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Palit Radeon HD 4870 X2 2GB Video Card Review

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SKYMTL

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Palit Radeon HD 4870 X2 2GB Video Card Review




Product Number: XAE=487X2+T345
Price: $550
Manufacturer’s Product Page: TBD
Warranty: 2-year
Availability: Today



As of late, ATI has been riding the winds of success with their HD4800-series after months and months of playing second fiddle to a surging Nvidia. In the last little while we have reviewed both their HD4870 card and the more budget-minded HD4850. Both have offered an amazing amount of performance considering their respective prices and when they are paired up in Crossfire they will blow your mind with blisteringly high framerates. With a huge amount of media coverage, it has been pretty hard to avoid the phenomenon these cards have kicked up in their wake. With all of the reviews and the massive numbers of new users attesting to these cards’ prowess in all of the latest games, ATI looks like it is poised to make up for months of lackluster performance in one fell swoop.

There hopefully isn’t a soul alive in the enthusiast community who isn’t even partially surprised with how well ATI has been able to turn around their fortunes but there is one area they have not yet tackled: the ultra high-end performance crown. Riding on the coattails of their recent inroads, today marks the launch of their HD4870 X2 2GB card which is looking to capitalize on the growing popularity of the 4800-series while taking performance to the next level. Technically, this new behemoth is called the “R700” even though it uses a pair of R770 cores and 2GB of memory but for clarity’s sake we will keep its full retail name as much as possible in this review. It is with this card that ATI is hoping to capture the hearts and minds of those few people out there who can afford the best of the best.

Even though the HD4870 X2 may be firmly targeted at the high-end market, it carries with it an amazingly “affordable” price of about $550. Does anyone remember when bleeding edge performance came at an eye-watering price? Heck, even the recently-released Nvidia GTX 280 had a jaw-dropping MSRP of nearly $700 here in Canada before its recent nosedive into the $470 price category. While 550 smackers may make it the highest priced stock clocked card currently on the market, there are actually a number of overclocked GTX 280 cards we have seen in the last few weeks retailing for about that price as well. So, while this new 2GB monster from ATI may not be within everyone’s grasp financially, it is much more attainable to you and me than past ultra high end cards.

ATI has a large cadre of board partners ready to launch the HD4870 X2 in North America but we will be focusing on one manufacturer in particular: Palit. This is one company that is absolutely hell-bent on making its presence felt here in the North American marketplace even though it only entered it a few years back. They have extremely aggressive pricing on most of their cards, good customer support but a somewhat unfortunate 2 year warranty on all their products. While this may hold them back a bit, we don’t know too many people who will spend $550 on a graphics card and keep it for more than a year. It should also be noted that for all intents and purposes, stock will be quite tight for launch but should pick up in weeks thereafter.

All in all, it seems like the HD4870 X2 2GB could very well be the new card to have for the foreseeable future considering its pedigree and the expectations we have for it. However, with the GTX 280 retailing for almost $100 less, the HD4870 X2 may have a little unexpected competition based on its current $550 suggested retail price. On the other hand, if it can pull off performance similar to the HD4870 Crossfire setup we saw last week, it will be worth every penny. Especially since it costs less than a pair of HD4870 cards.

But WAIT, there is more….

Believe it or not though, this isn’t the only card that is being announced here. While the HD4870 X2 sees its release and availability today, ATI has also released some tantalizing details to us about a manufacturer-specific card called the HD4850 X2. We will have a few more details about it on the next page let’s just say for now that there will only be a few board partners releasing this card since it is not an ATI-produced reference design. Rather, in true ATI fashion partners are left free to design their own cards which will get subsequent approval from ATI’s engineers.

This could be shaping up to be a very interesting year-end in more ways than one.


 
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SKYMTL

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The New and Improved ATI Lineup

The New and Improved ATI Lineup



Well, here we have it: the lineup that is supposed to put the hurt on the competition while keeping the overall costs per card down to appealing levels. At the top of the heap we have the new HD4870 X2 while a little further down is the upcoming HD4850 X2 and the rest of the previously released cards nicely round everything up. Without releasing an overly confusing lineup, ATI has perfectly covered nearly every portion of the market with one card or another which basically means that if you have a certain budget, ATI has you covered.


