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OC'ed GeForce GTX 480 Shoot-Out: MSI vs Gigabyte
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Date: Dec 10, 2010
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

A funny thing happened during the course of this article—life got in the way. And in the few weeks that things were delayed, the PC graphics landscape changed dramatically. A couple of weeks before NVIDIA unleashed the GeForce GTX 580 onto the world, MSI and Gigabyte readied a pair of the most innovative GeForce GTX 480 cards to hit the market. Not only were the cards factory overclocked, but they featured custom coolers, re-worked PCBs, and hardcore, enthusiast-class features not found on any other GTX 480.

MSI and Gigabyte sent us these custom GTX 480s, and just before putting the finishing touches on the piece, my wife went into labor, the GeForce GTX 580 hit, a few other launches needed coverage (including the just released GTX 570), and badabing badaboom, here we are today.

Fortunately for you, this additional lead-time helps paint a more complete picture of the high-end graphics card market. Unfortunately, for MSI and Gigabyte, the release of the GeForce GTX 500 takes some of the luster from these cards. But the MSI N480GTX Lightning and Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 Super Overclocked (SOC) Edition are still very interesting products, especially if you’re on the fringe and are one of those truly hardcore enthusiasts that love to push their rigs to the limit. Let us explain...

MSI N480GTX Lightning and Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC
Specifications & Features


 


 

MSI and Gigabyte take a somewhat different approach in their custom GeForce GTX 480 designs. Gigabyte opted to push GPU clocks as high as possible, while MSI was more conservative on their GPU core overclock, but took the memory a bit higher. Interestingly enough, even with a lower-clocked core, the MSI card is able to pull ahead of Gigabyte’s offering in a couple of tests, as you’ll see little later.

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MSI N480GTX Lightning

Like MSI’s other “Lightning” branded cards, the N480GTX Lightning seen here is anything but a “me too” reference card. In fact, MSI has modified everything from the PCB design, to frequencies, and obviously the cooler.

 

 

First and foremost, the MSI N480GTX Lightning is designed for overclockers. The card features MSI’s new, dual-fan Twin Frozr III cooler which also has a nickel-plated copper heatsink base, linked to a high-density array of aluminum cooling fins by five heat-pipes. The card also features over-voltage controls for the GPU, memory, and PLL, voltage check-points, voltage switches for instant voltage changes, and “CopperMOS” MOSFETS, which reportedly offer better cooling performance. In addition to the aforementioned items, the N480GTX Lightning also sports some “Proadlizer” (Prompt, Broadband, Stabilizer) capacitors which offer ultra-high capacitance ratings and have flat surfaces that can be more easily cooled by a heatsink / heatplate.

 

If you need further proof that MSI is targeting this card are the extreme overclocking crowd, get a load of this. The MSI N480GTX Lightning is also outfitted with dual-BIOS chips, one with a standard BIOS and another that solves the GTX 480’s “cold bug” when LN2 cooling is used. There is also an XtremeCool switch that supposedly solves that same “cold bug”. There is an OCP Unlock switch that allows for >320A of current as well, along with a PWM Clock Tuner switch that sets the PWM to 350MHz, from 260MHz to help minimize ripple.

Other interesting features of the MSI N480GTX Lightning include 16 total power phases (GPU=12, Memory=3, PLL/PWM=1), triple power connectors—two 8-pin and one 6-pin—and an output configuration that consists of dual, dual-link DVI outputs, an HDMI output, and a DisplayPort output. Reference GTX 480 cards have only 8 power phases, 6 for the GPU and two for memory; the PLL/PWM gets its power from the PCIe slot. We should also note that the third power connector on the card (the 6-pin connector) is dedicated to the on-board memory, which reportedly results in cleaner, more stable power delivery.

Reference GeForce GTX 480 cards are clocked at 700MHz (GPU), 1400MHz (shaders), and 924MHz (3696MHz effective) for the memory. This MSI card, however, pushes the GPU up to 750MHz, which in turn takes the shaders to 1.5GHz, and the memory hums along at a cool 1GHz (4GHz effective).

 

Included with the MSI N480GTX Lightning are the obligatory driver CD and user manual, an HDMI cable, a trio of PCIe power adapters, DVI-to-VGA and HDMI adapters, and a group of small connectors with positive and negative leads hanging off them. The connectors plug into receptacles on the card, and allow for easy probing with a multi-meter to check voltages.

