The Test and Performance Improvement

Here's our test setup:

Test Setup
CPU Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 @ 3.20GHz
Motherboard EVGA nForce 790i SLI
Video Cards ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2
ATI Radeon HD 4870
ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 280
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 Core 216
Video Drivers Catalyst 8.7
ForceWare 177.34
Hard Drive Seagate 7200.9 120GB 8MB 7200RPM
RAM 4 x 1GB Corsair DDR3-1333 7-7-7-20
Operating System Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit SP1
PSU PC Power & Cooling Turbo Cool 1200W

Performance Improvement

So we'll spoil it right up front and give away the answer to the question on everyone's mind: how does performance improve with the addition of the extra 512MB of RAM to the 4870? And since we got a nice little surprise last week with the GTX 260 Core 216, we can even compare performance improvement of the slightly upgraded models of both the NVIDIA and AMD parts.

These comparisons are taken from the highest playable resolution in each game we tested, which is either 1920x1200 or 2560x1600 depending on the game. This class of card is able to handle the highest resolutions, but sometimes not with all the features cranked up (as our tests are designed). These high resolutions do the best job at stressing both memory and processing power, as processing more pixels every frame has an impact on both.

Another factor to consider is that we can't really tell you the maximum potential theoretical performance gain from adding more memory to a system. With the NVIDIA GTX 260 core 216, we know the maximum theoretical improvement is something like 12.5 percent. This is because we added 12.5 more compute resources. But doubling the amount of RAM, we aren't really doing anything directly to performance: we're just increasing the availability to resources to the hardware which may or may not improve utilization. Adding more RAM decreases the chance that something will need to be pulled in from system memory.

Both routes have the potential to improve performance, but both also speak to the balance of the initial design. We really don't want more memory on a board than we need to adequately feed the GPU, and, at the same time, we don't want so many compute/texture resources on the GPU that we can't possibly feed it enough data to crunch. From our perspective, it looks like the Radeon 4870 with 512MB was targeted at 1920x1200 or lower resolutions. More RAM has a lessened impact on lower resolutions, and the price point of the 4870 is generally in line with what a gamer would love to have paired with a high end 1920x1200 panel. People that buy 30" panels for gaming are more likely to go after more expensive solutions.

Some games also show a benefit from more RAM regardless of resolution, meaning they are very resource intensive games. While you can't make purchasing decisions based on future-proofing (there's really no way to accurately predict what card will do better in the future), the trend has generally been that newer games use larger and more textures and pile on more effects which take up more space in local memory. While the games that benefit across the board now are few, it is possible we could see that number increase down the line.



Oblivion and Assassin's Creed are the only two tests we see that don't see better improvement on AMD hardware. Perhaps not-so-coincidently, Oblivion is also one of two tests we ran where the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 leads the AMD Radeon HD 4870 1GB (and the only test we ran where the original GTX 260 leads the 4870 1GB) - the other being The Witcher. This does change things up again, but it also highlights that the GTX 260 and 4870 are fairly well matched in general. With minor tweaks to performance they we are seeing a back and forth on whose part leads in our benchmark suite. It's like we have NVIDIA and AMD playing that game where each one grabs slightly higher on a stick.

Unlike the core 216, we've known this 1GB 4870 was coming down the pipe for a long time, and we've honestly expected some performance gain at high resolution. But we really didn't expect this much of a difference. The differentiation between the products is better with 4870 1GB than on NVIDIA hardware.

Let's drill down and look at individual game performance to get the rest of the picture.

Index Age of Conan Performance
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  • DerekWilson - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    there is no longer any reason to use 32bit vista over 64bit vista ... the initial problems have been resolved, and the apps that have 64bit specific issues are few and far between. if you use one of those apps, sure that's an issue, but in general 64 bit vista is the way to go.

    in fact, we'd recommend 64bit over 32bit every time for the gamer. we do all of our game testing with 64bit as well, and we haven't had any issues for a very long time that were related to the 64bit operating system.
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    "While the 4870 512MB part can be had for $20 or $30 cheaper than the 4870 1GB (if you shop around), many of the 512MB variants are still priced in the same range as the 1GB cards. There is no reason to buy the 512MB part if prices are equal, so we hope to see a downward shift in price for the 512MB version."

    I can think of at least one reason why not to buy the 1GB version given the prices are the same.

    A person using a 32bit version of Windows, with 4GB of memory installed. More video ram used = less available system memory available for use in windows. Granted for some this may not be a HUGE reason, but for people like me who try to build the best all around system for gaming, image editing etc, this can make a difference(especially if you're not cranking the resolution up). Eventually, I will be going to a 64bit OS, so buying 2x2GB makes more sense than wasting money on a 1x1GB stick, and loosing that little extra performance from a dual channel setup.

