by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
01/27/2011 | 03:04 PM
It is at the $100 mark that the separating line between gaming and nongaming graphics cards goes. All modern graphics solutions above that line are more or less capable of running today's games (perhaps not all games or not at all display resolutions, but anyway). The cheaper products are meant for multimedia applications in the first place such as decoding and reproducing HD video. If used for gaming, they are usually required to run either old or simple games, something like the Sims series.
It is in the sub-$100 category that we can see Nvidia's junior Fermi-based solution, the GeForce GT 430 card, take its residence. As our earlier tests showed, Nvidia's desire to make the new entry-level GPU as simple as possible affected the performance of GF108-based products most negatively. Lacking half the texture-mapping units and raster back-ends in comparison with the GF215 (GeForce GT 240), the GT 430 proved to be inferior to its predecessor in most of our gaming tests.
We can remind you that the GeForce GT 240 itself had been likewise inferior to the GeForce 9600 GT, so we can see a clear trend towards lower performance among Nvidia’s low-end products. Performance is sacrificed for the sake of functionality. For example, the GF108 features an improved video processor and supports Protected Audio Path. This shift towards broader functionality at the expense of performance is quite justifiable in sub-$100 products.
However, many of our readers showed an interest in the results of the GeForce GT 430 in gaming tests and inquired about its overclocking potential. Our general position towards overclocking graphics cards is that that’s hardly a rewarding business. If the card is already fast enough, the extra 10-15% of speed you can get by safe overclocking just won’t be really needed. And if the card is too slow at its default clock rates, it is very likely to remain slow even with those extra 15% added to its frame rate.
On the other hand, it is entry-level products that benefit the most from overclocking, therefore we are going to return to the Fermi Ultra Lite once again and see what that tiny chip is capable of when overclocked. People from Axle were kind to offer us to test their GeForce GT 430 version with the model name of AX-GT430/1GSD3P8CDI. We’ll call it just Axle GeForce GT 430.
Like the Axle Radeon HD 5670 we reviewed earlier, the Axle GeForce GT 430 comes in a plain-looking box which is mostly white. Not a very popular color among graphics card makers, by the way.
Besides a picture, there is information about the card's memory and solid-state capacitors on the front of the box. Such capacitors are employed more and more often nowadays. Besides the graphics card, the box contains a few accessories.
The accessories are in fact limited to an installation guide and a CD with drivers. The guide is concise but should help an inexperienced user to install and run the card. There is also a leaflet in the box warning about dangers that might damage the card, like a failure of the cooler's fan.
There are no cables or adapters in the box but you won’t need them since the Axle GeForce GT 430 is equipped with three types of connectors: DVI, D-Sub and HDMI. Overall, the packaging and accessories of the Axle card are up to the product class the GeForce GT 430 belongs with. Therefore we don't have any complaints about them.
As opposed to the Gigabyte GV-N430OC-1GL (GV-N430OC-1GL) we reviewed earlier, the Axle AX-GT430/1GSD3P8CDI is a full-size card which will not fit into a low-profile system case unless the latter allows to turn the PCI Express slot by 90 degrees by means of an adapter.
Moreover, the Axle card has a dual-slot cooler requiring a free slot above the card's own. By the way, this particular model is not listed at the manufacturer's website. Instead, you can see an AX-GT430/1GD3P8CI model there with a completely different PCB and another cooler.
Removing the cooler, we saw a sparsely populated PCB. The power circuit is based on Richtek RT8105 and RT9259 controllers.
The GF108 being a highly economical chip, there is no need for an external power connector.
The graphics card carries eight IDSH1G-04A1F1C-16G memory chips from the defunct Qimonda AG. These DDR3 chips have a capacity of 1 gigabit (16 Mb x 16). The memory bus is 128 bits wide. The 16G suffix indicates a rated frequency of 800 (1600) MHz. This is a rather odd choice because the memory frequency of the reference GeForce GT 430 is 900 (1800) MHz. Axle must have accumulated a large stock of such chips and now have to use them somehow. This particular graphics card has a memory frequency of 700 (1400) MHz which is even lower than the rated frequency of the employed chips, let alone the official GeForce GT 430 specs. The peak memory bandwidth is only 22.4 GBps. That would be impressive for some Matrox Parhelia in 2002 but looks a very low number even for an entry-level solution today, in 2011.
