by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
01/29/2009 | 04:47 PM
Now that Nvidia has issued a symmetric response to ATI’s Radeon HD 4870 X2, it is clear that the multi-GPU paradigm is utterly victorious or close to that in the premium graphics card sector. However, the ordinary single-chip architecture hasn’t yet completely given up. In one of our previous reports we tested Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 280 and ATI’s Radeon HD 4850 X2 belonging to the same price category. Nvidia’s product lost, but the main reason for that defeat seemed to be not in the G200 architecture as such, but in the low frequencies of the GPU.
Even before we published that review, EVGA’s graphics cards with the new 55nm revision of the G200 chip had landed on the market. The first of them was the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216. Although its default frequencies had been left intact at 576MHz for the main domain and 1240MHz for the shader domain, our attempt to overclock it was a tremendous success. Effortlessly and without any extreme overclocking methods we managed to lift the clock rates up to 715/1541MHz, which was sufficient proof of the significantly improved frequency potential of the G200b chip. When overclocked, the new GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 not only caught up with but outperformed the GeForce GTX 280 in most of our tests! Of course, we began to look forward to a successor to the GeForce GTX 280, too.
January 13, Nvidia began to ship two new G200b-based graphics cards, GeForce GTX 295 and GeForce GTX 285. The former was a response to ATI’s Radeon HD 4870 X2 as a classic dual-chip solution that traced its origin back to the GeForce 7950 GX2. The GTX 285 resembled the GeForce 8800 Ultra as it was only different from its predecessor GeForce GTX 280 with increased GPU and memory frequencies.
As opposed to the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216, the core of the GeForce GTX 285 works in its full configuration including 240 unified shader processors, 80 texture processors and 32 raster back-ends.
Considering the recommended prices, the GeForce GTX 285 is the direct opponent to the Radeon HD 4850 X2, but it would be too optimistic to expect the same performance from the new card considering the modest frequency growth. If this is so, what frequencies would a G200b-based card need to be competitive to the RV770 duo? Good for us, EVGA has issued one of the fastest versions of GeForce GTX 285 available. It is called EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC.
EVGA’s product boxes are all alike. As opposed to the box of the EVGA GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked kit we tested earlier, the model name and the company’s logo are silver rather than gray on this one.
There are almost no other differences. Unfortunately, the graphics memory type is indicated wrongly again: DDR3 instead of GDDR3. The box is rather small and can easily fit into a standard plastic bag. There is a window in the back of the box for you to take a look at the part of the card with the serial number. Below the window there is a sticker with the same number. This confirms the authenticity of the product and makes it eligible for the EVGA Step-Up program.
The protective properties of this packaging are somewhat worse than with the EVGA GeForce GTX 295+. Instead of a foam-rubber tray there is a plastic container like the one we saw in the EVGA GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked kit. Anyway, the card is quite protected against any hazards during transportation and storage. Fixed within the container, the graphics car is accompanied with the following accessories:
The accessories are the same as those included with the above-mentioned EVGA GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked except that there is no copy of Far Cry 2 here. That’s not good since the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC is a gaming card. On the other hand, there is everything in the box that you need to install and use this card.
As usual, the disc contains the driver and a couple of useful tools: Fraps 2.9.6 and EVGA Precision (an overclocking and monitoring program). Unfortunately, EVGA’s Voltage Tuner (a tool for adjusting the card’s GPU voltage) is not included. Moreover, this tool will at first only support graphics cards with a Volterra VT1165 controller in the power circuit (i.e. the GeForce GTX 280 and 260 based on the 65nm G200 core, and the GeForce GTX 295).
Thus, the packaging of the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC is good, but we think the accessories are rather too scanty for a product that claims to be the fastest single-chip graphics card available. This deficiency is made up for by good factory overclocking, though.
Developing a simpler and cheaper PCB was a must for the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 but it is a questionable solution with respect to the GeForce GTX 285. However, Nvidia has indeed come up with a completely revised PCB for the new card.
