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StarCraft II GPU Performance Comparison

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SKYMTL

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NOTE: We now have an OFFICIAL RESPONSE from ATI regarding anti aliasing support for StarCraft II.


Released all the way back in 1998, the original StarCraft is still known as one of the premier real time strategy games on the market. The fact that you can still go down to your local video games store and pick up a copy of the StarCraft Battle Chest is a testament not only to its staying power but Blizzard’s ability to make a game which is fun to play yet easily accessible to a large cross section of the market. Even for a game of its time, StarCraft’s graphics were hardly cutting edge but they were good enough to get the job done without any glaring underachievement. Much like the game itself, the graphics just worked.

Now, more than a decade later, the long wait for the Starcraft sequel is almost over. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty will be released on July 27th for both Windows and OSX platforms after a somewhat lengthy multiplayer beta. It will come packing not only a robust multiplayer experience but also a lengthy single player campaign as well to go hand in hand with a massively customizable experience. Throughout the beta, we have seen some quick glimpses of people’s first forays into modding the game and even at this early, pre-release date, the results look impressive to say the least.

Even though Blizzard is aiming to make StarCraft 2 accessible to as broad a gaming market as possible, the game engine actually has the ability to render some great looking scenes. Luckily for people with slightly older graphics cards and processors, the minimum system requirements on Mac (8600GT or higher needed) and PC (6600GT or ATI 9800 Pro needed) systems is quite lax. In terms of processors, you will need a 2.6Ghz P4 or equivalent if you are running a Windows OS or any Intel processor if you are using a Mac.

While the minimum system requirements are understandably low by modern standards, the so called “recommended” configurations hint at some serious pixel pushing even though StarCraft II only uses the DX9 API for the time being. Blizzard has stated that in order to get what they consider a acceptable gaming experience a minimum of an 8800 GTX or HD 3870 should be installed in a PC. On the Mac side, a 9600 GT or higher is recommended.

With the graphics card industry in its current state, there is no shortage of choices when it comes to buying something to play games like StarCraft II. However, with all of the choices out there, we can expect that some products will be more suited to playing this game than others but there are factors other than framerates that should also factor into a decision. We all want a solution which can bring an optimal combination of performance and frugality in terms of pricing and power consumption. But does such a product exist?

In this article we will be looking at ten modern GPUs from ATI’s HD 5000-series and NVIDIA’s GTX 400 series which range in price from $500 to a mere $135 USD in order to determine which cards offer the best performance. Performance per dollar and performance per watt will also be looked at in order to give you enough information to make an educated purchase. Expect a follow-up article from us in the coming weeks where we expand the tests to include past GPUs as well.

 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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NVIDIA and ATI; Their Stances

NVIDIA and ATI; Their Stances


Both NVIDIA and ATI have been tweaking and improving the performance of their drivers over the course of StarCraft II’s multiplayer beta to the point where we are confident there won’t be any hitches come release day. However, there are several things you should be aware of before we get into the meat of this article. Considering this will likely be the highest-selling PC game of the last few years, getting performance right could mean an untold number of sales for both companies.


NVIDIA: Performance and 3D


From the way we understand it, NVIDIA has been extremely vocal when it comes to their support for this game and the work they have put into their drivers reflects exactly this. To begin with, they have laid the groundwork necessary for the Blizzard team to implement stereoscopic 3D into the game engine via a patch shortly after release. 3D Vision (and we’re assuming 3D Vision Surround as well) could very well mean a radically different gameplay experience for those of you who are willing to invest in this type of setup.

In addition to the future addition of 3D support, NVIDIA has also added the ability to force anti aliasing in StarCraft II through their control panel. When it is released, this will be one of the few late-coming DX9 games lacking support for an in-game anti-aliasing option so NVIDIA has gone forward with creating a driver profile for it. They will also have fully functioning SLI support on release date as well.

All in all, it is quite obvious that NVIDIA is hell-bent when it comes to making their cards the most desirable options for paying StarCraft II. They also seem to be quite happy playing it themselves:

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ATI: Constant Improvement


NOTE: We now have an OFFICIAL RESPONSE from ATI regarding anti aliasing support for StarCraft II.

NVIDIA may be talking a lot about their superiority in StarCraft II but ATI has also been making their fair share of upgrades as well. Through gradual driver improvements, performance has slowly been improved and will likely continue to improve after the retail product is released. We should also see working Crossfire profiles right from the get go so dual card users won’t feel their investment is going under-utilized.

Unfortunately, ATI’s current and (we’re guessing) upcoming 10.7 drivers won’t have the ability to force anti aliasing within the game itself. According to our conversations with them, it seems like implementing forced AA through the Catalyst Control Center is being investigated but it has not actually been implemented as of yet. Nonetheless, we’re encouraged since it seems ATI is not turning a blind eye to the potential popularity of StarCraft II coupled with their competition’s own inroads.

Edit: ATI's drivers now support AA options in Starcraft!

