforced full-screen antialiasing using the method described in our special Mass Effect 2 review.
There is little profit from overclocking the Matrix 5870 as well as from its having 2 gigabytes of onboard graphics memory. It is only at a resolution of 2560x1600 pixels that we can see some tangible benefits as the bottom speed improves up to the level of the GeForce GTX 480. We guess such practical benefits, however small they may be, are more important than a huge advantage in numbers which does not affect your actual gaming experience.
We enable the DirectX 11 mode for graphics cards that support it.
From a gamer’s point of view, there is no practical difference between the regular Radeon HD 5870 and the premium-class Matrix 5870 as both allow using any resolution up to 2560x1600, the frame rate being never lower than 38 frames per second. Overclocking may only be interesting from a theoretical standpoint. Take note that the Radeon HD 5870 cannot catch up with the GeForce GTX 480 at the two lower resolutions even if overclocked to a GPU clock rate of 1 GHz. This must be due to Nvidia’s modern solutions being more effective at processing in-game geometry.
The game’s integrated benchmark cannot report the bottom frame rate. We use DirectX 10 and 10.1 modes here.
It is at the resolution of 1600x900 that we can see the biggest effect from our overclocking. There is almost no such effect at 2560x1600 even if the GPU frequency is increased to 1 GHz. The Matrix 5870 ensures a subjectively smooth gameplay anyway whereas the GeForce GTX 480 is challenged by the Radeon HD 5970.
We use DirectX 11 mode for graphics cards that support it.
We’ve got rather unexpected results here. As opposed to the regular Radeon HD 5870, the ASUS Matrix 5870 could show an acceptable bottom speed at 1600x900. We cannot explain this by our overclocking, so this must be due to the 2 gigabytes of onboard graphics memory. However, this effect is not observed at the higher resolutions.
The Radeon HD 5970 is unrivalled here. The ASUS card improves the bottom speed at 2560x1600 through overclocking and makes the game more comfortable to play and easier to control. Overclocking the Matrix 5870 to play StarCraft II is certainly rewarding because this game requires that the gamer responds very quickly.
Like in Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X., it is at 1600x900 that we see the biggest effect from overclocking. It lowers at the higher resolutions, down to nought at 2560x1600. So, there is no reason here to strain your graphics card by overclocking its GPU to 1 GHz and increasing its GPU voltage.
We minimize the CPU’s influence by using the Extreme profile (1920x1200, 4x FSAA and anisotropic filtering). We also publish the results of the individual tests across all resolutions.
The Radeon HD 5970 is unrivalled still, but the ASUS Matrix 5870 overclocked to 1 GHz outperforms the GeForce GTX 480. That’s an achievement considering how cheaper and simpler the RV870 is in comparison with the GF100.
In both tests the GeForce GTX 480 is brilliant at 1600x900 but the overclocked ASUS Matrix 5870 looks just as good or better at the higher resolutions. This shows again that the Nvidia Fermi architecture, even though very effective at processing geometrical information, often fails at high resolutions due to insufficient texture-mapping resources.
This benchmark produces an incomprehensible result in points, so we use Fraps to get more understandable numbers. It can only run at 1280x720 and 1920x1080.
The Radeon HD 5000 architecture has no rivals in this test as is confirmed by the results of the overclocked Matrix 5870 at 1920x1080. The GeForce GTX 480 makes the game just as comfortable to play, yet it is on Radeon HD 5800 series cards that Final Fantasy XIV runs best.
The results of the Radeon HD 5970 are due to the lack of appropriate software optimizations. We guess the developer will have corrected this problem by the official release of the game.
Things are different in this benchmark which was originally optimized for the Fermi architecture. The GeForce GTX 480 is the only solution to deliver a playable frame rate (if Unigine Heaven were a playable game rather than a benchmark) and the Radeon HD 5870 cannot do anything about that even when overclocked. The Radeon HD 5970 has problems with bottom speed in this test.
What are the highs and lows of the ASUS Matrix 5870 graphics card we have tested today? This version of Radeon HD 5870 is not actually the fastest we have seen. The Gigabyte Radeon HD 5870 SO we discussed in an earlier review was pre-overclocked more than the ASUS card, for example. It is also neither the quietest, nor the most economical nor the coldest version of Radeon HD 5870 as we know of better models in each of these parameters. What makes the ASUS Matrix 5870 unique is that it offers broad opportunities for overclocking and controlling its own parameters. Using them, we easily overclocked our card’s GPU to 1 GHz without any additional software or hardware tools: everything, including the iTracker 2 software, was already included into the Matrix 5870 box.
And now let’s see what practical benefits such overclocking can bring about. We will be discussing the card’s performance at the overclocked GPU frequency and increased GPU voltage since this is the first time in our practice that a Radeon HD 5870 passes the full cycle of tests at a GPU frequency of 1 GHz.
Compared to the reference Radeon HD 5870, our overclocked Matrix 5870 is 7 to 40% faster depending on the particular game. The average performance increase is a substantial 18%. However, it is not in all tests that the overclocked Matrix 5870 could match the GeForce GTX 480. Nvidia’s Fermi architecture does not yet feel a lack of texture-mapping resources at that resolution, but can benefit from its higher performance when processing geometrical data. The resulting score is 7 to 12, Nvidia wins. The Radeon HD 5970 is ahead of the overclocked Matrix 5870 everywhere save for two tests, Just Cause 2 and Final Fantasy XIV Official Benchmark (the Radeon HD 5970 fails in the latter benchmark due to the lack of software optimizations for CrossFire mode).
At a resolution of 1920x1080 the average performance growth over the reference Radeon HD 5870 is 21%, yet the GeForce GTX 480 still wins with a score of 10 to 9. We guess this score indicates that the potential of the RV870 core is not yet exhausted.
When it comes to 2560x1600, the overclocked Matrix 5870 is only an average 13% ahead of its reference counterpart because there are other limiting factors here, besides GPU frequency. We mean the card’s TMU and RBE subsystems, for example. The ASUS card still wins the same number of tests in its competition with the GeForce GTX 480. We want to note that our overclocking of the Matrix 5870 to a GPU frequency of 1 GHz helped make the gameplay more comfortable in such games as Mass Effect 2 and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
Now what about the double amount of graphics memory? We must confess that the ASUS Matrix 5870 does not benefit much from having 2 gigabytes of onboard memory. The single exception is Crysis Warhead but the card’s performance was too low anyway for the difference to have any practical value. It seems that you really need more than 1 gigabytes of onboard memory to achieve a faster frame rate in games based on the Crysis Warhead engine, but you also need a much faster GPU.
Summing everything up, the ASUS Matrix 5870 looks like the best choice for an overclocker or enthusiast as it offers such control over the graphics card’s parameters as no other manufacturer can offer. The LED highlighting will look nice in a system case with a side window. But if you are an ordinary gamer and want a Radeon HD 5870, we wouldn’t recommend this version to you. It is rather noisy and its power consumption is comparable to the faster Radeon HD 5970 while its price is going to be higher than that of most other Radeon HD 5870 variants. If you want a graphics card for gaming and nothing more, you may prefer the Gigabyte GV-R587SO-1GD or even any Radeon HD 5870 with reference cooler.