Nvidia Fermi GF100 review

26 Mar 2010

Holds a small performance edge over ATI's latest, but Fermi's real strengths may be wasted on gamers

4

Nvidia's Fermi graphics cards were officially unveiled in September 2009, but in truth we've been waiting a good deal longer than that. It's the manufacturer's first major architecture since the GT200 back in 2008, and a series of delays has seen ATI enjoy an unchallenged run at gamers' wallets.

We'd heard hints of just how advanced the new GF100 architecture would be, with up to 512 stream processors, a 40nm fabrication process and 3.2 billion transistors. Now it's finally here, we can start to figure out for ourselves just how powerful - and, as we'll see, power hungry - Fermi is.

Nvidia Fermi

Performance

First things first: that target of 512 stream processors hasn't been hit in either of the first two releases. The GeForce GTX 480 has 480 of them, along with a 700MHz core clock and 1.5GB of GDDR5 memory with a 384-bit memory interface. The lesser GTX 470 has 448 stream processors, a 607MHz clock and 1.25GB of memory with a 320-bit memory interface. Nvidia is keen to stress the headroom available within the architecture, so it's likely we'll see that higher model at some point.

If you're looking for Core i7 levels of instant domination, you're in the wrong place - Fermi may be a new architecture but it isn't going to flip the graphics card market on its head overnight. In fact, the first two cards are very close in both physical size and gaming performance to ATI's Radeon HD 5870 and 5850.

Buying decision

Click to read our individual verdicts on the GTX 480 and GTX 470

We ran benchmarks in a variety of current titles and, on the whole, the Fermi cards narrowly outperformed their ATI equivalents. In Crysis at 1,920 x 1,200 and Very High settings, the GTX 480 averaged 40fps to the HD 5870's 38fps; the GTX 470 scored 33fps to the HD 5850's 32fps. Higher settings saw similar margins. World in Conflict had the two Nvidia cards consistently ahead by just under 20%, and in Stalker: Call of Pripyat that margin was around 5%. Other games had ATI's cards ahead by a whisker, and if we average all the results, Nvidia's edge looks to be between 5% and 10%.

But the most interesting of all Fermi's specifications is its power consumption: Nvidia puts the GTX 470 at 215W and the GTX 480 at a massive 250W. With each card successively installed, our test rig idled at 131W and 204W respectively; when stress-tested with FurMark those figures shot up to 380W and 406W. Compare that to a peak of just 267W with ATI's fastest single-GPU card installed, and you'll get an idea of just how hungry Fermi is. The GTX 480's core also reached a scorching 98°C, and during games you'll have to put up with a noise like a CD drive permanently whirring into action.