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Palit Radeon HD4870 512MB Graphics Card Review

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SKYMTL

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Palit Radeon HD4870 512MB Graphics Card Review



Product Number: TBD
Price: $300
Manufacturer’s Product Page: TBD
Warranty: 2-year
Availability: Now



In the last few months the mid and high end graphics card market has once again become a battleground between the two heavyweights: AMD (the artist formerly known as ATI) and Nvidia. There was a time where ATI slipped a bit with the release of their R600 and it seemed like Nvidia was going to run away with the graphics card market once and for all with the 8800-series. Luckily for all of us things began to brighten considerably for the boys in red when they introduced their RV670 core with the HD3870, HD3850 and eventually the HD3870X2. These cards were greeted with enthusiasm and completed well against their Nvidia equivalents but in the end the RV670 core was nothing more than a die shrink of the infamous R600. Hot on the heels of what could only be called an extremely successful product launch particularly with the HD3870; AMD is now poised to give us a completely new architecture in the form of the R770 core which adorns both the HD4850 and the HD4870. In this review we will be looking at the HD4870 which will be launching today.

In the hard-fought war between GPU manufacturers, both Nvidia and ATI know that it is best not to bring a knife to a gunfight or you will get stomped pretty hard by the competition. Interestingly, even though they are targeting their products to basically the same clients both companies have taken a decidedly different approach to the way they approach the market. On one hand we have Nvidia releasing ultra high-end, power hungry cards like the GTX 280 that cater those few gamers and enthusiasts who are willing to pony up $650 and more for a graphics card. On the other hand, AMD figures that the majority of gamers don’t want to spend $650 for a graphics card in this day and age so have taken a very different approach with the HD4870. With this card they are giving us a product that is supposed to be able to play the majority of games on the market with high IQ settings while retailing for around $300. This is a pretty lofty goal but it is well within the realm of possibility since the HD4850 (our review is due out shortly after this one) has proven to live up to everyone’s expectations and then some. With words like “recession” on everyone’s mind and the cost of living going through the roof due to record-high gas prices, it looks like AMD has targeted the prices of these cards at just the right place.

With ATI catapulting this product into the void left in the $300 price point by Nvidia’s seemingly knee-jerk move of reducing the price of their 9800 GTX to around $200, you would think they would want to get it out as soon as possible. While they may be chomping at the bit to get the HD4870 to market, today marks its soft launch with the majority of product only being available in fits and spurts between now and the starting of July. Believe it or not though, there is the very distinct possibility that this will turn into a hard launch since there is quite of few of these cards out there.

While many of you may be used to the Sapphire, Diamond and VisionTek cards on the market which do a good job of representing the ATI and AMD names here in Canada, there is one other player who’s HD4870 we will be reviewing today: Palit. There is not much about this card that really stands out from the competition since it is a stock-clocked product other than the fact that it is made by the world’s largest video card manufacture. Yes, that is right the company which hasn’t been heard much of here in North America is at the top of the pile when it comes to sales in Asia as well as Europe. Even though they have been in a large part absent from the North American market, they are taking us by storm with widespread availability of their cards at most leading retailers.

The HD4870 512MB represents quite a few firsts in the consumer graphics card world: the first single chip 1.2 teraflop card, the first implementation of GDDR5 and the first single chip AMD graphics card above the $290 price-point in quite some time. It definitely seems to have a lot going for it so without further ado, let’s get on with this review.

 

SKYMTL

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The Current ATI Lineup

The Current ATI Lineup



From the last time we looked at it about a month ago to today, there have been some serious changes in ATI’s lineup. Even though the lower-end stays the same with the HD36xx-series which aren’t included in the chart above, there has been a huge shakeup at the mid to upper end of their product range. To begin with, there have been steep price cuts instituted in order to bring down the price of the HD3870 512MB to a very, very affordable $140 while the HD3850 becomes even more appealing for HTPC users at $110. Meanwhile the HD3870X2 has officially become an End of Life product after meeting with some good success in the enthusiast category.


