Introducing the cards
Manufacturers: Asus and Sapphire
Price: £450 (Asus) £415 (Sapphire)
Best Price: http://www.pricebomb.co.uk
Asus is one of the first manufacturers to actually have GeForce GTX 480s available to buy (at least intermittently), so we were delighted when the firm's Voltage Tweak edition of the card arrived in the ITShootOut.com office. This happened to coincide rather nicely with the arrival of our 2GB Sapphire Toxic edition 5870 sample, allowing us to pit these two single-GPU flagships against each other to see which card comes out on top.
The 5870 has been out since September of 2009 and is therefore a well-established and proven video card. A 7 month head start has allowed ATi's partners to hone their binning and cooler-design skills to produce special editions of the part, which is exactly what we have here today in the Toxic Edition. The firm's Vapor X cooler makes a welcome return, promising both quieter and more effective cooling while the clock speeds have been increased by 75MHz on the core and 100MHz on the GDDR5 memory. This results in a card clocked at 925 MHz and 4900 MHz respectively. Most interesting of all is the increase in memory from the standard 1GB allocation to 2GB which many people believe might be enough to give it the edge over the NVIDIA competition. If you want to read an in-depth look at the 5870's architecture we'd recommend a read of the coverage from our chums at [H] here.
The GeForce GTX 480 on the other hand is a brand new card, paper launched a few short weeks ago by NVIDIA. Rather than being an evolution of the previous generation like the 5870, the "Fermi" is a whole new architecture. NVIDIA is hoping the draw of a card heavily optimised for compute and Tessellation will reap long term rewards, but initial media feedback has been lukewarm at best. Problems with yields and the manufacturing process mean that this card is actually 6 months late, allowing ATi to sneak in its 5970 dual GPU flagship. Rather than follow the opinions of the masses we will make our own conclusions about this new card. As with Asus' own Radeon 5870 (reviewed here) the ENGTX480 sports the proprietary "Voltage Tweak" technology, allowing users to increase the voltage incrementally in the supplied Smart Doctor application. Otherwise it is a reference card, with clock speeds of 700MHz, 3696MHz and 1401MHz for the Core, Memory and Shader respectively. Those wanting an in-depth look at the GTX 480's architecture should read Anand's article.
The two cards are both fully Direct X 11 compliant and are comparable in size, with the NVIDIA card being just a little longer. The Sapphire Toxic is a good 3/4" of an inch shorter than the stock ATi 5870, showing partners have started to move to proprietary PCBs. You will actually need more space in your case to accommodate the Sapphire than the Asus, however, as the GTX 480 has its PCI Express power connectors along the edge while Sapphire has elected to place them at the end. We'll come to power consumption numbers a little later but ITShootOut.com recommends you use a 650W PSU at the very least for either of these cards.
In terms of connectivity the Sapphire (pictured at the bottom) allows you to run three monitors concurrently either in a triple desktop or "Eyefinity" spanned mode. In order to do this one of your displays must be a native DisplayPort model, as the Sapphire only has signal clock generators for two DVI or HDMI monitors. If you already have three DVI monitors all is not lost as active DisplayPort-DVI adaptors can allow you to use three conventional screens. You can, however, expect to pay upwards of £50 for such a device. As is usual with 5870 cards the Toxic is equipped with two DVIs, an HDMI and a DisplayPort connector.
The GTX 480 (top) has a more conventional output selection with two DVI ports being joined by a mini HDMI port. Asus also includes a DVI-HDMI adaptor with the card, allowing you to connect the card to your TV using conventional AV cables. Satisfyingly NVIDIA finally adds an HDMI audio device to the GTX 480 specification, passing through Bitstreamed audio though the card. This is much more convenient than having to hook up a cable to your audio device as you did with the GTX 285. The Sapphire is better equipped still, with support for LPCM, DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD.