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Full Review of Nvidia GeForce GTX 590

Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief Author expertise
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Introduction

This article is a review of Nvidia Geforce GTX 590. It includes photos, graphs, information, comparisons, game tests and recommendations.

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Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 Graphics Card Review

March has certainly been a month of extremes around here. We kicked it off with a look at the Core i7-990X, a world-beating six-core CPU, and then moved on to the absolutely epic Radeon HD 6990. After that, we investigated a pair of breathtakingly fast SSDs. Now, we’re back on the graphics beat with a premium offering from Nvidia, the GeForce GTX 590. Like the Radeon HD 6990, the GeForce GTX 590 is a dual-GPU video card planted firmly at the top of the lineup.

This is Nvidia’s first attempt at a dually product in quite some time, at least in the frenetically paced graphics market. The last one, the GeForce GTX 295, debuted over two years ago. As we noted in our 6990 review, cramming two high-end GPUs onto a dual-slot expansion card isn’t easy; power and thermal limitations often define these products, more so than most. That’s probably one reason we didn’t see a dual-GPU entrant in the GeForce GTX 400 series. The first-gen chips based on the Fermi GPU architecture were famously late and thermally constrained, making them iffy candidates for the SLI-on-a-stick treatment.

The GF110 GPU in today’s high-end GeForce cards is still a rather enormous chip, but it’s a little easier to tame—and is a formidable rival to the Cayman GPU in the Radeon HD 6900 series. Naturally, then, Nvidia has cooked up an answer to the Radeon HD 6990, one that reveals a decidedly different approach to the extreme dually graphics card.

Full Review of Nvidia GeForce GTX 590

Sizing up Gemini

 

Code-named “Gemini” during its development, the GTX 590 has a pair of GF110 chips onboard, and those GPUs haven’t had any of their onboard hardware disabled. Unit counts therefore mirror those for a pair of GeForce GTX 580 cards in SLI. Yet in order to keep the GTX 590 within a manageable power limit, Nvidia has dialed back the clock speeds to levels well below the GeForce GTX 570’s. The GTX 590’s core clock is just 607MHz, and the GDDR5 memory ticks along at 854MHz—or about 3.4 GT/s. So, although these are fully-enabled GF110 GPUs, the GTX 590’s projected rates for key graphics capabilities look very much like a pair of GeForce GTX 570s, not two full-on GTX 580s.

The Numbers

Here’s a quick look at the numbers.

Peak pixel
fill rate
(Gpixels/s)
Peak bilinear
integer texel
filtering rate
(Gtexels/s)
Peak bilinear
FP16 texel
filtering rate
(Gtexels/s)
Peak shader
arithmetic
(GFLOPS)
Peak
rasterization
rate
(Mtris/s)
Peak
memory
bandwidth
(GB/s)
GeForce GTX 560
Ti
26.3 52.6 52.6 1263 1644 128
GeForce GTX 570 29.3 43.9 43.9 1405 2928 152
GeForce GTX 580 37.1 49.4 49.4 1581 3088 192
GeForce GTX 590 58.3 77.7 77.7 2488 4856 328
Radeon HD 6850 24.8 37.2 18.6 1488 775 128
Radeon HD 6870 28.8 50.4 25.2 2016 900 134
Radeon HD 6950 25.6 70.4 35.2 2253 1600 160
Radeon HD 6970 28.2 84.5 42.2 2703 1760 176
Radeon HD 5970 46.4 116.0 58.0 4640 1450 256
Radeon HD 6990 53.1 159.4 79.7 5100 3320 320
Radeon HD 6990
AUSUM
56.3 169.0 84.5 5407 3520 320

We’re assuming perfect scaling from one GPU to two in the figures above, which isn’t always how things work out in practice. However, these are simply theoretical peaks, and even the most efficient GPUs don’t always maintain these rates in real applications.

