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ASUS Radeon HD 5870 1GB V2 Review

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SKYMTL

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With all of the pomp and fanfare surrounding the release of NVIDIA’s latest cards, it was a bit hard for most people to take a look around in order to see what else was going on in the GPU market. Some minor releases passed by and most people were none the wiser simply because there was next to zero marketing done and as a result the products themselves quietly slipped into the retail channels. We’re not talking about the barn-burners like Gigabyte’s Super Overclock or the much-delayed ASUS Matrix Edition here. Rather, our thoughts center on an unassuming card that has been available for the last few weeks: the ASUS HD 5870 V2.

When we first previewed the “V2”, there was an outpouring of interest from our readers and everyone wanted to know more details. The most important thing to remember is that while we call this card the “V2”, the only place this designation shows up is in the ASUS part number. The only way to distinguish this card from the older reference product is to take a look at the product photos because this is one unique-looking HD 5870.

It is important to remember that ASUS will no longer be producing a reference-based HD 5870 and has instead decided to replace it with this V2 edition. Without a doubt, this is a gutsy move since on average the HD 5870 V2 retails for slightly more than most reference-based products. We aren’t talking about an extreme difference but its $10-$20 price premium over some reference products can have an impact upon anyone’s budget. What do you get for this extra money? According to ASUS they have equipped the V2 with improved cooling capabilities, a slightly more robust PCB design and their Voltage Tweak software that can push overclocks to new heights. Otherwise, this version retains the stock speeds and capabilities of all stock HD 5870 cards.

One of the main things that you should be concerned about in this type of situation is that there are still quite a few first generation ASUS HD 5870 cards bumming around the market right now. As such, you should be a bit careful and do your research before you take the plunge and pop down a good chunk of change for an ASUS HD 5870.

In this review we intend to take the ASUS HD 5870 V2 around the block so to speak. Even though its performance is identical that of any other stock HD 5870 on the market, it has enough additional features that $20 could be money well spent. However, will it be enough?

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SKYMTL

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A Look at the ATI 5000-series

A Look at the ATI 5000-series


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As you can probably tell by the chart above, all of the HD 5000-series fit perfectly into ATI’s lineup. At the top of the heap we have the ultra high performance dual GPU HD 5970 which carries most of the same specifications as a pair of HD 5870s. There are however some sacrifices that had that had to be made in the clock speed department in order to keep power consumption within reasonable levels. So, while this card has the same number of texture units and stream processors as the HD 5870, its core and memory run at speeds identical to the HD 5850.

Judging from paper specifications alone, the HD 5870 is a technological marvel considering it packs all of the rendering potential of ATI’s past flagship card and then some while not being saddled by an inefficient dual processor design.

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The HD 5850 on the other hand is the purebred price / performance leader of the new ATI lineup. Barring slightly lower clock speeds for both the core and memory along with eight disabled texture units (totalling 160 stream processors), it is basically a clone of the HD 5870. This is the card ATI hopes will compete directly with the GTX 470 for the near future and believe this card will appeal to the majority of people since it allows them to buy class-leading DX9 and DX10 performance now without gambling $400 on somewhat unproven DX11 potential.

ATI has positioned their HD 5830 between the HD 5850 and HD 5770 but as we know by now, its performance is closer to that of the lower-end card and there really hasn’t been much to allow this card to distinguish itself. It’s price coupled with lower than expected performance make it the least appealing card in the linup.

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Meanwhile, we have the HD 5700-series of code-named Juniper cards as well with the HD 5770 and HD 5750. The HD 5770 1GB is one of the first sub-$200 cards which will come stock with 1GB of memory and along with the GDDR5 memory, comes with some hefty clock speeds as well. However, even though upon first glance the HD 5770 looks like it can compete with the old HD 4890, this isn’t the case. According to ATI, the 128-bit memory interface will limit this card’s performance so it lies right within its stated price range.

The HD 5750 on the other hand is simply a cut down HD 5770 with lower clocks, less SPs and a cut down number of Texture Units. It is this card that ATI sees going head to head with the NVIDIA GTS 250 and 9800 GT. It uses GDDR5 memory but there will be both 512MB and 1GB versions released to cater to the $100 market along with those looking for a little jump in performance.
 

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Focusing on DX11

Focusing on DX11


It has been a hair under three years since the release of Windows Vista and with it the DirectX 10 API. In that amount of time, a mere 33 DX10 games were released. That isn’t exactly a resounding success considering the hundreds of titles released in that same time. Let’s hope DX11 does a bit better than that.

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DX11 is focused on taking the lessons learned from the somewhat inefficient DX10 and shaping them into a much more efficient API which will demand less system resources while being easier to develop for. In addition to the usual 3D acceleration, it will also be used to speed up other applications which in the past have not been associated with the DirectX runtime. This may be a tall order but with the features we will be discussing here, developers have already started using DX11 to expand the PC gaming experience. It is an integral component in Windows 7 and according to Microsoft, will also be adopted into Windows Vista through a software update.

Let’s scratch the surface of what DX11 can bring to the table.

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Unlike past DirectX versions, DX11 endeavours to move past the purely graphics-based uses of the API and push it towards being the lynchpin of an entire processing ecosystem. This all begins with the power which DirectX Compute will bring into the fold. Not only can it increase the efficiency of physics processing and in-game NPC intelligence within games by transferring those operations to the GPU but it can also be used to accelerate non-3D applications.

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Through the use of Compute Shader programs in Shader Model 5.0, developers are able to use additional graphical features such as order independent transparency, ray tracing, and advanced post-processing effects. This should add a new depth of realism to tomorrow’s games and as mentioned before, also allow for programs requiring parallel processing to be accelerated on the GPU.

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For the majority of you reading this review, it is the advances in graphics processing and quality that will interest you the most. As games move slowly towards photo-realistic rendering quality, new technologies must be developed in order to improve efficiency while adding new effects.

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Some of the technologies that ATI is championing are DX11’s new Depth of Field, OIT (or Order Independent Transparency) and Detail Tessellation. While the pictures above do a good job of showing you how each of these works, it is tessellation which ATI seems most excited about. They have been including hardware tessellation units in their GPUs for years now and finally with the dawn of DX11 will these units be finally put to their full use. OIT on the other hand allows for true transparency to be added to an object in a way that will be more efficient resource-wise than the standard alpha blending method currently used.

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Let’s talk about DX11 games. As you would expect, due to the ease of programming for this new API and the advanced tools it gives developers, many studios have been quite vocal in their support. Even though some of the titles listed above may not be high on your list of must have games, A-list titles like Aliens vs. Predator from Rebellion, DiRT 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 have people interested already and there are more to come.

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OpenCL: The Next Big Thing?

OpenCL: The Next Big Thing?


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As consumers, we have all heard of the inroads GPUs have been making towards offering stunning performance in compute-intensive applications. There have been attempts to harness this power by engines such as NVIDIA’s Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) and ATI’s Stream SDK (which in v2.0 supports OpenCL).

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“Build it and the will come” says the old mantra but industry adoption of CUDA and Stream was anything but quick since there were two standards being pushed for the same market. CUDA in particular is having a hard time of it since it is vendor-specific without hardware support from any other vendor. The industry needed a language that was universal and available across multiple platforms. That’s were OpenCL (Open Computing Language) along with DirectX Compute come into play. It is completely open-source and managed by a non-profit organization called the Khronos Group which also has control over OpenGL and OpenAL

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At its most basic level, OpenCL is able to be executed across multiple mediums such as GPUs, CPUs and other types of processors. This makes it possible to prioritize workloads to the processor that will handle them most efficiently. For example, a GPU is extremely good at crunching through data-heavy parallel workloads while an x86 CPU is much more efficient at serial and task-specific This also allows developers to write their programs for heterogeneous platforms instead of making them specific to one type of processor.

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So what does this mean for gamers? First of all, AMD has teamed up with Bullet and PixeLux in order to achieve more realistic environments for players. The Bullet Physics is an open-source physics engine which has an ever-expanding library for soft body, 3D collision detection and other calculations. Meanwhile, PixeLux uses their DMM (Digital Molecular Matter) engine which uses the Finite Element Analysis Method of calculating physics within a game. In past applications, it has been used to calculate actions which have an impact on the game’s environment such as tumbling rubble or debris movement.

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With Stream moving to OpenCL, ATI is truly moving towards an open platform for developers which they are hoping will lead to broader developer and market adoption than the competition’s solutions. At this point it looks like we will soon see ATI’s GPUs accelerating engines from Havok, PixeLux and Bullet through the use of OpenCL. Considering these are three of the most popular physics engines on the market, ATI is well placed to make PhysX a thing of the past.
 

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ATI’s Eyefinity Technology

ATI’s Eyefinity Technology


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The term Surround Gaming may not mean much to many of you who are reading this article but with the advent of ATI’s new Eyefinity technology, now is a good time to educate yourself. Basically, Eyefinity will give users the ability to use multiple monitors all running from the same graphics card. In the past, simple dual monitor setups have been used by many graphics, CAD or other industry professionals in order to increase their productivity but gaming on more than one monitor was always a bit of a clunky affair. Granted, some products like Matrox’s TripleHead2Go were able to move multi monitor setups into the public’s perception but there were always limitations (resolution and otherwise) associated with them. ATI is aiming to make the implementation of two or even more monitors as seamless as possible within games and productivity environments while offering the ability to use extreme resolutions.

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While the price of two or even three new monitors may be a bit daunting at first for many of you, but good 20” and even 22” LCDs have come down in price to the point where some are retailing below the $200 mark. ATI figures that less than $600 for three monitors will allow plenty of people to make the jump into a true surround gaming setup. Indeed, with three or even six monitors, the level of immersion could be out of this world.

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The reason that main in the professional field are familiar with multi monitor setups is for one simple matter: they increase productivity exponentially. Imagine watching a dozen stocks without having to minimize windows all the time or using Photoshop on one screen while watching a sports broadcast on another and using the third screen for Photoshop’s tooltips. The possibilities are virtually limitless if it is implemented properly.

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When it comes to a purely gaming perspective, the thought of a massive view of the battlefield or the ability to see additional enemies in your peripheral vision is enough to make most gamers go weak in the knees. Unfortunately, the additional monitors will naturally mean decreased performance considering the massive amount of real-estate that would need rendering. This will mean tradeoffs may have to be made in terms of image quality if you want to use Eyefinity.

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According to ATI, all of the new HD 5800-series graphics cards will have the ability to run up to three monitors simultaneously. This is done by having a pair of DVI connectors as well as a DisplayPort and HDMI connector located on the back of the card. It should be noted that ATI will be releasing a special Eyefinity version of the HD 5870 in the coming months which features six DisplayPort connectors for those of you who want to drive six monitors from a single card.

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This technology is all made possible through the use of DisplayPort connectors but this also provides a bit of a limitation as well. Above we can see that a number of 3-screen output combinations which the current HD5800-series support and one thing is constant: you will need at least one monitor which supports DisplayPort. Unfortunately, at this time DP-supporting monitors tend to carry a price premium over standard screens which will increase the overall cost of an Eyefinity setup. Luckily the other two monitors can either use DVI or a combination of DVI and HDMI for connectivity.
 

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HD Audio and Video

HD Audio and Video



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One of the main drawing points of the lower-end cards in the HD 5000 series lineup is the fact that they are literally unmatched when it comes to HTPC use. Granted, the GT 210, 220 and 240 cards from NVIDIA are the first cards from the green side of the pond to receive native audio processing without having to resort to a clunky S/PDIF cable but their HD audio compatibility is limited to non-PAP (Protected Audio Path) implementations. Meanwhile, the HD 5000 series features not only support for native HDMI audio support with compatibility with AC3, 8-channel LPCM and DTS among others but it also introduces PAP support for bitstream output of Dolby True HD, DTS HD Master Audio, AAC and Dolby AC-3. This allows high-end audio for 7.1 sources to be passed unhindered from your computer onto your receiver and is a huge step up from what the competition offers.

As for HD video, you get everything that you would expect from and ATI card: compatibility with HDMI 1.3 formats, an option for a DisplayPort connector and full support for ATI’s UVD 2.2.


Enhanced DVD Upscaling & Dynamic Contrast

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While there are plenty of us who will use HD signals through the HD5000-series of cards, whether we like it or not we will still be outputting lower definition signals to our wonderful new HDTV every now and then. In these cases, a standard 480i picture will look absolutely horrible if it is scaled up to fit on a high definition 1080P TV so ATI provides the Avivo HD upscaling option in their drivers. What this does is take the low resolution signal and clean it up so to speak so it looks better when displayed on a high definition screen.

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Another interesting feature ATI has packed into their drivers is the Dynamic Contrast Adjustment. Personally, I more often than not adjust the contrast manually based on the application since the values from one game or movie to the next can vary a lot. ATI has taken the guesswork and thrown it out the window by providing a post-processing algorithm which will automatically (and smoothly) adjust the contrast ratio in real time.

While there are other benefits of using the 5000-series for audio and video pass-through for your home theater, we will stop here and get on with the rest of this review.
 

