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The Games of Christmas '08: GPU Performance Part II

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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PERF2-53.jpg



This holiday season, Hardware Canucks has decided to bring you a pair of GPU Performance articles incorporating this season’s latest games along with some of the newest graphics cards and their recently-released drivers. The first part of these articles centered around high-end GPU performance on a well-heeled system and provided a clear picture of the current situations in the above-$200 price brackets. Indeed, even though there are plenty of reviews out there of every card we are testing, finding benchmarks done on the current driver sets from ATI and Nvidia is next to impossible. As we saw with the progression of the 9800 GTX+ versus HD 4850 battle, drivers can change everything and make a once-lagging product in the 9800 GTX+ into a real competitor. Yes, we know that this article is being released extremely close to Christmas, but what better time to do some seriously last-minute shopping?

With the recent glut of high-powered graphics cards, many of us tend to forget that there is a burgeoning market out there for cards which are priced at less than $200. Some may scoff at the thought of pairing up these cards with our high-end systems but there are plenty of potential customers out there who don’t have the means or simply don’t want to spend untold amounts of money on a gaming rig that may be considered obsolete in a few months. In this article we will be concentrating on just that: those graphics cards that aren’t released in a blaze of performance-owning glory but are still supposed to offer us a modicum of performance for a more than reasonable price. These aren’t the performance titans we saw last time; they are the HD 4600-series and the 9600-series of this world that are hardly ever reviewed. Why? To be absolutely honest with you, the board partners of both ATI and Nvidia don’t really want to part with lower end cards. They want their products to (naturally) be shown in the best light possible which means the recognition that comes with high-end performance. Thus, the many of the cards used in this article have been purchased with our own money.

Naturally, we didn’t go about this article the way we did with the last one; the overclocked QX9770 has been replaced with a Q9450 and the memory was left at default settings. This should give you an idea of how these cards will perform in a more modestly-priced system rather than having slightly inflated benchmark numbers due to an overclocked processor and memory. The resolutions and in some cases the detail settings in games were toned down a bit as well since seeing these cards stuttering along at high resolutions would prove to be pointless for the vast majority of you.

I know we all love seeing the blisteringly-fast framerates that come with an article including cards like the GTX 295 and HD 4800-series but let me tell you now; I had more fun doing this article than I did the first one. It is interesting to see how much value companies pack into their cards when it comes to the sub-$200 price brackets and how far performance in general has really come. I wasn’t even sure that these cards would actually be able to play the latest games on the market but armed with my trusty Q9450, I was on a mission to find out.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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The Competition: ATI Cards

The Competition: ATI Cards


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The past year has seen ATI transition from the HD 3800 and HD 3600-series towards the 4-series architecture which has proven to be superior in every aspect. Team Red has a pretty strong presence in the sub-$200 price bracket with cards like the HD 4670 and new HD 4830. Interestingly, since they have not been able to fill certain gaps in pricing, some of the “older” technology has stayed around for an extended encore at a much lower price. Other than that, it seems that ATI is well on their way to making their name known in traditionally Nvidia-held territory.


HD 4830 512MB



Believe it or not, even though more than a year has passed since its release on October 29th 2007, ATI did not have a real answer to the 8800 GT (now renamed the 9800 GT) until quite recently. With their HD 4830 512MB, it seems like ATI finally has something customers will want in the $140 - $150 price category after the HD 3870 failed to really compete with Nvidia’s cash cow. This card is decked out with double the shader processors of the HD 3870 yet operates at significantly lower clock speeds so it will be interesting to see how far it can pull ahead of the 9800GT. It is also the highest-end ATI card being used in this article.

It should also be mentioned that our card is one of the reference samples ATI sent out without the full number of shaders enabled. We have reflashed it with a BIOS sent directly from ATI so the full 640 shaders are being used.


HD 3870 512MB



Yeah, you might think we are crazy but with some cards retailing for as little as $89 after MIR and plenty of stock still to be had, the HD 3870 512MB is still very much a viable option considering ATI simply doesn’t have anything else between $100 and $130. It sports reasonably high clock speeds but seems to seriously lack in the shader department and has always had issues with AA implementation. That being said, it is good to see this card still around and its price point sure makes it an interesting competitor. As they say: down but not out.


HD 4670 512MB



The HD 4670 is the card that originally surprised us with its performance against the card it was supposed to compete against: the lacklustre 9500 GT. Since its inception, this card has continued to sell well despite Nvidia’s release of the 9600 GSO (a renamed 8800 GS) and a lot of that success is due to the fact this little bruiser sells for under $100. As such, it seems to pack some great specs into its relatively svelte frame even though the fast GDDR3 could be somewhat bottlenecked by the 128-bit memory interface. This card is truly the lynchpin in ATI’s lower-end lineup but it faces some pretty tough competition.