On paper, at least, the GTX 590 just beats out the Radeon HD 6990 in ROP throughput and memory bandwidth, two keys to fast operation at high resolutions with edge antialiasing, but it’s slightly slower in other areas. We wouldn’t sound any alarms about the GTX 590’s vastly slower theoretical shader arithmetic rates. Nvidia’s shader architecture tends to be more efficient, delivering performance comparable to AMD’s in many cases, if not superior. Meanwhile, the GTX 590 absolutely crushes the Radeon HD 6990 in peak triangle rasterization rate, which is but one indication of the GF110’s quite real end-to-end superiority in geometry processing and DirectX 11 tessellation throughput. The question there is whether or not Nvidia’s geometry processing advantage will matter in real games, and it’s a vexing one.

All in all, the GTX 590 looks to be endowed with outrageously high specifications. Yet those specs look very much like those of the primary competition, the Radeon HD 6990. This is gonna be a close one, folks.

The Card

 


Dude. Glow.

Like its competition, the GTX 590 presents dual 8-pin aux power inputs to the user, threatening to require a PSU upgrade. The card’s max power rating, or TDP, is 365W, just 10W below the peak power deliverable through the combination of a motherboard’s PCIe x16 slot and a couple of those 8-pin auxiliary inputs. Not coincidentally, that’s also 10W below the Radeon HD 6990’s TDP.

The GTX 590’s expansion slot covers are pierced by three dual-link DVI ports, a mini-DisplayPort connector, and as much thermal venting as the card’s designers could muster. That mini-DP output supports DisplayPort 1.1a, so it’s less capable in several ways than the DisplayPort 1.2 outputs on newer Radeons. Then again, those Radeons can drive only one dual-link DVI display natively; connecting more will require expensive adapters.

When it comes to truly extreme display configurations, Nvidia and AMD have taken different paths. The GTX 590’s dual-link outputs will allow it to power a trio of four-megapixel monitors at once—or three smaller (~2 MP) monitors at 120Hz for wrap-around stereoscopic gaming via Nvidia’s 3D Vision scheme. That DisplayPort output enables the 590 to drive four displays simultaneously, but only for productivity; multi-monitor Surround Gaming is limited to a maximum of three displays. Meanwhile, AMD isn’t nearly as far down the path of cultivating support for stereoscopic 3D, but its Eyefinity multi-monitor gaming scheme will happily support six displays at once. The 6990 can do it, too, thanks to five onboard outputs and the possibility of connecting more monitors via a DisplayPort 1.2 hub. True to this mission, the 6990 also comes with more video memory than the GTX 590—2GB per GPU and 4GB total, versus 1.5GB per and 3GB total on the 590. It’s up to you to choose why you get a headache: from wearing flickery glasses, or from trying to track objects across display bezel boundaries.


GeForce GTX 580 (top) versus GTX 590 (middle) and Radeon HD 6990 (bottom)

If you’re looking for an indication of the differences in philosophy between Nvidia and AMD for cards of this ilk, look no further than the picture above. The GTX 590 is shown sandwiched between Nvidia’s best single-GPU card, the GeForce GTX 580, and the massive Radeon HD 6990. The GTX 580 is a very healthy 10.5″, the 590 is a considerable 11″, and the 6990 is just a smidgen shy of a full 12″. Although the GTX 590’s space requirements are definitely above the average, the 6990 will be problematic in all but the deepest PC enclosures. AMD has aimed for peak extremeness. Nvidia has tailored its solution to be a bit more of a good citizen in this way, among others.


Source: Nvidia.

Source: Nvidia.

Another way the GTX 590 aspires to be easier to get along with? Acoustics. Superficially, this card doesn’t look too terribly different from its rival, with a centrally located fan flanked by dual heatsinks whose copper bases house vapor chambers. However, Nvidia says the GTX 590 isn’t much louder than the GeForce GTX 580—and is thus substantially quieter than the howls-like-a-banshee 6990. We’ll put that claim to the test, of course.