 
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SKYMTL

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Testing StarCraft II; The System, Cards, Drivers & More

Testing StarCraft II; The System, Cards, Drivers, Options & More


Actually benchmarking StarCraft II is actually pretty straightforward: simply take a replay of a multiplayer match and play it back using the in-game tool. Together with three friends we set up a multiplayer match on the Scorched Haven map and went wild building units before free-for-all combat commenced. With each player having upwards of 30 units, this may not exactly be the most realistic gameplay experience (I find most multiplayer matches are over in under 15 minutes with most players having under 20 units) but it does show a “worst case” scenario.

All tests are based off of the latest version of the multiplayer beta which we are told accurately reflects the options and graphics of the final retail product. We will be following this up shortly with a true in-game benchmark once the retail version is released.


In-Game Settings


Since we’re benchmarking newer graphics cards which all retail for above $100, the choice was made to go with the highest in-game settings possible as well as using the 4xAA override in the NVIDIA control panel for certain tests. Naturally, as you decrease the settings, performance will improve but this is very much keeping with our “worst case” mentality. This means any card that can show us playable framerates at these settings will only see its performance improve as image quality is decreased.


$ per FPS Chart Info

In order to calculate value, we took the lowest 15 PRE REBATE prices for each card found on Froogle and found the average price. The prices (in USD) are as follows:



Watts per FPS Chart Info

In order to calculate watts per FPS we used the WHOLE SYSTEM power consumption as measured by a UPM energy meter plugged into a Tripp Lite 1800W line conditioner in order to ensure a constant 120V is delivered to the system. The wattages used were as follows:



Test System

Processor: Intel Core i7 920(ES) @ 4.0Ghz (Turbo Mode Enabled)
Memory: Corsair 3x2GB Dominator DDR3 1600Mhz
Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5
Cooling: CoolIT Boreas mTEC + Scythe Fan Controller (Off for Power Consuption tests)
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Drivers:

NVIDIA 258.96 Beta
ATI 10.6 WHQL + Catalyst App Profiles
 

SKYMTL

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Performance Testing: 1680 x 1050

Performance Testing: 1680 x 1050



Right from the beginning it is quite obvious that even the lower end cards have no trouble dealing with this resolution, even at the highest possible in-game detail settings. While NVIDIA’s cards do reign supreme in terms of overall framerates, the ATI products were still able to maintain more than playable performance throughout the course of the match. We are also likely seeing a small amount


Even though enabling 4xAA still results in playable framerates, the only card that didn’t take a massive hit here is the GTX 480 while all others saw their performance absolutely plummet.
 

SKYMTL

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Cost & Watts / FPS: 1680 x 1050

Cost & Watts / FPS: 1680 x 1050


Please note that these charts represent performance ABOVE 30 frames per second as we consider this to be the minimum playable framerate of StarCraft II. Anything below this is considered a fail.

Cost / FPS




Interestingly, overall performance does not equate good value as you can see from the chart above. Even though the GTX 480 is considered massively powerful, it is just TOO powerful for this resolution and can actually be considered a poor buy even when AA is turned on. Meanwhile the GTX 460 series really does seem to be the sweet spot in this category while the ATI cards stay at the middle of the pack and overall poor purchases from this standpoint.


Watts / FPS




From a performance per watt standpoint, the GTX 460 series once again shows that it is perfectly placed. Due to their significantly lower power consumption, both the HD 5870 and HD 5850 actually end up being quite competitive here while the other ATI cards fall flat mostly due to their overall performance. When AA is enabled, the GTX 480 however surges to the front not because of its astronomical power consumption but rather because of its extremely high framerates.
 

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Performance Testing: 1920 x 1200

Performance Testing: 1920 x 1200



Bumping up the resolution allows for a bit more separation at the top of the chart due to the partial elimination of CPU bottlenecking. Amazingly, the HD 5750 is still able to deliver playable framerates all the way down at the bottom of the chart. The performance between NVIDIA and ATI widens here as the cards like the GTX 480 and GTX 470 are able to stretch their legs but once again the GTX 460 1GB and 768MB cards allow for some extremely impressive results.


Adding anti aliasing brings about yet another massive drop in performance but we still see every one of the cards displaying playable framerates even though the GTX 480 and GTX 470 do surge far ahead of the other, lower-end products.
 

SKYMTL

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Cost & Watts / FPS: 1920 x 1200

Cost & Watts / FPS: 1920 x 1200


Please note that these charts represent performance ABOVE 30 frames per second as we consider this to be the minimum playable framerate of StarCraft II. Anything below this is considered a fail.

Cost / FPS




Unless AA is enabled, we can see the GTX 480 is still once again far too powerful to be considered a good purchase for StarCraft II. You are much better served by a GTX 460 1GB or even the 768MB card if you are on a tighter budget and are playing on a 23” or 24: screen. Even if you wanted a bit more horsepower, the GTX 470 has also found its stride at this resolution.