The past and the present

The new kids on the block are the R770 cards in the guise of the HD4870 and the HD4850. Both of these are priced to move while offering a whooping 800 stream processors where reports indicated that they had only 480. There has also been a ramp in the number of texture units to 40 which should improve performance by leaps and bounds even though the ROPs stay at 16. Both of these GPUs are fabricated using TSMC’s 55nm manufacturing process and feature a bevy of features including HDCP, native HDMI support and DX10.1 compatibility.

No matter how impressive they look on paper, the one thing that stands out about the new cards is the HD4870’s inclusion of the new GDDR5 memory. Some people have said this is a bit of a risk on ATI’s part since using a new technology is a gamble in the extreme when a whole graphics card launch schedule is based off of its proper implementation. Luckily for ATI, from all the information we have it seems like the producers of GDDR5 (Qimonda, Samsung and Hynix) are loving ease by which they can manufacture GDDR5 so supply is not a problem. In addition to this, the fact that there are three manufacturers competing for the market will also drive down prices very quickly.

All in all, if ATI and their partners can keep the channel stocked with cards we see no problem with both the HD4850 and the HD4870 becoming the cards to have for the next few months.

*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.
 

SKYMTL

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A Look at the TeraScale Graphics Engine

A Look at 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.
 

SKYMTL

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Additional R770 Features

Additional R770 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.

The interesting thing about Crossfire is that since their cards are priced the way they are, many users are being enticed into buying a pair of cards. The choice seems very clear to consumers and it goes something like this: two HD4870 cards will put you back about $600 while a single Nvidia GTX 280 will put you back upwards of $650 here in Canada. Add to this the fact that most Intel chipset-based motherboards support and will continue to support Crossfire, the choice seems abundantly clear to enthusiasts. Or at least AMD would like you to think so.


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.
 

SKYMTL

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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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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories



Click on image for larger version​

Without a doubt the packaging of this card is flashy in the extreme with Palit’s bazooka-toting frog taking front and center stage. It has been a while since we have seen a unique packaging scheme used with a graphics card and this one takes a bit of a different turn as opposed to most others on the market since two of the sides are slightly beveled.


The interior of the box doesn’t really show us anything different from what we have seen literally a million times before. The card is protected very well against any bumps it may receive while winging its way towards your open arms by a form-fitting cardboard case along with an inner sleeve of bubble wrap.


The accessory bundle which comes with the Palit HD4870 is complete but not overly generous. You get the usual Crossfire bridge, a RGB “HDTV” out connector, a DVI to VGA dongle, a Molex to PCI-E adaptor and finally a DVI to HDMI connector.

Kudos has to go to the folks at Palit for including the aforementioned DVI to HDMI adaptor since we have been told by ATI that the manufacturers are not obligated to include this dongle along with their packaging. Unfortunately, since it is not deemed necessary by ATI, we can see the possibility of some manufacturers skipping out on this dongle for the simple reason of shaving a few bucks off their bottom line. While we can confirm that the Palit HD4870 will indeed ship with this accessory we cannot say exactly which manufacturers will follow their lead. Thus, we recommend that you check the accessory package of the card you are interested in before purchase if this connector is important to you.
 

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A Closer Look at the Palit HD4870 512MB

A Closer Look at the Palit HD4870 512MB



Well, here it is; the HD4870. Upon first glance this will probably look a lot like the HD2900-series to many of you due to the heatsink’s resemblance to that of the R600 cards but there are some marked differences. The main one is that there is a slight indent in the heatsink’s fan shroud near the backplate of the card.

The sticker which Palit has used is quite generic and doesn’t share any resemblance to the flashy packaging but this is for the best since many of us do not want too much “bling” inside of our cases. Other than that the HD4870 continues ATI’s tradition of red color schemes with a red PCB and heatsink.


On one side of the card there is an inverted Radeon logo which will thankfully be right side up once you install your card in a standard ATX case. AMD also seems to have found a place for their logo…right next to the PCI-E 2.0 interface.


Even though the fan looks remarkably like the one used on the HD2900-series, we can tell you right now that its speed profile is completely different from that dreaded “dustbuster”. Also, like past ATI cards, the fan assembly is made out of transparent red plastic but this time there are metal runners which are attached to the length of the assembly.