As opposed to the previously reviewed model from Gigabyte, Axle’s GT 430 features a GPU frame that protects the graphics core in case the cooler is misaligned. The GPU die has the same marking as the one of the Gigabyte card, except for the date of manufacture, which is the 45th week of the last year. The GPU clock rates of 700/1400 comply with the official specs. The graphics core has a standard configuration with 96 stream processors, 16 texture-mapping units, and 4 raster back-ends. The GeForce GT 430 is inferior to the last-generation entry-level product GeForce GT 240 which has twice the number of TMUs and RBEs (32 and 8, respectively).
As is typical of inexpensive graphics cards, the Axle GeForce GT 430 is equipped with one DVI-I, one D-Sub and one HDMI connector. The PCB design provides for a DisplayPort instead of the HDMI, but we doubt such a version will ever be released. Unlike on half-height cards, the D-Sub connector is wired to the PCB in the traditional way which should ensure a higher image quality with analog connection. On the other hand, many graphics card makers do not pay much attention to this interface, focusing on the digital ones instead, so its implementation may be poor.
The cooling system is very simple. It is an aluminum heatsink fastened to the PCB with four spring-loaded nuts. It contacts the GPU die through a layer of white thermal grease.
We saw a similar heatsink on the Axle Radeon HD 5670 but the fan is smaller here: 80 rather than 92 millimeters in diameter. Considering the low power consumption of the GF108, this cooling system should be able to cope just well.
One of the goals of this review is to check out the overclocking potential of GF108-based solutions without using special methods like hardware volt-modding which are too dangerous unless applied by experienced overclockers. Although the GeForce GT 430 doesn’t cost much, people will hardly want to risk losing it unless they buy it specifically to experiment.
Unfortunately, the overclocking potential of our sample was limited by its slow memory which could not work even at 900 (1800) MHz. The highest frequency we achieved was 825 (1650) MHz, or only 25 (50) MHz higher than the rated frequency of the memory chips. The card would produce visual artifacts at higher memory clock rates.
The GPU did much better, speeding up from its default 700/1400 to 850/1700 MHz. This is more than 20%, so we can expect a hefty performance boost in games. Perhaps the overclocked GeForce GT 430 will be able to maintain a playable frame rate at low resolutions without our lowering the graphics quality settings. We’ll check this out in the next section.
Here are the noise and temperature data for the overclocked card:
As you can see, the massive heatsink with 80mm fan easily copes with the GF108 chip overclocked to 850 MHz. The cooler even seems to be redundant for such a low-end graphics card. However, this cooling performance is achieved partially at the expense of noisiness. The cooler’s fan is audible in each mode, so the card is not noiseless. It may become the main source of noise in an otherwise silent HTPC, for example. The noise itself is quite agreeable to the ear, though. It is a soft whisper of the air rather than a rattle of the bearing or something. The fan is high quality.
So, the Axle GeForce GT 430 isn’t very appropriate for HTPCs due to its noisiness as well as large dimensions. An HTPC user may want to prefer a low-profile model like the Axle AX-GT430/1GSD3P8CDIL or the Gigabyte GV-N430OC-1GL. Our version is good for GPU overclocking, though, so let’s see what performance benefits it can provide us.
We are going to investigate the gaming performance of an overclocked Axle GeForce GT 430 using the following universal testbed:
We used the following ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers:
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. If the application supported tessellation, we enabled it for the test session.
For settings adjustment, we used 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 ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1600x900 and 1920x1080, because the former matches the type of graphics cards we are discussing today, and the latter complying with FullHD specs is the most popular resolution among the owners of monitors and TV-sets with large diagonal. In some particularly resource-hungry games we only ran the tests in 1600x900.
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 Axle GeForce GT 430, we 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 3.2.6. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average of the three for the performance charts.
The overclocked Axle GeForce GT 430 is as good as the Radeon HD 5570 GDDR2 but doesn’t reach a comfortable frame rate in this rather heavy 3D application.
Our overclocking improves the average frame rate of the GeForce GT 430 at 1600x900 but its bottom speed remains as low as 20 fps. The GeForce GT 240, on the contrary, easily delivers 24 frames per second you need to play with comfort. Clearly, the increased clock rates cannot make up for the difference in the number of TMUs and RBEs.
The overclocked frequencies help make the game playable at 1920x1080 on the GeForce GT 430. That's an achievement considering the modest performance of the card at its default clock rates.
Entry-level products cannot be expected to perform well in such a heavy application as Crysis Warhead even though our overclocking increases the average frame rate of the Axle card by 17%.
We can see the benefits from overclocking clearly: the overclocked Axle GeForce GT 430 is as fast as the Radeon HD 5670 at 1600x900 and goes ahead in terms of the bottom frame rate at 1920x1080. Although there is almost no reserve of speed, the Full HD mode becomes playable!
