Gaming at Beyond Full HD Resolutions Finally Made Affordable? - Force 3D Radeon HD 4870 Vs. Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 Review

It has been a traditional assumption that the monitor and system case should be priced comparably. However, the arrival of expensive processors and graphics accelerators made this statement very doubtful. Today we are going to check how well 300-dollar graphics cards can perform in video games in 2560x1600 resolution. We will test Force 3D Radeon HD 4870 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 260.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
08/19/2008 | 02:22 PM

The introduction of the new graphics card series from Nvidia and AMD’s graphics department ATI was a success in many respects. First, it changed our notions about graphics card performance. Second, there were price cuts concerning previous-generation graphics hardware. And third, the competition between the two main market players became tougher.

 

In fact, ATI and Nvidia did not compete in the same price sectors after the release of the GeForce 8800 GTX. They positioned their graphics cards differently, making it harder for the customer to make his choice. Few people base their shopping choice on the evasive price/quality ratio and few people know what they really need, but many of us believe in brands and model ranges. So, purchasing a graphics card was not easy for many users and this situation was especially unpleasant for AMD.

It changed dramatically with the Radeon HD 4800 release. ATI’s products became competitive to Nvidia’s, making Nvidia revise the pricing of its top- and premium-class solutions GeForce GTX 260 and 280.

Even more importantly, the Radeon HD 4800 series made many companies reconsider their attitude towards ATI’s products as well as relationships with Nvidia. For example, Gainward announced it would launch its HD 4850 and HD 4870 based cards, and ASK Technology, the owner of InnoVision Multimedia, created a new brand especially for its Radeon-based cards: Force3D.

This is all most important for AMD/ATI and Nvidia, but what about the end-user who wants to buy a high-quality product that would meet his ever-growing requirements? A few years ago 30-inch monitors with a resolution of 2560x1600 pixels were not only expensive but also required a very specific graphics subsystem consisting of two or even four GPUs to deliver high speed in video games. Today, 30-inch monitors are far more affordable and popular but installing a multi-GPU graphics subsystem in order to play at 2560x1600 still seems unhandy for many users.

Today, we will see if $300 graphics cards can deliver a playable frame rate in popular games at a resolution of 2560x1600 and with 4x FSAA (where possible). We’ll also describe the Radeon HD 4870 as it comes from the new Force3D brand.

Force3D: New Name of Old Acquaintance

Force3D is a new brand on the graphics hardware market but it is not a newcomer’s name. Established in early 2007, Force3D Limited belongs to the Hong Kong-based ASK Technology which also owns InnoVision Multimedia, the renowned supplier of multimedia PC components.

The name of ASK Technology itself is not widely popular because the company had been focused on promoting its InnoVision Multimedia and Inno3D products. But considering the tough competition on the market of GeForce based cards, they decided to create a new brand for selling Radeon based products.

Early Force3D Radeon HD 4800 will be produced at contracted facilities under AMD/ATI’s control, but then the production will be moved to the same facilities that are currently turning out Inno3D products.

ASK Technology that has been manufacturing computer hardware for almost 20 years, is not very well-known, because they put all their effort in promoting InnoVision Multimedia andInno3D brands. However, once competition in the Nvidia based graphics cards segment became so severe, they decided to introduce a new brand that will be used for ATI Radeon based solutions.

The first Force3D Radeon HD 4800 graphics accelerators will be manufactured by a third-party under AMD/ATI supervision. However, we can soon expect them to transfer production to the same lines where they make Inno3D products today.

ASK Technology currently has 500-800 employees. The company own a lot of SMT lines in Shenzhen, China.

Force3D Radeon HD 4870: Package and Accessories

Force3D is not a recognized brand as yet, so the designers made use of Ruby, the famous heroine of ATI’s tech demos. This packaging looks appealing and makes it clear that the box contains a Radeon-based graphics card.