The PCB is the same length of 27 centimeters, so the single-chip GeForce GTX 285 is no shorter than its dual-chip brother, but we can see it right away that the PCB is completely new. The memory chips have all moved to the face side of the PCB, probably to reduce the number of PCB layers on which factor the manufacturing cost of a PCB depends heavily. As we know, the number of layers has reduced from 14 to 10, which is a good saving. It is especially good considering the high cost of the G200 chip, even in its 55nm version.
More differences can be seen when we remove the cooler:
The new design is somewhat less chaotic in the power section of the card. As opposed to the older PCB of the GeForce GTX 280, the capacitors, power transistors and chokes are all placed in neat rows here. Besides everything else, this should make it simpler to develop nonstandard coolers for the new card.
The GPU voltage regulator has six phases with two power transistors in each phase. There are additional seats on the PCB to add one more transistor into each phase, though. The regulator is based on an Intersil ISL6327 controller, which explains why EVGA’s software tool for increasing the GPU voltage does not yet work with the GeForce GTX 285 as well as with the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 that employs the 55nm version of the G200 GPU. The current version of that program supports another controller, the Volterra VT1165.
A dedicated dual-phase regulator is responsible for the memory chips. It is controlled by a mysterious chip marked as BR=AK 11E.
Interestingly, both power connectors are of the 6-pin variety whereas the older GeForce GTX 280 used to have one 6-pin and one 8-pin connector and if you plugged a 6-pin cable into the latter, the card would not start up, reporting power problems by means of a red LED. This is just one more indication of the significant reduction in power consumption of the 55nm G200 in comparison with the 65nm version. There is a 2-pin S/PDIF connector next to the power plugs for translating an external audio stream into HDMI.
The card’s 16 memory chips are all installed on the face side of the PCB and make up a 1024MB bank with 512-bit access. This sample of GeForce GTX 285 uses GDDR3 chips from Hynix (H5RS5223CFR-N3C) with a capacity of 512Mb (16Mb x 32). These are the fastest chips in the series. They are rated for a voltage of 2.05V and a clock rate of 1300 (2600) MHz. The reference GeForce GTX 285 has a memory frequency of 1242 (2484) MHz, but EVGA squeezed everything out of the chips and lifted the memory frequency up to 1323 (2646) MHz. The resulting memory bandwidth is increased from 158.9GBps to 169.3GBps, which is a record-breaking value for a single-chip graphics card. Considering the simplified wiring and very high default frequency, there is little room for further overclocking.
The GPU is marked as G200-350-B3, being different from cores installed on the GeForce GTX 295 (G200-400-B3) and on the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 (G200-103-B2). The GPU-Z tool still doesn’t have the revision number of the G200b chip right, reporting B1 for all of them and not telling you the die size and the amount of transistors. Therefore we can remind you that the G200b is 470 sq. mm large and incorporates 1.4 billion transistors.
Our sample of the GPU was manufactured on the 47th week of the last year, i.e. between November 16 and 22. The reference GeForce GTX 285 has GPU clock rates of 648/1476MHz, but EVGA’s card belongs to the SSC series and its main domain frequency is increased to 702MHz while its shader and texture-mapping section is clocked at 1584MHz. The numbers are high for a 1.4-billion-transistor chip even considering the 55nm tech process. We don’t think it can be overclocked more unless you use some extreme overclocking methods. We will check this out shortly, though. The GPU works in its full possible configuration: 240 shader processors, 80 texture processors and 32 raster back-ends.
Despite its terrific complexity, the G200 does not incorporate display connectors which are implemented as an individual NVIO chip you can find near the DVI connectors. There is a bonding pad for a DisplayPort translator above it. We have never seen a GeForce GTX 200 card with such a chip installed, although it would be more appropriate on a modern graphics card than the set of analog video outputs provided by the mini-DIN connector. There is a light pipe above the latter – its end is in the card’s mounting bracket. At the other end of the light pipe there are two LEDs, red and green, which will report any problems with power supply.
Triple SLI technology can hardly be interesting after the release of the GeForce GTX 295. There is no point in building a bulky subsystem out of three cards when you can assemble a more compact and higher-performing system of two cards. However, the GeForce GTX 285 supports Triple-SLI with its two MIO connectors.
Like 55nm modifications of GeForce GTX 260, the GeForce GTX 285 is equipped with a new reference cooler which is somewhat simplified in comparison with the GeForce GTX 280 cooler. The simplification mostly concerns the heatsink that has become smaller. Besides, the heat pipe that used to cool the load-bearing elements of the voltage regulator is missing now.
It is this section of the cooling system that has been simplified the most, actually. There are even no contact spots with a thermal interface now, and the power transistors are only cooled by the airflow from the fan that comes through the wide slits in the base. The only exceptions are the two inductance coils of the memory voltage regulator. The memory and NVIO chips contact with the cooler’s base through fabric pads soaked in white thermal grease whereas the GPU chip gives its heat away through a layer of dark-gray dense thermal grease to the copper sole that is connected to the heatsink with heat pipes.
The cooler is equipped with a 5.76W blower typical of Nvidia’s products. Its noise characteristics are quite comfortable. At least its motor doesn’t produce the annoying rattling sound like the coolers of the Radeon HD 4870 and HD 4870 X2.
The overall concept of the GeForce GTX 285 design is obvious enough. The engineers have tried to reduce the manufacturing cost of the card. However, the PCB and cooler are designed cleverly from a technical point of view, making this card eligible to the title of the best single-chip graphics card available. We will see if this claim is true in our gaming tests.
Information about the power consumption of the GeForce GTX 285 is highly important, so we performed our usual test on a specially configured testbed:
Following our standard method, the 3D load was created by means of the first SM3.0/HDR test from 3DMark06 running in a loop at 1600x1200 with 4x FSAA and 16x AF. The Peak 2D mode was emulated by means of the 2D Transparent Windows test from PCMark05. This test is important as it simulates the user’s working with application windows whereas Windows Vista’s Aero interface uses 3D features.
Click to enlarge
According to our test, the new card has a peak power consumption of 150W at the reference frequencies and 161W at the pre-overclocked frequencies. This is very good in comparison with the slower Radeon HD 4870, let alone the Radeon HD 4850 X2 which needs over 200W. The information about the distribution of load among the individual power lines suggests that there is indeed no need for 8-pin connectors: the load on the external +12V lines is below 75W even with the pre-overclocked card from EVGA. Like every GeForce GTX 200 series solution, the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC lowers the GPU clock rates to 300/600MHz and the memory frequency to 100 (200) MHz when idle to save power in 2D mode.
The EVGA is not cool because it has a simplified cooler. Its GPU temperature is lower in idle mode than that of the 65nm GeForce GTX 280 but as high as that of the GeForce GTX 295 under load.
On the other hand, even 86°C is far from critical for a modern GPU. Moreover, the high temperature is made up for by the rather comfortable noise parameters of the card.
The only noise the EVGA card produces is the hiss of the airflow as it is passing through the heatsink and being exhausted through the card’s mounting bracket. Never in our long tests did the card increase its fan speed. Thus, the rather high temperatures in 3D mode are due to the relaxed settings of the fan control system. Generally speaking, it is far more comfortable to be near a system that has an EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC inside than near one that has a Radeon HD 4870 X2 or a Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 X2.
Our overclocking attempt was a failure. We managed to increase the GPU clock rates from the default 702/1584MHz to 720/1624MHz and also lift the memory frequency up to 1400 (2800) MHz but the card eventually proved to be unstable.
