Has anything ever needed less of an introduction than the GTX480, the Fermi, the latest generation of cards from nVidia? For a long while nVidia held the crown as pretty much the only card anyone would choose. The 8800GTX was so outstanding that it was still munching through games long after nVidia had moved onto the GTX280.
The GTX280 was a very powerful card, but the move of nVidia to CUDA and PhysX integration also meant it was very pricey and this enabled ATI to beat them with a card that concentrated solely on being blindingly fast in games at an affordable price point.
Last year ATI released their 58xx series of graphics cards that not only provided full DirectX 11 functionality, but were insanely fast. Since then everyone has been waiting for the response from nVidia.
Just in case you've been living under a rock there is a hell of a lot of information to get through about the rather tortuous development path this has gone through. It's been delayed. It's had demos that weren't actually the card running. There have been genuine demos of the card that were rumoured to be water-cooled.
However, thanks to ZOTAC we've finally got our hands on one to test and can see not only which of the early reports are accurate, but also whether nVidias decision to concentrate firmly on the "extras" of CUDA, PhysX and such-like have made this a jack of all trades, or truly a gaming maestro.
ZOTAC GeForce® GTX 480
ZOTAC GeForce® GTX 470
GeForce® GTX 480
Engine Clock speed
Memory Clock speed
Dual dual-link DVI-I, mini HDMI 1.3a
Active (with fan) (dual-slot)
DirectX® 11 with Shader Model 5.0
Other hardware features
8-channel Digital Surround Sound (LPCM), NVIDIA® Lumenex™ Engine, Quantum Effects™ Technology
nView® Multi-Display, NVIDIA® PureVideo™ HD Technology, NVIDIA® CUDA™ technology, NVIDIA® PhysX® technology, OpenGL® 3.2, NVIDIA® 3D Vision™ Surround technology,
Windows 7 capability
Windows® 7 with DirectCompute support
Lets head over the page for our first look.
ZOTAC have kept to their company colours for the GTX480 box, and it's certainly eye-catching. A clear window enables you to see the behemoth of a heatsink.
Within the box we find all the various things we expect to find, including molex to PCI-E cables and a well written manual.
And here is the card in all its reference glory. As the GTX480 is still very new we're in the "reference cooler" stage of the cycle, but the ZOTAC logo still cuts a dashing figure.
Just in case anyone doubts the need for such a huge hunk of metal, take a look at how busy the back of the card is!
We have two SLI fingers for tri-SLI goodness, should you wish to melt icebergs entirely on your own, the triple display outputs for triple monitor 3D gaming, and the 8 and 6 pin PCI-E power connectors.
The power is actually our first surprise as with all the talk that this takes more power than can be provided by Sellafield we expected dual 8-pins.
Now its time to take a look at the stock cooling....
The Infamous Cooler
A large part of the reason for the release delay was nVidia attempting to rein in the heat that the Fermi core generates. A combination of cutting down the shaders and clock speeds, along with the biggest hunk of metal we've seen on any reference design, just about makes it manageable.
If you don't believe that this is as hot as is made out, this is the heatsink after our first batch of test runs. I've seen exhausts with less blue-ing on them.
Can anyone remember another heatsink that came uncovered in a final attempt to wrestle some thermal control?
Damn all this griddle-look metal is making me hungry.
Test Setup, Overclocking and Temperatures
Motherboard : ASUS Rampage II Extreme
CPU : Intel i7 920 @ 3.6GHz
RAM : 6GB Corsair Platinum @1333mhz
PSU : OCZ 1000w Gold PSU
HDD : 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F1
Monitor : Samsung 2433 24" @ 1920x1200
OS : Windows 7 Ultimate 64
GPU : Zotac GTX480 using 197.41 WHQL.
Reference HD5870 and HD5970 using Catalyst 10.3
Here came the really tight test, and something that actually caused us to depart from our standard testing procedure. As you'll see below we actually had to run our fans at 100% for testing which we will definitely get to in the conclusion.
Nobody knows for sure what nVidia planned to get out of the Fermi GTX480 core, but clearly the card has been detuned quite a bit because with maximised fans we got a huge boost in GPU and shader speeds along with the heat and performance gains we'd expect.
Normally for the purposes of fairness we run all our benchmarks and overclocking tests at 50% fans. Unfortunately nVidias reference cooler is so hopeless that within two minutes the card shut itself down, having passed 110°C. 60% fans had the same effect and it wasn't until we pushed into the deafening realm of 70% that our stock card was capable of running our tests.
We'd be very VERY dubious about running at anything under than 80% though and this is largely a fault of the fan which is barely an asthmatic mouse at 50% or below. Earplugs a must.
It has to be noticed that this is nothing to do with ZOTAC at all and solely the fault of nVidia and their inability to tame the GTX480.
Lets move on to the important tests... Some gaming results.
The big technological leap that nVidia are advertising for this generation of cards is Tessellation, which is the ability to smooth out polygons without increasing the amount of them built by the 3D artist. This should lead to far greater performance scalability without sacrificing detail as can be seen from the shot below. Although the dragon greatly improves in quality the surrounding rocks remain the same.
Rather than have to hunt around the latest games in an attempt to find something that will demonstrate the usefulness of Tessellation in a non-benchmark environment, nVidia have kindly supplied a comparison screenshot of Metro 2033.
We've all had a good look, so if any of our readers can spot some jaw dropping difference we'd love to hear it, because we can't.
Unigine is a very recent benchmarking suite that will test your DirectX 11 card to the limits. We're going to use it to test how well the ZOTAC GTX480s much vaunted Tessellation feature works in practise.
Firstly we will run with Tessellation set to normal with 0 and then 8xMSAA.
With anti-aliasing off the HD5870 can just about keep up with the stock GTX480 but once it is overclocked towards its expected speed the ZOTAC GTX480 really annihilates the Radeon.
Once anti-aliasing is ramped up to 8xMSAA the ability of the GTX480 to tesselate really comes into its own as it spanks the Radeon comprehensively.
Leaving the overclocked card aside for a moment, as it clearly has the upper hand, Tessellation was set to Extreme and the tests were run with the cards at their default speeds. Any doubts about how much of a benefit Tessellation could be are instantly demolished.
Let's hope that the game coders take full advantage of it.
And finally to see the how much raw power we have available with the ZOTAC, we ran with Tessellation disabled. The brute horsepower of the GTX480 still wins out.
Moving on to our normal suite of benchmarks we're introducing the HD5970 into the mix. Although this is a dual-GPU card it actually is closer to the GTX480 in price terms than the 5870. This helps us cover the "money to burn" side of performance as well as the "best single GPU".
3D Mark Vantage
First up, 3D Mark Vantage and we'll run in Performance. The first thing to notice is that none of these cards are what could at all be described as slow. However there is one clear winner. If you can cope with the noise, or wait until Water-Cooling arrives, the GTX480 when overclocked breaks past 24000 points.
The performance test is fine for numbers, but the High test in Vantage is much more realistic when it comes to the performance we might expect to see in gaming.
As we introduce anti-aliasing (2x for High tests) and some resolution the differences between the cards shrink to almost nothing. The 5970 takes the lead by virtue of it's dual-GPU grunt, but the out-the-box 5870 and ZOTAC are neck and neck.
Dirt 2 was one of (the?) first DirectX 11 games on the market and comes with water and cloth a-plenty. If anything should take advantage of the extra grunt the ZOTAC GTX480 can provide this should be it. And sure enough it absolutely does with even the stock GTX480 strolling past the 5970. Impressive stuff indeed.
Need For Speed Shift
Thanks to its console heritage Need for Speed Shift should be much more linear as it isn't so dependant on the fancy tricks PC hardware can do.
If ever a graph demonstrated that, it's this one. Fancy driver things and hardware tricks are meaningless as the 5870 and even overclocked GTX480 are left choking on the exhaust of the 5970s pure grunt.
Thats the wheels done, time to get the guns out.
Given the reliance of Crysis Warhead on PhysX based cards, and how well it responds to them, it's no surprise at all to see the GTX480 eat it for breakfast, especially in the maximum frame-rate tests.
When it comes the important average FPS test it's all a lot closer, but with the overclocked ZOTAC 480 allowing us to put Vsync on and see the benefit it definitely takes home the laurels here.
Modern Warfare 2
Modern Warfare 2 suffers from the same issue that we had with Shift, namely it's a console based game as so is reliant on absolute power rather than the little tweaks that enable the two different architectures to find gains in other ways. Our results reflect this although none of our cards remotely flinch and almost beg for a higher detail setting.
Metro 2033 is the latest all shiny shooter employing nearly every fancy effect you could ever hope to see. It certainly is a feast for the eyes.
It looks like this could be the DirectX 11 equivelant of the Crytek games, because none of our cards managed to give a huge framerate. The ZOTAC in its overclocked state provided a much smoother gameplay experience without the frame-drops the others experienced.
Shall we move on to the conclusion and wrap this up?
If ever a product, and indeed a review, had a split-personality then this is it.
Our experience with it has changed so vastly, covering the full range of emotions, that it took us some time and many discussions to finally agree what we thought.
So what makes the ZOTAC GTX480 so difficult to pin down?
It certainly isn't ZOTAC themselves, as they have very kindly supplied us a GTX480 to test when many others were nervous of how Overclock3Ds unflinching commitment to accuracy and unwillingness to be swayed by promises of milk and honey.
It also isn't the performance. The "Fastest Single GPU on the Planet" tag just about holds up. It's by no means as comprehensive as the hyperbole would have you believe, but in stock trim it's the fastest we've tested.
Overclocked it's something else entirely. With some decent horsepower under the hood it's far and away the fastest card around with some mind blowing numbers being churned out.
Unfortunately this is where the GTX480 falls apart somewhat. That reference cooler is, to be blunt, rubbish. Completely incapable of dealing with the fearsome heat that the GTX480 puts out. We were loathe to adapt our testing methodology to accommodate it, but obviously having some results that come with a huge asterisk is better than no results at all.
We can best explain the volume of heat with this small anecdote. When we were trying to get the fan as near to our desired 50% as possible, whilst not causing thermal shutdown, we thought we'd got it nailed at 65%. However the GTX480 puts out so much heat that although it was touch and go when we started testing, within 20 minutes the temperature in the room had increased so much due to the head expelled from the card, that we experienced thermal cutoff because the card had warmed the room up so much the air it was sucking in was too warm to keep it under 110°C.
In SLI we imagine you'll never need to heat your house again, as one of these cards can heat a 15'x15' room by 2°C in half an hour.
The second major problem is noise. This isn't a quiet cooler when idling, but as under load the card needs to be kept around 80% fans it becomes intolerably loud. In these modern times when swathes of companies have demonstrated that cool and quiet need not be mutually exclusive, it is beyond us how nVidia have designed a cooler that it hot and loud. Again we have to stress that this is not a problem with Zotac themselves, rather the nVidia reference design.
Finally there is that price. The thick end of £450 is far too much for such a small performance gain over the significantly cheaper ATI 5870 and especially when the noise and heat is taken into consideration. If this was an ATI, nobody would buy it. We all understand that nVidia comes with a price premium but this is ridiculous.
There is some good though. The underlying chip is so outstanding that under water-cooling, or with the worlds biggest air cooler, it's a must buy. Unfortunately right now, if you're deaf, rich and live in Siberia then do it. Otherwise, wait for the evolution version.
- Insane performance
- Huge overclocking headroom
- Too Hot
- Too Loud
- Too Expensive
Many thanks to ZOTAC for lending us their GTX480 to test. Discuss in our forums.