GeForce GTX 480 SLI vs. Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire: Round Two

In the first round of the fight between contemporary multi-GPU heavyweights GeForce GTX 470 SLI tandem won. Today we are going to find out how much faster a configuration of two GeForce GTX 480 graphics cards will be.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
06/23/2010 | 09:47 PM

In our recently published review of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 470 SLI tandem we discovered the high potential of that solution. Built out of two graphics cards, that graphics subsystem was generally superior to the ATI Radeon HD 5970. The latter remains the fastest single graphics card, but if Nvidia dares release a Fermi-based counterpart of the GeForce GTX 295 and retain the same clock rates as those of the GeForce GTX 470 or slightly lower, the long-time supremacy of AMD in the top-end graphics market sector will come to an end. AMD fans may not like that, but the Radeon HD 5970 has indeed been rather too long on the throne. This kind of stagnation is not good for the whole 3D gaming market as well as for gamers themselves.

 

However, dual-processor graphics cards are not the acme of modern technology. The premier league of gaming 3D products includes even more advanced multi-GPU solutions based on top-end discrete cards that incorporate more than two GPUs such as 3-way CrossFire and triple-SLI configurations. Benchmarking simple dual-processor tandems based on top-of-the-line products is also interesting for gamers who have the money and are ready to put up with all the typical downsides of such systems besides their high price.

Today, the ATI Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire and Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 SLI are the two fastest multi-GPU solutions you can build out of two graphics cards. This is how they compare to each other:


Click to enlarge

It is clear that the AMD tandem cannot match the performance of the GeForce GTX 480 SLI even though is superior to it in terms of pure computing power and texture-mapping speed. Theoretically, it is going to be much faster than the ordinary Radeon HD 5970 thanks to the higher GPU and memory clock rates. As for the price factor, the pair of GeForce GTX 480 cards is going to cost no less than $1000, which is more expensive than the AMD solution. But is it really worth the money?

We will try to answer this question by benchmarking the two topmost multi-GPU tandems available today: Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 SLI and ATI Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire. We will also check out an unusual model of the Nvidia flagship product with a quiet and efficient cooler along the way. We will see if the cooler makes the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! free from the downsides of the reference card.

Closer Look at Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP!

Package and Accessories

The Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! is designed in the company’s traditional black-and-orange color scheme with an aggressive-looking picture. It is a typical feature of Zotac packaging that there is a window through which you can take a look at the graphics card.

Notwithstanding the large dimensions of the GeForce GTX 480 card, the box is not large and should be easy to carry home. There is not much info on the face side of the box. You can only read the name of the card and learn the basic facts about its memory subsystem and about the extended warranty.

The interior of the box is filled with a block of foam rubber with cutouts for the graphics card and its accessories. The block is covered from above with a sheet of transparent plastic that additionally protects the contents from any damage if the box is dropped or bumped, for example. Besides the graphics card itself, the box contains the following accessories:

These are nearly the same things as we found in the box of the Zotac GeForce GTX 465 except for one of the power adapters. We wouldn’t call these accessories gorgeous but they do include everything necessary to use each of the graphics card’s features.

The Zotac Boost software pack includes the following products: Badaboom, vReveal, Super LoiLoScope and BitDefender Internet Security. The first three programs support CUDA and are meant for video processing: transcoding, defects correction and editing, respectively. BitDefender Internet Security may be useful for people who have not yet got any antivirus protection for their computer.

So, we don’t find anything bad about the packaging and accessories of the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! More interesting things lie ahead. Let’s take the card out of its box and have a closer look at it.

PCB Design and Specifications

As opposed to the Palit GeForce GTX 470 described in our previous review, the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! is a copy of the reference card equipped with a nonstandard cooler. The PCB is long and may press against the HDD rack in some system cases.

 

 

The cooling system is developed by the world-famous Zalman. The VF3000 cooler is designed for today’s top-end graphics cards. Running a little ahead, we must acknowledge that it copes with its job excellently, yet is not absolutely free from downsides. Here is how the Zotac card looks with its cooler removed:

 

The additional heatsink takes the heat off the memory chips and the voltage regulator components but may provoke some problems if you want to remove the main heatsink: when you try to undo the screws on the reverse side of the PCB, the poles the heat-exchanger stands on turn around together with the screws. We don’t think that ordinary users will ever have to do that, though.