Out with the old, in with the new

While it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the new “R700” (or Spartan as it is called internally by ATI) is in fact a dual GPU card much like the bygone HD3870 X2, what may interest you is that it comes with a full 2GB of GDDR5 memory. Looking a bit closer at the HD4870 X2 we can see that what has been done is to take a pair of cores from standard HD4870 cards, pair up each with 1GB of GDDR5 memory and stick the whole kit and caboodle onto one PCB. This gives the new X2 the distinction of being the first consumer-oriented graphics card to sport 2GB of memory. Even though it may seem to have a somewhat limited 256-bit bus, this card more than makes up for it with its blisteringly-fast GDDR5 speeds. Other than that, all of the clock speeds are carbon copied over from a stock HD4870 card which further cements out assumption that this dual chip card will perform nearly identical to Crossfired HD4870s.

What strikes us as the most interesting about all of these specifications is the fact that ATI seems to have found enough stock of GDDR5 to provide modules to their rollout of HD4870 X2 and HD4870 cards. There were rumors a little while ago that stock of GDDR5 was hard to maintain and ATI would have issues keeping up with demand for their cards. Well, with the big three players (Samsung, Qimonda and Hynix) all producing decent volumes of the needed ICs it seems these rumored shortages never amounted to anything.

As for the HD4850 X2, it is the mirror image of its big brother but combines the same cores with slower GDDR3 memory clocked at the same speeds as a standard HD4850. As such, it is supposed to be priced a full $150 below the HD4870 X2 at about $400 but this can change quite a bit depending on what the board partners decide to do with their custom cards. Like we said before, there is no “official” launch date for this card but it is supposed to compete directly with the GTX 280. The major issue we see with this is the fact that manufacturer-specific cards like this (anyone remember the almost nonexistent stock of the HD3850 X2?) is that stock is usually next to impossible to come by and because of this prices are usually inflated. Hopefully, this time it will be different since at $400 this card would have a great following since it seems to hit at the right price point while giving increased performance for those of you who don’t have a Crossfire motherboard.

*Please note that programs like GPU-Z and the Catalyst Control Center will read the memory speed as 900Mhz due to the fact that GDDR5 operates different from all other DDR memory types. Basically, there are two “banks” of memory each operating at 900Mhz SDR (1800Mhz DDR) and these programs will only read one of these banks. The two banks combine for a total of 3600Mhz DDR memory speed.
 
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SKYMTL

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The TeraScale Graphics Engine

The TeraScale Graphics Engine



Even though the R770 core represents a huge departure from the 600-series of ATI cores, we have really not heard much about what this new architecture entails. In this section we will give you a quick glimpse (since I know you are itching to see benchmarks) into the R700-series cores and the improvements which have been made over previous generations.

In most of the official documentation you will see floating around; AMD is calling this new architecture their “TeraScale” graphics engine. This name alludes to the fact that these new cards can theoretically perform over one trillion floating point operations per second (one teraFLOP) which makes them the first mass market, single GPU products to do so. According to AMD, the ATI TeraScale Graphics engine is all about building in maximum performance, scalability, efficiency and affordability into one package which leads to lower costs for the consumer. Without a doubt this is a very loft goal which has been set by AMD so let’s see how they went about accomplishing it.


The R770 core is based off of a 55nm manufacturing process which means that it is power efficient and should put out a minimum of heat. AMD really has this process working well for them since they were able to pack in nearly a billion transistors (956 million to be exact) onto a die which measures a mere 266mm². For comparison, the overly hot, power hogging GTX 280 core measures a whopping 576mm². This means that ATI can fit more dies onto a wafer which in turn drives down the costs of the R700-series cores.


Welcome to the brave new world of the R770 core. Let’s put some of these complicated diagrams into a bit better context for you since they can get a bit overwhelming some you look at them for anything more than 2.5 seconds. Since we run the risk of this explanation getting overly complicated we will try to keep this short, sweet and in layman’s terms if possible.

