As I was putting this story together, I asked senior editor Thomas Soderstrom what he wanted to know about GeForce GTX 480 and 470. He said, “price, performance, and power.” Reasonable enough. I’ll break it down similarly simply. There’s some good, some bad, and some ugly in play here.
First, the good—performance. Fortunately for Nvidia, it had a few targets in the Radeon HD 5970, 5870, and 5850 as it was generating specs. While we’re sure the company wishes it was shipping 512-shader cards instead of pared-down boards, it’s hitting high-enough clocks to make GeForce GTX 480 and GeForce GTX 470 generally-faster than Radeon HD 5870 and Radeon HD 5850. This is especially true when you turn on anti-aliasing, as the new GeForce cards take a much smaller hit than their competition. Nevertheless, AMD holds onto the single-card performance crown with Radeon HD 5970. On the other hand, Nvidia's position stands to improve moving forward, as its emphasis on DirectX 11 affects a growing number of titles.
What about the bad? Well, getting your feet in the door here costs $350. A flagship GeForce GTX 480 runs $500. Radeon HD 5850s recently dropped back down to $300 and Radeon HD 5870s can be found around $400. Though the GeForce cards are faster than their single-GPU competition, the premium is hard to swallow if power and display connectivity are important to you, and less-so if PhysX, CUDA, or 3D Vision are more interesting. Do we expect AMD to drop its prices in response? Don’t count on it. According to the company, demand continues to outstrip wafer supply, with the consequence of anticipated pricing stability. Should the GeForce GTX 480 and 470 maintain their MSRPs, you’re looking at a staggering of price and performance from the Radeon HD 5850 up to the 5970 (with Nvidia's GeForce cards in between).
Then there’s the ugly: power. Nvidia argues that the enthusiast space isn’t as sensitive to figures like power consumption, and that lofty load figures still only translate to a few dollars per year. However, when you have the system power of a single-GPU card outstripping the total power of a faster dual-GPU board (despite their respective max. board TDPs, which we really can’t vouch for), that’s something to think about. We’re not even talking about FurMark here—it’s the Unigine performance, power, and efficiency index that put things into perspective. Of course, that power invariably gets dissipated as heat, and thus the GTX 480, in particular, becomes a very hot card, cresting 160 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface during game play.
So, if you break everything down into power, price, and performance (meaning you’re most concerned with how GeForce GTX 480 and 470 stand up in today’s games), then today’s preview comes off somewhat underwhelming after the build-up.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to account for the one thing Nvidia is perhaps best known for: its bead on the future and knack for shipping hardware chickens right as the software eggs are starting to hatch. Desktop graphics is but one of the company’s foci, alongside professional rendering, scientific computing, and increasingly, mobility. I’m not generally one to get super-excited about features promised to be commonplace tomorrow. However, Nvidia’s investment into software (from compiler support to math libraries to development toolkits) suggests a substantial advantage in maximizing its hardware in all three key segments. Love it or hate it, Nvidia’s developer relations team is the reason a game like Metro 2033 runs the way it’s supposed to at launch. That’s the intangible we can’t convey through benchmarks. Close cooperation with GPGPU vendors, getting into Adobe’s next-gen Mercury Playback Engine, zero-day support for more games, and so on.
We look forward to going into more depth on 3D Vision Surround and SLI—both of which are going to be attractive features for gamers with deep pockets. We also have a GPU/CPU compute story in the works that’ll pit cards from Nvidia and AMD against Intel’s 12-thread i7-980X. In the meantime, you’ll have to wait for GeForce GTX 480/470 availability anyway, since the cards won’t be available for another couple of weeks. Think about what performance means in relation to power consumption—that’ll likely be the underlying theme that becomes most important as derivative designs of GF100 are planned.