Otherwise, the 590 has all of the sophisticated bits you might expect from a dual-GPU solution of this sort, including a 10-phase power supply with digital VRMs and Nvidia’s familiar NF200 PCI Express switch chip, which routes 16 PCIe 2.0 lanes to each GPU and another 16 lanes to the PCIe x16 slot.

And, yes, there is an SLI connector onboard, raising the prospect of quad SLI configurations based on dual GTX 590s. The card will do it, but Nvidia wants users to be careful about the selection of components to wrap around such a config. It recommends a motherboard with an additional expansion slot space between the PCIe x16 slots, so there’s adequate room between the cards for the interior one’s fan to take in air. The firm is certifying motherboards that meet its qualifications for quad SLI, along with cases and PSUs. Right now, cases are the biggest bugaboo. Only three are certified—Thermaltake’s Element V, SilverStone’s Raven RV02, and CoolerMaster’s HAF X—although more are purportedly coming soon. You could probably build a very nice quad SLI setup with some other popular full-tower cases and the right sort of cooling. Our sense is that Nvidia is emphasizing certification simply because it wants to ensure a good user experience and adequate cooling.

As you might expect, the GTX 590 will be priced at $699.99, exactly opposite the 6990. Cards should be available at online retailers starting today. Interestingly, you’ll only find GTX 590 cards from Asus and EVGA available for sale in North America. In other parts of the world, the 590 will be exclusive to other Nvidia partners. My understanding is the cards have been divvied up in this manner because they’re relatively low-volume products. It may have been deemed impractical to have six or more brands offering them simultaneously in one market. How low volume? When we asked, the firm told us it would be shipping “thousands of cards” worldwide. That’s noteworthy because it’s not tens of thousands—just thousands. That said, Nvidia expects a “steady supply available in the market.” Perhaps the $700 price tag will ensure demand doesn’t exceed supply over time.

One more thing
As you may know, the Radeon HD 6990 comes with an alternative firmware, accessible via a small DIP switch, that enables a configuration dubbed “uber mode” by AMD. The switch that turns on “uber mode” is the “Antilles Unlocking Switch for Uber Mode,” or AUSUM, for short. Because this config exceeds the PCIe power spec and isn’t guaranteed to work properly in all systems, it’s essentially overclocking, though it’s tacitly approved by the GPU maker.

We tested the 6990 with the AUSUM switch enabled, and that raised an issue of fairness. Nvidia hasn’t given the GTX 590 any comparable mechanism, but the card can be overclocked in software. We figured, by all rights, we should test an overclocked configuration for the GTX 590, as well. One has to be careful here, though, because the GF110 chips will definitely reach much higher clock speeds when given enough voltage—we reached 772MHz at 1025 mV, similar to the GTX 580—but you’ll also definitely bump up against the GTX 590’s power limiting circuitry if you push too hard. The result, as we learned, is that performance drops with the supposedly overclocked config.

We eventually decided on a more mildly overclocked config in which the GPU core was raised to 690MHz, the GPU core voltage was increased from 938 mV to 963 mV, and the memory clock was tweaked up to 900MHz (or 3.6 GT/s). This setup was easily achieved with MSI’s Afterburner software, proved quite stable, and, as you’ll see in the following pages, performed consistently better than stock. The only thing left to do then was give these settings a name, since they lacked one. Folks, say hello to Wasson’s Intrepid Clock Konfig, Extreme Dually—or WICKED. We’ve put WICKED and AUSUM head to head to see which is better.

Game Testing the Graphics CArd

Our testing methods

As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and we’ve reported the median result.

Our test systems were configured like so:

Processor Core
i7-980X
Motherboard Gigabyte EX58-UD5
North bridge X58 IOH
South bridge ICH10R
Memory size 12GB (6 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Dominator CMD12GX3M6A1600C8
DDR3 SDRAM
at 1600MHz
Memory timings 8-8-8-24 2T
Chipset drivers INF update 9.1.1.1025
Rapid Storage Technology 9.6.0.1014
Audio Integrated ICH10R/ALC889A
with Realtek R2.58 drivers
Graphics
Dual Radeon HD
6870 1GB
with Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers
Radeon HD
5970 2GB
with Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers
Dual Radeon HD
6950 2GB
with Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers
Radeon HD 6970
2GB
with Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers
Dual Radeon HD
6970 2GB
with Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers
Radeon HD 6990
4GB
with Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers
MSI GeForce
GTX 560 Ti Twin Frozr II 1GB +
Asus GeForce GTX
560 Ti DirectCU II TOP 1GB
with ForceWare 267.26 beta drivers
Zotac
GeForce GTX 570 1280MB
with ForceWare 267.24 beta drivers
Zotac
GeForce GTX 570 1280MB +
GeForce GTX 570 1280MB
with ForceWare 267.24 beta drivers
Zotac
GeForce GTX 580 1536MB
with ForceWare 267.24 beta drivers
Zotac
GeForce GTX 580 1536MB +
Asus GeForce GTX 580 1536MB
with ForceWare 267.24 beta drivers

GeForce GTX 590 3GB
with ForceWare 267.71 beta drivers
Hard drive WD RE3 WD1002FBYS 1TB SATA
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 Watt
OS Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Edition
Service Pack 1

Thanks to Intel, Corsair, Western Digital, Gigabyte, and PC Power & Cooling for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available. AMD, Nvidia, and the makers of the various products supplied the graphics cards for testing, as well.

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 test applications:

Some further notes on our methods:

  • Many of our performance tests are scripted and repeatable, but for some of the games, including Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Bulletstorm, we used the Fraps utility to record frame rates while playing a 60- or 90-second sequence from the game. Although capturing frame rates while playing isn’t precisely repeatable, we tried to make each run as similar as possible to all of the others. We raised our sample size, testing each Fraps sequence five times per video card, in order to counteract any variability. We’ve included second-by-second frame rate results from Fraps for those games, and in that case, you’re seeing the results from a single, representative pass through the test sequence.
  • We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using a Yokogawa WT210 digital power meter. 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 desktop with the Aero theme enabled. The cards were tested under load running Battlefield: Bad Company 2 at a 2560×1600 resolution with 4X AA and 16X anisotropic filtering. We test power with BC2 because we think it’s a solidly representative peak gaming workload.
  • We measured noise levels on our test system, sitting on an open test bench, using an Extech 407738 digital sound level meter. The meter was mounted on a tripod approximately 10″ from the test system at a height even with the top of the video card.You can think of these noise level measurements much like our system power consumption tests, because the entire systems’ noise levels were measured. Of course, noise levels will vary greatly in the real world along with the acoustic properties of the PC enclosure used, whether the enclosure provides adequate cooling to avoid a card’s highest fan speeds, placement of the enclosure in the room, and a whole range of other variables. These results should give a reasonably good picture of comparative fan noise, though.
  • We used GPU-Z to log GPU temperatures during our load testing.

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.

Bulletstorm Test

This game is stressful enough on a GPU to make it a decent candidate for testing cards of this type. We turned up all of the game’s image quality settings to their peaks and enabled 8X antialiasing, and then we tested in 90-second gameplay chunks.

The Radeons turn in a relatively strong showing here, with the 6990 essentially matching Nvidia’s fastest dual-GPU solution, a couple of GTX 580s in SLI. At its stock clocks, the GTX 590 performs almost exactly like our GTX 570 SLI setup.

F1 2010 Test

F1 2010 steps in and replaces CodeMasters’ previous effort, DiRT 2, as our racing game of choice. F1 2010 uses DirectX 11 to enhance image quality in a few, select ways. A higher quality FP16 render target improves the game’s high-dynamic-range lighting in DX11. A DX11 pixel shader is used to produce soft shadow edges, and a DX11 Compute Shader is used for higher-quality Gaussian blurs in HDR bloom, lens flares, and the like.

We used this game’s built-in benchmarking facility to script tests at multiple resolutions, always using the “Ultra” quality preset and 8X multisampled antialiasing.

