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ATI Radeon HD3870 X2 1GB Review

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SKYMTL

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ATI Radeon HD3870 X2 1GB Review





Within the last few months we have seen a flurry of new releases from the two main players in the graphics card market. Both ATI and Nvidia have been concentrating on the mid-end performance cards which offer you the most bang for your hard earned buck with products like the 8800GT and HD3870. Both companies have been completely content to let the year-old 8800GTX sit at the top of the heap with its easily-earned performance crown. Never before in recent memory has a single graphics card retained the lead for so long…until today.

After what can only be called an unsuccessful launch of what was originally supposed to be a competitor for the 8800GTX with their HD2900XT, ATI was bought by the (then) high-flying AMD. Since then, many things have changed with AMD but one thing has become apparent: they are hell-bent on clawing back ATI’s place in the graphics card market. With what can only be called a highly successful launch of their HD3870 and HD3850 series, ATI and AMD are riding on cloud number nine but even with these two strong products, they are not content. Why? Because Nvidia is still walking pretty with sole ownership of the high-end performance category and ATI needs to make a renewed assault on this lucrative market for both financial reasons and bragging marketing material (read: bragging rights). While very good in their own right, their current crop RV670 cores is not up to the task of taking on the 8800GTX mono-a-mono so ATI and AMD had to come up with something else. Enter the HD3870 X2.

While it may seem neither elegant nor particularly innovative at face value, the HD3870 X2 (or RV680 as ATI calls it) represents ATI’s resurgent need to hold the performance mantle one more time. Not only does this give hope to investors but it gives a warm fuzzy feeling to anyone who hated the one horse race the current extreme performance segment had become over the past 18 months.

To put it in a nutshell, the HD3870 X2 is basically a pair of HD3870 512MB cards which have been installed on one giant red PCB with a full 1GB of memory. If you bought two HD3870 cards separately, you would quickly rack up a bill of about $480CAD but the HD3870X2’s price is still in a bit of flux. Don’t take this as God’s (or whatever deity you believe in) Own truth but our contacts have pegged the price of this card at anywhere from $500 to $550CAD but remember, this may change for launch. This is a bit more than the public might like but if the price is indicative of how ATI knows this card performs, it means that we may have a new performance champion on our hands. ATI is also pushing this as a “hard” launch with product in the channel on launch day but stock will initially be extremely limited.

This review will be a bit different from the last ones we have done. This is not a retail version of the HD3870 X2 but rather it is an engineering sample which we got our hands on through a story too complicated to mention here (though it would make great reading). So, you will not see any packaging shots nor any Crossfire results since we could only get our hands on one of these cards on short notice. There will also be no final "score" given due to the fact that this is an engineering sample.

One way or another, we were hell-bent on bringing you some info about this product even though the NDA lift date has jumped around more than a pigmy on ‘roids. So sit back, grab your reading glasses and a cup of coffee, take a seat in your favorite chair and enjoy this review.

HD3870X2-2.jpg
 
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SKYMTL

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ATI Strikes Back

ATI Strikes Back

HD3870X2-57.JPG

So this is how the new ATI lineup looks with the addition of the HD3870 X2 and not including the other mid and low-end cards which have gone through a soft release a few days ago. Personally, I think it is amazing to see how far we have progressed in the last few months in terms of the price / performance ratio of both ATI and Nvidia GPUs and in the whole scheme of things, I think this card is priced perfectly. Instead of people going out to buy a pair of HD3870 cards, they will be looking very seriously at buying the HD3870 X2 since it seems to offer all the benefits of two cards in one simple package. Unfortunately, as stated in the intro it looks like upon release the price for this card here in Canada will end up being a bit more expensive than a pair of HD3870 cards.

The concept of the HD3870 X2 is centered around a pair of ATI’s successful HD3870 512MB cards which are connected by what amounts to an internal Crossfire bridge chip/ switch which handles the communication between the two GPUs. Even though shoehorning what amounts to a pair of GPU cores onto one PCB is not a new concept (remember 3Dfx) ATI is the first company to do it in recent GPU history. Don’t mix up this implementation with Nvidia’s late 7950GX2 card which was basically two cards on two separate PCBs which communicated over an SLI bridge; ATI has gone a different route and has installed both GPU cores and their associated bridge chip on one PCB.