The design is modest overall. But modesty is not always a good property. For example, you can only learn the model number of the GPU but not the amount of graphics memory on the box. You can’t easily find out what connectors the card has and what technologies it supports. The packaging looks stylish without much text but inexperienced users may find it uninformative. On the other hand, people who buy $299 cards should have enough knowledge to identify the product and its basic characteristics. Moreover, the detailed specs of the card can be found at the back of the box.

The contents of the box are packed into thick cardboard. We found the following stuff in there:

The accessories are far from gorgeous. You just get the bare minimum of things you need to use the card. The kit doesn’t include a software player capable of playing Blu-ray and HD DVD media, which is a demanded accessory today.

So, the packaging and accessories of the Force3D Radeon HD 4870 are good overall. A stylish box with a minimum set of accessories inside. The lack of a HD video player is a common drawback of many graphics cards. You’ll have to purchase such a player for its full retail price if you want to watch high-definition video on your PC.

PCB Design and Cooling System

All Radeon HD 4870 based graphics cards are currently manufactured by PC Partner/Sapphire Technologies under ATI/AMD’s supervision. The developer then sells the ready-made cards to the different vendors, ensuring specific quality standards.

It means the Force3D Radeon HD 4870 is no different from the reference card or other vendors’ products. It has a standard PCB, but we’d like to note the distinguishing traits of the 4870 model in comparison with other graphics cards available today.

The ATI Radeon HD 4870 is the world’s first graphics card with GDDR5 memory. Clocked at 3.6GHz and accessed across a 256-bit bus, this memory delivers a bandwidth of 115.2GBps which should be more than enough for the RV770 processor.

The Radeon HD 4870 features a digital power management system that simplifies the PCB design. The RV770 consumes quite a lot of power, so the advanced power circuit is a must.

Although the RV770 supports DisplayPort and HDMI, AMD does not install the appropriate connectors on the reference cards. Most users prefer DVI connectors whereas DisplayPort is yet unpopular. The HDMI interface can be obtained by means of an adapter.

When buying the card, you should be aware that the Force3D Radeon HD 4870 requires that you connect two 6-pin PCI Express power plugs to it. So, you need an appropriate PSU for this card.

The cooling system of the Force3D card is a copy of the reference cooler, which in its turn is based on the cooler of the Radeon HD 2900 XT.

Power Consumption, Noise and Overclockability

We measured the power consumption of the card on a special testbed configured like follows:

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. Practice suggests it is a heavier load for the graphics card than the tests of 3DMark Vantage. 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. Here are the results:

As we had expected, the Force3D Radeon HD 4870 needs about as much power as the reference card.

We also measured the amount of noise produced by the card’s cooling system with a Velleman DVM1326 noise-level meter. There was no difference from the reference card, too.

Testbed and Methods

For our performance tests of ATI Radeon HD 4850 CrossFire and its comparison against Nvidia GeForce GTX 280 we put together the following testbed:

According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

For our tests we used the following games and synthetic benchmarks:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Strategies

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 user doesn’t have to know how to do it. The only exception was Enemy Territory: Quake Wars game where we disabled the built-in fps rate limitation locked at 30fps. Games supporting DirectX 10 were tested in this particular mode.

Besides Force3D Radeon HD 4870 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:

The tests were performed in the following resolutions: 1600x1200, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. If the game didn’t support 16:10 display format, we set the last resolutions to 1920x1440 and 2048x1536 respectively. We used “eye candy” mode everywhere, where it was possible without disabling the HDR/Shader Model 3.0/Shader Model 4.0. Namely, we ran the tests with enabled anisotropic filtering 16x as well as MSAA 4x antialiasing. We enabled them 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. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.1. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible.

Note that although the performance diagrams also show the results in other resolutions, the article is devoted to $299 graphics cards performance in 2560x1600. As a result, our comments following the diagrams refer to the today’s maximum resolution for consumer monitors, i.e. 2560x1600.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Battlefield 2142

This game doesn’t support display resolutions of 16:10 format, so we use resolutions of 1920x1440 and 2048x1536 pixels (4:3 format) instead of 1920x1200 for it.

