Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS Graphics Card Review

Graphics cards equipped with 1GB of video memory are not so extra-ordinary anymore. But does that much memory do any real good especially for a relatively inexpensive mainstream solution? Our today’s review of the Gainward graphics accelerator will help us answer this question.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
02/23/2009 | 07:37 PM

Introduction

Gainward, currently a division of Palit Microsystems, used to be an exclusive partner of Nvidia’s and offered products with Nvidia’s GPUs only. But the triumphant step of the ATI Radeon HD 4800 could not go unnoticed and somewhere in the middle of the previous year Palit gave up its exclusive friendship with Nvidia in favor of ATI’s solutions, especially as ATI allows more freedom to its partners when it comes to developing nonstandard PCBs and coolers. As the result, there are more unique products for the customer to choose from, which is good for everyone.

 

But how can a potential customer be attracted to an RV770-based graphics card? The manufacturers solve this problem in different ways. For example, Sapphire offered an advanced dual-processor card capable of competing Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 280/285 but not as expensive as the ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2. It is called Sapphire HD 4850 X2 2G/1G GDDR3. The company endowed this device with a number of unique features (particularly it can support four monitors simultaneously), but our test revealed some drawbacks, the most important of which was the terrifically high level of noise. So, notwithstanding its high performance in games, that card was hardly any more appealing than the low-noise GeForce GTX 280/285. The developer should be given credit for correcting the problem quickly, though: the new version of the Sapphire HD 4850 X2 2G/1G GDDR3 is far less noisy.

This approach may be called an upward expansion, but it can go down as well. Despite its popularity, the Radeon HD 4850 is not free from drawbacks. Particularly, its cooler system is far from optimal. The GPU developer equipped the card with a compact single-slot cooler which can barely cope with the rather hot RV770 chip. A GPU temperature of 86-90°C is quite a normal thing for the reference version of Radeon HD 4850. On the other hand, the release of the Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+ with increased GPU frequencies shattered the market position of the Radeon HD 4850 whose core is clocked at 625MHz only while the Radeon HD 4870 belongs to a higher market sector and competes with the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216.

In other words, a Radeon HD 4850 with an effective but silent cooler and with an increased GPU clock rate would be an appealing offer for any customer who doesn’t have the money to buy a GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 or Radeon HD 4870. By the way, the latter has long acquired a double amount of graphics memory, so Gainward installed 1024 megabytes of GDDR3 memory on its version of Radeon HD 4850, too. The card is called Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS.

Besides other things, the double amount of graphics memory (relative to the reference Radeon HD 4850) will give us the opportunity to see if there is any good from it in real application. Perhaps 512 megabytes is still the optimal amount and installing 1024 megabytes only makes the product unnecessarily expensive.

Package and Accessories

The graphics card is shipped in a cardboard box of traditional shape and size. It is painted red and black and looks quite appealing.

 

There is a lot of technical information on the box but no mention of the exact frequencies the card is clocked at. Instead, there is a sticker reporting that the product belongs to the Gainward Golden Sample series. As usual, the type of graphics memory installed on the card is indicated wrongly: DDR3 instead of GDDR3. This is a common mistake. A list of rather exaggerated system requirements can be found at the back of the box: a 500W power supply is an overstatement. The Radeon HD 4850 doesn’t consume too much power and works normally in computers equipped with 400-450W PSUs.

Inside the big box there is a smaller one that contains the graphics card packed into a blister wrap. The scanty accessories can be found nearby:

This is a bare minimum of accessories, actually. There is even no DVI-I → HDMI adapter, and you’ll have to buy one separately in order to connect your large TV-set with HDMI input to this card. On the other hand, these accessories are all right with us if the card sells at a reasonable price, especially as the box contains everything necessary to use the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS in a gaming PC.

So, the packaging of the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is attractive but its accessories might be better. Well, perhaps ours was a presale sample, and the retail version will be supplied with more accessories.

PCB Design

The Gainward brand has long been a property of Palit Microsystems, so there is no wonder that the described card uses a unique PCB design that has little in common with the reference Radeon HD 4850. The mounting quality is high although some inductance coils are tilted and there are traces of flux where the power transistors of the voltage regulator are soldered in.

The PCB of the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is somewhat shorter than the reference card’s, which is good. It will be easier to install the card into compact system cases. However, it carries a more advanced three-phase GPU power circuit (as opposed to the two-phase regulator of the reference card). The voltage regulator is based on a PWM controller NCP5388 manufactured by ON Semiconductor. This chip is often employed in Palit’s nonstandard designs and is also used in the new reference design for GeForce GTX 260 Core 216.

An Anpec APW7065 based regulator is responsible for the memory chips.

There is one unique feature about the power circuit of the Gainward HD 4850 1024GB GS. It uses only one 8-pin PCI Express 2.0 connector. The card does not start up when you plug in a 6-pin PCIe 1.0 cable into this connector, displaying an appropriate message on the monitor. We don’t know the reason for such an unusual solution but it cannot be high power consumption. The card comes with a simple 6-pin → 8-pin PCIe adapter, so it might as well be equipped with a 6-pin connector.

The memory chips are turned by 90 degrees in comparison with the reference Radeon HD 4850. These are eight Samsung K4J10324QD-HJ1A chips of GDDR3 memory. They have a capacity of 1Mb (32Mb x 32), a voltage of 1.85V, and a rated frequency of 1000 (2000) MHz as denoted by the HJ1A suffix. The card’s memory frequency is 1000 (2000) MHz for a bandwidth of 64GBps, just as with ATI’s reference sample. Despite the noble title Golden Sample, the Gainward card won’t be able to compete with the Radeon HD 4870 with its super-fast GDDR5 memory in this respect. The only advantage over the ordinary Radeon HD 4850 is the double amount of graphics memory: 1 gigabyte as opposed to 512 megabytes. This may come in handy in some games as we will see in our tests.

The card’s RV770 chip was manufactured on the 26th week of 2008, i.e. June 21-29. As usual, there is no useful info we can get from the marking on the die but the GPU-Z program reported the following:

The GPU has a standard configuration with 800 ALUs grouped into 160 superscalar execution modules, 40 TMUs and 16 RBEs. The frequency is increased over the reference card from 625MHz to 700MHz. This is 50MHz less than the frequency of the Radeon HD 4870, but may come in handy in games that are sensitive to the GPU frequency, for example Prince of Persia. Besides, the GPU may be overclocked even more as we will check out soon.

The card has a standard set of interface connectors: two dual-link DVI-I ports, a universal 7-pin analog video output, and two CrossFireX connectors.

Cooling System

Besides the unique PCB design and increased GPU frequency, this graphics card features a nonstandard cooler. It is not really innovative, however, representing a variation of the reference cooler from GeForce 7900 GTX.

This simple design is often employed by graphics card makers who want to equip their products with a quiet and effective cooler. Contacting with the GPU die, the copper core is connected with heat pipes to a large heatsink consisting of thin aluminum plates locked together. There is a cutout in the center of the heatsink for an axial fan that blows sideways and down. Thus, the fan cools the sections of the heatsink as well as the PCB components such as memory chips or power transistors of the voltage regulator. Some of the hot air is exhausted out of the system case through the slits in the card’s mounting bracket, but some of it remains within the system, which is the main drawback of this design.

The cooler is fastened to the PCB with only four spring-loaded screws. This fastening may not look secure but the GPU is protected with a metallic frame. The translucent plastic casing covers the cooler from above. The crystal pattern on the casing makes the card look not unlike Nokia Prism phones.

An unusual material is used as a thermal interface for this card. Although it resembles the traditional dark-gray thermal grease, it is very dry and seems to glue the sole of the heat-exchanger to the GPU die like thermal glue. Perhaps it was just dried-out thermal grease. We had to replace this thermal interface when dismantling and putting the card back together, and it was quite difficult to scrape the dry stuff off the GPU and cooler.

Despite the 4-pin connection, the speed of the fan is fixed at 50%. We’ll check out in the next section if this setting ensures silent operation and high cooling performance. On the whole, the cooler of the Gainward card looks highly promising.

Compatibility, Temperature, Overclocking and Noise

Unfortunately, we could not measure the power consumption of the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS because the card would not start up on the DFI LANParty UT ICFX3200 mainboard our power-measuring testbed was equipped with. The card proved to be perfectly compatible with every other mainboard in our labs, though.

We know that the peak power consumption of the reference Radeon HD 4850 is about 110 watts. Considering the factory overclocking, we suppose the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS will require 115-120 watts, i.e. in between the reference Radeon HD 4850 and Radeon HD 4870. Perhaps a BIOS update will make the card compatible with the DFI LANParty UT ICFX3200, but we’d recommend you make sure your CrossFire Xpress 3200-based mainboard is compatible with the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB before you purchase the card.

As noted above, the fan speed is constant at 50% but the cooling performance is high:

The GPU is not hotter than 60°C under load, which is 28°C lower than the result of the reference Radeon HD 4850 cooler even at a lower GPU frequency. That’s an excellent performance, but what about noise?

The fan speed is constant, so the card produces the same amount of noise in idle mode and in 3D applications. It is equally silent in both cases, to be exact. The level of noise is but barely higher than the ambient noise of 43dBA at a distance of 1 meter from the testbed. Well, our testbed is not quiet by itself: the 1000W Enermax Galaxy DXX EGX1000EWL with two fans is a noisy thing. Anyway, the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS boasts excellent noise characteristics and is about as quiet as Nvidia’s reference coolers installed on GeForce 9800 GTX/GTX+.

Our sample of the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS proved to have modest overclockability. We increased its GPU from 700 to 750MHz, i.e. to the level of the Radeon HD 4870.

The memory chips did well, too. Notwithstanding the rated frequency of 1000 (2000) MHz, the memory chips were stable at 1200 (2400) MHz, increasing the bandwidth from 64 to 76.8GBps. That doesn’t come anywhere near the memory bandwidth of the Radeon HD 4870 which is 115.2GBps. On the other hand, this may provide substantial performance benefits in games, so we will benchmark the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS at the overclocked frequencies, too.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the performance of Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS 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:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

The list of benchmarks includes the following gaming titles and synthetic tests:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Simulators

Strategies

Semi-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 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.

We tested Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS in three different modes: at the same frequencies as the reference Radeon HD 4850, at Gainward factory clocks and after maximum overclocking at 750/1200 (2400) MHz.

Besides Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:

We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1280x1024, 1680x1050 and 1920x1200. We decided to skip 2560x1600, because it is unsuitable for the type of graphics cards participating in this test session. 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.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Call of Duty 4: World at War

The frequencies being equal, the Gainward card is no better than the reference sample equipped with 512MB of memory even at 1920x1200. The factory frequencies improve its performance somewhat while the additional overclocking helps close the gap from the Radeon HD 4870 1GB at low resolutions. When the resolution is high, the latter’s ultra-fast GDDR5 memory says its word. The overclocked Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is ahead of the GeForce 9800 GTX+, mainly in terms of bottom speed.

Crysis Warhead

The game appreciates large amounts of graphics memory: the Gainward card is somewhat better than ATI’s reference sample even at 1280x1024, the gap growing up quite large at 1920x1200. The factory overclocking doesn’t affect the card’s performance much while the additional overclocking (when not only the GPU, but also the memory chips are clocked faster) makes the Gainward card as fast as the Radeon HD 4870 1GB. Alas, every card has a rather low frame rate in this game. None of them can provide a bottom speed higher than 25fps even at the lowest resolution.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

We disabled the integrated frame rate limiter 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.

Although this game makes use of very-high-resolution textures, the Gainward HD 4850 1024GB GS has no advantage over the ordinary Radeon HD 4850 if their frequencies are the same. On the other hand, the factory and additional overclocking improve the card’s average frame rate noticeably. When overclocked additionally, the card is almost as fast as the more expensive and hotter Radeon HD 4870 1GB.

Far Cry 2

 

Far Cry 2 is more sensitive to the GPU frequency than to the amount of graphics memory. The latter parameter doesn’t affect the card’s performance more than 10-11% even at 1920x1200 whereas the increase of the GPU frequency from 625MHz to 700MHz gives the Gainward card a 38% and 54% advantage in average and bottom speed, respectively.

Further overclocking is not so rewarding but has a practical value at 1680x1050: it increases the bottom speed from 22 to 25fps, ensuring more comfortable conditions for play.

Left 4 Dead

The game runs on the Source engine and has an integrated benchmark, but the latter does not report the bottom speed information.

The Source engine is not very demanding, so the amount of graphics memory has no influence on the card’s performance. The overclocking results indicate that the low GPU frequency is the main drawback of the Radeon HD 4850. The overclocked Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is as fast as the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216, a solution from a higher class, and even faster than it at 1920x1200. An excellent result for an inexpensive graphics card!

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky

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.

The increased amount of graphics memory doesn’t help the Gainward card in this game whereas the overclocked GPU and memory frequencies come in handy, increasing the card’s performance to playable level at every resolution including 1920x1200. As opposed to the Radeon HD 4870 1GB, the Gainward is almost silent, costs less, and can thus be called an optimal choice for playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.:Clear Sky.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Dead Space

 

Dead Space is a multiplatform project and does not need large amounts of graphics memory as is indicated by the test results. High memory bandwidth is not called for, either: our additional overclocking helps the Gainward card overtake the Radeon HD 4870 1GB. Nvidia’s solutions are ahead, but ATI’s cards ensure a sufficient reserve of speed even at 1920x1200.

Devil May Cry 4

GPU overclocking doesn’t affect the card’s performance much at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1680x1050 but leads to an 11% growth of average frame rate at 1920x1200. When both the GPU and memory are overclocked, the card speeds up at 1280x1024 already and looks quite competitive to the Radeon HD 4870 1GB and GeForce GTX 260 Core 216.

Prince of Persia

1 gigabyte of local graphics memory is not called for in this application, either, but high memory bandwidth comes in handy as is indicated by the results of the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 and Radeon HD 4870 1GB. Perhaps this is due to the game’s rendering techniques such as cel-shading, but anyway the playability of the Radeon HD 4850 is limited to 1280x1024 irrespective of overclocking.

Performance in RPG

Fallout 3

The Radeon HD 4870 1GB is beyond competition but the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is quite fast in every display mode, too. Our additional overclocking adds 10% more to the average frame rate at a resolution of 1920x1200 but this has little effect on the gameplay. The speed is anyway so high that you can’t spot that addition with a naked eye. The Gainward card will suit nicely for playing Fallout 3.

Mass Effect

The only card that can deliver an acceptable speed is the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 whereas the other cards have too low bottom speeds. Overclocking has no effect on the results of the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS.

Performance in Simulators

Race Driver: GRID

The additional overclocking of the Gainward card only increases its bottom speed at 1280x1024. The higher memory frequency says its word at the higher resolutions and the gap grows up to 11% at 1920x1200. The difference between 512 megabytes and 1 gigabyte of graphics memory can only be observed at 1280x1024 where it amounts to 5-6%. At the higher resolutions this difference is negligible.

X³: Terran Conflict

Working at its default frequencies, the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is almost as fast as the Radeon HD 4870 1GB and gets even closer when overclocked additionally. However, there is still a difference in terms of bottom speed, so the Radeon HD 4870 1GB remains a better choice for people with monitors supporting 1920x1200.

Performance in Real-Time Strategy

Red Alert 3

The game has a built-in frame rate limiter set at 30fps.

Like in most of our tests, the double amount of graphics memory brings no benefits. The Gainward card is only ahead of the reference sample due to the increased GPU clock rate. The additional overclocking helps achieve the same speed as with a Radeon HD 4870 1GB. The bottom speed is still below 25fps at 1920x1200, though.

World in Conflict

Save for the resolution of 1920x1200, the additional overclocking increases the average performance of the Gainward card up to the level of the Radeon HD 4870 1GB but there is a gap in terms of bottom speed. The latter card ensures more comfortable conditions. 1 gigabyte of graphics memory doesn’t give any edge to the Gainward card. It is rather a marketing advantage because 512 megabytes is quite sufficient for most modern games, at least if you play at standard resolutions.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark06

3DMark06 defaults to 1280x1024 without full-screen antialiasing, so it is normal that the overclocked Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is but slightly slower than the Radeon HD 4870 1GB. The gap was wider in individual tests, especially in the SM3.0/HDR tests that are more sensitive to graphics memory bandwidth (up to 664 points).

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

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.

Despite the high resolution and antialiasing, the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS with a memory frequency of 1200 (2400) MHz is about as fast as the Radeon HD 4870 1GB with GDDR5 clocked at 3600MHz. The difference is a mere 245-265 points, which is too little for such a significant difference in memory bandwidth. Thus, the performance of RV770-based cards is limited by some other factors in 3DMark Vantage.

It is when both the GPU and memory are overclocked that we have the biggest effect in the first test. The Gainward is almost as fast as the Radeon HD 4870 1GB, the smallest gap being at 1920x1200. The factory overclocking is not rewarding, increasing the average frame rate by no more than 1fps.

The second test shows pretty similar picture with that only difference that the overclocked Gainward card falls farther behind Radeon HD 4870 1GB in 1280x1024 resolution.

Conclusion

Our tests show that 1 gigabyte of graphics memory gives no edge to the Radeon HD 4850 in real-life applications. It is only in Crysis Warhead that we could see a difference and only at a resolution of 1920x1200 where the frame rate was too low for practical play anyway. A small growth of average speed was observed in Far Cry 2, also at 1920x1200. In every other test the two versions of Radeon HD 4850 delivered the same performance, up to a fraction of a frame per second, when working at the same frequencies.

The Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS has an average advantage of 8-11%, depending on the resolution, over the hypothetical Radeon HD 4850 1GB with reference frequencies. Our additional overclocking (from 700MHz to 750MHz GPU and from 1000 (2000) to 1200 (2400) MHz memory) improves the card’s speed to the same extent.

Even factory overclocking was enough in many cases for the Gainward card to overtake the GeForce 9800 GTX+ and, occasionally, GeForce GTX 260 Core 216. That’s an achievement. Our additional overclocking ensured an even bigger effect, making the Gainward HD 4850 1024GB GS almost as fast as the more expensive and noisier Radeon HD 4870 1GB in such games as CoD: World at War, Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, Dead Space, Devil May Cry 4, Race Driver: GRID, X³: Terran Conflict, Red Alert 3 and World in Conflict, and in the semi-synthetic 3DMark tests. The card was stable and silent at the overclocked frequencies, and its GPU temperature was not higher than 60-63°C.

Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS Summary

Summing it up, the Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS is a good combination of high performance, low level of noise, and nice overclockability. It may seem even free from any drawbacks, but there are two things we can cavil about. First, the accessories are rather scanty. And second, the card didn’t start up on our DFI LANParty UT ICFX3200 mainboard. We didn’t have another mainboard on the same chipset, so we don’t know if this incompatibility is limited to DFI’s product only. So, if you are going to buy a Gainward HD 4850 1024MB GS for use with a mainboard based on the CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipset for Intel processors, you may want to make sure beforehand that the two are compatible.

If this is no problem for you, this card can make an excellent buy, especially if it comes at a reasonable retail price.

Highs:

 Lows: