A note on GeForce GTX 480 noise levels

— 11:27 AM on April 15, 2010

Now that GeForce GTX 400-series graphics cards are out in the wild, although in limited numbers, I should say something quickly about the main issues for which these cards, and especially the GTX 480, have gained a reputation: power, noise, and heat. I talked about this some on the latest podcast, but I don't think I communicated it all that well in the context of our GeForce GTX 480 and 470 review.

I feel like the GTX 480 is getting a bit of a bad rap.

Yes, the GF100 cards' performance isn't all that it should be, and that's almost certainly due to the fact that the GPUs wouldn't reach Nvidia's projected clock speeds with all of the units onboard enabled. Typically in such cases, and again almost surely in this one, the established power and thermal envelopes are a constraining factor. High clock speeds might be possible by giving the chip additional voltage, but doing so would push the GPU's power draw, heat, and cooling demands into unreasonable territory. The GF100 is a large chip, and such problems can be compounded for a number of reasons by a large die area and lots of transistors.

Dealing with these issues is a balancing act, one that every chip company has face to one degree or another in turning out a product. Competitive issues aside, I think the balance Nvidia has struck with the GeForce GTX 480 is largely a reasonable one. You can look at the numbers we measured in our review, but the basics are pretty clear. For power draw and GPU temperatures, the GTX 480 stays within the generally established boundaries for the industry. That's not to say that the Radeon HD 5870 doesn't look a darn sight better in terms of power draw, but a test system equipped with single GTX 480 draws 60W less than the same system with dual Radeon HD 5870s in CrossFire. We're not talking about a paragon of efficiency here, but the GTX 480 isn't out on the bleeding edge, either. No new PSU standards were created with the introduction of this product.

Similarly, Nvidia has obviously biased the fan profiles on the GTX 480 toward lower noise levels than toward lower GPU temperatures, but the GPU temperature readings we got for the card were only a few degrees higher than what we saw from the Radeon HD 5870.

More notably, the GTX 480's cooler is an impressive bit of engineering that attempts to mitigate the effects of the GPU's relatively high power consumption—and thus heat production. Have a look at the noise levels we measured while running a real game, Left 4 Dead, that generally produces higher power draw numbers than most:

Once more, the Radeon HD 5870 is quieter—but only the 1GB version with the stock cooler. The slightly overclocked Asus Matrix card with 2GB of RAM was louder than the GTX 480. I don't want to overstate it, but heck, another example might be considered a victory of sorts: the GTX 480 is quieter than the GeForce GTX 295, even though the GTX 480 draws about the same amount of power under load.

For those of you who think that doesn't count for much, you're forgetting the bad old days of the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, when Nvidia had some similar problems with a new GPU and attempted to make up for it by reducing image quality in multiple ways—skimping on texture filtering and dropping down to lower-fidelity texture formats, mostly—and strapping a cooler to the side of the card that we derisively dubbed the Dustbuster. If Nvidia is compromising on image quality with the GTX 400 series, we sure haven't detected it yet. The texture filtering algorithm looks to be the same as the other recent GeForces, which is to say excellent. And a single GTX 480 is nowhere near as loud as ye olde Dustbuster. I'm hesitant to compare across a such vast differences in time and equipment, but have a look at these numbers:

A single FX 5800 Ultra was nearly 9 dB louder than a GTX 480. Both objectively and subjectively, the difference between the two is huge.

To take these iffy cross-review comparisons even further, we measured the Radeon HD 4890 at 50.6 dB under load not long ago, slightly higher than the 49.9 dB at which we measured the GTX 480. Our SLI noise level results prove the GTX 480's cooler is capable of spinning up to higher speeds, but a single card just didn't go there during the course of our testing. We tested on an open test bench, and your results may vary in either direction in an enclosure, depending on cooling and venting. Still, that bit about the GTX 480 fitting well within the established boundaries of the market applies.

Remember, when you hear an incensed fanboy spouting off about how awful the GTX 480's noise and heat levels are, that his point only applies in a very limited sense, relative to some slightly better competition. I wouldn't hesitate to put a GeForce GTX 480 into a gaming rig of my own on that basis. Yes, I would prefer the Radeon HD 5870's overall combination of attributes, especially in terms of price and performance. But let's be clear: in an undeniably tough situation, Nvidia has avoided the temptation to reach the highest possible performance levels at the cost of reasonable power draw and acoustics. Folks seem to be missing that fact, which has caused Nvidia to send out its viral drones to spread the message. Such silliness shouldn't be necessary. This is one lesson we're happy they've learned, and I'd hate to fail to acknowledge it.

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