Not a heavy application for today’s graphics card, Battlefield 2142 runs fast in every display mode. The Force3D Radeon HD 4870 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 are roughly equal at 2048x1536 with 4x FSAA.

BioShock

BioShock doesn’t support FSAA when running in Windows Vista’s DirectX 10 environment. We benchmark graphics cards without FSAA in this game.

This game is not a hard test for modern graphics hardware, either. Both $299 cards, the Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260, allow you to play comfortably at a resolution of 2560x1600 pixels.

The Radeon HD 4870 is ahead of its opponent in terms of average frame rate but has a similar bottom speed. And we can see the same thing at a resolution of 1920x1200, too.

Call of Juarez

Call of Juarez does not support 2560x1600 resolution, so we limited our tests to 1920x1200.

The DirectX 10 version of the game runs fast on Radeon HD cards. Here, the Radeon HD 4870 leaves the opponent behind but, for unclear reasons, has a slightly lower bottom speed.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

A frame rate of 35fps is not really high for a first-person shooter but that’s what you are going to get from a GeForce GTX 260 or Radeon HD 4870 in this game.

It’s curious the GTX 260 with 896 megabytes of onboard memory can’t beat the 4870 model that has only 512 megabytes.

Crysis

This game is tested at the High level of detail, excepting the Shaders option which is set at Very High. This way we try to achieve a compromise between image quality and speed.

The game obviously needs more than 512 megabytes of graphics memory to run at 2560x1600. Thus, it runs only on the GeForce GTX 200 series cards at that resolution.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

The frame rate is fixed at 30fps in this game as this is the rate at which the physical model is being updated at the server. Thus, this 30fps speed is the required minimum for playing the game.

Nvidia’s solutions are usually faster in this OpenGL application but the Force3D Radeon HD 4870 is exactly as fast as the GeForce GTX 260 in the 2560x1600/FSAA 4x mode, delivering a comfortable 50fps. The slow GDDR3 memory of the 260 model must have prevented its GPU from showing its best in this game.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Like in many other games, the $299 cards are roughly equals, with a small advantage in favor of the GeForce GTX 260. Anyway, 45-50fps should be quite enough for comfortable play here.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. This is the reason why we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.

A product of Nvidia’s The Way It’s Meant to Be Played campaign, this game is fast on Nvidia’s hardware and very slow on ATI’s Radeons.

Here, the Force3D Radeon HD 4870 is just disappointing even in comparison with the rather low result the GeForce GTX 260 has at 2560x1600. It seems that you can’t play this game comfortably at 2560x1600 on a $299 graphics card.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

Oddly enough, this game, ported from the Xbox 360 console, runs rather slow on modern PCs and graphics cards even at 1280x1024.

Both cards we are interested in have very low performance at 2560x1600. Although the Radeon HD 4870 is formally a leader, the gameplay is not smooth.

The Radeon HD 4870 is ahead of its opponent at 1920x1200, but occasionally slows down to 21fps, which is not good.

Tomb Raider: Legend

 

Tomb Raider: Legend is traditionally faster on Nvidia’s GPUs. Therefore we are not surprised to see the GeForce GTX 260 outperform its opponent by 23% at 2560x1600.

However, the cards have the same bottom speed and both are good enough for playing this third-person shooter.

Performance in RPG

Hellgate: London

The ATI Radeon HD 4870 is slower than its opponent at every resolution up to 1920x1200 and slows down even more at 2560x1600. It seems to have too little memory to run the game at the highest resolution.

On the other hand, the GTX 260 and HD 4870 make it possible to play the game at 1920x1200 with 4x FSAA.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The game loses much of its visual appeal without HDR. Although some gamers argue that point, we think TES IV looks best with enabled FP HDR and test it in this mode.

The Force3D Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260 cards have identical speeds in every display mode. However, you can have slowdowns in some scenes if you are running the game on a 4870 card at 2560x1600.