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Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC

 

There are number of things that make the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC stand-out amongst other GeForce GTX 480 cards--its relatively high frequencies, custom “WindForce 3X” cooling solution, and its unique PCB which is outfitted with what Gigabyte is calling its “Extreme Dual BIOS Technology”.

 

Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 480 SOC series is similar to other GTX 480’s in that it has the same 1.536GB of frame buffer memory and 480 active CUDA cores, but its frequencies are much higher than reference cards. The SOC edition’s clocks are 820MHz for the GPU, 1.64GHz for the shaders, and 950MHz (3.8GHz, effective) for the memory, which obviously results in better performance over lower-clocked reference models. The GeForce GTX 480 SOC series is also quieter than reference cards thanks to its custom triple-fan cooling solution.

 

 

Its custom design and higher frequencies already make the Gigabyte GTX 480 SOC one of the fastest GTX 480-based cards on the market, but extreme overclocked who wish to push the card even further using more exotic LN2 or Phase Change cooling solutions can also take advantage of the GTX 480 SOC’s Extreme Dual BIOS Technology. Like MSI’s offering, a simple push-button switch on the Gigabyte GTX 480 SOC gives users the ability to use a secondary BIOS, which works around the “zero degree” bug that affects stability when the GeForce GTX 480’s internal thermal sensor detects a temperature below zero.

Looking at its features and specs, its blatantly obvious that Gigabyte is targeting hardcore users with their SOC series of graphics cards. If the testing goes teh way we expect it to, this card is easily one of the most attractive GTX 480s out there. Time to fire up some benchmarks...

 

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Test Setup & Unigine Heaven v2.1

How We Configured Our Test Systems: We tested the graphics cards in this article on a Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5 motherboard powered by a Core i7 965 quad-core processor and 6GB of OCZ DDR3-1333 RAM. The first thing we did when configuring the test system was enter the system BIOS and set all values to their "optimized" or "high performance" default settings. Then we manually configured the memory timings and disabled any integrated peripherals that wouldn't be put to use. The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows 7 Ultimate x64 was installed. When the installation was complete we fully updated the OS and installed the latest hotfixes, along with the necessary drivers and applications.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Core i7 Powered

Hardware Used:
Core i7 965 (3.2GHz)
Gigabyte EX58-UD5 (X58 Express)

Radeon HD 5830
Radeon HD 5850 (2)
Radeon HD 5870 (2)
Radeon HD 6850 (2)
Radeon HD 6870 (2)
GeForce GTX 460
GeForce GTX 470
GeForce GTX 460 OC (EVGA)
GeForce GTX 470 OC (Galaxy)

6GB OCZ DDR3-1333
Western Digital Raptor 150GB
Integrated Audio
Integrated Network

Relevant Software:
Windows 7 Ultimate x64
DirectX June 2010 Redist
ATI Catalyst v10.10b
NVIDIA GeForce Drivers 260.89

Benchmarks Used:

Unigine Heaven v2.1
3DMark Vantage v1.0.1
H.A.W.X.
FarCry 2
Just Cause 2
Alien vs. Predator
Left 4 Dead 2*
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars v1.5*

* - Custom benchmark

Unigine Heaven v2.1 Benchmark
Synthetic DirectX 11 Gaming


Unigine Heaven

The Unigine Heaven Benchmark v2.0 is built around the Unigine game engine. Unigine is a cross-platform real-time 3D engine, with support for DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 11 and OpenGL. The Heaven benchmark--when run in DX11 mode--also makes comprehensive use of tessellation technology and advanced SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion), and it also features volumetric cumulonimbus clouds generated by a physically accurate algorithm and a dynamic sky with light scattering.

The factory overclocked GeForce GTX 480 cards from MSI and Gigabyte clearly lead the reference GTX 480 and make minced meat out of the single-GPU powered Radeons. And Gigabyte's offering has an obvious edge over the MSI card, due to its higher frequencies.

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3DMark Vantage Performance

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


3DMark Vantage

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark Vantage, is specifically bound to Windows Vista-based systems because it uses some advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 10, which y isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark Vantage isn't simply a port of 3DMark06 to DirectX 10 though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, in addition to support for the latest PC hardware.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark Vantage's Extreme preset option, which uses a resolution of 1920x1200 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.

The dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970 maintains a strong lead over all of the other graphics cards tested here, in the 3DMark Vantage "Extreme" benchmark. The GeForce GTX 480 comparisons show the higher-clocked Gigabyte GTX 480 SOC with a lead over MSI's N480GTX Lightning, but both cards easily top the reference GTX 480.

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Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on a radically enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some.  In fact, we'd venture to say that id took EA's team-based warfare genre up a notch or two.  ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures.  The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory.  Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously.  The game was tested with all of its in-game options set to their maximum values with soft particles enabled in addition to 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering

Both of the overclocked GeForce GTX 480 cards from MSI and Gigabyte show a solid improvement in performance over the reference GTX 480 card in our ET:QW test. The higher frequencies of both give them an obvious edge over the stock card and Gigabyte's offering is a step of ahead of MSI's--as you'd expect based on thier respective clocks.

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FarCry 2 Performance

FarCry 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations.  We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article with a fully patched version of FarCry 2, using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.  The test results shown here were run at various resolutions with 4X AA enabled.

The FarCry 2 benchmark again shows the advantage the overclocked cards hold over the reference GTX 480, and the huge performance advantage they hold over any single-GPU powered Radeon currently available.

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Left 4 Dead 2 Performance

Left 4 Dead 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


Left 4 Dead 2

Like its predecessor, Left 4 Dead 2 is a co-operative, survival horror, first-person shooter that pits four players against numerous hordes of Zombies. Like Half Life 2, the game uses the Source engine, however, the visual in L4D 2 are far superior to anything seen in the Half Life universe to date. The game has much more realistic water and lighting effects, more expansive maps with richer detail, more complex models, and the list goes on and on. We tested the game at various resolutions with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering enabled and all in game graphical options set to their maximum values.

Left 4 Dead 2 is more CPU bound than a few of our other tests, hence the smaller deltas separating the higher-end cards tested here. With that said, the overclocked GeForce GTX 480s still end being up faster than the reference card and any other single-GPU in the current Radeon line-up.

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Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. Performance

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.
DirectX Gaming Performance


Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is an aerial warfare video game that takes place during the time of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.  Players have the opportunity to take the throttle of over 50 famous aircrafts in both solo and 4-player co-op missions, and take them over real world locations and cities in photo-realistic environments created with the best commercial satellite data provided by GeoEye.  We used the built-in performance test at two resolutions with all quality settings set to their highest values, using the DX10.1 code path for both the Radeons and GeForce 400 series cards.


At this point we're probably starting to sound like a broken record, but the numbers are what they are. The MSI and Gigabyte overclocked GeForce GTX 480s both show measurable gains over the reference card in HAWX and significantly outperform any single-GPU powered Radeon.
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Just Cause 2 Performance

Just Cause 2
DX10.1 Gaming Performance


Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 was released in March 2010, from developers Avalanche Studios and Eidos Interactive. The game makes use of the Avalanche Engine 2.0, an updated version of the similarly named original. It is set on the fictional island of Panau in southeast Asia, and you play the role of Rico Rodriquez. We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article using one of the built-in demo runs called The Concrete Jungle.  The test results shown here were run at various resolutions and settings. This game also supports a few CUDA-enabled features, but they were left disabled to keep the playing field level.



We saw more of the same in the Just Cause 2 benchmark. The overclocked GeForce GTX 480 cards from MSI and Gigabyte are clearly faster than a stock 480 and the single-GPU powered Radeons.
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Alien vs. Predator Performance

Alien vs. Predator
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


Alien vs. Predator

The Alien vs. Predator benchmark makes use of the advanced Tessellation, screen space ambient occlusion and high-quality shadow features, available with DirectX 11. In addition to enabling all of the aforementioned DirectX 11 related features offered by this benchmark, we also switched on 4X anti-aliasing along with 16X anisotropic filtering to more heavily tax the graphics cards being tested.

The increased memory bandwidth offered by the MSI N480GTX Lightning gives it a slight edge over the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC card in the Alien vs. Predator benchmark. Both cards have no trouble outpacing the reference GeForce GTX 480 and Radeon HD 5870.

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Overclocking Performance

Both the MSI N480GTX Lightning and Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC were designed for hardcore overclockers, so we spent some time tweaking the voltages and clocks on each card to see how high we could take their respective core and memory frequencies. We did not break out the liquid nitrogen, but rather kept their factory coolers intact for these tests. With more exotic cooling, higher frequencies than what we’ve achieved here would most likely be possible.