HD 4650 512MB



ATI’s cards in this article are rounded out by their lowest-end 4600-series offering: the HD 4650. This card is essentially a HD 4670 which has had its nuts cut off making it much less of a performer and its price reflects this. It is equipped with a good amount of ram at 512MB but it is hobbled with GDDR2 running at 1Ghz (effective) versus the GDDR3 at 2Ghz of the HD 4670. The RV 730 core also operates at much slower core speeds even though it retains the same number of shaders and ROPs as the HD 4670.

The HD 4650 is billed as more of a HTPC card for high-definition movie watching but it has some aspirations of being able to play some games at some resolutions some of the time. Its main competition is the newly-rebated 9500 GT and at around $75, this little ATI card could prove to be some stiff competition. I can’t say there are particularly high hopes for this card but it already has a leg up on the 9500 GT considering Nvidia’s card doesn’t support VC-1 video decoding support while the ATI card does.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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The Competition: Nvidia Cards

The Competition: Nvidia Cards


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Over the last, year, Nvidia’s position in this budget market was all about measured reaction. The 9500 GT was released without much fanfare but when ATI answered with the 4600-series the jolly green giant went into reactionary mode by re-releasing the 8800 GS as the 9600 GSO. We could go on an on but in the end; it seems like whenever ATI came up with a new card, Nvidia was ready to answer with one of their own. This has caused a fair bit of confusion in the market since in their haste to match up their cards perfectly with what ATI had to offer, Nvidia’s line-up became muddied with overlapping pricing and performance figures. At this point, their line-up has pretty much ironed itself out and as you will see, there seems to be a little something for everyone.


9800 GT 512MB



I would like to introduce you to the artist formerly known as the 8800 GT: the 9800 GT. Yes folks, this 9-series card is the exact same one we reviewed well over a year ago without any changes other than its magical transformation into the 9800 GT. There were some rumours a little while back of 55nm cores being installed on these cards but after we took a close look at a number of 9800 GT cards from various manufacturer, it was proven to be nothing more than hyperbole. This is the highest-end Nvidia card we are testing here and with an average price of just under $160, it is a bit more expensive than the competing HD 4830. It has stood the test of time quite well considering it still sells in huge volumes but can its performance still match its retail prowess?


9600GT 512MB



After the HD 3870 was released at a slightly lower price than the 8800 GT, Nvidia realized that they needed a card which was close to the now-9800 GT in performance but was priced a bit lower than the HD 3870. Yes, it sounds confusing and at the time it certainly was but the 9600 GT is still alive and kicking at a new sub-$130 price point. Its specs are quite close to that of the 9800 GT but it makes do with 48 less stream processors which has the potential to cramp its performance somewhat. Truth be told, ATI’s HD 4830 competes with this card as well as the 9800 GT considering its price straddles the two quite well. This also brings up a good point about the existence of the 9600 GT in general: it is within spitting distance of the 9800 GT price-wise so its performance better be up there too.


9600 GSO 384MB


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The 9600 GSO is truly the bastard child of the Nvidia lineup with an oddball memory allotment and more versions than you can shake a stick at. This card started out as the 8800 GS but since it wasn’t getting much face time, Nvidia decided to rename it and hope for the best. In this article we have the “original” 9600 GSO / 8800 GS equipped with 384MB on a 192-bit bus but there are also…wait for it…versions with 512MB on a 256-bit bus, 768MB on a 192-bit bus and even the odd one with 1GB of memory on a 256-bit bus. Confused yet? Well, I know I was which is why you are seeing the version which is most readily available. Heck, I could do a whole article just covering the myriad of 9600 GSO cards on the market these days.

All in all it seems that in the rush to compete with the HD 4670, Nvidia went way overboard and is only confusing the market even more. That being said, the GSO seems to have some interesting specifications which could actually make it more attractive than the HD 4670 from a purely gaming standpoint. A 192-bit wide bus may make up for some of the initial performance impact of its limited memory allotment. Even though this is the least expensive of all the 9600 GSO variants, pricing looks to be an average of about 20% more than ATI’s HD 4670.


9500 GT 512MB



At the tail end of Nvidia’s lineup in this article comes the 9500 GT. Much like the 9600 GSO we talked about earlier, this card comes in a vast number of configurations from 256MB all the way up to 1GB with both DDR2 and GDDR3. As a happy medium, we decided to pick up the 512MB GDDR3 version since it seems to be readily available and should show us the upper-end of 9500 GT performance.