Performance in Strategies

Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

The new add-on to Company of Heroes is tested in DirectX 10 mode only since it provides the highest quality of the visuals.

This real-time strategy behaves oddly at resolutions of 1600x1200 and higher. Having a higher average frame rate, the GeForce GTX 260 has a considerably lower bottom speed than the Force3D Radeon HD 4870.

This game features a very dynamic gameplay, so we wouldn’t recommend you to run it at 2560x1600 with enabled FSAA on the $299 cards.

Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath

The add-on to C&C 3: Tiberium Wars brought no changes into the technical aspect of the game. The game still having a frame rate limiter, you should consider the minimum speed of the cards in the first place.

Considering the frame rate limit set at 30fps and the identical bottom speeds, we can say that the GeForce GTX 260 and Radeon HD 4870 are both a perfect choice for this game even if you want to play it at 2560x1600 with 4x FSAA.

World in Conflict

According to the integrated benchmark, the Radeon HD 4870 is about as fast as the GeForce GTX 260. The latter card has a somewhat higher speed at 2560x1600, probably due to the larger amount of onboard memory. Anyway, 11-18fps is too low a frame rate for playing a real-time strategy with comfort.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

We minimize the CPU’s influence by using the Extreme profile (1920x1200, 4x FSAA and anisotropic filtering).

The GeForce GTX 200 series show their best in this benchmark. The senior model is far ahead of the rest of the graphics cards, including the dual-processor GeForce 9800 GX2, while the junior model is just as confidently ahead of the Radeon HD 4870. Perhaps things will change for the better for ATI’s cards with driver updates, but Nvidia’s new solutions are unrivalled in 3DMark Vantage as yet.

The GeForce GTX 280 is on top in both gaming tests. The GeForce 9800 GX2 is very close to the leader in the second test, though. It is in the second test too that the GeForce GTX 260 is barely ahead of the Radeon HD 4870. Although the former card has more texture processors, ATI’s solution makes up for that with its higher clock rate. 3DMark Vantage doesn’t seem to make full use of the RV770’s computing capabilities and we can expect improved results with driver updates. But even without them, the Radeon HD 4870 X2 is going to beat the GeForce GTX 280 in this benchmark.

Conclusion

We have reviewed a fine version of Radeon HD 4870 from Force3D and checked out the performance of modern $299 graphics cards at a display resolution of 2560x1600 pixels. Our results suggest that the 2560x1600 + 4x FSAA mode has indeed become available for owners of performance-mainstream cards across a number of modern video games. On the other hand, there are still quite a few applications in which the Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260 are not fast enough at the maximum resolution of today’s consumer monitors.

Let’s take a look at the summary chart.

As you can see, the Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260 both deliver comfortable performance at 2560x1600 with 4x FSAA in seven out of the 15 tests. In the remaining eight games the $299 cards are either barely short of the comfortable level or downright slow. Note also that it is only in rare cases that one of these cards enjoys an overwhelming advantage over the other.

So, if you want to have smooth gameplay in every game in this display mode, you should consider purchasing a multi-GPU solution. Practice suggests that the GeForce GTX 280 is not far faster than the junior model in many applications and thus cannot satisfy a fastidious gamer.

Choosing between the GeForce GTX 260 and Radeon HD 4870 for playing at 2560x1600 with 4x FSAA, the former is better in five applications while the latter, in three. So, the GeForce GTX 260 may be considered a formal leader in this competition although your choice should be based on the particular games you are intending to play.

The Force3D Radeon HD 4870 card is manufactured in full compliance with AMD/ATI’s standards and comes at the official recommended price. It is accompanied with a bare minimum of accessories, particularly without any useful software such as a HD video player. We can recommend this graphics card for people who want an inexpensive version of Radeon HD 4870 and who don’t need the mentioned accessories.

Force3D Radeon HD 4870 512MB GDDR5 Summary

Highs:

Lows: