Comparison: Factory-Overclocked Versus Reference Graphics

In order to set their products apart, third-party vendors take reference GPUs from AMD and Nvidia, then make their own tweaks to layout, cooling, and performance. We're comparing a tuned-up card from MSI to AMD's reference Radeon HD 5870 to measure value.

When it comes to setting the clock rates on non-reference graphics cards, third-party vendors take different routes. Some overclocked cards employ higher GPU clocks, but they don’t always alter memory data rates. Typically, the GPU speed can be modified afterward through software tools (incidentally, most reference cards can also be tweaked fairly easily). These tools typically allow users to also adjust memory clock speeds, which is a critical warranty item. Experience shows that memory is more sensitive to overclocking. In addition, overclocking often alters 2D clocks as well, causing your card to use  more power and requiring more cooling when it sitting there idle.

If you manually overclock a graphics card, you cannot know without some testing if the target settings remain effective, or if throttling in 2D mode is still possible. We've seen plenty of instances where an overclocked card ends up running at its maximum clocks, even on the Windows desktop. That defeats the purpose of throttling entirely, generating a lot of unnecessary heat your cooling subsystem is forced to deal with.

Factory-overclocked cards, however, correctly implement modified speed settings, meaning that they run the tweaked clock speeds in 3D mode and still throttle clock speeds and power consumption in 2D mode, making them more efficient, at least, without any aftermarket tweaking needed.

In this article, we’ll compare a reference ATI Radeon HD 5870 card and the factory-overclocked MSI R5870 Lightning TwinFrozr II, analyzing real-world differences between the two. We'll also run the reference card at overclocked settings as well, because we wanted to see if the pricier aftermarket solution can deliver more value than a reference board tuned to run faster.

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  • chrissmartin
    i will buy a normal card with good cooling and overclock it.
  • rohitbaran
    Too less performance gain (4-5 FPS) for the too much extra price paid ($50-$70) along with too much increase in power consumption (30-40 W. Better to buy a reference card unless you want the best no matter what the price is.
  • Mark Heath
    I like the idea behind the article and I'm glad that there's been some testing done on it, but I don't really like the article itself.

    There are references to how much the reference card is overclocked by, but there is no clear section about it, you started off with some of the summary charts, instead of putting them after the initial tests and you kept switching what cards you were comparing, with less warning than I would like..

    Plus there's that 2GB 5850. Is that really a 2GB 5850, or is it actually 2GB 5830, because it kept getting beaten by the 1GB 5850..
  • Onus
    When I buy a new GPU, I look for one who's reference clocks make it "good enough" as-is; but I do look for a better / quieter cooler.
  • mrhoshos96
    great article but u should have compared the reference against the sapphire vapor-x
  • Tesla1483
    In order to their products apart, third-party vendors take reference GPUs...

    I'm guessing they meant "In order to SET their products apart..."
    Seriously, it's the first sentence in the article. Does no one proof read anything here? Isn't that like the first thing you learn when you want to become a writer? Sorry, rant over.
  • youssef 2010
    "This cooling concept works pretty well, as it not only provides effective graphics component cooling, but it also helps to remove warm air from the inside of your PC. "

    The reference 5870 has a vent on its side so, it doesn't completely remove the hot air from the case but recirculates a part of the hot air back into the case
  • duk3
    It's a 5850, look how close the framerates are.
    The amount of ram doesn't really matter at these resolutions.
  • LLJones
    The cards just do not offer enough gain. If you can afford the overclock edition at a premium, then save up a little more and get the next card up or buy two of the next lower cards. The $1000+ dual 5870 from Asus shows what a complete waste of money some, not all, super OC cards are.

    Try this, put together a really really really premium card component wise, and then don't put any cooling on it. Let me decide what I am going to do for cooling and companies can save on packaging, shipping etc due to no cooler.

    If your really aiming at the OC crowd and not just playing a game of marketing, then you know the first thing someone does is to rip off your factory cooler to replace it or at the very least put quality thermal compound on it.
  • dEAne
    I like this article, thanks tom.
  • bildo123
    jtt283When I buy a new GPU, I look for one who's reference clocks make it "good enough" as-is; but I do look for a better / quieter cooler.

    Best suggestion, wait for the manufacture to slap on some after market cooling and pay the extra for something useful. It wasn't like this in the past, but now-a-days they like putting on HSF setups that do a relatively poor job.
  • kirillian
    You may not have noticed silicondoc, but this past year, NVIDIA really hasn't been bringing its A-game to the table, mostly trying to use marketing to make up for its failures...right now, Red really is performing better in a price/performance setting. There's really little that any honest individual can do to deny that, fan or Red OR's not Tom's Hardware that's falling down, it's NVIDIA at the moment. Maybe the next gen will be better, but no one knows yet.
  • kirillian
    kirillianThere's really little that any honest individual can do to deny that, fan or Red OR Green...

