NVIDIA GTX 280 Performance Revealed - MSI N280GTX Page: 1
Introduction
 
GTX 280 DieOver the past couple of months, pictures and sketchy information about NVIDIA's latest flagship GPU have been circulating the internet. While NVIDIA have done their best to keep things quiet, many of us have been holding off on a much needed graphics card purchase to find out exactly what NVIDIA have had up their sleeves. Well, after being fed a flurry of re-hashed technology from both NVIDIA and ATI in the form of their Dual-GPU 3870x2 and 9800GX2 graphics cards, the wait is finally over - and today Overclock3D have managed to get their hands on NVIDIA's new-gen flagship GPU - the GTX 280.
 
So, why the change in naming convention I hear you ask? Well after attending NVIDIA's recent press event, the reason given is that they wanted to mark the fact that these really are a new generation of GPU's. Calling the GPU a 9900GTX simply didn't do justice for the number of changes they've made, and 10800GTX...is just plain silly. Obviously, NVIDIA will also be releasing lower-end cards based on this architecture later in the year (GTX 230 maybe??) and the current naming convention would not have allowed for this.
 
GTX 280 3-Way SLIStarting with the basics, NVIDIA have designed the GTX 200 series to be much more than a standard graphics processor. Coining the two phrases "Beyond 3D" and "3D Beyond" as part of the driving force behind the architectural design of the GTX 200, NVIDIA have been demonstrating just how the unbeatable multi-threaded performance of the GPU can be put to good use in applications such as video transcoding or medical research such as Folding@Home via CUDA. As many of us will already know, physics processing via the PhysX API is also being transferred over to CUDA and this, combined with the fact that the GTX 200 series is fully Tri-SLI ready, should lead to some very interesting times ahead - in both gaming and general computing.
 
In terms of actual architectural differences, the GTX 200 series is the first to implement NVIDIA's second generation unified shader. According to NVIDIA, this offers significantly enhanced features and can deliver on average 1.5x better performance than that of the GeForce 8/9 series. The SPA architecture of the GTX 280 also enters the second-generation, with an increase in the SM's per TPC from two to three, and an overall increase in TPC's per chip from 8 to 10. This results in a whopping increase in processor cores to 240 from the original 128 of the G80 and G92. Manufactured using a 65nm fabrication process, the GTX 200 also includes 1.4 billion transistors (more than double that of the 8800GTX).
 
GTX 200 SpecsSpecial attention has also been made to power efficiency with the GTX 200 GPU's, featuring four different power modes rather than the standard 2D/3D modes found on most other cards. Once again referring to information from NVIDIA, these modes will be: 2D mode with a power consumption of 25w, DVD playback mode with a consumption of 35w, 3D performance mode with a worst-case (TDP) consumption of 236w and support for NVIDIA's HybridPower mode, which effectively powers down the GPU and switches to an on-motherboard solution.
 
NVIDIA have also kitted the GTX 280 and 260 with 1GB and 896 MB frame buffers respectively. Ignoring the dual-GPU cards such as the 9800GX2 for one minute, this is an almost double increase in frame buffer from the previous generation cards and should help performance when gaming at high resolutions with anti-aliasing. Memory addressing has also received a bump in spec, with a 512-bit memory interface (up from 384-bit in previous gen) and a modified texture to frame buffer (TEX:FB) ratio to ensure that texture units are not starved for data.
 
So now that we've got all of the formalities out of the way, let's take a close-up look at MSI's GTX 280 and find out how all of this new tech translates into FPS figures for our avid gamers...


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Packaging & Appearance
 
As we've seen in previous GPU reviews, a lot of manufacturers seem to be engaging in a willy-waving war on just how big they can make the packaging on their latest graphics cards before e-tailers start to moan about their lack of storage space and increased shipping fees. MSI seem to have joined in this war with the release of their N280GTX, and as we can see from the images below, the box is simply huge.
 