We then dropped the CPU frequency to 710MHz, but the card got unstable after a while, again. Therefore we had to roll back to the default clock rates and give up the idea of benchmarking the EVGA card at overclocked frequencies. We were not surprised much at our failure. The G200 is too complex after all. Even on 55nm tech process this core seems to have a frequency limit at about 700/1600MHz unless you resort to extreme overclocking methods like increasing the GPU voltage. We could not check this out because EVGA’s tool for controlling this parameter only supports cards with a Volterra VT1165 controller whereas the voltage regulator of the GeForce GTX 285 is based on an Intersil ISL6327.
We are going to investigate the performance of our EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC graphics card using the following testbed:
The graphics card drivers were configured in the same way as before: to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of default software optimizations. We enabled transparent texture filtering, and we used multisampling mode for both graphics architectures, because ATI solutions do not support supersampling for this function. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:
We made a lot of changes to the list of games and benchmarks we normally use for our tests in order to meet the contemporary standards. As a result, it currently includes the following titles:
First-Person 3D Shooters
Third-Person 3D Shooters
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 made a few exceptions for selected games if that was necessary. We are going to specifically dwell on each exception like that later on in our article.
Besides EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:
We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1280x1024, 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC was tested at its nominal frequencies and at the Nvidia recommended frequencies. 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 ForceWare drivers.
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 2.9.8. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average of the three for the performance charts.
The GeForce GTX 285 is not impressive at first, being inferior to the Radeon HD 4850 X2. The per-overclocked can only provide a small increase in bottom speed. But starting from the resolution of 1920x1200 the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC overtakes the dual-chip card from ATI and leaves it behind at 2560x1600, delivering a playable frame rate. Thus, top-end single-chip solutions seem to have high potential yet. Let’s see if this trend continues in the other tests.
Well, the new single-chip card from Nvidia easily outperforms its dual-chip ATI opponent while EVGA’s factory overclocking ensures it a nice performance boost. The game even seems to be playable at 1280x1024 with the highest graphics quality settings.
The frame rate is fixed at 30fps in this game as this is the rate at which all events are synchronized during networked play. We disabled this limit in the game console for the sake of comparing the cards. The game’s built-in benchmarking options do not provide information about the bottom speed, so there is no such info in the diagrams.
We can see performance improvements right away, especially at 1680x1050 where the single-chip flagship from Nvidia easily outperforms the Radeon HD 4850 X2. The additional overclocking by EVGA helps the card at the higher resolutions. This is an excellent result considering its lower power consumption and better noise characteristics.
The EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC can only equal the Radeon HD 4850 X2 in terms of average frame rate at the resolution of 2560x1600, but has a comparable or higher bottom speed at resolutions from 1680x1050. Moreover, its bottom speed is three times as high as that of its dual-chip opponent at the highest resolution, ensuring comfortable gameplay. Added the low level of noise and acceptable thermal characteristics, the EVGA card seems to be the overall winner in this test!
The game runs on the Source engine and has an integrated benchmark, but the latter does not report the bottom speed information.
The GeForce GTX 285 is as fast as the Radeon HD 4850 X2 at the reference frequencies whereas the pre-overclocked version from EVGA offers even more performance. The performance growth isn’t as high as to affect the gamer’s experience, though. Anyway, it is clear enough that single-chip graphics cards can challenge multi-GPU solutions as yet.
To achieve a playable speed in this game we disabled FSAA and such resource-consuming options as Sun rays, Wet surfaces and Volumetric Smoke. We use the Enhanced full dynamic lighting (DX10) mode for our test and additionally enabled the DirectX 10.1 mode for the ATI cards.
It is all different in Clear Sky: the pre-overclocked EVGA cannot compete with the Radeon HD 4850 X2 at resolutions above 1280x1024 even though the gap is only really large at 2560x1600. ATI’s solution is unrivalled in the highest display mode, being the only card to ensure a more or less acceptable bottom speed.
