A first look at the Radeon HD 4850

The battle between AMD and Nvidia for the hearts, minds, and disposable income of PC enthusiasts is starting to get scrappy. First, AMD scheduled a press event to distract folks from Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 200 series launch, which Nvidia subsequently pulled forward. Perhaps in retaliation, the green team then divulged plans to unleash a faster version of its GeForce 9800 GTX. This GeForce 9800 GTX+ will sell for only $229, dropping the vanilla 9800 to $199—conveniently stepping on the price point of AMD’s next-gen Radeon HD 4850 graphics card. Lest it be outmaneuvered, and because cards are actually available for sale already, AMD has decided to lift the curtains on the 4850 a little early. Keep reading for our first look at AMD’s new mid-range Radeon.

The Radeon HD 4850 revealed, sort of

While we’re limited in what we can say about the Radeon HD 4850 and its shiny new graphics processor, the card itself is fair game. And here she is:

This particular card comes from Sapphire, which provides a sticker for the reference design’s cooling shroud. As you can see, the card is a single-slot design, just like the Radeon HD 3850 that came before it. Thanks to its svelte cooler, the 4850 won’t cannibalize adjacent expansion slots. The slim design should also make it easier for users to assemble three- and four-way CrossFire configurations.

The Radeon HD 4850 has only a single six-pin PCI Express power connector, which bodes well for the card’s power consumption. For what it’s worth, the GeForce 9800 GTX and GTX+ each have a pair of PCIe power plugs.

The 4850 features a core clock speed of 625MHz, and it’s equipped with 512MB of GDDR3 memory running at nearly 1GHz. AMD’s Catalyst Control Center software reports 59GB/s of memory bandwidth, as well. With a little reverse math and memory running at 993MHz, it looks like the 4850’s path to memory is 256 bits wide.

Our testing methods

As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and the results were averaged.

Our test systems were configured like so:

Processor Core
2 Extreme QX9650
3.0GHz
System
bus
1333MHz
(333MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard Gigabyte
GA-X38-DQ6
BIOS
revision
F9a
North
bridge
X38
MCH
South
bridge
ICH9R
Chipset
drivers
INF
update 8.3.1.1009

Matrix Storage Manager 7.8

Memory
size
4GB
(4 DIMMs)
Memory
type
2
x Corsair
TWIN2X20488500C5D
DDR2 SDRAM
at 800MHz
CAS
latency (CL)
5
RAS
to CAS delay (tRCD)
5
RAS
precharge (tRP)
5
Cycle
time (tRAS)
18
Command
rate
2T
Audio Integrated
ICH9R/ALC889A

with RealTek 6.0.1.5618 drivers

Graphics

Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB PCIe

with Catalyst 8.5 drivers

Asus Radeon HD 3870 512MB PCIe

with Catalyst 8.5 drivers



Radeon HD 3870 X2 1GB PCIe

with Catalyst 8.5 drivers


Radeon HD 4850 512MB PCIe

with Catalyst 8.501.1-080612a-064906E-ATI drivers

MSI
GeForce
8800 GTX 768MB PCIe

with ForceWare 175.16 drivers

XFX
GeForce
9800 GTX 512MB PCIe

with ForceWare 175.16 drivers

XFX
GeForce
9800 GX2 1GB PCIe

with ForceWare 175.16 drivers

GeForce
GTX 260 896MB PCIe

with ForceWare 177.34 drivers

GeForce
GTX 280 1GB PCIe

with ForceWare 177.34 drivers

Hard
drive
WD
Caviar SE16 320GB SATA
OS Windows
Vista Ultimate
x64 Edition
OS
updates
Service
Pack 1, DirectX March 2008 update

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. Their quality, service, and support are easily superior to no-name DIMMs.

Our test systems were powered by PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W power supply units. The Silencer 750W was a runaway Editor’s Choice winner in our epic 11-way power supply roundup, so it seemed like a fitting choice for our test rigs. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.