Here’s another very strong showing for the red team. Even the Radeon HD 6950 CrossFireX setup outperforms two GTX 580s in SLI. Hang tight—this surely won’t last.

Civilization V Test

 

Civ V has a bunch of interesting built-in tests. Up first is a compute shader benchmark built into Civilization V. This test measures the GPU’s ability to decompress textures used for the graphically detailed leader characters depicted in the game. The decompression routine is based on a DirectX 11 compute shader. The benchmark reports individual results for a long list of leaders; we’ve averaged those scores to give you the results you see below.

Remember how I said we shouldn’t sound any alarms about the much higher theoretical shader throughput of the Radeons? Here’s an example of why that’s so. Even though the GTX 590 has relatively low clock speeds, and although the performance of multi-GPU setups doesn’t scale well in this test, the 590 comes out ahead of the fastest dual-Radeon config.

In addition to the compute shader test, Civ V has several other built-in benchmarks, including two we think are useful for testing video cards. One of them concentrates on the world leaders presented in the game, which is interesting because the game’s developers have spent quite a bit of effort on generating very high quality images in those scenes, complete with some rather convincing material shaders to accent the hair, clothes, and skin of the characters. This benchmark isn’t necessarily representative of Civ V‘s core gameplay, but it does measure performance in one of the most graphically striking parts of the game. As with the earlier compute shader test, we chose to average the results from the individual leaders.

You can worry a bit here if you’d like, though. This pixel-shader-intensive benchmark runs notably faster on the Radeons.

Another benchmark in Civ V focuses, rightly, on the most taxing part of the core gameplay, when you’re deep into a map and have hundreds of units and structures populating the space. This is when an underpowered GPU can slow down and cause the game to run poorly. This test outputs a generic score that can be a little hard to interpret, so we’ve converted the results into frames per second to make them more readable.

The GTX 590 proves to be faster than the 6990 in this test, although both cards offer more-than-adequate frame rates at these settings.

StarCraft II

Up next is a little game you may have heard of called StarCraft II. We tested SC2 by playing back 33 minutes of a recent two-player match using the game’s replay feature while capturing frame rates with Fraps. Thanks to the relatively long time window involved, we decided not to repeat this test multiple times. The frame rate averages in our bar graphs come from the entire span of time. In order to keep them readable, we’ve focused our frame-by-frame graphs on a shorter window, later in the game.

We tested at the settings shown above, with the notable exception that we also enabled 4X antialiasing via these cards’ respective driver control panels. SC2 doesn’t support AA natively, but we think this class of card can produce playable frame rates with AA enabled—and the game looks better that way.

The GeForces win the day in StarCraft II, and the GTX 590 performs particularly well, with our WICKED config nearly matching dual GTX 580s.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2

BC2 uses DirectX 11, but according to this interview, DX11 is mainly used to speed up soft shadow filtering. The DirectX 10 rendering path produces the same images.

We turned up nearly all of the image quality settings in the game. Our test sessions took place in the first 60 seconds of the “Heart of Darkness” level.

This one is more or less a dead heat, although WICKED outduels AUSUM in more pronounced fashion.

Metro 2033

We decided to test Metro 2033 at multiple image quality levels rather than multiple resolutions, because there’s quite a bit of opportunity to burden these graphics cards simply using this game’s more complex shader effects. We used three different quality presets built into the game’s benchmark utility, with the performance-destroying advanced depth-of-field shader disabled and tessellation enabled in each case.

The GeForce cards have an edge at the lower image quality presets, where frame rates are into the hundreds. Once we turn up all of the shader effects and detail settings, though, the standings even out somewhat. The result: the 6990 noses past the GTX 590, and AUSUM overcomes WICKED.

Aliens vs. Predator

AvP uses several DirectX 11 features to improve image quality and performance, including tessellation, advanced shadow sampling, and DX11-enhanced multisampled anti-aliasing. Naturally, we were pleased when the game’s developers put together an easily scriptable benchmark tool. This benchmark cycles through a range of scenes in the game, including one spot where a horde of tessellated aliens comes crawling down the floor, ceiling, and walls of a corridor.

For these tests, we turned up all of the image quality options to the max, along with 4X antialiasing and 16X anisotropic filtering.

The 6990 takes our final game test, while the GTX 590 falls in place right behind dual GTX 570s in SLI.

Power consumption

 

Although the GTX 590’s TDP rating is 10W lower than the 6990’s, the new GeForce draws substantially more power here than the Radeon. This isn’t an absolute max power situation—we’re running a game, not a synthetic stress test or the like—so the results aren’t necessarily surprising. The 6990 does look to be more power-efficient than the GTX 590, though, both at idle and when running Bad Company 2. In fact, the AUSUM 6990’s power use is comparable to the stock GTX 590’s. The WICKED config demonstrates why, perhaps, Nvidia hasn’t pushed any harder on GPU frequencies. While the clock headroom is there, the power headroom is not.

Noise levels and GPU temperatures

Here’s the eye-popping result of the day. Although the GTX 590 draws more power than the Radeon HD 6990 under load, it still registers as roughly 10 decibels quieter than the Radeon on our sound level meter. Subjectively, the difference is huge. The 6990 fills the room with a rough hissing sound, while the GTX 590 isn’t much louder than an average high-end video card. Even when it’s overclocked, the WICKED 590 is quieter than the stock 6990 by a fair amount.

One contributor to the difference is revealed in the GPU temperature results. The 6990’s fan control profile is relatively aggressive about keeping GPU temperatures low, perhaps out of necessity. The GTX 590 lands in the middle of this pack, at least until it goes WICKED.

Conclusions

Most folks seem to enjoy these value scatter plots, so let me drop one on you.

We’ve taken the results from the highest resolution or most intensive setting of each game tested, averaged them, and combined them with the lowest prevailing price at Newegg for each of these configurations. Doing so gives us a nice distribution of price-performance mixes, with the best tending toward the upper left and the worst toward the bottom right.

Keep in mind that we’ve only tested seven games, and that these standings could change quickly if we altered the mix. Still, based on our tests, the Radeon HD 6990 has an appreciable performance lead over the GTX 590 at the same price. Yes, that lead largely evaporates with our WICKED overclocked config, but going WICKED involves some pretty extreme power draw, even compared to AMD’s (admittedly more conservative) AUSUM option.

The GTX 590 is still breathtakingly fast—much quicker than a single GeForce GTX 580 and nearly as quick as a pair of GeForce GTX 570s or Radeon HD 6950s—but its true distinction, in our view, is its wondrously soft-spoken cooling solution. The GTX 590’s cooler is vastly quieter than the boisterous blower on the Radeon HD 6990. Combine that acoustic reality with the GTX 590’s shorter 11″ board length and understated appearance, and a sense of its personality begins to take shape. This card is more buttoned-down than the 6990. There’s no AUSUM switch, no bright red accents showing through the case window, and no obvious aural proclamation that Lots of Work is Being Done Here.

Frankly, I like that personality. If I were spending $700 on a dual-GPU graphics card for my ideal PC, I’d probably choose the GTX 590, even if it did mean sacrificing the absolute best performance.

But choosing the GTX 590 does mean making that sacrifice, and I’m not sure how that plays in the world of uber-extreme PC hardware components, where speed and specs have always been paramount. Prospective buyers of these rather exclusive video cards have an intriguing choice to make. In my view, the image quality and feature sets between the two GPU brands are roughly equal right now. The prices are the same, and the Radeon HD 6990 has more of nearly everything: frames per second, onboard memory, video outputs, as well as noise and board length. The 6990 has the most. Could it be that it’s still not the best?

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Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief

Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief

Scott Wasson is a veteran in the tech industry and the former Editor-in-Chief at Tech Report. With a laser focus on tech product reviews, Wasson's expertise shines in evaluating CPUs and graphics cards, and much more.