Phew! Well, after countless community requests and some arm twisting, but mostly because it started raining and we decided to stop playing Zombie Fluxx, come inside, and crack on with the benchmarks. Yes, it’s finally here (deep breath), the bit-tech Summer 2008 Graphics Card Performance Group Test!
However, we’re confident that it’s been more than worth the wait, as we’ve performed one of the most in-depth and extensive hardware group tests to ever grace bit-tech in order to finally answer the pressing questions of modern graphics card performance: which card now sits atop the performance pile? Which holds the mid range performance crown? And most importantly, which should you spend your hard earned cash on?
Needless to say that the last two months have been a hugely frantic time within the graphics industry, with both AMD and Nvidia launching impressive new graphics architectures and winding up the PR machines to spin out their latest GPUs.
We’ve already looked at Nvidia’s GT200 architecture in some serious detail, and coverage of AMD/ATI’s R770 is on the way soon (we promise), but for this article the focus is on the boards these architectures have spawned and their performance where you, the consumer, will see the most difference – modern, graphically intensive games.
For this purpose, we’ve gathered together the usual suspects of recent graphics cards, as well as the four new arrivals – Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 280 and 260 and ATI’s Radeon HD 4870 and HD 4850, and tested them in some of the most popular and graphically demanding games currently available, at varied high quality settings and resolutions. However, before we plough into the bevvy of benchmark scores (over 450 of them in fact), let’s look into current UK graphics card pricing, and see how much these slabs of silicon will cost.
An advantage of waiting a few weeks after the architectures have launched is that card prices have calmed down to the extent that we can reasonably talk about value. However, only last week Nvidia dropped its pants prices of GTX 280 and GTX 260 cards by around £40 and we’ve already seen HD 4850s selling for as little as £110, so while we’ll be commenting on current card pricing, price drops could, and do occur at anytime.
ATI has designed the 4800-series to compete with the GeForce 9800 GTX and GTX+ in terms of performance and pricing, and has for now left the ultra high-end for Nvidia to monopolise with its GeForce GTX280 and GTX260 cards until the ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 launches in the next few weeks (yay, another architecture to review!) However we'll certainly be looking to see if the HD 4870 can compete on any level with Nvidia's new monster GT200 series during testing.
Testing cards to be "future proof" is always going to be tricky, however, by testing today’s games at their maximum settings we can get a fairly good idea of where a card’s gaming performance is headed for future releases. Features like DirectX 10.1 support have been available for a few months since Vista Service Pack 1 and the release of Assassins Creed on the PC, which has been reported by Ubisoft to have "greatly outstripped [its] sales expectations, forecasting that it will sell a minimum of five million units across all platforms this year cements the arrival of DirectX 10.1 gaming, even if it is only in one title at present.
In addition, Nvidia has also ported PhysX to CUDA so it can be used on all 8-series, 9-series and GT200 graphics cards, however we've not featured any PhysX games in our testing because the drivers aren't yet WHQL certified, and quite frankly there are no games yet released worth playing. That's not forgetting that PhysX can potentially be ported to ATI cards too, and we're not in the business of reviewing promises and maybes. However, when the time comes and PhysX support is finalised we'll happily look into the PhysX performance improvements therein.
It’s rare that a super driver is released that miraculously improves performance by twenty five percent, no matter what the manufacturers may claim, so any deficiencies in performance apparent in our modern day testing will likely magnify as time goes on. As a graphics card can be a long term investment for many people, we’ll be looking carefully at card value once we’ve established some clear results.
We’ll be testing eleven (yes eleven!) separate cards, based on five different graphics architectures and ranging in price from sub £100 to well over £300. To help make sense of the sea of specifications that comes with testing such a varied group, here’s a handy specification table.
You’ll notice that we haven’t covered some of the cards listed here before, so lets took a little more in-depth at them.