Which was the fastest card of this gen?
It’s been a tough eighteen months for both Nvidia and ATI when it comes to high end graphics, with the recession keeping sales down and exchange rates laying hell with UK pricing. Nevertheless, both graphics superpowers have progressively released ultra high end products in the form of the GeForce GTX 295, GTX 285 and Radeon HD 4870 X2 within that time. With this generation of cards coming to its end with the arrival of new architectures from both ATI and Nvidia rumoured in the next few months to coincide with Windows 7 DirectX 11 release, we thought it was time to take a retrospective look at these three cards to decide once and for all, which was the best card of this generation?
Radeon HD 4870 X2
Price at Release
Current Price £268.50
Released in August of last year
, the Radeon HD 4870 X2 was the first of the three cards in the running to be released, debuting at a wallet crunching £345. It was also the first dual GPU card of this generation, sporting two RV770 cores with a revolutionary interconnect path between them allowing the card to overcome some of the shortcomings of the previous Radeon HD 3870 X2.
Alongside the twin GPUs clocked at 750MHz and offering 1,600 stream processors (800 each) is 2GB of DDR5 (1,024Mb per GPU) running at the same 3,600MHz effective speed as the single GPU HD 4870. Subsequently this produces a formidable 230GB/sec of combined memory bandwidth.
The dual GPU monster duly tore up the benchmarks when we first ran it, but it was clear that some of the limitations of a dual GPU card were still in effect. As Tim said at the time,“Making a multi-GPU graphics card isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, an elegant way to create the highest-performing single graphics card,
” due to the heavy reliance on drivers and the fact that CrossFire (and SLI) mirrors the frame buffer between cores. If a driver hasn’t been specifically optimised for a dual GPU card you’ll only get the performance of one of those twin GPUs - a fraction of the card's potential.
The card was also frighteningly thirsty when it came to power consumption and duly threw out a huge amount of heat as a result. However, as we know from past experience a well written multi-GPU can deliver fantastic performance, so the HD 4870 X2 is very much a contender if the latest Catalyst 9.9 drivers are up to scratch.
GeForce GTX 285
Price at Release
Current Price £256.99
Built on the 55nm GT 200b, in comparison to the 65nm GT200 GPU of last summer’s GeForce GTX 280, the GeForce GTX 285 is the evolution of Nvidia’s single GPU offering for this generation. All 16 of the 64MB GDDR3 modules have been moved to the front side of the card to be actively cooled (allowing for higher memory clocks), and the core and shader clocks have both been increased.
The result is the fastest consumer single GPU card currently available (disregarding the Sapphire HD 4890 1GB Atomic, which never saw a meaningful retail release), packing 240 stream processors and improved clock speeds of 648MHz core, 1,476MHz shader and 2,484MHz (effective) memory.
The advantage of the single GPU card is that, unlike the dual GPU cards here, performance is less determined by drivers. Of course, a well optimised driver will still garner performance improvements, but performance should be much more reliable when we take a multi-GPU solution out of the equation. However, it’s unlikely the GTX 285 will be able to match the multi-GPU competition if their drivers are correctly optimised – it’s certainly going to be an interesting fight.
GeForce GTX 295 (Single PCB)
Price at Release
Current Price £339.99
Having been originally released in January this year before receiving a single PCB redesign just last month, the dual GPU GeForce GTX 295 was supposed to snatch the brute force performance crown from the Radon HD 4870 X2, a task that it didn’t achieve flawlessly with the Radeon still having an advantage in a number of titles. However, the GeForce GTX 295 was still a ferociously powerful bit of kit, built on twin GT200b GPUs each with 240 stream processors, although each GPU is only fitted with 896MB of GDDR3 in comparison to the GeForce GTX 285’s 1GB.
The two GPUs on the GeForce GTX 295 also run at individually lower speeds than that of the GeForce GTX 285, with a core clock of 576MHz, a shader clock of 1,242MHz and an effective memory clock of 1,998MHz. Of course, there are two of them to do the graphics work, but again this places significant onus on the card’s drivers to deliver performance rather than the raw hardware on the card, although it’s here that Nvidia has something of a better reputation that ATI. Will it be the case now, nine months since its launch that the 295’s drivers have matured to crown it as the undisputed champ? Let’s find out.