The Zotac card is no different from the reference sample in components as it uses the same PCB. The 6-phase GPU voltage regulator is managed by a CHL8266 chip from CHiL Semiconductor. MSI Afterburner allows changing the GPU voltage but you must be aware that software-based volt modding is just as dangerous as hardware modifications. The 2-phase memory voltage regulator is controlled by an uP6210 chip from uPI Semiconductor. The card is powered through one 6-pin and one 8-pin connector, like the competing flagship Radeon HD 5970. The 8-pin power connector is indeed called for as its load is quite high.

There are 12 Samsung K4G10325FE-HC0 memory chips under the auxiliary heatsink. They have a combined capacity of 1536 megabytes. The memory frequency is increased above the reference card’s to 950 (3800) MHz, which is still not really high for memory chips that can be clocked at much higher frequencies. Coupled with the 384-bit memory bus, this frequency ensures a peak bandwidth of 182.4 GBps. This is a good but not record-breaking level. The Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! won’t feel a lack of memory bandwidth. Like the rest of GeForce GTX 480 models, the card can automatically lower its memory frequency to 67 (270) MHz in the power-saving mode.

This sample of the GF100 chip was manufactured on the 13th week of 2010. Its frequency is increased from the default 701/1401 MHz to 756/1512 MHz. The 15 active multiprocessors provide a total of 480 ALUs and 60 TMUs. The rasterization subsystem is made up by 48 RBEs. The GPU voltage is 1.037 volts which is much higher than that of the GeForce GTX 470, so we should not expect this card to have low power consumption and heat dissipation.

Zotac’s factory overclocking is far from impressive. The 8% GPU frequency growth may increase the frame rate somewhat in games but the difference can hardly be spotted with a naked eye, especially as this overclocking cannot improve the main downside of the GF100 architecture, the texture-mapping performance which is lower than that of the G200 processor even.

The GPU clock rates are automatically lowered to 51/101 MHz and to 405/810 MHz in the two power-saving modes: Windows applications and simple computing tasks like HD video decoding, respectively.

Like most other GeForce GTX 480 cards, this one has a couple of DVI-I ports and a mini-HDMI connector that usually calls for an adapter. There are also MIO connectors on the PCB which are especially important for us since we are going to benchmark the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! in pair with a Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 in SLI mode.

The card’s cooling system is a separate story. As we noted above, the cooler is an OEM version of the Zalman VF3000 which can keep even the hottest of today’s single-GPU cards like GeForce GTX 480 and Radeon HD 5870 cool and running. With the casing removed, the cooler looks like this:

The heatsink ribs go in parallel to the mounting bracket, so not even a portion of the hot air will be exhausted out of the system case. This is not good considering the hot temper of the GeForce GTX 480. Besides, we found a construction defect: the screws holding the casing on the heatsink are inserted into the holes in the heatsink plates and bend them a little. This was enough for the plastic fan locks of our sample to slip out of their sockets. As a result, the mounting bracket bent a little and the left impeller began to catch on the cooler’s casing. You should check everything out for this defect if you are going to purchase this version of GeForce GTX 480 or install a Zalman VF3000 on an ordinary version of the card.

The cooler represents a simple design with a copper heat-exchanger that does not use the direct touch technology. The heat-exchanger is connected with five heat pipes to a heatsink consisting of aluminum plates. The plates are press-fitted to the pipes without any soldering or thermal glue and do not sit very tight. We easily took off a couple of outermost heatsink plates from the heat pipes of our sample of the VF3000.

The plastic frame fastened to the heatsink with locks carries two 3.6W Zalman ZE9215BSH fans connected in parallel. As you can guess, the fan has a diameter of 92 millimeters. It is even more correct to say that the fans are not installed on the frame but make up a single whole with it. As we’ve said above, this thing is fastened to the heatsink tight enough and the edge of the frame may lift up, making one of the impellers catch on the aerodynamic casing of the cooler.

It is important that the heatsink is rather tall and, together with the fans, takes up not one neighboring slot (like the reference cooler from Nvidia) but two. Thus, the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! won’t do for each system case. For example, on our ASUS P6T Deluxe mainboard this graphics card blocked both available PCI slots. So, if you are going to purchase this GeForce GTX 480, you should make sure it won’t interfere with your other expansion cards.