Watts / FPS




The ATI HD 5870 takes top spot when AA isn’t enabled which actually makes sense considering how little power it consumes in relation to its overall performance at this resolution. Once again, the GTX 460 and even the HD 5850 show that extreme performance isn’t all that important when it comes to a good combination of framerates and power consumption. However, if you want anti aliasing enabled then the GTX 480 really does come into its own.
 

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Performance Testing: 2560 x 1600

Performance Testing: 2560 x 1600



Once again performance is extremely good across every GPU without even one displaying averages or even minimums which were below the magical 30 FPS mark. NVIDIA’s cards still beat their ATI competitors but at this resolution, things are actually much closer with the HD 5870 beating a GTX 470 and the HD 5850 right on the other high-end cards’ heels. Unfortunately for ATI, their HD 5830 and lower-end cards just can’t keep up with the pace and fall quite far behind.


4xAA brings about a complete failure of the 768MB card to even function due to its limited framebuffer but to be honest; we were a bit surprised by this result. The other cards meanwhile are able to actually perform quite well even though the GTX 465 and GTX 460 1GB display borderline framerates.
 

SKYMTL

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Cost & Watts / FPS: 2560 x 1600

Cost & Watts / FPS: 2560 x 1600


Please note that these charts represent performance ABOVE 30 frames per second as we consider this to be the minimum playable framerate of StarCraft II. Anything below this is considered a fail.

Cost / FPS




Here we see the GTX 470 and GTX 460 1GB competing quite well while the 768MB card also looks quite good. Even the HD 5770 and HD 5750’s low price can’t save them from being considered extremely bad purchases if you are playing at this resolution but that’s understandable considering the market each of these lower-end cards is targeted at. Meanwhile, the HD 5830 also makes an appearance at the bottom of the charts due to its relatively high price yet sub-par performance. The other two HD 5800-series products do quite well in this test though.

When AA is enabled, you’ll really want a high-end card in this case as the GTX 480 proves its weight in gold while the lackluster GTX 465 becomes truly something to avoid.


Watts / FPS




If you want performance per watt, look no further than ATI’s HD 5870 or HD 5850 since they are out front of NVIDIA’s competition at this resolution. However, the remainder of the ATI cards just can’t muster enough performance to make their power consumption mean all that much. The NVIDIA cards do still put on a good showing, particularly at the mid-range of the spectrum particularly with the GTX 460 1GB.
 

SKYMTL

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Conclusion: Choices, Choices..

Conclusion: Choices, Choices..


With StarCraft II right around the corner, there is bound to be an upsurge in the number of people looking for a new graphics cards. If anything, we hope this relatively short article gave you some idea about what you can expect in terms of performance from some of today’s most popular upgrade solutions. While some may be thinking the StarCraft is a pushover when it comes to GPU needs, Blizzard’s history has shown that future upgrades will likely include significant advancements to their graphics engine. There are so many choices currently out there so finding that perfect GPU which performs well now and has enough overhead for possible game upgrades isn’t easy.

There was a major problem with our tests but it ended up being a good eye-opener as well. The main issue here is the fact that we are seeing performance comparisons on paper and in chart form so the differences from one product to the next sometimes look significant. Truthfully, unless you are playing on a massive 30” screen, it’s highly unlikely that you would actually “feel” the difference between $200 GTX 460 768MB and a $500 GTX 480 in this game. The fact that a lowly HD 5750 is able to provide a perfectly stable gameplay experience all the way up to 2560 x 1600 at Ultra High details proves Blizzard’s statement that StarCraft II will have no issue being played by a large cross-section of the market. If anything, this game shows that you don’t need to spend an absolute fortune on a graphics card upgrade to get the best possible experience. The mark of a good game for a broad range of users is a small fluctuation between the average and minimum framerates. StarCraft displayed exactly this.


When it came to overall performance, there is no doubt that NVIDIA’s cards are able to run away with the show at anything under 2560 x 1600 resolution. When the higher resolution is used, the competition heats up and ATI’s higher end cards are able to stage a comeback to put them almost within reach of the GTX 480 and GTX 470. Both these ATI products also show that higher efficiency can lead to some serious considerations on a performance per watt level as well. Lower down in the price ranges things are all firmly in NVIDIA’s hands with the GTX 460 cards but this category also leads to the biggest disappointments. The GTX 465 and HD 5830 are truly dogs when compared to the rest of the field; they are both either too power hungry or too expensive and never really compete from any viewpoint.

This actually leads us to our recommendation: the GTX 460 1GB. It offers the perfect balance of overall performance, power consumption and price. Even if Blizzard rolls out a number of patches which add increased image quality, this card still has the overhead necessary to continue delivering performance in spades long into the update life of StarCraft II. It also has the ability to use NVIDIA’s anti aliasing override in order to give the game that extra eye candy punch versus the competition. As we said in its original review: the GTX 460 1GB is literally the perfect card for today’s market and its performance in StarCraft II just shows this once again.

 
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