    Now here is to Windows 7 being released tomorrow ; )
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    you are right about the effect of that case, but i think, at least for gaming, because graphics is the largest bottleneck, you would want your graphics card to have the best advantage possible.

    in the general case there is no longer any reason to use 32bit vista. we only use 64bit for all our graphics testing.

    there may be a few isolated apps here and there that have issues, but the problem is no where near as wide spread as it was the first year or so. for anyone who wants vista, we recommend 64 bit.

    i do get the continued attraction to windows XP though ... i'm not a huge fan of vista myself, and xp 64bit still isn't a great option.

    but if we're talking about 32bit XP then some of our benchmarks would not make any sense (DX10) and that might change things as well ... so there really its both more an less of an issue at the same time :-)
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    Well, in my case, I did not adopt early into Vista, and yes if I were to buy Vista right now, it would probably be Retail Ultimate. So, I would have a 32bit version, and a 64bit version. Anyways, it will probably be around the time SP2 comes out for Vista before I will consider buying it, and until then I will stick with what I have (which is XP Pro x32).

    About my Windows 7 comment, I was sort of serious in that I may even wait until it comes out before making a move, but I know it is not due out right now. The thing for me concerning Direct3D 10 is that most of the games right now are not using it properly, or to its full potential. That, and it really does not(right now) make games look all that much better, OR perform better than Direct3D 9(which would be the main reason I would want 'dx10' to begin with).

    Also just a FYI, if you purchase a 32bit copy of Vista, Microsoft will ship you a 64bit copy for the cost of shipping. Some versions of Vista may not retail as 64bit copies, but all version except for Home personal (I beleive) have their 64bit counterparts. At the very least, I am sure business on up have 64bit versions.

    XP Pro x64, and Windows 2003 share a lot of architecture as you may already know, so maybe this is why XP x64 does not work well for everyone. However, I have a customer that runs XP x64 on an Asus SLI board, with SLI 7800GTX's, and aside from the occasional quirk, it seems to run very well. I actually had to reinstall the OS for him a few months back because he had somehow hosed his install, and all drivers(except one) installed very easily. I do not recall which driver gave me hassles, but it was just PiTA, that lasted at most 30 minutes until I sorted it out. Most games as I understand it will work with XP x64 just fine, with a few that require work-arounds, if they do not already outright work.
  • BikeDude - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    [quote]i'm not a huge fan of vista myself[/quote]

    You're a technical competent person. If you disable superfetch, the glass look, UAE, and a handful of other features, you will have a very XP-like experience, except with proper DX10 support and better 64-bit drivers.


  • JarredWalton - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    Actually, SuperFetch is one of the features I like (for the most part - the increased hard drive noise at idle can be irritating). What irks me is stuff like the modified dialogs. It now takes a couple more clicks and opened windows to get to screen savers, resolution, network settings, etc. I can live with all that, of course, so I'm using Vista on virtually all of my PCs. (I've still got an XP laptop I use for a few things, though.)
  • Spoelie - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    The difference between 3,5GB and 3,0GB will hardly be noticeable. If it is, then installing the 32bit version for a new build is not the smartest thing to do.
  • ilkhan - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    So you are saying that doubling the ram (without any speed improvements) on the 4870 gives a bigger increase than increasing the raw power om the GTX260?

    I like the accessability of your benchmarks, but sometimes they are just really hard to trust.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    Yes, that's what we're saying. The Core 216 has 12.5% more computation power, but it has the same amount of memory and the same memory bandwidth. It appears we are now at the point where at 1920x1200 and especially 2560x1600, 1GB GPUs see a decent performance boost over 512MB cards. It's not guaranteed, but personally I think we'll see more titles using larger textures in the future - or at least giving users the option for higher res textures.

    But of course we still have the platform question to a certain degree. If you want SLI or CrossFire down the road, you need to consider the choice between NVIDIA or Intel/ATI chipsets (until X58 at least). I give Intel the advantage on chipset, but personally I think SLI is better overall than CrossFire.

    Power is something else to consider; there's really no reason the 4870 can't idle at 4850 levels; that a single 4870 at idle uses more power than 4850 CF is pretty shocking - to me at least. Load power is almost tied, but a 45W idle power increase is really lousy. Sure, that only works out to $30 to $40 per year running 24/7, but that's also heat, which generally means more noise and wear and tear.

    My personal opinion differs somewhat from Derek here. If you want maximum performance for the dollar, the HD 4870 1GB appears the best choice. If you're looking at the entire package, I'm more inclined to go with the $260 GTX 260 for the above reasons (power being a major one). If you're then looking at SLI or CrossFire, while I would still take the X38/X48 over the 780i/790i, and the NVIDIA chipsets are notoriously power hungry, it's close but I'd still go with GTX 260. Since I'm already quite happy with my X38 board, however, I don't think I'll be upgrading my GPU to the NVIDIA camp for a while yet.
  • Finally - Thursday, September 25, 2008 - link

    Yes, please! Check on that. A german site has dug into the underflashing story and found out that a properly undervolted HD4870 uses less power in idle than a HD4850!

    If you are ready to flash, you have the lower power card right there.">

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