Since the HD4870 512MB draws more power than the cards like the HD3870 and HD3850, ATI has included a pair of 6-pin PCI-E power connectors on the back of the card. This placement is quite different as this is the first time we have seen a pair of PCI-E connectors facing backwards. Cards like the 8800GTX and 9800GTX have their power connectors pointed towards the side of the card but since the HD4870 is quite a bit shorter that both these cards, there will be more than enough space between the back of the card and your case to install them.

The two Crossfire connectors are slightly hidden by an overhang of metal which acts as lateral support for the heatsink. Nonetheless, both connectors are easily assessable if you choose to run two or more of these cards in Crossfire.


The backplate of the card doesn’t hold anything new since it has the usual two DVI-D connectors and single TV-out connector. There is also a grille which is used to exhaust the hot air from the card.

On the underside of the HD4870 we can see that there are have been quite a few changes made over the RV670 series in order to accommodate this card’s utilization of GDDR5 memory. The memory needs a different power distribution setup when compared to GDDR3 or even GDDR4 modules so there are additional transistors placed below the ICs on the PCB.


When doing a size comparison to some of the cards that were and are presently in its price range we can see that the HD4870 is about 1” shorter than the 9800GTX but slightly longer than the HD4850 and older HD3870. Overall, the card is 9.5” long.
 

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Under the Heatsink

Under the Heatsink


Please note that removing the heatsink will void the warranty on your card.


Click on images for larger version​

Removal of the HD4870 heatsink is very straightforward and once it is eased off we have a good view of what makes this card tick. As already mentioned, the PCB layout is extremely clean with all of the power distribution pushed to the back of the card while around the core there are the traces which go to and from the GDDR5 memory. Since all of the decoding and I/O functions are controlled on the R770XT chip, there is no need for additional chips spread throughout the PCB like the NVIO chip used on the Nvidia GTX 280.


The power distribution and voltage regulation area of the HD4870 is a confusing labyrinth of VRMs chokes, resistors and transistors. Interestingly, there are only five small VRMs which had thermal pads placed on them which means that the larger power components do not need additional cooling.


Additional voltage regulation is done by a large Vitec 59PR9853 multi-phase inductor as well as a pair of smaller Pulse VRM modules. Due to their temperature tolerances (up to 125C) they do not need any additional cooling since their large surface area distributes most of the heat they generate. It also looks like the Vitec module can be upgraded to a higher-capacity unit since there are two additional solder points left open.


The R770XT core is not covered by an IHS like some Nvidia cards but rather its polished surface makes direct contact with the underside of the heatsink. It is also surrounded by a metal shim which keeps it in place and secured to the PCB. What struck us as interesting was how SMALL this core is for the amount of transistors it packs.

The memory used on the HD4870 is the next generation GDDR5 memory from Qimonda. Unfortunately, at the time of this review there hasn’t been any spec sheets put up so other than knowing that the two banks each operate at 1800Mhz DDR (for an effective speed of 3.6Ghz DDR) on this card, there isn’t much other info.


The underside of the heatsink makes contact with the ram modules through a pair of thermal pads while the VRMs have their own separate pad used to transfer the heat they produce. Meanwhile, the base is of surprisingly good quality aside from a few tooling marks and scratches.
 

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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 Radeon HD4870 512MB (Stock)
Sapphire Radeon HD4850 512MB (Stock)
EVGA Geforce GTX 280 (stock)
EVGA 8800GT 512MB (stock)
BFG 9800 GTX (stock)


Drivers:

ATI 4800 Series 5 Beta (release: June 23rd)
Nvidia 177.35 WHQL (GTX 280)
Nvidia 175.19 WHQL

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
PT Boats: Knights of the Sea Demo
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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SKYMTL

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3DMark 06

3DMark 06



While some may wonder at the use of still including 3DMark06 in the tests it gives us a good idea of the basic limitations of a graphics card. Since the standard test runs at 1280x1024 there will be a fair amount of CPU bottlenecking with higher-end cards and remember that in many cases a higher 3DMark score does not equate better performance. Here we have also included tests with AA and AF enabled




This was the first test I ran on this card and let me tell you, I did a double take...and then a triple take with my mouth hanging open. Both with and without AA turned on, the Palit HD4870 simply ate the competition alive. What surprised me the most was the fact that it clobbered the HD4850 like it wasn't even there. Not only that but it is running very close to the GTX 280 as well.
 
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