The 9500 GT used to retail for the almost same price as the HD 4670 but as we saw, it was destroyed by ATI’s budget card and thus Nvidia was forced to lower their price...a bit. All in all, this is the lowest-end Nvidia card we will be testing in this article.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

System Used

Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q 9450 @ 2.67Ghz
Memory: G.Skill 2x 2GB DDR2-1000 @ 800Mhz DDR
Motherboard: ASUS P5E Deluxe X48
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:

HD 4830 512MB (reference)
HD 3870 512MB (HIS)
HD 4670 512MB (reference)
HD 4650 512MB (reference)

9800 GT 512MB (EVGA / stock speeds)
9600 GT 512MB (EVGA / stock speeds)
9600 GSO 384MB GDDR3 (Palit / stock speeds)
9500 GT 512MB GDDR3 (EVGA / stock speeds)


Drivers:

Nvidia 180.48 WHQL
ATI 8.12 WHQL


Applications Used:

Call of Duty: World at War
Crysis: Warhead
X3: Terran Conflict
Dead Space
Left 4 Dead
Far Cry 2
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky
Fallout 3
Need for Speed Underclover


*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

All game-specific methodologies are explained above the graphs for each game


The Cost per FPS Numbers Explained


You will notice that for this article we have included a $ / FPS number which is representational of the amount you pay for each frame per second in a particular game at a certain resolution. The price for each card is divided by the average frames per second to give the final result.

The price of each individual card is calculated in Canadian dollars and is the average price derived from the five lowest prices for each card (before rebates and MIRs) found in our Price Comparison engine on December 20th, 2008. The prices of each card were as follows:

HD 4830: $146
HD 3870: $114
HD 4670: $96
HD 4650: $75

9800 GT: $153
9600 GT: $128
9600 GSO: $116
9500 GT GDDR3: $98
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,841
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Montreal
Call of Duty: World at War

Call of Duty: World at War


Ever since the release of the first of the series, the Call of Duty games have been known as some of the best first person shooters around. The first few were put up against the heavy competition of Medal of Honor but have since found their own fan base. As time progressed, the series dipped its toe into the modern terrorism aspect of things with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. They have now gone back to their World War II roots with the World at War title.

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Instead of the usual Western Front shtick, World at War focuses mainly on the Pacific and Eastern European theatres of operation where you take the role of either a US Marine or Red Army soldier. All in all, this makes for a pretty interesting storyline, especially when you have Kiefer Sutherland (Corporal Roebuck) and Gary Oldman (Sergeant Reznov) backing things up with their stellar voice acting.

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Click on image to enlarge

Gameplay-wise this is just another first person shooter but it is a pretty good looking one at that. World at War uses the same engine which was used in CoD4 but it has been updated with improved physics, lighting characteristics and other bangs and whistles. So, it will be interesting to see exactly what kind of framerates we can push with today’s GPUs.

GAME-PERF-7.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

Many people associate the Call of Duty franchise with developers Infinity Ward who began the franchise and went on to produce three highly successful titles since the first game’s depute back in 2003. Without a doubt, Call of Duty 4 was a popular title so it came as a bit of a surprise to many when Activision (the publisher of the CoD series) decided to go with Treyarch to develop the fifth iteration in this series. Whether or not this will turn out to be a good thing has yet to be seen.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Call of Duty: World at War GPU Performance

Call of Duty: World at War GPU Performance


To benchmark this game, we played through 10 minutes of the second mission (Little Resistance) starting from right after the player calls in the rocket strike on the enemy positions on the beach. This was benchmarked using FRAPS.

1440 X 900

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1680 X 1050

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World at War performance is what I would call predictable across the entire range of cards since this has been a game that likes Nvidia hardware since its inception. However, we can see that the ATI cards are able to make some great headway when AA is turned on and the HD 4650 all the way at the bottom of the chart really hangs in well against the more expensive 9500 GT GDDR3.

Another interesting facet here is that the performance numbers of the two 9600-series cards are usually within about 10% of one another. Considering how close they are price-wise this isn’t much of a surprise.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Dead Space

Dead Space


Dead Space is one of the few games in this article that is an original title and not the usual sequel or prequel. Developed by Electronic Arts’ Redwood Shores studio, this is billed as a survival horror action game where you take the role of Isaac Clarke. Isaac is sent in as a part of a team to investigate what they think is a simple mechanical failure aboard a massive mining ship called the Ishimura. Since this is a survival horror game, you probably all know what comes next: human-mutating alien DNA and plenty of gore.