Before being processed, the data going through the core gets passed through the Ultra Threaded Dispatch Processor which then prioritizes it towards one or more of the SIMD (Single Instruction, Multiple Data) cores. Each of these 10 cores holds 80 individual stream processors which can then pass off their data to individual texture units. There are additional Render Back-Ends as well but we will discuss these a little later. We can also see (at the extreme right of the diagram) that all the output operations like UVD, display controllers, PCI-E 2.0 bus interface, and Crossfire X support are all controlled by a central on-die hub. This is supposed to help speed up communications between the core and theses low bandwidth using interfaces.


Above we have a diagram picturing the flow of data from the thread scheduler through SIMD cores. As already mentioned, each of these SIMD cores holds 80 individual stream processors which are broken into 10 blocks of 8 processors each.

The data is then passed on to the SIMD’s associated Texture Unit. Each of these texture units contains four Texture Address Processors which process the texture information before handing it off to the main Data bus along with 4 Texture Filter Units, and 16 Texture Samplers which are all accessed through a Texture Decompressor. This layout means streamlined data management across the entire range of core functions.


When we get a bit better look at this hierarchy beyond the texture units, we can see that each of the memory controllers has its own L2 cache while each SIMD has its own associated L1 cache and close to the top of the diagram there is a completely separate Vertex cache. This all leads to a claimed 480GB/s L1 texture fetch bandwidth and 384GB/s bandwidth just between the L1 and L2 cache.


Now we have come to what many figure to be the crowning achievement of this TeraScale architecture. Let’s be honest for a second here; a graphics card could have the fastest GPU in the world hooked up to it but if the memory interface sucks, it will be in for a world of hurt. To help alleviate any memory bottlenecks, ATI completely redid the memory interface design on the R770 so it would be distributed throughout the edges of the chip with its own blocks of render back-ends. ATI also gave each memory controller hub access to its own L2 cache which will further increase the data transfer speeds to and from the memory. This was done in order to take advantage of the massive bandwidth potential that comes with the implementation of GDDR5 onto some R770 cards. So, even though it looks like the HD4850 and HD4870 “only” have a 256-bit interface, because of the bandwidth afforded by this new memory design, it actually acts like a 512-bit interface.

Speaking of these rendering back-ends, they have now been specifically designed to improve upon AA performance which is a welcome change since we all remember how much the R600-series suffered when AA was turned on. This implementation effectively doubles the AA performance when compared to a HD3870.
 

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The HD4870 X2 Architecture / Additional Features

The HD4870 X2 Architecture



From an architectural standpoint, there are many similarities between the older HD3870 X2 and the new HD4870 X2 but ATI has used the lessons learned from the past card to evolve the design. Like every good bit of evolution, it keeps the elements which worked from the past and improves on them to tackle new hurdles.

In this case, ATI kept the original design of having a PLX PCI-E interconnect chip handling the communications between the two cores but it is now the Gen. 2 chip versus the Gen. 1 version of the previous design. This in effect doubles the bandwidth available between the two RV770 cores which will speed up the speed at which information is processed and should eliminate any bottlenecks.

However, if there is any excess of information which would somehow exceed the 5GB/s bandwidth, ATI has now implemented what they call Sideport technology. This sideport will take up any excess information which cannot pass through the PCI-E 2.0 bridge chip and processes it from one core to the next. Overall, this design is specially designed to eliminate the bottlenecks which occurred with the previous dual-GPU ATI card and speed up the transfer of information which should in turn increase efficiency and perhaps make this card faster than a pair of HD4870 cards in Crossfire.


Additional R700 Features


It seems like in this brave new world of parallel processing capabilities of GPU cores, both ATI and Nvidia are racing to take advantage of the potential the modern graphics card has locked away within its confines. What we will soon see is a massive increase in the performance of certain applications like video transcoding, Folding and physics calculations. ATI has been on this bandwagon for some time now with their Folding @ home application which first came out for X19xx-series graphics cards, made the jump to the R600 / RV670 cores a few months ago and will soon be move over to the new HD4800-series as well. With their massive number of stream processors, the R770 cards should be able to handle any application thrown at them. Let’s take a look at what ATI has to offer with additional features.


DirectX 10.1


Even though DX10.1 is a minor update to the Vista-exclusive DX10, ATI feels that its implementation will benefit gamers quite a bit in today’s market. Let’s cut right to the chase: DX10.1 doesn’t offer us anything particularly new in terms of outlandishly new features but it does offer new paths for developers to simplify their code which in turn has the potential to increase performance in certain areas. At present, among the “big two” graphics processor manufacturers, ATI is the only one which supports DX10.1

Even though we run the risk of editorializing here we have to say that ATI’s acceptance of the DX10.1 API seems to be the right thing to do in today’s graphics card industry. After seeing first-hand the performance benefits it brings when applying AA to a DX10 environment in games like Assassin’s Creed we can only express disappointment and outright shock that other GPU manufacturers haven’t followed ATI’s lead. Consumers have been left high and dry without any reason to purchase an OS with DX10 for the simple fact that the performance in impact of DX10 is does not justify minor graphical benefits. DX10.1 works to alleviate those performance hurdles by offering developers more options when producing their games. We can only hope that ATI’s present generation cards become widespread enough that more game developers will implement DX10.1 into their titles.


Crossfire X


Up until the HD2900-series was introduced, running more than one ATI card was a clumsy affair which included external cables and more headache than should have been necessary. Then they introduced their very own Crossfire bridge connector and it was all sunshine and roses since daisy chaining two, three or even four cards together became possible. This technology continues today with the HD4800-series cards and AMD has promised that users will get better drivers, quick driver revisions and better industry acceptance among game developers.


PowerPlay Technology


In ATI’s never-ending quest to offer us the most power savings possible they have introduced something called PowerPlay. This technology allows the Catalyst software to dynamically adjust voltages and core speeds depending on the application it is being used for. This results in less idle power consumption and power being distributed when and where you need it.


Havok Physics


When AMD and Havok announced their partnership to optimize the Havok physics engine to run on ATI hardware, many enthusiasts perked up and listened. Havok Physics has been implemented into a vast variety of games form every single genre the vast majority of the industry’s upcoming blockbuster titles (including Starcraft II) support it. This not only gives ATI’s physics push a massive installed user base but it also guarantees that there will be games with Havok released for years to come. With both ATI and Nvidia firmly entrenched in the war to bring physics processing to a wider market acceptance, we may look back at this point in time as the moment when the renaissance of in-game physics really began.
 

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Enhancing the Visual Experience

Enhancing the Visual Experience



ATI’s cards have been the staple of people building HTPCs for some time now with features like UVD, HDMI and high-end audio options. With the HD4800-series, AMD are taking things to the next level with some very interesting advances on their already-established technologies which will make these cards even more appealing to HTPC aficionados and regular consumers alike.

To do this they have set before themselves three primary goals: to provide multi-stream HD playback as supported in Blu-Ray 2.0 profiled movies, to improve the visual quality on HD monitors and to accomplish fast video transcoding by taking advantage of the processing power of the R770 core. Considering we have seen in the past how well features like UVD work, any enhancements to already-existing features is more than welcome in today’s quickly changing world of high definition. While we will be going over some of the features ATI has implemented it is just the tip of the iceberg of what is being offered to those of us who use our graphics cards to process HD signals.


UVD 2 – Dual Bitstream Playback


With Blu-Ray finally winning the high definition format wars, manufacturers have taken lightning-quick steps to step up support for the format. One of the many ways AMD is doing this is through full support of the Blu-Ray 1.1 profile and BD Live (profile 2.0). With UVD 2 the R770 processors are able to decode two streams of high definition (H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2) content in order to give the viewer the picture-in-picture options present in the 1.1 profile. This gives us the capability to watch a movie in large format while having something like an alternate scene or director’s commentary playing in the smaller picture in the corner of the screen.


High Definition Audio & Video through HDMI


HDMI is quickly becoming the standard of choice for high definition movie and audio aficionados. With the HD3800 series AMD supported 5.1 channel audio-out through the HDMI connector but with the HD4800-series, they have taken things one step further by offering full 7.1 channel output. This means the these new cards will have support for AC3, DTS, Dolby True-HD and DTS HD formats with a full 6.144 Mbps bit rate and 192KHz sample rate along with up to 24 bits/sample. Add to this native HDCP support and true 1080P output and what we have here is a true multimedia powerhouse.