    Edit: of Red OR Green...
  • Adroid
    I have started buying cards from vendors that warranty overclock like EGVA. I paid 159$ for a GTX 260 216 core after rebate well over a year ago, then when I am gaming I use the EVGA precision tool to overclock it to the higher priced cards core / shader speed.

    Its funny because mine will do the exact speed as the factory "superclocked" card's settings at the press of a button - all under lifetime warranty.

    My card before this one was a Radeon, I'm a total unloyal customer. I'm sure they have some similar deals, but EVGA has definetely earned my business when it comes to Nvidia stuff...
  • firedust
    I definitely would have liked to see the 460 on here. So far the reviews have been very good.
  • itpro
    Wow, you nVidia uberfans really get your panties in a bunch over nothing! The premise of this article was valid: Comparing factory over clocked cards against standard cards. Yes, they chose to compare a mature product in the 5870 rather than a brand new to market nVidia, but the premise was still valid.

    Yes, some of us DO prefer ATI cards over nVidia. So what? For the last two years nVidia has done little more than offer up old cards with new model numbers on them trying to convince us that they were still a competitor, while ATI pushed the envelope in performance, price, and power efficiency. Even now, when nVidia has finally gotten their new chipset out the door and is finally offering a competitive performing card they are still too expensive for what you get and use enough juice to heat a small home.

    If nVidia spins your wheels, then that is fine with me. Personally, I have had more than enough of their crappy drivers and overheating cards to last me a life time.
  • d-block
    What kind of moron puts a 5870 in a 32 bit machine? That test pc setup is complete garbage.
  • Sykar
    d-blockWhat kind of moron puts a 5870 in a 32 bit machine? That test pc setup is complete garbage.

    more to the point, who the hell in their right mind buys/uses a 32-bit OS anyways?
  • randomizer
    321195 said:
    What kind of moron puts a 5870 in a 32 bit machine? That test pc setup is complete garbage.

    What kind of person thinks it would make a difference?
  • Poisoner
    silicondockirillian, you sad, sad person. Every website in the world has declared the GTX460 the current best bang for the buck PERIOD. You talk about honesty, yet you post the most blatantly dishonest crap of the day one from the red team could cook up. What a sick joke. Just forget it, live in your insane fantasy world of lies and be happy. My God.

    Wow, you must be off your meds. Tom's just posted an article about the awesome SLI scaling of the 460, although it was a week late. I also believe that the lastest graphics card chart came before the GTX 460, although the other GF400s are on the chart.

    As far as the 480 and the 470, I don't think they use that much more power than previous generation cards, or create that much more heat either. I'd say that EVERY review site under rates the higher end Fermi cards. No one seems to get that besides gaming, they are absolute folding MONSTERS. If I folded, I wouldn't use anything less than a 470. To bad nVidia doesn't have an AMD chipset that was in my price range when I was buying a motherboard.
  • p05esto
    I just bought 5870 ATI, my last few cards were nVidia. I don't really care, the nVidia CEO pissed me off though and I won't buy from them again until that CEO is gone.....

    But anyway, this article was about what makes the most sense to buy and if overclocking is worth it and from whom. I'm thinking this is the same for ATI/nVidia and all cards regardless. The logic is the same. I wouldn't expect for this article Toms has 50 cards to test the theory, just a couple makes sense to me.
  • kelemvor4
    Why no nvidia in the article?
  • TheGreatGrapeApe
    107532 said:
    Why no nvidia in the article?

    It's about overclocked vs reference, what does it matter which IHV? :heink:
  • niknikktm
    It matters to me. Apples and oranges don't always react the same. I find it a bit short-sighted to perform this comparison testing using just one particular card. I really don't care about the "red vs green" arguement.

    I am in the middle of a high end HTPC build and it appears that the new GTX 460 is a card that will finally bridge the gap between low power/low heat/low performance card and high performance gaming card. That particular line from Nvidia is also the ONLY way you are going to get 3D Vision gaming and (Most importantly for HTPC) 3D Blu-Ray playback. ATI isn't even in that race and has nothing on the horizon.

    The 460 will give me a viable quiet option for most HTPC HD applications because of it's efficiency at idle, while still being able to handle most gaming chores with minimal increase in noise when called upon. I for one would like to see how it performs as a reference board in comparison to a factory overclocked board.