GAME-PERF-10.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

One of the main selling points of this game is the fact that it has a very well-written storyline which is used to drive the main character forward in his quest to repair parts of the Ishimura while slaughtering masses of alien ass. Dead Space also features an interesting concept regarding how you go about killing said alien-mutated humans; dismemberment (chopping off their limbs with a plasma cutter or the like) is the way to go since the enemies’ torsos are usually quite tough.

GAME-PERF-9.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

The point of view taken in Dead Space is quite different from others in the survival horror genre since it forgoes the usual first person shooter approach and turns it into an over-the-shoulder affair. There is also the lack of a full HUD from most shooters since the usual health bar and special ability counter are strategically integrated into the back of your character. The suit’s “backbone” dubs as a health bar while there is a special ability meter on the left shoulder; it is bloody brilliant.

GAME-PERF-8.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

The developers have another little surprise in store for you which may have some of you with sensitive stomachs heaving up your lunch in no time: zero gravity. This brings a whole new full 360° aspect to combat, movement and even sound. Everything in zero-g moves a bit slower than normal, the music becomes muffled and you constantly have to watch your air gauge. The zero-g environments (along with the rest of the graphics) are simply stunning but there is one thing you will have to remember: some of the enemies seem to be suited for the environment and will attack you with blinding speed from literally any angle.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Dead Space: GPU Performance

Dead Space: GPU Performance


To benchmark Dead Space, we used a timed 10 minute gameplay session around in Chapter 2: Intensive Care on Hard Difficulty in which we battle a few necromorphs and enter a zero-G environment. Seriously, what good is a benchmark without action sequences? “Walkthroughs” are unacceptable around here… Once again FRAPS was used.

1440 X 900

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PERF2-47.jpg


1680 X 1050

PERF2-46.jpg


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Dead Space is one of those games where ATI is seriously suffering in the driver department but let’s look at this realistically: nearly every single card here is able to provide adequate performance all the way up to 1680 resolution with AA turned on. Considering how good this game looks, this is an achievement in and of itself.

On the other hand, seeing the HD 4830 running literally neck and neck with yesteryear’s HD 3870 is a shot of cold water to the face. Luckily, the HD 4830 is able to pull away a bit but only at the very end. The 9600 GSO also proves itself to be a very good competitor against ATI’s like-priced offerings.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,841
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Montreal
Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead


Zombies and guns; what more is there to say about Left 4 Dead? The basic premise is to kill as many zombies as you can while keeping your teammates alive for as long as possible.

GAME-PERF-1.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

While there are single player missions, the real meat behind Left 4 Dead lies in its multiplayer features which will have you and your friends caught up in no time. In these missions you and your teammates get to play as either the Survivors (the few humans left alive) or as the Infected (zombies) which puts a pretty unique twist on the usual zombie-based action game. Since the Infected players don’t have guns, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails, they need to make do with various ambush techniques in order to ferret out the Survivors. One the other hand, the Survivors need to stick together or risk being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of zombies coming at them.

GAME-PERF-18.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

Many of you will be used to the usual repetitive pace and layout many shooters take by now so you will be in for a fresh surprise with Left 4 Dead’s game mechanics. Valve has used what they call The Director so that every time you make your way through a specific level, everything from the number of enemies to the locations of weapon drops will be different.

GAME-PERF-17.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

Since it is designed from the ground up on Valve’s vaunted Source game engine (the same which powered Half Life 2), it will be familiar to many of you who have played Valve’s previous games. This also means the graphics are quite good if a bit dated but the number of enemies on the screen at any one time can reach amazing proportions when a huge horde of zombies is trying to gang-bang you.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Left 4 Dead: GPU Performance

Left 4 Dead: GPU Performance


For benching Left 4 Dead, we used a pre-recorded 5 minute timedemo taken on the Death Toll campaign during The Church mission. Framerates were captured with FRAPS.

1440 X 900

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1680 X 1050

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To be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting the results which came up in Left 4 Dead but ATI’s superior AA implementation seems to be bearing fruit with the HD 4830 staying ahead of the 9800 GT in three out of four tests. Minimum framerates with the ATI cards are also very good from start to finish but what is really telling is the HD 4650’s domination of the 9500 GT. The HD 4670 proves itself to be an excellent value for its price.

On the Nvidia side of things, the 9600 GSO is able to stay comfortably ahead of the HD 4670 while the 9600 GT is in a class in and of its own since its only real competition is another Nvidia card. The HD 3870 is able to give it a run for its money every now and then but that pressure fades to black when AA is turned on.
 
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