This game is tested with tessellation turned on.
Like Crysis Warhead, this game is designed for products from a higher class than the GeForce GT 430 or even GTS 450. Overclocking can't help here.
We turn tessellation on in this game.
The results are not as depressing as in the previous test: the average frame rate of the overclocked Axle GeForce GT 430 is quite high but the bottom speed remains below comfortable.
The overclocked Axle overtakes the GeForce GT 240 yet cannot make Just Cause 2 playable.
Like in the previous game, you cannot play normally unless you lower the graphics quality settings. And even if you do, it is arguable whether the GeForce GT 430 will be able to deliver a playable frame rate at 1600x900.
When overclocked to GPU frequencies of 850/1700 MHz, the Axle GeForce GT 430 allows playing at 1920x1080. That’s very good for an $80 graphics card!
We enforced full-screen antialiasing using the method described in our special Mass Effect 2 review.
The bottom speed of the overclocked Axle GeForce GT 430 is somewhat short of the desired 25 fps at 1920x1080, yet the game seems to be playable anyway. The Axle card is only inferior to the Radeon HD 5670 here.
We enable tessellation in this game.
The GeForce GT 240 is the only card to have a high speed at 1920x1080 but it just lacks DirectX 11 support. Our overclocking helps the Axle card speed up to a comfortable level at 1600x900.
Our overclocking improves the performance of the GeForce GT 430 but doesn’t make the game playable even at 1600x900.
The average frame rate of the GeForce GT 430 improves by about 20% at 1600x900 when we overclock it, the bottom speed increasing from 24 to 29 fps. The card cannot keep the frame rate at the comfortable level in the Full HD mode, though.
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 overclocked GeForce GT 430 is almost as fast as the GeForce GT 240 in 3DMark Vantage. Not bad considering that the GF108-based solution has fewer TMUs and RBEs.
The Axle GeForce GT 430 doesn’t look so good in the individual tests even when overclocked. It’s only at the resolution of 1600x900 in the second test that it is slightly ahead of the GeForce GT 240.
This benchmark can only run at 1280x720 and 1920x1080.
The GF108 processor performs much better in this test when overclocked. The overclocked Axle is very close behind the Radeon HD 5670 despite this test’s predilection towards AMD’s graphics architecture.
This benchmark makes wide use of tessellation to render the surface of the earth. The number of polygons per one frame can be as high as 1.5 million!
The increased frequencies and the benefits of the Fermi architecture help the overclocked GeForce GT 430 match the Radeon HD 5670 despite the difference in their memory subsystem specs. The Axle card is fast enough even at 1920x1080.
We use Normal tessellation in this test.
Our overclocking provides a 15% performance boost in this test, making the GeForce GT 430 second only to the Radeon HD 5670.
We’ve seen no wonders benchmarking our GeForce GT 430 at GPU frequencies of 850/1700 MHz. It couldn’t step up into the category of more expensive products. On the other hand, we can't call this experiment absolutely useless. It is one of those rare cases when overclocking is not just a matter of personal pride but a practical means of making some games more enjoyable.
Depending on the specific test, the 20% increase in the GPU frequencies of the Axle GeForce GT 430 leads to a performance increase of 13 to 22%, or about 17% on average. This is a good result, especially considering the limiting effect of the card’s slow memory.
The overclocked Axle couldn’t outperform the GeForce GT 240, but the latter is an outdated solution without DirectX 11 support. More importantly, our overclocking helped the Axle card beat the Radeon HD 5570 GDDR5 and make the resolution of 1920x1080 playable in such games as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Far Cry 2, Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect 2. Its performance was also high enough for comfortable play at 1600x900 in Colin McRae: Dirt 2 and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Considering the price of the GeForce GT 430, that’s quite an achievement, especially as the frame rate is going to be even higher if you switch to the lower resolution of 1366x768 pixels.
Heavy applications like Crysis Warhead and Metro 2033 remained unplayable, of course, but they are not designed for entry-level solutions however hard you may overclock the latter. The opportunity to play full-featured games is itself precious and we just can’t demand anything else from an $80 card. Besides, a cheap device like this can make a good trainer for would-be overclockers because you don’t lose much money if you do something wrong and damage it.
Axle's GeForce GT 430 version that we used can hardly be recommended for HTPCs because it is large and rather noisy but it can make a good inexpensive discrete graphics card for an entry-level desktop computer. It can also be used as a dedicated CUDA/PhysX accelerator or, as we’ve said above, serving as a training ground for commencing overclockers.