NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 Video Card Review

The GeForce GTX 580 heralds a huge comeback by NVIDIA to deliver the best DX11 gaming experience. The fastest single-GPU performance, a cooler running GPU and quiet? Is this Fermi combination possible? We explore all of this as we compare it to the GeForce GTX 480 and Radeon HD 5870.

Introduction

Somewhat unexpected this soon, but so very welcome, the successor to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 480 (GF100) is making its debut. There is no question that NVIDIA’s Fermi architecture is one of the most heatedly debated GPU architectures in current time, since well, the infamous NV30 architecture.

Fermi, as the architecture is known (which encompasses many GPUs) was hyped from the very start to be NVIDIA’s answer not only to DX11 (which NVIDIA was late to the game on), but also to physics acceleration and the general compute world. Some argue that too much focus was put into general compute performance in the Fermi architecture, and not enough on gaming performance. Even some company insiders at NVIDIA will tell you that too much emphasis was put on CUDA with the GF100, but that is neither here nor there. There is however no hiding the fact that NVIDIA is pushing general computing with CUDA. We haven’t had any complaints about the GeForce GTX 480’s performance in gaming. We have surely had some issues with performance per watt though.

Our evaluations have proven time and time again that some games perform better on GeForce GTX 480 and some perform better on ATI Radeon HD 5870. Generally speaking, the GeForce GTX 480 has performed well in DX11 games. This has not been its problem. The problem with GeForce GTX 480 is that it took a lot more power to do it, thus creating a tremendous amount of heat compared to the competition and the performance delivered. GTX 480 has very solid gaming performance, but its performance per watt needed work, and NVIDIA knew this all along. The GTX 480 was not the GPU that wanted to bring to market, but it was all it had at the time and the clock was ticking.

The finger for this can be pointed in many directions, but one of the main places you need to point is the manufacturing process itself. Fermi is a kind of architecture that will benefit greatly with reduced manufacturing processes, refined architectures and better manufacturing, simply put. We are seeing some of these benefits in the new GeForce GTX 580. What you are going to find in the GTX 580 is better than GeForce GTX 480 performance, at the same or slightly less power than the GTX 480. The big "feature" to gamers is going to be the thermal and audible factors inherent in the GeForce GTX 580. Plus, the performance improvements are certainly welcomed!

First and foremost, how much will the GeForce GTX 580 cost? NVIDIA confirms $499 SEP.

Quiet Performance

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The new GeForce GTX 580 is designed to be the world’s fastest DX11 GPU. This is a mighty claim, and after our gameplay testing, we can answer whether this is true or not in the conclusion. The GTX 580 was designed at its heart to be a great performance per Watt GPU with quiet gaming in mind. Yes, great top end gaming performance while being quiet, two qualities that have not been obtainable by NVIDIA recently, were at the heart of design for this new GPU, the GF110. NVIDIA claims the GeForce GTX 580’s acoustics are so good that this video card is actually quieter than its previous generation high-end video cards, the GTX 280 series of GPUs.

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The slides above illustrate how this is done. NVIDIA has implemented a custom vapor chamber cooling design. Vapor chamber cooling technology is not new; in fact the ATI Radeon HD 5970 employs a vapor chamber cooling solution. The GeForce GTX 480 uses a classic heat-pipe system, and we all know how that turned out. By putting a vapor chamber on the GeForce GTX 580 NVIDIA is able to cool the GPU better, spread the heat out to all the fins evenly, and run the fan at lower speeds.

The vapor chamber is simply a big flat piece of copper that inside houses liquid. That liquid boils into a vapor as it circulates near the GPU and then turns back into liquid circulating through the plate. This allows the heat to be exchanged to the fins in a very even manner, to all fins of the heatsink. In other words, the fins are working to their full capability since heat can now be transferred to all of those, evenly. Orientation of the video card does not affect the performance of the vapor chamber. The fan in turn, doesn’t have to spin as fast as the previous GTX 480 solution. NVIDIA has done its homework this time around.