This game prefers Nvidia’s GPUs and is still incompatible with ATI’s CrossFireX technology. Therefore the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC claims absolute victory. This card ensures a tremendous reserve of speed at every resolution, including 2560x1600, at both reference and pre-overclocked frequencies. We can also note that its bottom speed is about 50% higher than that of the GeForce GTX 280 at 2560x1600.
Even the relatively small growth of the clock rates of the GeForce GTX 285 over those of its 65nm G200-based predecessor has a big effect in Devil May Cry 4. The speed has grown up by 29-39% depending on the resolution. This is enough to beat the Radeon HD 4850 X2 at 1920x1200. The pre-overclocked version from EVGA is victorious at every resolution, including 2560x1600.
The new reincarnation of the legendary arcade has rather high video subsystem requirements. Only one graphics card in this test session can deliver a comfortable speed at 1920x1200. It is the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC. Although the Radeon HD 4850 X2 is only 8% slower, the bottom speed of ATI’s solution is barely acceptable at that resolution. So, Nvidia’s card is a better choice for playing this game. Note also that there is no difference between the reference GeForce GTX 285 and the pre-overclocked version from EVGA in this test.
Three different cards on Nvidia G200/G200b lines up once after another according with their die configuration and clock frequencies, so the top position was naturally occupied by EVGA solution. Although it fell far behind Radeon HD 4850 X2 in average speed in 2560х1600, EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC demonstrated comparable minimal performance. Together with its other great consumer advantages, this makes EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC an even better choice for Fallout 3 fans with appropriate monitors. However, you may also want to check out ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB, at least if it is equipped with a quieter cooling system than the reference.
The frame rate grows up from the GeForce GTX 280 through GeForce GTX 285 and EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC almost linearly. As a result, the latter is competitive to the Radeon HD 4850 X2 in performance but superior to it in other consumer qualities such as noisiness. The ATI solution only wins at 2560x1600, but this has no practical value since every tested graphics card is too slow in this mode.
The ordinary GeForce GTX 285 cannot beat the Radeon HD 4850 X2 although maintains a high frame rate at every resolution, including 2560x1600. The pre-overclocked version from EVGA is close to ATI’s dual-chip monster at two out of the four tested resolutions. It also delivers high performance at the other two resolutions, so we wouldn’t count this in as a loss, especially as the GTX 285 has much lower power consumption and heat dissipation.
The GeForce GTX 285 is the first single-chip graphics card from Nvidia to ensure a playable bottom speed at resolutions higher than 1280x1024. This is very good considering the preferences of this game’s engine. Well, the Radeon HD 4850 X2 is indeed the best, even though very hot, choice for this game.
The game has a built-in frame rate limiter set at 30fps.
Alas, Red Alert 3 is even more biased to one GPU developer than the X³: Terran Conflict. It is only with the dual-chip GeForce GTX 295 that you can achieve an acceptable 4x MSAA performance with the current version of the GeForce driver.
The ordinary GeForce GTX 285 with the reference frequencies is a little slower than the Radeon HD 4850 X2 but ensures the same level of comfort overall. The SSC version from EVGA is as fast as ATI’s solution and even somewhat ahead at 1680x1050. Anyway, neither card can provide an acceptable bottom speed at 2560x1600.
The GeForce GTX 285 is not much better than the GTX 280 in 3DMark06, but this should have been expected considering the configuration of our new testbed and the default settings of this benchmark. So, we have to acknowledge once again that 3DMark06 is no good for benchmarking modern top-performance graphics hardware, even though we can observe a performance growth in the SM2.0 group of tests.
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 display resolutions to provide a full picture.
The new card is much better than the GeForce GTX 280 in this test: the pre-overclocked EVGA scores 1000 points more. The ordinary GeForce GTX 285 also brings about a nice performance boost, especially as its only difference from the predecessor is in the GPU and memory clock rates.
The speed of the G200-based cards grows up linearly irrespective of the resolution, and even the junior model of the series is far faster than the Radeon HD 4870 1GB or Radeon HD 4850 X2. We have already noted the odd behavior of the latter card in 3DMark Vantage in one of our earlier reports.