SKYMTL

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ASUS Xtreme Design VGA

ASUS Xtreme Design VGA


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As the VGA market becomes more and more competitive, board partners are always looking for new ways to distinguish themselves from the competition. Gigabyte has their Ultra Durable VGA initiative and ASUS now has what they call Xtreme Design VGA which is usually implemented on their custom cards. Basically, Xtreme Design involves a number of features that all work in concert to increase the overall quality and staying power of a given card. This section may seem more like a marketing blurb but all we are aiming for is to explain what Xtreme Design claims to bring to the table.


Dust Proof Fan

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We all know that dust is a constant problem within a computer case and it can shorten the life of certain components like fans and power supplies. ASUS has implemented what they call a “dust proof fan” which is basically a hub design that ensures dust does not enter the bearing area which will in turn extend the fan’s lifespan. With this feature it is claimed that the fan’s life will be extended by nearly 10,000 hours.


GPU Guard

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One of the main problems with larger GPUs is PCB flex which is easily identifiable on cards that use certain custom coolers. In these cases, the PCB will slightly bow where pressure is applied. Even though this isn’t a problem on cards sporting full-length coolers with multiple contact points (like on the ASUS HD 5870 V2), the ASUS GPU Guard aims to eliminate this by introducing additional reinforcement between the PCB layers.


Fuse Protection

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While surge protectors and most UPS units will protect your computer from harmful surges, there are plenty of people out there that don’t have one of these units installed between their PC and the wall outlet. In order to add another layer of protection between the sensitive components on a graphics card and harmful power surges, ASUS has begun implementing Fuse Protection. This means a pair of fuses have been installed on the card just in case your power supply’s Over Current Protection fails as well. Let’s call this a last line of defence when all else fails.
 

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories


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When compared to the packaging of their standard HD 5870 (which is now discontinued), the V2’s doesn’t bring anything new to the table upon first glance. However, there is a small shot of the card on the back of the box.


The inner box this card comes in simply oozes class while offering a perfect protection scheme for all of its contents. All of the accessories are compartmentalized in separate boxes either on the top of or below the HD 5870 while the card itself is lovingly cocooned within a high density foam insert.

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The accessory list isn’t exactly what we would call stingy but it gets all of the basic inclusions without adding anything which could significantly add to the price of the card. There are the usual driver and utility CDs, a dual six-pin to 8-pin PSU adapter, a Molex to 6-pin connector, a Crossfire connector, a HDMI to DVI dongle and finally a DVI to VGA connector.
 

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A Closer Look at the ASUS HD 5870 1GB V2

A Closer Look at the ASUS HD 5870 1GB V2


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In our opinion, ASUS really did a stunning job on the exterior design of their HD 5870 V2. Not only does it keep with a distinctive “ATI red” and black theme but it also allows for a larger fan to be installed. There is absolutely nothing here which we can fault.


While the massive 80mm fan does make a huge statement about the increased cooling potential of this card, there are other telltale signs that ASUS has upgraded things quite a bit. There are a few cut-outs near the I/O plate that reveal the majority of this the V2’s internal cooling fins are actually made out of copper for increased heat dissipation. These cut-outs also act as a means for additional hot ait to escape the cooling fins so the grille on the backplate doesn’t act like a bottleneck to hinder the heatsink’s potential.

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While the heatsink shroud is drool-worthy, we were a bit disappointed to see ASUS has placed the power connectors on the rearmost portion of the HD 5870 V2 as opposed to the usual side position. This will typically mean an additional inch is needed to fit the PCI-E power connectors as well as their accompanying wires. However, the 8+6 pin layout means this card won’t be hobbled by insufficient power when it is pushed in extreme overclocking scenarios.
 

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A Closer Look at the ASUS HD 5870 1GB V2 pg.2

A Closer Look at the ASUS HD 5870 1GB V2 pg.2


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In order to fit a full-width exhaust grille on the I/O shield, ASUS needed to make some sacrifices when it came to the output connector selection. Instead of going with the usual dual DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort connectors, one of the DVI outputs was ditched which makes this card Eyefinity compatible.

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The fact that ASUS decided to put the power connectors at the rear of their card is partially offset by the fact that the V2 is in fact slightly shorter (by about ½”) than the reference card. We can also see there is a massive difference in size between the fans since ASUS claims their design both cuts down on noise and increases cooling efficiency. We intend to put this to the test.

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The reason for ASUS’s ability to decrease the length of this card is their inclusion of a custom-designed PCB that thankfully sticks to the typical black colour of the reference design.
 
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