Did we mention that the R770 core has native support for Display Port as well? Well, it does but it is up to the board partner’s discretion whether they add the necessary output connector.


Video Transcoding


In their presentations, AMD has stressed the importance of the amount of processing power their stream processors bring to the table in various applications including video transcoding. Through CyberLink’s upcoming Power Director 7, users will be able to simultaneously transcode multiple 1080P videos up to 19 times faster than they would if they were using a dual core processor. Coupled with the low power consumption of the HD4800-series processors, the possibility of using this feature in numerous video encoding and decoding applications is virtually boundless.
 

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Palit’s Packaging & Accessories

Palit’s Packaging & Accessories



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The box of the Palit HD4870 X2 is much the same as many other of their products with a fair bit of “bling” and the usual Terminator Frog mascot. You will notice that Palit’s packaging usually has red accents if it contains an ATI card and green if it has an Nvidia card within.


Other than the usual driver CD and instruction manual (not pictured) Palit packages a TV-out connector, a DVI to VGA dongle and the usual DVI to HDMI adaptor with their card. Since the HD4870 X2 needs an 8-pin PCI-E cable to run properly, Palit packages an adaptor which combines together a pair of standard 6-pin connectors into a single 8-pin. However, if you do not have enough PCI-E connectors to hook up this connector plus the additional 6-pin on the card, you should seriously think about buying another power supply.


The DVI to HDMI adaptor is now standard on all ATI-based cards and uses the X2’s DVI connector to output high definition sound and video images through a HDMI cable. A HDMI cable is not included but if you decide to go this route, it is highly recommended that you go with a suitably high quality cable.
 

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A Closer Look at the Palit Radeon HD4870 X2

A Closer Look at the Palit Radeon HD4870 X2



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The Palit HD4870 X2 completely breaks with past ATI card which have traditionally had red PCBs and fans by replacing all those red bits with sinister-looking black. Without a doubt, it looks great and having ATI’s high-end card being differentiated from the rest of its lineup like this has been something we have all been waiting for.

The heatsink runs the entire length of the card with being covered with a Palit sticker which really does well to carry on the overall feel of the card while inserting a few more colorful elements.


As with all recent ATI graphics cards, the HD4870 X2 carries the AMD logo silkscreened onto the PCI-E connector. Meanwhile, the other side of the heatsink has several rows of aluminum “rods” which are used to further dissipate any excess heat which cannot be taken care of by the rest of the heatsink. This same design was used on the HD3870 X2 as well.


Even though the X2 has a pair of GPU cores on it along with 2GB of memory, its length is exactly the same as a GTX 280. This means that most standard ATX cases on the market should have no trouble fitting this 10.5” card into their interiors. As long as there is more than 1 ½” between the edge of your ATX motherboard your case, you will have enough space for this card.


As we already mentioned in the Accessories section, the HD4870 X2 requires a fair amount of power to run and thus uses a single 8-pin PCI-E connector along with a 6-pin connector. Unlike the HD3870 X2, the 8-pin is no longer only needed for overclocking and needs to be attached at all times if you want the card to work.

The backplate of this card holds the usual assortment of outputs with a pair of DVI connectors and the single TV-out connector.


There is a single Crossfire bridge connector on the HD4870 X2 so it can be hooked up to another X2 or any other card in the ATI lineup for (hopefully) increased performance.


The backside of the HD4870 X2 shows us a mostly continuous piece of black aluminum which is used to disperse heat from the memory modules installed on the underside of the card. The backside of the card also holds a quartet of red diagnostic LEDs.
 

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A Look Under the Heatsink

A Look Under the Heatsink



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Both the top and bottom portions of the heatsink come off with very little effort. The bottom portion holds eight thermal pads for the GDDR5 ram modules while the top portion has quite a few additional pads which are used for the VRM modules as well as the memory and PLX chip. For those of you hoping to perhaps use your HD3870 X2 water block on this card, you can forget about it right now. While the mounting holes are very similar, some of the VRM modules are in completely different places than on the older card.