NVIDIA has a new adaptive fan speed control that has smoothed out the transitions in fan speed. Meaning, there won’t be as hard of a ramp up in fan speed and ramp down in fan speed, so you won’t notice the transition in fan speeds. RPM ramp up is nice and smooth. This optimized fan controller is another method for balancing acoustics and temperatures.

Specifications

Now that we know the GeForce GTX 580 will be quiet, and run cooler, what about performance? Thankfully NVIDIA has kicked it up a notch and improved upon GTX 480 in that department too. GeForce GTX 580 is the "same" Fermi architecture found in GeForce GTX 480. The GTX 580’s codename is GF110; GTX 480 was GF100. There are 3 Billion transistors at play in the GTX 580. Think of GeForce GTX 580 as an evolved or "refreshed" GeForce GTX 480. In fact, you can think about the GTX 580 as what the GTX 480 should have been if you want, and we’d agree with you.

The first thing you need to know is that NVIDIA has re-engineered the GeForce GTX 580 at the transistor level for better performance per Watt. NVIDIA has re-arranged transistors in the GPU. Some transistors that were critical for performance were moved into more critical processing paths and the lower leakage transistors were moved to less timing sensitive processing paths. Nothing has been removed, only moved around to achieve faster clocks with less power.

Other things have been done inside the GPU such as improving L1 cache performance, increased texture filtering efficiency, improved Z-Cull efficiency in hardware and full-speed FP16 texture rendering. All of these transistor level improvements add up to about 5-14% performance improvement over the GTX 480 clock-for-clock depending on the game. NVIDIA has further improved performance by also improving CUDA core count, and frequencies. By incorporating all of these enhancements together, NVIDIA claims a 20-30% performance advantage over the GeForce GTX 480.

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The big thing is that all 512 CUDA cores are active, compared to 480 in the GTX 480. This allows better shader and geometry performance straight out of the gate. In addition to that, NVIDIA has upped the core frequency to 772MHz, the processor clock to 1544MHz and the memory to 4GHz. These are not large frequency boosts, but for a refresh, acceptable. There is still 1.5GB of GDDR5 on a 384-bit bus. This yields the highest memory bandwidth on a single-GPU video card, at 192 GB/sec. There are 64 Texture Units, and 48 ROPs.

The Thermal Design Power (TDP) of the GeForce GTX 580 is 244 Watts. At idle it is 37 Watts. This compares to the GeForce GTX 480 TDP of 250 Watts. Already we can see that this video card should be slightly under the GTX 480 Wattage, with better performance. You will still need 1x 6-pin and 1x 8-pin power connectors to run this video card. The recommended power supply is 600 Watts. Our Fermi PSU Guide still should come in very handy for Fermi "enthusiasts."

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There is some new hardware monitoring circuitry you need to be aware of. The GeForce GTX 580 has a few new chips on the board that monitor real-time voltage on each 12V rail. This new hardware will dynamically adjust performance in certain stressful applications like FurMark and OCCT to keep the video cards power within its TDP. The goal of this is so that people do not damage their video cards or push the GPU beyond its limits, or at least that is what NVIDIA told us. We have our own thoughts that NVIDIA wanted to remove these software applications from reviewers' use as certainly these apps had the ability to show Fermi GPUs in a not-so-pretty light. Either way, these stressing programs are off the table for now.

This new hardware addition has the potential to cap performance in any game or application that tries to push the card to temperatures that may damage it. We did not experience performance throttling in any games we tested. We did experience the throttling when trying out FurMark. If you use FurMark for power testing on your own system, you can no longer do that with the GeForce GTX 580. The wattage you see reported in FurMark will be much lower than what you actually see in gaming, according to our testing.

Pictures

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The GeForce GTX 580 measures 10.5" in length, and is exactly as long as the GeForce GTX 480. Dual and Triple-SLI are supported. There is one 6-pin power connector and one 8-pin power connector required. The shroud is sleek, and there are no ugly pieces of metal visible on this video card like the GTX 480. The GTX 580 is also lighter than the GTX 480. You will find dual-link DVI and mini-HDMI supported natively on the video card.


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