The cooling system of the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! seems to be efficient but it is not free from downsides such as its height and the mediocre assembly quality. We’ll check it out in practical tests in the next section.

Temperature, Noise, Overclockability

The described graphics card being a copy of the reference design, we did not measure its power consumption. Instead, we checked it out in our temperature tests and the advanced cooler of the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! proved that it is worth the three slots it occupies!

Its huge heatsink and two large fans could easily keep the GPU temperature below 70°C even during continuous 3D load. This is not just good. This is excellent for a GF100 chip working in its maximum configuration. If it were not for the size of the heatsink and the abovementioned problem with the cooler’s casing, we’d call the Zalman solution ideal. Yes, you can hardly use two such cards to build a SLI tandem, but the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! is going to be a perfect choice for a PC configuration with one or two expansion cards. You only have to make sure that your system case is ventilated properly because this cooler does not exhaust the hot air to the outside.

The original cooler is good in terms of noisiness, too. Like the Palit GeForce GTX 470, the Zotac is not silent, but its two low-speed large-diameter fans are not irritating even in 3D mode. The card’s noise is quite agreeable to the ear and sounds like a soft whisper of the air. When in desktop mode, the card does not betray itself among the other system components at all. Besides the cooler, it is the result of the power-saving technologies Nvidia has implemented in the GF100 which lowers its clock rates when idle. Thus, the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! is indeed one of the best versions of GeForce GTX 480 for building a top-performance but quiet gaming platform with PhysX and CUDA support.

We were not successful in our overclocking experiment but we hadn’t expected much from this pre-overclocked card. In fact, the monstrous GF100 chip is itself no good at overclocking. So, our sample of the Zotac card overclocked to lower frequencies than those we had achieved with the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480.

The card was stable at GPU frequencies of 772/1544 MHz and a memory frequency of 976 (3904) MHz. Again, this is not much, considering our earlier experiments with other such cards. But on the other hand, the Zotac is pre-overclocked and guaranteed to work at those pre-overclocked frequencies whereas an ordinary GeForce GTX 480 may prove to have zero overclocking potential. Besides, the advanced cooler may help some samples of the Zotac card reach higher frequencies if we were just not lucky with our sample.

Now we move on to benchmarking our GeForce GTX 480 in SLI mode.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the gaming performance of GeForce GTX 480 SLI 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:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

Below is the list of games and test applications we used during this test session:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Simulators

Strategies

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.

GeForce GTX 480 SLI tandem will be competing against ATI Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire configuration of two cards, so, in our duel this time we will have two today’s most powerful single-GPU graphics solutions from Nvidia and ATI. We also included the results for Radeon HD 5970 that differs from Radeon HD 5870 CrossFireX by lower clock speed and a PCI Express communicator chip onboard.

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.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Aliens vs. Predator

This game is benchmarked in DirectX 11 mode with the highest graphics quality settings.

The GeForce GTX 480 SLI tandem is much faster than its junior cousin but cannot deliver a playable frame rate at 2560x1600. It must be noted that the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire is no better, notwithstanding the certain advantage in average performance due to the more advanced TMU subsystem.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2

The dual-processor GeForce GTX 480 SLI subsystem cannot show its best at low resolutions, being limited by the performance of the whole platform. It is only at 1920x1080 and higher resolutions that we can observe some performance growth. The GeForce GTX 480 SLI is not much faster than the 470 SLI, but its bottom speed is as high as that of the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire subsystem that boasts better scalability here.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

It’s like in the previous test and there is still no advantage over the GeForce GTX 470 SLI. Interestingly, the pair of discrete Radeon HD 5870 cards in CrossFire mode are barely ahead of the Radeon HD 5970 which has lower clock rates. This must be due to the latter having a dedicated PCI Express switch on board. It must also be noted that both AMD configurations ensure a higher bottom speed at 2560x1600.

Crysis Warhead

None of the tested solutions delivers a comfortable speed at 2560x1600 although the GeForce GTX 480 SLI and Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire has rather high bottom speed results – much higher than those of the single Radeon HD 5970. The Nvidia tandem is better at 1920x1080, though. It is also not very loud thanks to the Zotac card with original cooler.

