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GeForce GTX 480: The big daddy warms up his pipes

The GeForce GTX 480

For what it is, the GeForce GTX 480 is a rather impressive specimen. At first glance, it looks like any other high-end graphics card. Take stock, though, and several items stand out. The four heatpipes menacingly snaking up and back down into its cooling shroud suggest serious cooling horsepower—and the need for it. The plated metal grooves on the side of the card are handsome—and a heatsink surface. Above the dual DVI ports is a rather unusual Mini HDMI connector, surely chosen because it's compact enough not to impinge on the venting area in the adjacent slot cover. (Nvidia expects cards to ship with adapters to regular-sized HDMI connectors, of course.) In all of these ways, the GTX 480 looks to be designed to expel and radiate heat as efficiently as any video card we can recall.

From left to right: Radeon HD 5850, GeForce GTX 470, GeForce GTX 480, Radeon HD 5870, Radeon HD 5970

In spite of those omens, the GTX 480 is pretty much exactly 10.5" long, or ever-so-slightly shorter than a Radeon HD 5870. Unlike the 5870, though, the GTX 480 requires both a six-pin auxiliary power connector and an eight-pin one, because the 250W max power rating of the board exceeds the limits of two six-pin connectors.

Remove the cooler, and you can see the source of all of the commotion: the GF100 chip under its expansive metal cap. Nvidia remains mum on the GF100's exact die area, but it's gotta be roughly the size of a TARP loan. Flanking the GF100 are 12 pieces of GDDR5 memory, totaling 1536MB.

The GTX 480's cooler is a nifty bit of engineering in its own right, with five heatpipes that come into direct contact with the metal cap atop the GPU. Hint: do not touch said heatpipes. I measured one at 141° F with an IR thermometer. Moreover, at one point as I was uninstalling a card from our test system, I personally confirmed, with my fingertip, that this temperature is above the threshold of pain.

Nvidia expects the GeForce GTX 480 to sell for $499 at online retailers. That price positions the GTX 480 a step above the Radeon HD 5870, whose list price was supposed to be $399 until the reality of 40-nm supply problems intruded; the 5870's prevailing street price now looks to be about $419. The closest competition for the GTX 480 may come in the form of upcoming 2GB variants of the Radeon HD 5870, such as the Eyefinity6 edition that's likely to be priced at $499—or the Asus Matrix card we'll show you on the next page.

Speaking of supply problems, AMD's fastest graphics card, of course, is the dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970. That is if you can find one. They're currently out of stock at Newegg, with stated prices ranging from $699 to $739, well above the card's initially projected $599 price tag.

Product availability is one of the big questions about the GeForce GTX 400 series, as well. When Nvidia first briefed us on the GTX 470 and 480, we were told to expect to see cards selling at online retailers within a week after last Friday's official product announcement. Late last week, that time frame changed to the week of April 12. That's well past the self-imposed first-quarter ship date Nvidia had pledged for the GF100-based cards at CES, which doesn't inspire loads of confidence. Still, Nvidia's Nick Stam told us last week that the firm is "building tens of thousands of units for initial availability." Whether that many cards will truly be available in mid-April—and whether that supply will be sufficient to meet demand—is anyone's guess. We'll just have to wait and see.