Winter 2008 Graphics Performance Update

There have been quite a few changes in the market over the last few weeks, as both AMD and Nvidia have released new drivers that promise some significant performance gains. This followed the release of a number of very high profile games, including Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 and Dead Space amongst others.

The question, therefore, that we're hoping to answer over the course of this article is whether or not our original recommendations have changed as a result of the new games being released. Before we get onto that though, it's worth having a quick recap on what's happened over the past few months, and what we're going to be doing very soon.

With the release of the Radeon HD 4800 series in June, AMD didn't regain the performance crown – that didn't happen until it released the ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 – but the company has been on top by virtue of the fact it offered the best bang-for-buck. In fact, AMD priced both the Radeon HD 4850 and 4870 so aggressively that it led to Nvidia cutting its GeForce GTX 200 prices significantly because they looked very poor in comparison.

AMD had both the process and die size advantage, which meant any price cuts from Nvidia could be at least matched. GT200 is an incredible piece of technology in many respects, but RV770 just ended up being better-suited to the market conditions.

Since then, we've had refreshes like the Radeon HD 4870 1GB and GeForce GTX 260+ (or whatever Nvidia's partners have called it), with the former making the Radeon HD 4870 an even more attractive proposition. There were some big improvements in performance as a result of just increasing the amount of GDDR5 memory on the board – the differences between the two GeForce GTX 260s wasn't quite as profound though, as we found the card was a little memory bandwidth limited in some scenarios.

Winter 2008 Graphics Performance Update Introduction

Just last week, we also saw Sapphire introduce the first Radeon HD 4850 X2 graphics card just as we were beginning to think that it'd been forgotten since the Radeon HD 4870 X2 launch where AMD first talked about it. We had a quick look at performance then, but now we've got a more complete disclosure after learning that the first WHQL certified Radeon HD 4850 X2 drivers won't arrive until Catalyst 9.1 – i.e. January 2009.

Intel has also released its Core i7 processor as well, which will form a reinvention of our graphics card test systems over the coming weeks. While we haven't changed our test systems for this article, we are in the process of building a couple of new systems as I type this and, because X58 supports both CrossFire and SLI, we're finally able to create identical systems for testing AMD and Nvidia hardware without driver headaches. We'll be detailing the new systems in a later article and today we're focusing on some of the new games that have already been released.

With that said, since we're still in the middle of this year's major release cycle, we will be replacing a number of the games you see in today's article with newer titles, but the games we're looking to replace them with haven't been released yet – they'll be rolled out as and when they're made available to us.

One game that we don't see ourselves replacing for a while though is Crysis – the natural change would be to Crysis: Warhead, but because of the horrible DRM scheme in the game, we'd rather stay away from it because it causes more headaches than it’s worth, especially given the number of reinstalls we do on our test systems. There’s also the fact that the two perform almost identically and this is despite the fact that Crytek said there would be performance improvements in the newer title – they just aren’t there, from our experience.

There’s one card missing that we have desperately been trying to get hold of in order to include it in this article because our last GeForce GTX 260 sample had to be rotated to another publication. The eagle eyed amongst you will recognise that the GeForce GTX 260 is missing from the table below, which is a card that Nvidia and its partners no longer seem confident in judging from the responses we've had to our sample requests.

We’ve spoken to many partners ourselves and had Nvidia pushing its partners from the other side in order to enable us to test the card, but sadly none of them seemed willing even despite there being a lot of cards in the channel. When I asked why no partner has samples, I was told that all of the remaining GeForce GTX 260s were in the channel and no distributor was likely to agree to send a GeForce GTX 260 unless good coverage could be guaranteed.

Winter 2008 Graphics Performance Update Introduction
Click to enlarge

With the current financial climate, that’s understandable I guess because they’d essentially have to write off stock – and there’s no point doing that if there isn’t a financial incentive (i.e. sales generated from any coverage). However, as I’m sure regular readers know, we will only agree to judge a product on its merits and not based on what the manufacturer would like us to write about it.

We tried a number of retailers directly as well, to see if we could borrow a card from one of them, but those that we spoke to either couldn’t spare cards or didn’t have any in stock. We stopped short of buying a GeForce GTX 260 at this time – we may still go down that route for our upcoming Core i7 graphics performance article if we’re unable to get hold of a sample, though.

Based on the conversations we had during the planning stages of this article, we found that the GeForce GTX 260+ is readily available from both partners and retailers – almost every single partner and retailer we spoke to offered us the 216 stream processor variant of the GeForce GTX 260. Sadly, that isn't the card we're after, as we've already got a few GeForce GTX 260+ cards in the labs.

Anyway, before we get sidetracked from the point of this article, let’s get onto how these cards perform with the new drivers from AMD and Nvidia...
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