MSI N280GTX Box MSI N280GTX
 
MSI N280GTX - Got Flaps? MSI N280GTX Inside
 
Displayed on the outer packaging is all of the usual information and specifications you'd expect to see on a product of this type, and yet another feature that's becoming quite a favourite among manufacturers is the 'further information flap'. Lifting this flap reveals even more information about card along with some more detailed information on its main features.
 
MSI N2800GTX Contents MSI N280GTX HDMI
 
Contained within the box is everything you need to get up and running, including an S-Video to Phono cable, S-Video to S-Video cable, Molex to 6-Pin PCI-E cable, DVI to VGA converter and last but not least a DVI to HDMI converter (pictured above-right).
 
The N280GTX also comes with an obligatory driver disk and two free games: Colin Mcrae DiRT and Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar (14 day trial). It is a bit of a shame that MSI didn't include any games that could give the GTX 280 more of a run for its money, but hey, they're free so who are we to complain.
 
MSI N280GTX Top MSI N2800GTX Bottom
 
MSI N280GTX Vents MSI N280GTX Rear
 
On the surface there really is very little to distinguish the GTX 280 from its elder brother, the 9800GTX. Both cards are exactly the same length, have a cooling fan in roughly the same place and have vents at the back of the card. However, as the GTX 280 features memory chips on both sides of the PCB (pictured further down the page), NVIDIA have fitted a steel cooling plate to the back of the GTX 280 in order to help heat dissipation. This alone makes the card feel quite a bit heavier than its predecessor, but still nowhere near the realms of the hefty 9800GX2.
 
MSI N280GTX Side MSI N280GTX Front
 
At the front of the card is a fairly standard assortment of two DVI connectors, an S-Video connector, a power LED (top-left) and 13 wave-shaped vents all mounted on a dual-slot blanking plate. Also, as we can see from the image above-left, the GTX 280 still requires both 6-Pin and 8-Pin PCI-E cables to be attached before the card will function.
 
MSI N280GTX PCB Front MSI N280GTX PCB Back
 
MSI N280GTX GPU MSI N280GTX Vivo
 
Whoa! Would you look at the size of that chip! Without a doubt, the GTX 280 is one of the largest NVIDIA GPU's to date and totally dwarfs the likes of the G92. Interestingly, there is also two sets of mounting holes around the GPU area, possibly indicating that the GTX 200 series may well work with some existing G80/G92 cooling solutions. Also featured bottom right is the NVIO chip responsible for all data that enters the GPU over an interface that isn't PCI Express, such as the dual-link DVI outputs, S-Video and SLI connectivity.
 
MSI N280GTX Cooling MSI N280GTX Cooling
 
Stock cooling on the GTX 280 is extremely similar to that found on the 9800GTX with a combination of copper, aluminium, heatpipes and fins being used to cool the GPU and memory IC's. The blower-style fan used on the GTX 280 is slightly larger than that of the 9800GTX - but only by 10-20mm.
 
During the testing of the card, we found it to remain cool and quiet even when under stress from benchmarks such as 3DMark Vantage. Firing up Rivatuner showed the fan to be running at about 40% speed and although temperatures were being reported at around 45c, these were certainly to be taken with a pinch of salt as Rivatuner was unable to correctly identify the card.


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Test Setup
 
A common mistake made when benchmarking graphics cards is that the rest of the PC system isn't sufficient enough to test the GPU to its limits. This results in a bottleneck situation, where the system can only run at the speed of its slowest component. For this reason, the test configuration chosen below has been specially selected to give each of the graphics cards on test the headroom they require in order to produce the best results.
 
System Specs
 
A selection of games and benchmark suites has also been chosen to test each of the cards with several game engines. Each of the cards will be run at both low and high resolutions with varying levels of texture filtering to represent the use of the card with both small and large screen sizes.
 
3DMark05
1024x768 / 0xAA / 0xAF (Default)
1920x1200 / 4xAA / 0xAF
 
3DMark 06
1280x1024 / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / 4xAA / 0xAF

3DMark Vantage
1280x1024 / Performance Mode
1900x1200 / Extreme Mode
 
Quake4
1280x1024 / Ultra / 4xAA / 4xAF
1920x1200 / Ultra / 4xAA / 4xAF
 
Unreal Tournament III
1280x1024 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
 
Call of Duty 4
1280x1024 / Max / 4xAA / 4xAF
1920x1200 / Max / 4xAA / 4xAF
 
F.E.A.R
1280x1024 / Max / 4xAA / 4xAF
1920x1200 / Max / 4xAA / 0xAF
 
BIOSHOCK
1280x1024 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
 
Crysis
1280x1024 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
 
At present, the 3850x2, 3870x2, 9800GTX and 9800GX2 are among the highest performing graphics cards currently available on the market, and for this reason we will be placing the GTX 280 head to head with a stock clocked version of each of these cards. Due care and attention will also be observed when changing between each of the cards, with a fresh install of Vista being deployed to the test system with every driver installation.
 
A recent feature to enter the Overclock3D GPU review system is the "Cost per FPS" scale. This scale gives a rough indication of which card offers the best bang per buck based on the price of each card at the time of this review. Under normal circumstances, this scale would be based on the exact retail price of each card from a single retailer. However, as MSI have only speculated a release price of £420 for the GTX 280, we will be using this figure along side the current retail price for the remainder of the cards as listed at aria.co.uk.
 
Specifications
 
When viewing the CPF results for each card, we obviously need to take into consideration that the launch price of the MSI N280GTX will be much higher than the rest of the cards listed as they have all had 6 months+ to settle into the market. Nevertheless, it will still be interesting to see if the increased performance of the GTX 280 comes anywhere near to justifying its launch price. In addition, with the release of ATI's 4800 series on the horizon, we will also be using the same scale to perform a comparison of both NVIDIA's and ATI's flagship cards.
 
 
Overclocking
 
Using the NVIDIA nTune utility along with it's inbuilt stability tester to test for artifacts, the maximum overclock we managed to achieve on the GTX 280 was 718mhz / 1273mhz /1436mhz for the GPU, Memory and Shaders respectively. This gave a reasonable 11% increase in our 3DMark Vantage score (5063 to 5624 @ Extreme settings) and an impressive 20% increase in our Crysis 1900x1200 results (40.38fps to 48.12fps).
 
GTX 280 GPU-Z
 
Now lets get on to the benchmarks...


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3DMark05, 3DMark06, 3DMark Vantage
 
3DMark is a popular synthetic gaming benchmark used by many gamers and overclockers to gauge the performance of their PC's. All 3DMark runs were performed a total of 5 times with the highest and lowest results being removed and an average calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
3DMark05 Results
 
With the very first benchmark performed on the GTX 280 being 3DMark05 at the stock 1024x768 resolution, it was quite worrying to see the 9800GTX take the lead by around 40 points. However, increasing the resolution to 1900x1200 and adding 4x AA saw the GTX 280 leave the 9800GTX in the dust, producing a final score only a few hundred points short of the ATI 3870x2 and 9800GX2.
 
3DMark06 Results
 
3DMark06 saw the 9800GX2, 3870x2 and GTX 280 take 1st, 2nd and 3rd places respectively. We need to remember at this point, that both the x2 and GX2 cards have the brute-force power of two GPU's, so for the GTX 280 to even come close to these results is just testament to how fast the GTX 200 architecture really is.
 
 3DMark Vantage Results
 
3DMark Vantage is a brand new application to the OC3D testing suite, and for this reason we were only able to test the cards currently in our possession - the 9800GTX and the GTX 280. As we can see from the results above, the difference between the two cards is phenomenal, with the GTX 280 more than doubling the 9800's score at the 1900x1200 resolution.


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Call Of Duty 4
 
Call of Duty 4 is a stunning DirectX 9.0c based game that really looks awesome and has a very full feature set. With lots of advanced lighting, smoke and water effects, the game has excellent explosions along with fast gameplay. Using the in-built Call Of Duty features, a 10-minute long gameplay demo was recorded and replayed on each of the GPU's using the /timedemo command a total of 5 times. The highest and lowest FPS results were then removed, with an average being calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
Call of Duty 4 - FPS
 
Call of Duty 4 - Cost Per Frame
 
Beaten only by the 9800GX2, the GTX 280 really shows strength at both low and high resolutions. Once again, comparing the card to its predecessor, the 9800GTX, is like comparing night and day with a ~40FPS lead for the card at 1280x1024 and almost 30FPS lead at 1900x1200. Even ATI's current (but not for long) flagship, the 3870x2 is made a mockery of.
 
Moving on to the CPF scale, the GTX 280 is clearly the most costly of the bunch based on the £420 est. launch price, but as we said earlier, this price WILL come down, so it will certainly be interesting to see where it sits in a few months time.
 
 
BIOSHOCK
 
BioShock is a recent FPS shooter by 2K games. Based on the UT3 engine, it has a large amount of advanced DirectX techniques including excellent water rendering and superb lighting and smoke techniques. All results were recorded using F.R.A.P.S with a total of 5 identical runs through the same area of the game. The highest and lowest results were then removed, with an average being calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
BIOSHOCK - FPS
 
BIOSHOCK - CPF
 
Once again, the star of the show is still the 9800GX2, with the GTX 280 sitting 10-20FPS lower depending on the resolution. The 9800GTX puts up a good effort at 1280x1024, but with the resolution increased to 1900x1200, it's left at the bottom of the pack. Neither the 3850x2 or 3870x2 manage to produce any noteworthy results against the competition.


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Crysis
 
Crysis is without doubt one of the most visually stunning and hardware-challenging games to date. By using CrysisBench - a tool developed independently of Crysis - we performed a total of 5 timedemo benchmarks using a GPU-intensive pre-recorded demo. To ensure the most accurate results, the highest and lowest benchmark scores were then removed and an average calculated from the remaining three.
 
Crysis - FPS
 
Crysis - CPF
 
Sitting just 5FPS behind the 9800GX2 at 1280x1024 and just over 10FPS behind at 1900x1200, the performance of the GTX 280 really shines through in this extremely tough benchmark. Once again, we need to remember that the GTX 280 is a single GPU, and therefore beating cards such as the 3870x2 and competing with the GX2 is an excellent achievement. As a side note, this is probably the first time we've ever been able to play Crysis with any reasonable level of detail and resolution on a single GPU configuration without experiencing a slideshow.
 
 
F.E.A.R
 
F.E.A.R. is a game based on the Lithtech Jupiter EX engine. It has volumetric lighting, soft shadows, parallax mapping and particle effects. All results were recorded using F.R.A.P.S, with a total of 5 identical runs through the same area of the game. The highest and lowest results were then removed, with an average being calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
F.E.A.R - FPS
 
F.E.A.R - VPF
 
Just when we thought that a pattern was emerging between the GTX 280 and the 9800GX2, the GTX 280 goes and shows us that it IS capable of beating every other card currently on the market. Even the dual-GPU 9800GX2 gets left behind with the GTX 280 almost managing to pull 200FPS at 1280x1024 with 4xAA.
 
These excellent results also have an interesting effect on the CPF chart, with the GTX 280 only costing £0.12 more per frame than the 9800GX2 and £0.24 more than the 9800GTX.


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Quake 4
 
Quake 4 is a game built on the Doom 3 engine. Benchmarking was performed using Quake4Bench and a custom timedemo recording. The benchmark was set to run a total of 5 times, with Quake4Bench automatically calculating an average result at the end of the run.
 
Quake 4 - FPS
 
Quake 4 - CPF
 
Once again, the GTX 280 tops the charts, managing a very reasonable 85FPS at 1900x1200. Ironically, this is almost exactly the same result as the 9800GX2 managed at 1280x1024, yet again showing the potential that the GTX 280 has when combined with certain game engines.
 
 
Unreal Tournament 3
 
Unreal Tournament 3 is the highly anticipated game from Epic Games and Midway. The game uses the latest Unreal engine, which combines fast gameplay along with high quality textures and lighting effects. All benchmarks were performed using UTbench with a fly-by of the DM-BioHazard map. As usual, all benchmarks were performed 5 times, with the highest and lowest results being removed and an average calculated from the remaining three.
 
Unreal Tournament 3 - FPS
 
Unreal Tourmanet 3 - CPF
 
Being based on the same game engine (UE3) as BioShock, the final result is quite similar. The 9800GX2 takes the limelight yet again, with the GTX 280 in a close 2nd position and the 9800GTX left to fight it out with the AMD counterparts. Interestingly, the 9800GX2 doesn't take much of a dip in performance when increasing the resolution to 1900x1200 whereas the GTX 280 drops by around 30FPS. This could possibly indicate that as the FPS approaches 200, the CPU becomes the bottleneck, thus capping the results.


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Conclusion
 
MSI N280 GTXHave no doubts, the GTX 280 (and indeed the MSI N280GTX used in today's review) is one awesome card. Designed to annihilate its predecessors, the 9800GTX and 8800GTX, it does this effortlessly, sometimes by up to 80FPS. However, as the results over the previous pages have shown, this flagship card comes up against some stiff competition from NVIDIA's own dual-GPU 9800GX2. Maybe it's unfair that we should pit this single-GPU card against the monstrous dual-GPU 9800GX2, but when you consider that the cost of the GX2 will be around £60 cheaper than the GTX 280 at launch, we can't help but feel that NVIDIA may well have shot themselves in the foot.
 
With this said, the GTX 280 does have some advantages over the 9800GX2 in other areas. For starters, it consumes less power both at idle and under load. It's quiet (which is more than can be said for the GX2 at times), and it doesn't raise the temperature inside your PC case like you've got a three-bar heater in there.
 
NVIDIA will also be keen to tell you about the other areas the card excels in, for example its ability to transcode video's up to 7x faster using their very own "BadaBoom" software and the whole host of other applications that will be able to take advantage of the GTX 280 via CUDA. While this is an area that we haven't really explored in today's review due to time restrictions, we can't help but wonder how these applications would run on a 9800GX2. After all, it too is CUDA-ready.
 
So, at the end of the day the GTX 280 has left us with some very mixed up feelings. On one hand, we want to praise the card, give it awards and recommend it to all and sundry for its excellent advances over the 8800GTX and 9800GTX. NVIDIA have done exactly what they set out to do and not only smashed the performance of their previous GPU's, but also made a mockery of ATI's current dual-GPU offerings (3870x2 / 3850x2). But yet on the other hand, we feel slightly disappointed that there is still a faster card out there. Yes, OK, it's one of those cheatin' dual-GPU cards, but at present it's currently £60 cheaper than the GTX 280's expected £420 launch price.
 
Check out the current price of the GTX 280 by visiting one of our recommended retailers: Scan, Aria & Novatech.
 
 
The Good
- It wipes the floor with the 8800GTX and 9800GTX.
- It can - in some games - beat out the 9800GX2.
- ATI better have something good cooking in their next-gen.
- Power efficiency and fairly silent cooling.
 
The Mediocre
- For £60 less you can get a 9800GX2 which performs on-par or better.
 
The Bad
- The price, as with all new releases, is more than premium.
 
 
All things said and done, this card most certainly deserves an award, and although we're hesitant to give it "Editors Choice", it  deserves recognition for its excellent performance out of a single GPU, despite its hefty launch price.
 
Overclock3D Performance Award
 
Thanks to MSI for providing the N280GTX for review. Discuss this review in our forums.