Unless otherwise specified, image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Synthetic tests

3DMark Vantage’s color fill test is typically limited by memory bandwidth, but the Radeon HD 4850 still manages to push more pixels per second than the GeForce 9800 GTX, which has over 70GB/s of peak memory bandwidth to the Radeon’s 59GB/s.

Moving to RightMark’s fill rate test, which uses 8-bit integer texture formats, the Radeon falls behind the 9800 GTX when thrown multiple textures.

Vantage’s texture fill rate test uses FP16 textures, and in it, the 4850 really shines. Not only does the card push significantly more texels per second than the 9800 GTX, it just edges out Nvidia’s new flagship GeForce GTX 280.

The 4850’s filtering performance scales predictably here. Sure, the Radeon may trail the 9800 GTX with each filtering type, but its filtering performance is vastly improved over the Radeon HD 3870.

Through all but one of 3DMark’s synthetic shader tests, the Radeon HD 4850 fares extremely well. Only the GPU cloth test seems to give the 4850 trouble, and even then, it’s still significantly faster than the other Radeons. Otherwise, the Radeon HD 4850 is faster than the GeForce 9800 GTX, particularly in the parallax occlusion mapping and Perlin noise tests. In the latter, the Radeon even outguns the GeForce GTX 260.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

We tested Call of Duty 4 by recording a custom demo of a multiplayer gaming session and playing it back using the game’s timedemo capability. Since these are high-end graphics configs we’re testing, we enabled 4X antialiasing and 16X anisotropic filtering and turned up the game’s texture and image quality settings to their limits.

We’ve chosen to test at 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600—resolutions of roughly two, three, and four megapixels—to see how performance scales.

The Radeon HD 4850 is an absolute monster in Call of Duty 4, matching the performance of the dual-GPU 3870 X2. That puts the 4850 comfortably ahead of the GeForce 9800 GTX with each resolution we tested. Heck, the Radeon even manages to hang with the GeForce GTX 260 until we hit a display resolution of 2560×1600.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

We used a custom-recorded timedemo for this game, as well. We tested Episode Two with the in-game image quality options cranked, with 4X AA and 16 anisotropic filtering. HDR lighting and motion blur were both enabled.

In Episode Two, the Radeon HD 4850 maintains its lead over the GeForce 9800 GTX. Note the huge jump in performance over AMD’s last mid-range offering, the Radeon HD 3870.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

We tested this game with 4X antialiasing and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled, along with “high” settings for all of the game’s quality options except “Shader level” which was set to “Ultra.” We left the diffuse, bump, and specular texture quality settings at their default levels, though. Shadow and smooth foliage were enabled, but soft particles were disabled. Again, we used a custom timedemo recorded for use in this review.

Quake Wars allows the 4850 to extend its lead over the GeForce 9800 GTX. The Radeon delivers an impressive 50 frames per second at 2560×1600—twice that of the 9800. More impressive, however, is the fact that the 4850 is nearly within striking distance of the GeForce GTX 260, which is double the cost.

Crysis

Rather than use a timedemo, we tested Crysis by playing the game and using FRAPS to record frame rates. Because this way of doing things can introduce a lot of variation from one run to the next, we tested each card in five 60-second gameplay sessions.

Also, we’ve chosen a new area for testing Crysis. This time, we’re on a hillside in the recovery level having a firefight with six or seven of the bad guys. As before, we’ve tested at two different settings, with the game’s “High” quality presets and with its “Very high” ones, also.

Crysis gives us our first look at AMD’s newest CrossFire couplet, whose performance flirts with that of the GeForce GTX 280. Running only a single card, the Radeon HD 4850 and GeForce 9800 GTX look evenly matched. The latter is quicker with Crysis‘ high-quality detail setting, while the former takes the lead if you crank the eye candy all the way up.

Assassin’s Creed

There has been some controversy surrounding the PC version of Assassin’s Creed, but we couldn’t resist testing it, in part because it’s such a gorgeous, well-produced game. Also, hey, we were curious to see how the performance picture looks for ourselves. The originally shipped version of this game can take advantage of the Radeon HD 3870 GPU’s DirectX 10.1 capabilities to get a performance boost with antialiasing, and as you may have heard, Ubisoft chose to remove the DX10.1 path in an update to the game. we chose to test the game without this patch, leaving DX10.1 support intact.

We used our standard FRAPS procedure here, five sessions of 60 seconds each, while free-running across the rooftops in Damascus. All of the game’s quality options were maxed out, and we had to edit a config file manually in order to enable 4X AA at this resolution. Eh, it worked.

The Radeon HD 4850 slots in between the GeForce GTX 280 and 260 in Assassin’s Creed, putting it well ahead of the 9800 GTX. Note that the Radeon has the same median low frame rate as Nvidia’s latest high-end behemoth.

Race Driver GRID

We tested this absolutely gorgeous-looking game with FRAPS, as well, and in order to keep things simple, we decided to capture frame rates over a single, longer session as we raced around the track. This approach has the advantage of letting me report second-by-second frame-rate results.

GRID finds the 4850 between Nvidia’s GeForce 200 series cards yet again. Its minimum frame rate may be a little lower than that of the GTX 260, but the Radeon still has a healthy cushion over the GeForce 9800 GTX.

3DMark Vantage

And finally, we have 3DMark Vantage’s overall index. Note that we used the “High” presets for the benchmark rather than “Extreme,” which is what everyone else seems to be using. Somehow, we thought frame rates in the fives were low enough.

The GeForce 9800 GTX is simply no match for the Radeon HD 4850 in 3DMark Vantage. Here, the Radeon delivers nearly the same performance as AMD’s CrossFire-on-a-stick 3870 X2.

Power consumption

We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using an Extech power analyzer model 380803. The monitor was plugged into a separate outlet, so its power draw was not part of our measurement. The cards were plugged into a motherboard on an open test bench.

The idle measurements were taken at the Windows Vista desktop with the Aero theme enabled. The cards were tested under load running Half-Life 2 Episode Two at 2560×1600 resolution, using the same settings we did for performance testing.

The Radeon HD 4850’s power consumption is lower than that of the GeForce 9800 GTX both at idle and under load. Interestingly, though, the card actually consumes more power than the GTX 200 series at idle.

GPU temperatures

Per your requests, we’ve added GPU temperature readings to our results. We captured these using AMD’s Catalyst Control Center and Nvidia’s nTune Monitor, so we’re basically relying on the cards to report their temperatures properly. In the case of multi-GPU configs, we only got one number out of CCC. We used the highest of the numbers from the Nvidia monitoring app. These temperatures were recorded while running the “rthdribl” demo in a window. Windowed apps only seem to use one GPU, so it’s possible the dual-GPU cards could get hotter with both GPUs in action. Hard to get a temperature reading if you can’t see the monitoring app, though.

AMD’s use of a single-slot cooler for the 4850 yields the highest load GPU temperatures of the lot. The GeForce 9800 GTX runs more than 25 degrees cooler.

Conclusions

It’s been a long time since a Radeon was the graphics card of choice at the all-important $199 price point, but the HD 4850 looks like it might have the title locked up. The current GeForce 9800 GTX is simply no match for AMD’s latest mid-range offering, and Nvidia’s surprise, the GeForce 9800 GTX+, has quite a bit of ground to make up if it hopes to be competitive. We’ll have a full work-up of the GTX+ soon, of course, but the cards only just arrived this morning.

While it would be hasty to draw too many conclusions before we have a better grasp of the GeForce 9800 GTX+’s performance, and before AMD fully reveals its Radeon HD 4000 series, one thing is certain: the graphics war looks more competitive now than it’s been in a very long time. That’s ultimately a good thing for consumers, especially since AMD looks keen to take the fight aggressively to mid-range products that most consumers can afford.

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