If you’ve read our review of Nividia’s GeForce GTX 295 card, you might be able to guess our assessment of this Asus-packaged version of AMD’s ATI Radeon HD4870X2. Simply put: for $479–just $20 less than the Nvidia card–the Radeon card gives you less performance and uses more power along the way. The only solace we can offer for AMD is that this card has a minor (borderline irrelevant) software support advantage, and a mildly easier setup process. Whether you value those features or not, the primary reason for purchasing an expensive 3D card is speed. And in the high-end price range, the Asus EAHD4870X2 comes in second.
The Asus EAHD4870X2 card uses AMD’s standard ATI Radeon HD4870X2 design. At its core, the Radeon HD4870X2 features two graphics chips on a single PCI Express graphics card. You can find iterations of this card overclocked for $50 to $70 more, but we’ve covered the standard, 750MHz edition here.
As you can see from their specs, the Asus card and the GeForce card are actually quite different. Asus boasts more than three times the total stream processors (the pipelines that perform the various graphics-processing tasks) of the Nvidia card, and its 2GB of DDR 5 video memory has a faster clock speed then the 1.792MB of video RAM on the GTX 295. Each chip is also the product of a 55-nanometer manufacturing process. Even though both ATI and Nvidia use the same process, we suspect this is what gives Nvidia most of its performance and power-efficiency gains compared with its older 65nm GTX 200-series chips. Those older chips were fast, but it’s apparently able to eke out even more performance by going to 55nm.
The charts tell the key story for most gamers. Nvidia outpaces the Asus card on all of our benchmarks but one lower resolution Left4Dead test, on which the Asus card wins by a single, statistically irrelevant frame. Otherwise, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 295 is just faster. In general, we don’t think you should expect a bad gaming experience with the Asus card (or any other Radeon HD4870X2) with current titles, but you may find you want to replace this card more quickly than you would a GeForce GTX 295 once more challenging games come out down the road.
We didn’t quite know what to expect from the GTX 295 compared with the Radeon EAHD4870X2 for performance, but upon seeing the Nvidia card’s faster frame rates, we assumed the Asus card would at least be more power efficient. Not so. As you can see, both at idle and under load, the Asus card is a bigger power hog. Any 3D card that uses more than 400 watts is an energy-consumption beast, so the GTX 295 is only the lesser of two evils, but by using more power for slower performance, the Asus card’s outlook is even darker.
If we’re down on the Asus EAHD4870X2 for price-performance and energy inefficiency, we can blame both AMD and Nvidia for advertising advanced features technically supported in their respective hardware, but that lack mainstream utility. Consider the example of Nvidia’s PhysX accelerated game-physics technology. A fully PhysX-enabled game may be the most immersive experience around; but game developers have only started programming around PhysX in very minor, nonconsequential ways, making it hard to argue that PhysX is a compelling reason to buy a graphics card.
If we can’t get that excited about PhysX at the moment, we have the same ambivalence for AMD’s early-bird support for DirectX 10.1. This most recent update to Windows’ DirectX programming model came with Vista Service Pack 1 (if you installed SP1, you have DirectX 10.1), and enabled a handful of graphics tweaks for game developers. To date, only Far Cry 2 and STALKER: Clear Sky support DirectX 10.1 (the PC version of Assassin’s Creed came with DX 10.1 support, but lost it in a patch due to problems with its implementation).
We’re sure more games will come that add DX 10.1 support, but with Windows 7 and DirectX 11 on the near-horizon, you can bet that any effort to support a new-fangled programming interface will focus on those instead. By the time Windows 7 hits, you can expect both AMD and Nvidia will have compatible hardware. And even if there’s only scant game support for DirectX 11 at launch (as with DirectX 10 and Vista), the next full-fledged version of DirectX will receive broader game-developer interest in the long term than a short-lived, incremental update like DirectX 10.1. Thus, purchasing an AMD card for its support of DirectX 10.1 would be extremely short-sighted.
Like Nvidia, AMD is also trying to market its GPUs as alternative processors for certain kinds of software, primarily involving digital-media processing. This movement is still in its early days, and we don’t expect it to reach a critical mass until DirectX 11, a component of which is supposed to provide developers with a neutral, broadly adopted standard for the purpose. You will hear more about parallel computing (as it’s known) as each graphics-card vendor amps up its marketing efforts leading in to the launch of Windows 7 (Nvidia’s “Visual Computing” campaign is already well underway), but as with PhysX and DirectX 10.1 support, bringing parallel computing to the graphics processor won’t receive broad software support, and thus should not be a primary buying consideration for most consumers for quite some time.
Finally, we mentioned a minor installation benefit for AMD earlier, and if you’re familiar with AMD’s recent 3D chips, you probably know that we’re referring to the Radeon EAHD4870X2′s built-in audio processing capability. The advantage is that it lets you use the card’s HDMI port (via an included DVI-to-HDMI adapter) to pipe out digital audio without bothering with other internal wiring. Both Nvidia and AMD support encoded HD-video playback (via Blu-ray players, for example), but without a built-in audio processor, Nvidia cards require you to wire the output from your PC’s sound chip to its graphics cards. Avoiding that step is a minor feather in AMD’s cap, and we don’t envision many home theater PC enthusiasts dropping $550 on a high-end PC gaming card when a $100 card (or less) will serve their purposes just as well. Still, given the beating AMD has taken from Nvidia on performance and efficiency, we want to be sure we give out the credit we can.