Overlcocking The MSI and Gigabyte GTX 480s
Pusing Performance Even Further


Gigabyte OC Guru Utility



MSI Afterburner

Each of these cards includes an overclocking utility that gives users the ability the alter voltages, fan speeds, and frequencies. Using each card’s respective tool, we maxed the GPU and memory voltage options and cranked up the GPU and memory frequencies until the cards were no longer stable or produced visual artifacts. in the end, we were able to take the Gigabyte card up to 879MHz (GPU), 1758MHz (shaders), 1004MHz (memory)—up from 820MHz, 1640MHz, and 925MHz. The MSI N480 GTX Lightning peaked at a stable 860MHz (GPU), 1720MHz (shaders), and 1004MHz (memory)—up from 750MHz, 1500MHz, and 1000MHz. Minor gains on the memory performance for both cards, but significant gains for the GPU core and shaders.

As you can see, the overclocked frequencies had a measurable effect on performance. Both the Gigabyte and MSI card showed decent performance improvements while overclocked.

At this point, we should also talk a bit about temperatures, since both cards have custom coolers that differentiate them from stock reference cards. First off, both cards are much quieter than the reference GTX 480 cooler—no question about it. In terms of the two cards features here, the MSI card is the quieter of the two, with less “pitchy” fans, but both cards are a definite improvement over stock.

In terms of temperatures, both cards idles in the mid-40’C range, but their peak temps differed. The MSI card’s temperature during normal operation would peak at around 71’C, while Gigabyte’s card hovered around 82-83’C.

Now you may read this and think the MSI cooler is more effective, and ultimately it is, but tweaking the fan speeds slightly on the Gigabyte card would help bring its temperature down a few degrees without introducing much more noise.

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Total System Power Consumption

Before bringing this article to a close, we'd like to cover a few final data points--namely power consumption and noise. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our test system was consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and while under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the graphics cards alone.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

Our power consumption testing revealed some interesting results. Despite being clocked higher and having more fans, both the MSI N480GTX Lightning and Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC consumed less power than a stock reference card under both idle and load conditions. Now, our reference GTX 480 is an early sample, but it seems that with a little more maturity on the GPU manufacturing side, aggressive binning by both MSI and Gigabyte, and the enhanced power delivery circuitry on both of these cards, power consumption is down just a bit.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The MSI N480GTX Lightning and Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC both performed very well throughout testing. Both of the cards were measurably faster than a reference GeForce GTX 480, as expected. Overall, the Gigabyte card proved to be faster than MSI’s offering due to the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC’s higher GPU core and shader clocks, but the MSI card’s faster memory gave it an edge in AvP. In light of NVIDIA’s recent GPU releases, both of these cards slightly trail the GTX 580, but typically run on par with or slightly better than a GTX 570.

What a difference a few weeks make, huh? Had we been able to post this article prior to the release of the GeForce GTX 500 series, these two cards from MSI and Gigabyte would have been a couple of the fastest, single-GPU based cards around. As it stands now, they’re still incredibly fast, but the GeForce GTX 570’s introduction at $349 makes the relatively high asking price on both of these cards somewhat unwarranted. As of this publication, the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC is selling for about $469, while the MSI N480GTX Lightning can be had for about $515. Strictly looking at performance, both of these cards need price reductions.

With that said, for some, performance isn’t the only consideration. The fact remains that both of these cards were designed with hardcore overclocking in mind and they offer features not found on standard graphics cards. And those features don’t come for free. If you’re among the elite that would benefit by having multiple BIOS chips, zero-degree bug workarounds, on the fly voltage adjustments, and in the case of the MSI N480GTX Lightning, easy to probe checkpoints for a multi-meter, these cards offer them, while others don’t.

The bottom line is, these aren’t your everyday GeForce GTX 480s and they’re not tailored for everyday gamers. If you’ll benefit by the hardcore features they offer, both the MSI N480GTX Lightning and Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC are top-notch products that are sure to please. It just so happens that faster products have recently hit the scene at lower price points.

MSI N480GTX Lightning

Gigabyte GeForce GTX 480 SOC

 
Strong Performance
Easy Voltage TweaksVoltage Check Points
Great Cooler
BIOS Switching

 


Expensive
Didn't OC As High As GB's Offering
 
 
Excellent Performance
Dual-BIOS
Overclocked Higher Out of the Box
 
Pricier Than GTX 570
Higher Temps Than MSI



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