Without a doubt this card carries with it a very complicated PCB layout due to the fact that it houses a pair of cores plus an interface ship. That being said, it is a remarkably clean layout with good high quality solid capacitors and large voltage regulation modules.


The two RV770 cores each have a protective metal shim around them and are placed within striking distance of the PLX bridge chip. The cores are both paired up with 1GB of GDDR5 memory in an 8x 128MB pattern.


Voltage regulation is done by a number of high-quality voltage regulation modules headed up by a pair of Vitec 59PR9853 multi phase SMD inductors which are rated up to 125C operation. These industrial-spec’d modules are supplemented but small Pulse regulators as well.


The real heart of this beast is the new PLX PEX 8647 PCI-E 2.0 Expresslane chip. Unlike the one used on the HD3870 X2, this one uses a full 48 lanes while actually having a smaller die area than the older chip. As we have already discussed this PLX chip handles the majority of the communication between the two RV770 cores while eliminating many of the bottlenecks associated with past switch designs while consuming less than 4 watts.

You can read the whole product brief here: http://www.plxtech.com/pdf/product_briefs/PEX8647_Product_Brief_v0 95_16Jun08.pdf

Finally, the memory used on this sample are Hynix H5GQ1H24MJR T0C modules in an 8 x 128MB pattern around each GPU for 16 modules total rated at 4.0Gbps. ATI has spaced the memory on the front and back of the card.
 
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Disassembling the Heatsink

Disassembling the Heatsink


In this section we will take a good long, hard look at what keeps this dual-chip card cool. There has been much criticism in the past directed at ATI for making some pretty lackluster heatsinks designs but while the 55nm RV770 cores on this card do not produce copious amounts of heat, ATI seems to have stepped things up a bit.


Click on images to enlarge

ATI has designed the HD4870 X2 heatsink much like the way they did with the HD3870 X2 but where the older card had one copper and one aluminum fin array, this one features a pair of all-copper heatsinks. The layout is done in such a way that the fan will suck in and blow cool air over the first set of fins where it is then directed towards the second set and out through the back of the card. This is a good layout but it will naturally cause the core which is further away from the fan to operate at a higher temperature.


Each of the heatsink contact plates along with the fins is made out of copper and weighs a ton. Copper is one of the best conductors of heat so while they may not have a lavish heatpipe design, these pieces should work sufficiently well to cool off the cores.


Other than the two copper contact plates, the rest of the heatsink assembly is made out of black-painted aluminum. There is an additional fin assembly in the very middle of this structure which serves dual purposes of increasing the surface area and also directing the airflow towards the second contact plate. Meanwhile the fan is a somewhat small 60mm unit like the somewhat loud one we encountered on the HD3870 X2.
 

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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

System Used

Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9770 @ 3.852Ghz
Memory: G.Skill 2x 2GB DDR2-1000 @ 1052Mhz DDR
Motherboard: DFI LanParty DK X38 T2R
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Hitachi Deskstar 320GB SATAII
Fans: 2X Yate Loon 120mm @ 1200RPM
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows Vista Ultimate x64 SP1


Graphics Cards:

Palit HD4870 X2 2GB
Sapphire Radeon HD4850 512MB (Single & Crossfire)
Palit Radeon HD4870 512MB (Single & Crossfire)
EVGA Geforce GTX 280 (stock)
BFG GTX 260 (Stock)
BFG 9800 GTX (stock)


Drivers:

ATI Catalyst Beta Driver Package # 8.52.2.080722a (8.8 beta) (HD4870 X2)
Nvidia 177.41 WHQL (GTX 280 / 260)
Nvidia 175.19 WHQL
ATI Catalyst 8.7


Due to the unpredictability of some beta drivers in Windows Vista x64, we have decided to only use WHQL drivers for all graphics cards other than the one being tested.


Applications Used:

3DMark06 Professional
3DMark Vantage
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Devil May Cry 4 Demo
Crysis
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Prey
Unreal Tournament III
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

- If the game did not support 2560 x 1600 resolution, the closest resolution to that was used
 
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