This card is a beast. Where the HD3870 was a scalpel that quietly cut away at the mid-priced market, the HD3870 X2 announces itself like a swift kick in the nuts. It is the length of an 8800GTX, it has a massive turbine of a fan and it holds 1GB of GDDR3 memory operating at 1800Mhz. Interestingly, the engineering sample we have has both cores are operating at a higher speed (at 825Mhz) than a stock HD3870 whose core runs at 777Mhz. Reports indicate that these cards will be available at different core speeds ranging from 777Mhz all the way past 825Mhz.

Some of you may also be wondering why ATI decided to go with slower-clocked GDDR3 memory for this card instead of the same GDDR4 which is used on the HD3870 512MB cards. While I would have liked to have seen the GDDR4 for both bandwidth and power saving improvements, it was not to be. I would think that the GDDR3 was used in order to lower the overall cost of the card instead of using the more expensive GDDR4.

When push comes to shove, the HD3870 X2 is still two HD3870 cards which are working in Crossfire and all of the inherent problems with a multi-GPU environment may still pop up. I hope that the ATI driver team has been burning the midnight oil in order to iron out all of the kinks associated with Crossfire gaming. Let’s be honest, one powerful single-chip card is always better than two lower-end cards running in Crossfire or SLI but if the drivers are up to snuff we should actually see an improvement over seperate cards.


A Quick and Dirty Rundown of Quad Crossfire

Some of you may hear the term Quad Crossfire or Crossfire X and shiver in dread from the memories of Quad SLI. Somehow, Nvidia never really got the concept of running a pair of 7950GX2 cards off the ground but ATI is determined to make it work with their HD3870 X2 cards. They have been working long and hard in order to get the drivers working properly but we will not be able to test this claim in this review.

Quad Crossfire is supposed to work on “select” motherboards which means it should work on motherboards with AMD’s 790FX chipset or any other Crossfire-compatible motherboard with dual x16 PCI-E slots. That means people with motherboards sporting Intel’s X38 chipset or those planning on buying a much-delayed X48 boards should be able to run a quad Crossfire configuration. On the other hand, it looks like you won't be able to run two of these cards on boards sporting the P35 chipset. You may notice that I say “should”. This is because I haven’t tried any of these configurations myself so until I see people in the community getting it to work, I will treat ATI’s claims with a grain of salt.
 
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SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the ATI HD3870 X2

A Closer Look at the ATI HD3870 X2

HD3870X2-1.jpg
HD3870X2-3.jpg

The first thing that becomes apparent when looking at the HD3870 X2 is that it is one heck of a long card with a massive cooler. Fitting two GPU cores and 1GB of memory takes up a fair amount of real estate, so the overall length of this card had to increase quite a bit over that of the HD3870.

As with all of ATI’s cards for as long and anyone can remember, it is decked out with a bright red PCB and red plastic heatsink. Unlike cards like the HD2900XT with its silver flame design or the HD3870 which didn’t have much design at all on the stock heatsink, this sample came with a decal of Ruby’s (ATI’s femme fatale mascot) eyes.

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As you can see, even though the HD3870 X2 is quite long, it equals the length of the 8800GTX which is 10.5”. This is actually quite a feat on ATI’s part since the 8800GTX has one GPU while ATI’s new flagship holds two GPU cores. On the other hand, this card is much longer than the standard HD3870.

The best way to tell if this will fit into your case is to do a bit of quick measuring. If you have a standard ATX-sized motherboard, measure a straight line from your motherboard's x16 PCI-E slot to the edge of your motherboard. If from that edge you have 1” or more before hitting into any barrier, you will have enough space for this card.

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The fan ATI used for the heatsink on the HD3870 X2 looks a lot like the horribly loud affair which was used on the HD2900XT. We will see what happens in the Heat and Acoustics area, but since the two 55nm RV670XT cores don’t produce much heat, I am hoping the RPMs of this fan are kept to a minimum.

There are two sections of copper fins (on this particular card one of them is aluminum) without any accompanying heatpipes inside the heatsink itself. Each of these sections lines up with one of the two GPU cores. Cool air is brought in by the fan, passed over the copper fins and then exhausted through the back of the card so it does not seep into your case.

HD3870X2-4.jpg

Other portions of the card including the ram modules are passively cooled my aluminum “pegs” which disperse any heat buildup. Here you can also see a bit more of the inner workings of the heatsink itself with the two blocked in fin areas above the cores.

HD3870X2-6.jpg
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Let me say this right away: I am not a fan of the power connector placement on the HD3870 X2. While single 6-pin and single 8-pin connectors are sure to bring enough power to the two cores and their accompanying bridge chip, I have an issue with the angle they are placed at. Most cards (including the now-defunct HD2900XT) have their power connectors placed so they are in-line with the PCB. Unfortunately, the connectors on this card are placed at a right angle to the PCB which means the PCI-E cables will have to do a bit of acrobatics to reach the card. This is especially true if you have a top-mounted power supply.

The Crossfire connector is different from other recent ATI cards since it has only a single connector. Other ATI cards of late have had dual connectors which means you can daisy-chain up to 4 cards together if you have a supporting motherboard. With the HD3870 X2, you can only link two cards together which would still equal 4 GPUs all running together. One way or another, running two of these cards together is every enthusiast’s wet dream.

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The backplate of the HD3870 X2 has the usual DVI connectors as well as an HDTV-out connector. Like with all of ATI’s recent cards, this one also offers a DVI to HDMI adaptor for all your high-def audio and video needs.

HD3870X2-11.jpg

The underside of this card is markedly different from anything else we have seen here at Hardware Canucks. There are two distinct areas with the GPUs as well as a large black aluminum plate which is used to disperse heat from the ram modules and add a bit more structural stability to the PCB. The last time I saw this was with the HD2900XT and this plate got hotter than hell itself when the card was in use.
 
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SKYMTL

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Under the Heatsink

Under the Heatsink

HD3870X2-15.jpg
HD3870X2-12.jpg

Once the heatsink is removed we are greeted with the two RV670XT cores as well as the large bridge chip. From what I see, adding any existing aftermarket cooler to this card will be a lesson in futility though it should be interesting to see what kind off crazy coolers come out in the future for it. Yet, we like challenges here at Hardware Canucks so a bit later in this review I will be discussing the possible aftermarket heatsink and water block ptions for this card. Since this is an engineering sample there are a few oddities as well such as mismatched copper and aluminum heatsink bases.

The back of the card holds the additional GDDR3 memory modules which combine with the front ones to create an 8x 64MB layout of memory around each core.

HD3870X2-13.jpg
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The ram modules used here are Samsung K4J52324QE-BJ1A modules which are rated to run a 2Ghz (DDR) at 1.9V so this should give a bit of overclocking headroom since they are running at 1800Mhz on this card. The full spec sheet can be found here: http://www.samsung.com/global/syste...AM/512Mbit/K4J52324QE/ds_k4j52324qe_rev12.pdf

Between the two cores there are additional traces and resistors for the bridge chip we will take a look at in a moment.

HD3870X2-16.jpg

Here is the real star of the show: the PLX Technology PEX8547 PCI-E switch. This chip handles the communication between the two GPUs which eliminates the need for a Crossfire bridge. The die is actually quite large at 38mm X 38mm but it only consumes a maximum of 4.9W so it should not produce much heat at all. While I could talk on and on about this chip, I will instead direct you to the product brief:
http://www.plxtech.com/pdf/product_briefs/PEX8547_Product_Brief_v1.5_15Aug07.pdf

It makes for some interesting reading and I suggest you go over it when you have a few minutes.

HD3870X2-20.jpg
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On this engineering sample, there is a trio of large Pulse voltage regulation modules which are placed at various parts of the card. Since these tend to build up quite a bit of heat, they are interfaced with the heatsink base with thermal pads. You may notice that there are additional solder points for another of these modules next to the one at the rear of the card but it looks like ATI figured they only needed one at this location.

HD3870X2-19.jpg

Both cores are identical to the ones we saw a while ago on the HD3870 512MB. They are 55nm RV670XT cores which are attached without an overly-large IHS since they produce very little heat compared to the space-heater 80nm cores of yesteryear.

HD3870X2-18.jpg

It really is stunning to see the amount of engineering that went into this card and let’s hope that all that hard work will equal acceptable performance.
 
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SKYMTL

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Drivers and Catalyst Control for the HD3870 X2

Drivers and Catalyst Control for the HD3870 X2

Within the last few week, this card has had more driver revisions than you can shake a stick at but what I can say is this: the 8.1 drivers may be compatible with the HD3870 X2 but they are far from the best performing. One of my major issues with this whole process is that the release candidate and beta drivers reviewers and board partners have access to are not available to the public. Unfortunately, this means you the reader will have to wait God knows how long until you can move away from the drivers you get on the retail card’s driver CD which are probably five or more revisions older than what reviewers are working with. The screenshots below are from the 8.451.2-080 driver package we received from our contacts. It should be noted that this driver package (even though it has a lower number) is newer than the 8.452-series RC drivers and the 8.531 drivers which should be released with the retail cards. Go figure…

On the plus side, with the newest driver revision under our belts, you are better able to determine what this card is REALLY capable of.

HD3870X2-26.JPG

Here we are in the standard Catalyst Control Menu under the Overdrive tab. In the 8.1 drivers dual HD3870 cards in Crossfire come up as separate cards under the Graphics Adaptor tab but with the HD3870 X2, it shows up as a single card. On the other hand, the "Select GPU to Configure" tab still shows a pair of cards which means that overclocking this card will be a pain in the butt and this bore true in our tests. We will discuss more about the intricacies of overclocking this card in another section.

Other than this, all of the options within the Catalyst Control Center are exactly the same as with other versions. You should remember however than these new drivers seem to take ages to install so please be patient and don’t panic when your screen goes black for a few minutes.

HD3870X2-22.JPG

The Windows Vista device manager also picks up the HD3870 X2 as two separate graphics cards instead of just one. This isn’t a surprise since the PLX chip we saw earlier acts like an internal Crossfire bridge.
 
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SKYMTL

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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

System Used

Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 @ 3.5Ghz
Memory: 4GB Corsair Dominator DDR3 @ 1556Mhz
Motherboard: Asus Blitz Extreme
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 320GB SATAII
Fans: 5X Yate Loon 120mm @ 1200RPM
Monitor: LG Flatron L2000CN-BF (1600X1200, 1280x1024)
OS: Windows Vista Ultimate x64


Graphics Cards:

ATI HD3870 X2 (Engineering Sample)
XFX 8800GTS 512MB (stock)
Asus 8800GTX 768MB (stock)
Nvidia 8800GT 512MB (stock)
HIS Radeon HD3870 512MB (stock & Crossfire)

Drivers:

ATI Catalyst 8.451.2-080 (HD3870 X2)
ATI Catalyst 8.1
Nvidia 169.25

Applications Used:

3DMark06 Professional
Call of Juarez
Company of Heroes
Crysis
Half Life 2: Episode 2
Lost Planet: Extreme Condition
Prey
PT Boats: Knights of the Sea
World in Conflict


*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 4 benchmark runs

- It is VERY important to note that we are using updated drivers. Thus, some scores may be different from our last reviews.
 

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1280 x 1024 Resolution Testing (DX9)

1280 x 1024 Resolution Testing (DX9)


3DMark06 Professional

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HD3870X2-66.JPG

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Company of Heroes

Company of Heroes from Canadian developer Relic has been widely held as one of the greatest RTS games of all time while also being one of the most stressful games on the graphics card. There are very few instances in this game that will not make your graphics card beg for mercy and as such it makes a great benchmarking tool. Instead of using a typical mission (which seems to have given odd results more often than not when used with FRAPS) we are now using the in-game benchmarking tool which seems to give MUCH more consistent results.

HD3870X2-35.JPG


Half Life 2: Episode 2

Half Life 2: Episode 2 is the newest installment in Valve’s long running Half Life series and this is without a doubt the best looking game in the series. For this benchmark a typical 10 minute exterior gameplay sequence was prerecorded and then played back using the in-game timedemo feature. The results were recorded with FRAPS.

HD3870X2-52.JPG


Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

This game was one of the first to jump into the DX10 pool. It provides some pretty good visuals while being very fun to play. In this test we ran through the retail version’s in-game benchmark 4 times and averaged out the scores we received in each area.

HD3870X2-43.JPG


World in Conflict

This is one stunning game. World in Conflict has provided me with some of my most memorable gaming experiences since the first Homeworld game was released and it has not stopped wowing me. This is a brand new benchmark for us and with all of the bangs and whistles turned on; this is a great benchmark for any graphics card out there.

HD3870X2-64.JPG


Prey

Even though Prey may be a bit older game compared against many of the other ones we are testing, it still provides a workout of even the best graphics cards on the market. This time we have enabled its Graphics Boost feature (Gboost in the charts) and run through a custom timedemo.

HD3870X2-71.JPG


Results Analysis

You will notice that I have eliminated the tests without AA enabled since I think their results would be pretty redundant for a card this powerful.

