Power consumption at idle was the highest we’ve seen from a single GPU card at 186W system power draw, 18W more than the HD 5870. At load though it entered a whole new dimension for a single GPU card sucking down a massive 382W while looping the canyon flight demo in 3DMark 06. That’s a full 106W more than the Radeon HD 5870 in the same test, 30W more than the dual GPU Radeon HD 5970 and only 6W less than the dual GPU GeForce GTX 295!
Sucking down all that power has clear consequences for the card’s thermal output, and while the GTX 480 idles at a balmy 20°C above room temperature in our 22°C air conditioned labs with a low and utterly un-intrusive fan noise to match, things change for the worse at full load. The GPU temperature rapidly rises to a heady 94°C – 72°C above the ambient room temperature, where the fan speeds up to whatever speed necessary to keep the GPU from getting any hotter.
The result is a graphics card that runs extremely hot at full load, and that coupled with the unique external heatsink it could easily be rebranded the GTX 480 Griddle Edition - the heatsink in our test rig, which, bear in mind is a roomy Antec Twelve Hundred, hit 67°C, which is enough to burn your skin. Nvidia recommends spacing the cards at least two expansion slots apart in an SLI configuration and even then we suspect there will be raft of watercooled editions of the GTX 480 to counteract the massive thermal demands of the GPU.
Adding insult to injury the GTX 480 is also extremely noisy when under load, easily matching the racket of the HD 5970 and comparable to a DVD-ROM drive at full speed when striving to keep the GPU at 94°C. The 65mm paddle fan was easily the loudest component in our Antec 1200 test chassis and was clearly audible from 6ft away through a closed side panel.
Value and Conclusion
A Fermi GPU. Click to enlarge
Having waited over six months for Nvidia to deliver a DirectX 11 graphics card we can’t help but feel shocked by the GeForce GTX 480. While offering performance superior to the HD 5870 in some situations, most notably Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Dirt 2, the GTX 480 is unable to conclusively claim the title as fastest single GPU graphics card, with Crysis a dead heat and the Radeon HD 5870 cards offering much better performance in STALKER.
Even when ahead, at the high resolutions and demanding settings this kind of top-of-the-range card should target, the GTX 480's performance advantage is rarely more than ten percent. Considering the six month wait since the release of the HD 5870 this is deeply disappointing, and we certainly hoped and expected more.
It’s hard to back the GTX 480 elsewhere though as it brings with it incredibly high power consumption, high running temperatures and a noisy stock cooling solution which really spoil the party.
The bad news continues. Nvidia has chosen to launch the GTX 480 quoting a price thirty per cent higher than that of its direct competitor. While you can find a HD 5870 1GB for around £310 in stock without too much effort, the GeForce GTX 480 1,536MB will hit e-tailers shelves on April 6th at an MSRP of £420 ($450). Even if you value the Nvidia exclusive features like PhysX, 3D Vision and CUDA support, such a high price will be tough to stomach.
Yes, the GTX 480 offers great performance in our test games, especially in Dirt 2 and Bad Company 2, but compared to the competition, it doesn't make a strong enough case for itself, especially when you consider that there are just so many caveats involved with buying this card. The higher price, the 100W of extra power consumption, scorchingly hot temperatures and a much noisier stock cooler are all extremely detrimental to its desirability. The HD 5870 remains a far better choice if you're a gamer; while we've yet to see how the GTX 480 performs with CUDA apps and Folding, at this stage Fermi looks like a flop.