For what seems like time immemorial the graphics chip makers have been one upping each other in the technology stakes. Most of the time they produce cards with incremental improvements, squeezed from new manufacturing technologies, or new memory designs.
However every few years both ATI and NVIDIA introduce new architecture, designed to take advantage of the latest DirectX specifications.
New graphics architecture is fascinating from a technological standpoint. It is also where we see massive leaps in performance. At first the products are always at the high end of the market, pitched to enthusiasts who clamour for bleeding edge performance and bragging rights of being the first packing the latest silicon. As chip yields improve the architecture makes its way into the mainstream product lines, but this often takes six months of so from the first enthusiast cards arriving.
Fermi enters the picture
NVIDIA's new GeForce GTX 480 is just such an enthusiast product. It marks the introduction of the Fermi architecture, and brings DirectX 11 support to NVIDIA's lineup. This lags behind ATI's RADEON 5870, which supports DirectX 11 and launched in September 2009.
So while the GeForce GTX 480 hasn't even hit the market yet, the RADEON 5870 has had a good few months to hold the performance crown and, more crucially, fall in price.
Getting Fermi into the labs
As part of our upcoming full review of the GTX 480 we have been getting a feel for the cards performance in the PC Authority labs. At the moment it is looking like NVIDIA has managed to come close to the performance of the RADEON 5870.
While the differences are relatively minor, the overall feeling is that the maturity of ATI's offering is the key to the performance differences being seen in our tests.
One area that surprised us was in the PC Authority Crysis benchmark, where the GTX 480 managed to beat out the RADEON 5870 by the narrowest of margins. In the Very High tests we saw NVIDIA's offering achieve an average 49.37 frames per second, with the RADEON scoring 48.39. This is of course an imperceptible difference, perhaps the most important thing to take away from it is that both of these latest generation cards kick some serious butt.
|Incredibly pretty: NVIDIA's GTX 480 managed playable frame rates of 32.93 in Just Cause 2, though it's less than what ATI's RADEON 5870 achieved
We also took a quick look at each card's performance using the benchmark function of Square Enix's recently released Just Cause 2. Not only is the Avalanche 2.0 graphics engine behind this game capable of incredibly pretty graphics, it is also one of a new generation of games that will only run on DirectX 10 or higher hardware (this seems to be a side effect of dropping Windows XP support from the game).
Cranking things up a notch
After cranking the resolution all the way up to our 30in screen's native 2560 x 1600 we set all the graphics options to the highest possible. The RADEON only supported up to 8x Antialiasing in game, so we used that setting for the GTX 480 as well. Both cards delivered playable framerates, with the RADEON 5870 averaging 38.28 fps to the GTX 480's 32.93.
Out of curiosity we also ran the same test with NVIDIA's new 32x CSAA antialiasing method and were pleasantly surprised to see little performance loss, with an average of 30.23 frames per second.
With this initial testing done we think our suspicions are confirmed. The GTX 480 is certainly a solid performer. But with an operating temperature close to 100 degrees Celsius, desperately high power requirements and a price tag well in excess of the similar performer from ATI, it isn't the card we would go for at the moment.
Give it a few months though, and we can see the Fermi architecture driving some serious competition in the more mainstream products.