The GeForce GTX 285 is not superior in the second test, even though the pre-overclocked version from EVGA overtakes the Radeon HD 4850 X2. The reference version is somewhat behind its opponent.
Notwithstanding the triumph of dual-chip homogeneous multi-GPU solutions in the sector of premium graphics cards, classic single-chip designs do not give up yet. Far from that, they can even put up a fight as our today’s test session has showed. The transition to 55nm tech process has helped the G200 processor to get rid of its main drawback, low frequency potential. As the result, the successor to the GeForce GTX 280 delivers high performance, being competitive to the seemingly more advanced Radeon HD 4850 X2 across a number of tests. Moreover, the pre-overclocked version of the card offered by EVGA is often faster than ATI’s solutions while boasting a far lower power draw.
Let’s discuss this in more detail.
The new card beats the Radeon HD 4850 X2 in five tests and has one draw, which is an achievement for a single-chip solution. The pre-overclocked version from EVGA has 8 wins and 1 draw; it is only in Fallout 3 that this card is far slower (by 20%) than its opponent. The average advantage over the Radeon HD 4850 X2 is about 6%. Coupled with the lower power draw and comfortable noise characteristics, the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC looks preferable.
The reference GeForce GTX 285 is 1 to 12% ahead of the GeForce GTX 280 at 1680x1050. The average advantage is about 10%. Compared with the Radeon HD 4850 X2, the new card has four wins and one draw (one win is due to the incorrect operation of CrossFireX technology in Dead Space). The maximum loss is 31% in Fallout 3. The pre-overclocked frequencies increase the performance of the GeForce GTX 285 by an average 6-7%, which ensures 6 wins. The Radeon HD 4850 X2 is far faster in Fallout 3, Red Alert 3 and X3: Terran Conflict, however.
The GeForce GTX 285 loses its ground as the resolution grows up. Working at the reference frequencies at 1920x1200, the new card is ahead of the Radeon HD 4850 X2 in three tests only, Dead Space, Devil May Cry 4 and Prince of Persia, but the average gap is not larger than 2%. The factory overclocking adds 8% to the card’s performance, ensuring seven wins in 15 tests.
The average advantage of the GeForce GTX 285 over the GTX 280 is about 13% at the highest resolution, but the Radeon HD 4850 X2 looks far better here. Nvidia’s card claims three wins only, and one of them is achieved due to the lack of software support for ATI’s multi-GPU technology in a specific game. The pre-overclocked version from EVGA is more confident, winning seven out of 15 tests.
The overall situation is rather ambiguous. The reference, non-overclocked GeForce GTX 285 resembles the GeForce 8800 Ultra to some extent. The performance growth thanks to the increased GPU and memory frequencies is not as big as to make the card competitive to the Radeon HD 4850 X2, especially at high resolutions. Higher frequencies, like those of the EVGA GeForce GTX 280 SSC, are necessary for that. The EVGA is competitive in terms of performance and even preferable with its other consumer properties, yet the final choice will depend on what exactly games you play. Some people will prefer the EVGA GeForce GTX 280 SSC while others will have to put up with the noisier and less economical Radeon HD 4850 X2.
As for the specific product we have worked with, we can say that from the technological standpoint EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC doesn’t really differ from Nvidia’s reference card. By the way, we don’t think there will be GeForce GTX 285 modifications out there with unique designs despite its simplified PCB. It is a very good graphics card which is often faster than the Radeon HD 4850 X2 thanks to factory overclocking. It is in fact the fastest single-chip graphics card today. You may only be disappointed with the scanty accessories, but this factor can hardly be decisive for a gaming card. If you need a fast but economical and quiet gaming solution which does not depend on software support for multi-GPU technologies, the EVGA GeForce GTX 285 SSC is one of the best options out there. Or you may want to check out EVGA’s similar product with the suffix FTW which comes with even higher GPU and memory frequencies.