I was actually pretty amazed by the performance achieved by the HD3870 X2; it bested the 8800GTX the majority of the time and the only area where it fell slightly behind was in Lost Planet which is designed to use Nvidia hardware. What really shocked me was the stunning performance we saw in the Company of Heroes test since this game has never been an ATI strong point. The 3DMark06 score was just as incredible even though we were expecting this from a dual chip card. So, things are looking good in these initial tests for ATI's new flagship, especially when you look at the scaling between it and a single HD3870 512MB card.
 
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SKYMTL

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1280 x 1024 Resolution Testing (DX10)

1280 x 1024 Resolution Testing (DX10)


Crysis

This is the big one. Crysis has quickly become the 2000lb gorilla in the room with its amazingly realistic graphics that beggar any system on the block. For these tests the in-game benchmark was used and completed all 4 runs in 32-bit mode. And average was then taken from all 4 runs.

HD3870X2-28.JPG

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Call of Juarez

Other than being one of the first benchmarkable DX10 games, Call of Juarez also received luke-warm reviews but it provides some stunning visuals. To benchmark this game we used the in-game benchmark tool and ran it 4 times to give an average score.

HD3870X2-49.JPG

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Company of Heroes

HD3870X2-74.jpg

HD3870X2-31.JPG


World in Conflict

HD3870X2-60.JPG

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PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

Russian developer Akella has released a nifty little DX10 benchmark centered around their upcoming game PT Boats: Knights of the Sea. It is visually stunning and does a good job in displaying the potential of DX10.

HD3870X2-45.JPG


Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

HD3870X2-41.JPG

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Results Analysis

The ATI HD3870 X2 looks very strong in these first DX10 tests where it stays ahead most of the time even though it gets its butt handed to it in Lost Planet. For some reason the card does very well in the Snow potion of the benchmark but the second things move over to the Cave area, everything falls apart. This game has never been one of ATI’s strong points and this proves that there is still some work yet to be done on the drivers.

Other than the odd performance in Lost Planet, there was some performance drops in Knights of the Sea which is a DX10 game developed on Nvidia hardware so the lower score is once again not surprising. The drivers also display a lack of polish in World in Conflict which ate this card alive in DX10 but as you will see in the 1600x1200 tests, the higher resolution yielded higher results. This is truly an indication of driver immaturity.

On the other hand, seeing this card stomping on the competition in Company of Heroes and Call of Juarez is great to see even with the lower scores in some of the other games. What socked me the most was the HD3870 X2’s performance in Crysis. Without AA enabled, its performance equaled that of the GTX but when AA was enabled it began pulling ahead.
 
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SKYMTL

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1600 x 1200 Resolution Testing (DX9)

1600 x 1200 Resolution Testing (DX9)


Company of Heroes

HD3870X2-33.JPG

HD3870X2-34.JPG


Half Life 2: Episode 2

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HD3870X2-51.JPG


Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

HD3870X2-39.JPG

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World in Conflict

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HD3870X2-63.JPG


Prey

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Results Analysis

As the resolution increases, so does the lead the HD3870 X2 has over its competitors. It is really amazing to see this card best some of the best Nvidia can offer in every single test except Lost Planet with AA turned on. Lost Planet keeps proving to be a bit of a thorn in ATI's side but this is mostly a driver issue and should be discounted as such. Other than that, the HD3870 X2 proves to be king of the hill at this resolution both with and without AA turned on.
 

SKYMTL

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1600 x 1200 Resolution Testing (DX10)

1600 x 1200 Resolution Testing (DX10)


Crysis

HD3870X2-54.JPG

HD3870X2-53.JPG


Call of Juarez

HD3870X2-47.JPG

HD3870X2-46.JPG


Company of Heroes

HD3870X2-29.JPG

HD3870X2-30.JPG


World in Conflict

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HD3870X2-59.JPG


PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

HD3870X2-44.JPG


Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

HD3870X2-73.JPG

HD3870X2-38.JPG


Results Analysis

In DX10 applications, the HD3870 X2 maintains its lead in some areas but it seems like it suffers when AA is turned on. I could go on all day about the minimal benefits of DX10 but I have to say I was particularly disappointed with the performance we see in World in Conflict and (once again) Lost Planet with all the bangs and whistles turned on.

On the flip side of the coin, this card shows its muscle in some areas; particularly in Crysis and Call of Juarez where it puts down some extremely impressive scores.
 
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