Far Cry 2

The Nvidia tandems are both limited by the CPU in display modes up to Full HD whereas the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire proves that AMD solutions have some elbowroom there. The GeForce GTX 480 SLI is unrivalled at 2560x1600, notwithstanding its rather weak texture-mapping subsystem. It may only be challenged by a 3-way CrossFireX subsystem built out of a Radeon HD 5970 and a Radeon HD 5870.

Metro 2033

This game is tested without multisampling antialiasing as it worsens the textures and provokes a performance hit.

The multi-GPU subsystems are both ahead of the dual-processor solutions from a lower category and go neck and neck with each other. The Nvidia platform can boast a higher bottom speed at resolutions below 2560x1600 but this advantage has little practical worth. The Zotac card behaves superbly and might be used to build a very quiet GeForce GTX 480 SLI tandem but few computers would accommodate two graphics cards with three-slot coolers!

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

We use the game’s DirectX 10.1 and DirectX 11 modes for graphics cards that support them.

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 SLI grabs top place in this test and, what is even more important, makes the resolution of 2560x1600 playable. The weaker 470 SLI subsystem cannot do that. The result is good considering the high system requirements of this game. The Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire cannot leave the single Radeon HD 5970 far behind, just as it couldn’t in some previous tests.

Wolfenstein

This game is tested in multiplayer mode that uses the OpenGL API. The integrated benchmark does not report the bottom frame rate.

The GeForce GTX 480 SLI tandem is ahead of its rival but by a very small margin. We can say that they are equal, especially at 2560x1600. The game having modest system requirements, the single GeForce GTX 480 is quite enough for normal play, though.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Just Cause 2

This game’s integrated benchmark does not report the bottom frame rate.

Like in our previous review, Nvidia’s architecture shows its best at high resolutions, enjoying a large lead over the AMD solutions, but also having a lower bottom speed. Subjectively, it seems that the Radeon HD 5970 offers smoother gameplay at 2560x1600. Using two discrete Radeon HD 5870 cards for playing this game does not make sense as they do not bring any performance benefits.

Resident Evil 5

The Nvidia SLI technology does not work correctly in this game with the GeForce 257.15 beta driver. It is only at 2560x1600 that we can see a performance growth relative to the single graphics card. However, there is no difference between the GeForce GTX 470 and 480 there. There is also no difference between the Radeon HD 5970 and the pair of discrete Radeon HD 5870 cards.

Street Fighter IV

The integrated benchmark does not report the bottom frame rate.

The colossal resources of modern multi-GPU solutions are not called for in this game, so the GeForce GTX 480 SLI only goes ahead of the 470 SLI at 2560x1600, which can make no difference since both deliver an average frame rate of over 200 fps. There is no difference at all between the AMD solutions but, as we said above, this must be due to the Radeon HD 5970 having a dedicated PCI Express switch. This may also be the result of some software optimizations targeted at this specific graphics card.

Performance in RPG

Mass Effect 2

We enforced full-screen antialiasing using the method described in our special Mass Effect 2 review.

The GeForce GTX 480 SLI configuration has no rivals but there is no need for such a costly solution, either. The GeForce GTX 470 SLI tandem is going to cost less and will make the game just as playable at every resolution up to 2560x1600. The Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire tandem behaves differently, depending on the display resolution. It offers no visible advantages over the Radeon HD 5970 where its resources are called for the most, i.e. at 2560x1600.

Performance in Simulators

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

We enable the DirectX 11 mode for graphics cards that support it.

The top-end SLI platform is only ahead of the less advanced configuration at 2560x1600, yet we don’t think that this could justify an investment into building a GeForce GTX 480 SLI. Besides, you can build a rather quiet gaming platform with a pair of GeForce GTX 470 cards whereas the GeForce GTX 480 makes this hardly possible, even if you consider its versions with nonstandard coolers like the one of the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP!.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.

The game’s integrated benchmark cannot report the bottom frame rate. We use DirectX 10 and 10.1 modes here.

Like in the previous test, the GeForce GTX 480 SLI is better than the GeForce GTX 470 SLI, yet this advantage is not as large or useful as to justify the investment. This is also the reason why producing a dual-processor card with the specs of that SLI tandem makes no sense unless it is a product for collectors like the ASUS Mars.

Performance in Strategies

BattleForge

We use DirectX 11 mode for graphics cards that support it.

The GeForce GTX 480 SLI has a low bottom speed at high resolutions in this game, just like the rest of SLI tandems. The average frame rate grows up in the multi-GPU mode but gameplay becomes less comfortable, the game becoming less responsive to user actions, than with the single GeForce GTX 480. Hopefully, this will be corrected by the next version of Nvidia’s driver.

World in Conflict: Soviet Assault

Like in the previous tests, the GeForce GTX 480 SLI is faster than the GeForce GTX 470 SLI but the latter subsystem costs the same money as the single Radeon HD 5970 whereas the former, $1000 and more. And there are no practical benefits from the more expensive solution save for the higher numbers in the benchmark.

Performance in Synthetic and Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

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 resolutions.

The GeForce GTX 480 SLI should please every computer enthusiast with its high 3DMark score: 18,000 points in the Extreme mode is quite a lot. This can only be beaten by adding more GPUs into the system.

The top-end SLI configuration wins the individual tests as well, its advantage over the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire being especially conspicuous in the second test. By the way, the discrete tandem from AMD is no different from the Radeon HD 5970 in the second test whereas the difference in the first test is quite large.

Unigine Heaven Benchmark

The Nvidia Fermi architecture feels at its ease in this test. The GeForce GTX 480 SLI turns in an excellent result: 75% faster than the GeForce GTX 470 SLI at 2560x1600. Unfortunately, this is but a synthetic benchmark, even though the Unigine Heaven engine can be used for a full-featured game as well.

Conclusion

Just as we had anticipated from the start of our tests, the GeForce GTX 480 SLI left no change to the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire. The latter behaved rather oddly. Despite a serious advantage over the Radeon HD 5970 in GPU and memory clock rates, it was often no faster in our tests. We don’t know the exact reason for that. Perhaps this is due to driver optimizations targeted at the Radeon HD 5970 or to the dedicated PCI Express switch installed on the latter card that helps the GPUs communicate more effectively. Whatever the reason, the discrete tandem from AMD cannot do anything the much cheaper Radeon HD 5970 would not be capable of.

As for the performance of the GeForce GTX 480, you may want to take a look at the summary diagrams:

The resolution of 1600x900 pixels is not meant for top-end graphics solutions such as Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire or GeForce GTX 480 SLI. However, we can see that the 480 SLI configuration is 9 to 34% ahead of the 470 SLI tandem, depending on the particular game, and enjoys an average 16% advantage over the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire. It is only in Resident Evil 5 that the SLI technology fails with the current version of the GeForce driver.

The resolution of 1920x1080 is popular today because the Full HD format has become widespread. The GeForce GTX 480 SLI can shows its strength here, beating the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire by an average 20%, which equals the difference in price between the two solutions. Nvidia’s tandem also shows varying scalability, from 15% to near 100% over the performance of the single card.

The resolution of 2560x1600 is the battlefield that the GeForce GTX 480 SLI is really meant for. It now has an average 30% advantage over the Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire and often boasts a hefty advantage in terms of bottom speed. However, even this solution cannot deliver a really comfortable frame rate in Crysis Warhead. Instead, it is fast at running S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.

Summing all up, the GeForce GTX 480 SLI is indeed the fastest dual-processor multi-GPU subsystem available today. However, its advantage over the more affordable GeForce GTX 470 SLI is not high enough to justify the difference in price. Users who can afford such expensive graphics solutions are but a small category of the total user audience. Besides, they may prefer even more luxurious setups with 3 and 4 GPUs.

Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! Summary

The Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! graphics card we used for this review features an advanced and quiet cooling system which can keep its GPU as cool as 70°C. It also comes with pre-overclocked frequencies. However, this pre-overclocking cannot change anything in real-life games whereas the cooler of our sample was not free from small but annoying manufacturing defects. Besides, the cooler takes as many as two adjacent slots, which may be a limitation for some computer configurations. Nevertheless, the Zotac GeForce GTX 480 AMP! is indeed an interesting product. Just don’t forget to check it out for those defects before purchasing it!

Highs:

 Lows: