Monday, October 11, 2010

GeForce GT 430: The HTPC Crowd Gets Fermi On A Diet


After addressing mainstream gamers with the GF106-based GeForce GTS 450, Nvidia is nudging a new GPU into the desktop space, built onto a card seemingly tailor-made for HTPCs. Does the new $79 GeForce GT 430 taste great, or is it just less filling?

The GeForce GTX 480 launch gave Nvidia the right to claim it sold the fastest GPU on the market. Oddly enough, that crown has never meant less than it does now. While Nvidia’s monolithic GF100 graphics processor boasts the ultimate in single-GPU performance, gamers are much more accepting of lower power, lower cost, and high-performance alternatives like the GeForce GTX 460 in SLI and AMD's Radeon HD 5850.

The good news is that Nvidia is back in the game, thanks to a handful of price cuts and derivative versions of that original GF100 processor. With the introduction of GeForce GTX 460, we saw a smaller, more efficient Fermi-based graphics processor (GF104) at the $200 price point. Next came the GeForce GTS 450, sporting the GF104-derived GF106 GPU. This brought Nvidia’s DirectX 11 lineup all the way down to $130.

But with no new graphics card under that decidedly mainstream $130 price point, Nvidia continues to fight for sub-$100 sales with products fundamentally based on the GeForce 8000-series, which was released back in 2006.

That is, until now. Enter the GeForce GT 430.

The GPU driving Nvidia's GeForce GT 430 is nothing new to the notebook world. Its GF108 GPU has already been released in a number of notebook graphics adapters: the GeForce GT 435M, 425M, 420M, and 415M all use this piece of silicon. The GeForce GT 430 is the first desktop-oriented SKU employing the GF108, though, just as the GeForce GTS 450 is the first desktop graphics card armed with GF106. Let’s have a closer look at the GF108 GPU:

This GPU has a single Graphics Processing Cluster (GPC) with two Streaming Multiprocessors (SMs). Each SM is identical to the ones found in the GeForce GTX 460 and GeForce GTS 450, with 48 shader cores, eight texture units, four dispatch units, and a Polymorph engine.

The render back-end has two 64-bit memory controllers and a single ROP partition capable of four 32-bit pixels per clock. As a result, the GeForce GT 430 is essentially half of the GeForce GTS 450, but with half of the ROPs and the same 128-bit memory bus as the more expensive model. The result is a GPU with 96 shader cores, 16 texture units, and four ROPs.

With this information in hand, let’s compare the new GeForce GT 430 with the other ponies in Nvidia’s sub-$100 stable:


GeForce GT 220
GeForce GT 430GeForce GT 240
Shader Cores:
48
9696
Texture Units:
16
1632
Color ROPs:
8
4
8
Fabrication process:
40 nm
40 nm40 nm
Core/Shader Clock:
625/1360 MHz
700/1400 MHz550/1340 MHz
Memory Clock:
790 MHz DDR3
900 MHz DDR3
850 MHz GDDR5
Memory Bus:
128-bit
128-bit128-bit
Memory Bandwidth:
25.3 GB/s DDR3
28.8 GB/s DDR3
54.4 GB/s GDDR5
Transistors (Millions):
486
585727
Thermal Design Power (W)
58
42.7
69


First, we need to mention that the MSRP for the new GeForce GT 430 is $79. With that in mind, let’s start by comparing the new GeForce GT 430 to the GeForce GT 220.

Nvidia suggests that the GeForce GT 430 will share the GeForce GT 220's price point, but the older card won't be end-of-lifed in the near future. Indeed, DDR3 versions of the GeForce GT 220 start at $75 on Newegg, so this is a fair comparison. From this perspective, the new GeForce GT 430 has an obvious advantage over its predecessor in the form of double the shader cores and a 75 MHz-higher core clock (despite the same number of texture units and half the ROPs).

Nvidia's own benchmark numbers indicate that the new card is often 50% faster that the GeForce GT 220. We’ll see if this is true in the benchmarks, but from a cursory glance at the raw specs, this seems feasible.

The GeForce GT 430’s real problem comes from the GeForce GT 240, however—particularly the GDDR5 version of the card. These can be found on Newegg for $79 too, and they hang a colossal memory bandwidth advantage over the DDR3-equipped GT 430's head. Now, it’s important to mention that the GF108 GPU is quite capable of working with GDDR5 memory and that a GDDR5-based variant is in the works. But the DDR3 version will be available first.

In any case, from a pure GPU performance standpoint, the older GeForce GT 240 has an identical number of shader cores as today's GeForce GT 430. The newer card has a 700/1400 MHz core/shader clock compared to the GT 240's 550/1360 MHz frequencies. The biggest difference is that Nvidia's GeForce GT 430 has half the texture units and ROPs as the GeForce GT 240. While it’s impossible to run an apples-to-apples test until the GDDR5 version of the GeForce GT 430 arrives, the reduced ROP count suggests that the new card has lower anti-aliased and high resolution performance potential, and the decreased number of texture mapping units results in a hit to textured fillrate.

ZoomZoom

To be fair, Nvidia is not positioning the GeForce GT 430 as a replacement for the GeForce GT 240. The new model is touted as a low-cost, low-power jack-of-all-trades; an ideal option for a home theatre PC. In this role, the GeForce GT 430 includes attractive features like DirectX 11 support and the ability to bitstream lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD multi-channel audio. The result is a feature combination that no other sub-$100 card can offer: 3D Blu-ray playback, 3D Vision gaming (though the viability of this is debatable), and HD audio in a half-height HTPC-friendly package. CUDA and PhysX are included as well.

Of course, the GeForce GT 430 isn't only getting assailed by other GeForce cards. AMD's Radeon HD 5570 is another sub-$80 solution, and the Radeon HD 5670 can be found for $80, too. Both of these boards support HD audio via bitstreaming as well, and both at least support triple display outputs through Eyefinity, though it's up to board vendors to enable that value-add on their mainstream offerings. Of course, the Radeon HD 5670 brings much faster gaming performance to the table. On the other hand, none of the Radeon cards are capable of 1080p 3D Blu-ray playback or stereoscopic gaming (although the latter may be possible with 3rd party software and certain monitors).

The reference GeForce GT 430 is a diminutive half-height card. It seems like more of a "suggestion," as most vendors appear to be spinning their own unique circuit boards. We're testing Asus’ flavor of GeForce GT 430, designated the ENGT430:

The Asus card’s size might be similar, but the board is clearly different from the reference. This model is equipped with fuse protection to help save it from an overloaded electric current, a feature we've seen the company use on certain models during the past two years.

The Asus card also differentiates itself with a cooler that looks much more capable than the one on Nvidia's reference card. The company claims that the fan is dust-proof—further questioning on our part reveals that the company isn’t claiming the fan will never accumulate dust, but that the fan bearing is better protected from the stuff. Asus estimates that the fan’s lifespan is increased by 10,000 hours because of this consideration.

There’s not a lot to say about the available display outputs, except that Asus uses the same VGA/HDMI/DVI combo that the reference card employs. The HDMI output is v.1.4-compatible, meaning it works with the latest 3D-ready displays. It also carries lossless HD audio, so long as you're using the latest 260.xx drivers.

Here’s how the card looks with its cooler removed. The GPU is tiny compared to its GF100 predecessor, so that low-power usage and low-heat output is a possibility. Asus clocks this GPU at the reference 700/1400 MHz core/shader speeds. Memory is also set to the 800 MHz DDR3 reference clock.

The bundle is a Spartan affair, with little more than the requisite manual and driver CD. The only extras here are the half-height bezel options for VGA or HDMI/DVI outputs.

Futuremark’s test suggests that the new GeForce GT 430 performs on par with the Radeon HD 5570 with regard to gaming. If this turns out to be the case, we will be suitably impressed. Of course, for gaming duty, the GDDR5-equipped GeForce GT 240 and Radeon HD 5670 rule the $80 roost.

The Aliens vs Predator benchmark is DirectX 11-exclusive, and very GPU-dependent. Here we see the new GeForce GT 430 keep pace with the Radeon HD 5570. The Radeon HD 5670 runs away with the lead.

DiRT2 also lets us explore DirectX 11 performance, and the GeForce GT 430 once again performs on par with AMD's Radeon HD 5570. The Radeon HD 5670 has no problem maintaining a strong advantage, though.

Does it play Crysis?”

Sure, if the settings and resolution are low enough. Crysis shows the new GeForce GT 430 easily surpasses the GeForce GT 220. The Radeon HD 5570 does have a strong lead over the new card, but keep in mind that Crysis tends to favor the Radeon HD 5000-series. When it comes to raw gaming performance, the Radeon HD 5670 walks away with the win here.

Just Cause 2 might be an Nvidia TWIMTBP title, but that doesn’t stop the Radeon cards from showing a strong advantage here. The GeForce cards seem strangely performance-capped in this title, and the GeForce GT 240 performs on par with the new GeForce GT 430.

Enabling 3D Vision in this 3D Vision-ready game definitely results in a performance hit. There is a predictable 50% reduction in frame rates with the feature enabled, showing us two things: 3D Vision causes a notable penalty on low-end GeForce cards, and Just Cause 2 is a tough game for sub-$100 graphics hardware to handle.

The GeForce GT 430 might be quite successful at playing low-fidelity titles such as World of Warcraft in 3D, but if graphically-demanding titles are in your sights, you should be looking to GeForce cards above the $100 mark. Remember, rendering in stereo means you're fundamentally doubling the graphics card's workload. We'd suggest a GeForce GTX 460, at the very least, if you're interested in seriously exploring this feature.

The Asus ENGT430 overclocks fairly well. We were able to take the card from a 700/1400/800 MHz core/shader/memory clock to 850/1700/900 MHz settings.

The performance increase gets us a lot closer to the Radeon HD 5570 and GeForce GT 240 in Crysis. This does give us hope that a GDDR5-equipped GeForce GT 430 with slightly higher core and shader clocks could, in fact, replace the GeForce GT 240. The Radeon HD 5670 remains untouchable here.

First, let’s talk about video quality, specifically when it comes to high-definition playback. This go 'round, we’re using the second-generation HQV Benchmark, a test suite that is far more comprehensive than the original. This new benchmark analyzes many aspects of video playback quality that the previous version didn't touch, such as scrolling text, multi-cadence, color upsampling errors, compression artifacts, scaling and filtering, contrast enhancement, and skin-tone correction.

As usual, many video quality enhancements aren’t enabled by default in the GeForce driver. Before the tests were performed, we enabled inverse telecine, dynamic contrast, color enhancement, we set edge enhancement to 60%, and set noise reduction to 70%.

This benchmark is quite involved, so we’re not going to detail the individual tests here or compare graphics cards against one another—we’re saving that for an upcoming video quality comparison review. Instead, here are the results we achieved with the GeForce GT 430 using the HQV Benchmark:

HQV Benchmark 2.0 Results
(GeForce GT 430)
Test
Score
TEST CLASS 1:
VIDEO CONVERSION

Chapter 1: Video Resolution 15/20
Chapter 2: Film Resolution 5/20
Chapter 3: Overlay on Film 5/10
Chapter 4: Response Time
0/10
Chapter 5: Multi-Cadence
0/30
Chapter 6: Color Upsampling Errors
5/10
TEST CLASS 2:
NOISE AND ARTIFACT REDUCTION


Chapter 1: Random Noise
20/20
Chapter 2: Compression Artifacts
0/20
Chapter 3: Upscaled Compression Artifacts
0/20
TEST CLASS 3:
IMAGE SCALING AND ENHANCEMENTS


Chapter 1: Scaling and Filtering
15/15
Chapter 2: Resolution Enhancement
15/15
TEST CLASS 4:
ADAPTIVE PROCESSING


Chapter 1: Contrast Enhancement
20/20
Chapter 2: Skin Tone Correction:
0/10
TOTAL SCORE:
95/210


In general, the GeForce GT 430 performed very well, despite the impression left by the 95/210 final score. Video resolution, film resolution, noise, scaling, resolution enhancement, and contrast enhancement are very well executed.

The card mostly lost points for multi-cadence incompatibilities and compression artifacts. Losing points for some of the obscure multi-cadence tests, like 12 FPS animation, isn’t much of a concern for most folks I think. And while it’d be nice to have the graphics card fix compression artifacts, this is only a problem with poorly encoded or low-resolution source material. Neither of these issues is going to affect an HTPC user who wants to watch movies on Blu-ray.

Let’s move on to 3D Blu-ray now. We know that these sub-$100 GeForce cards can accelerate 3D Blu-ray decoding, but is there a performance difference? Will one card do a better job than another at taking the load off the CPU?

Apparently, it doesn’t make much difference if you’re rocking a GeForce GT 220, GT 240, or GT 430—all of these cards will do a similar job of taking the load off of the CPU during 3D Blu-ray playback. It's interesting to note, though, that the latest iteration of Nvidia's PureVideo engine (VP4) is capable of accelerating playback of the MVC codec used on 3D Blu-ray discs. Prior-generation engines like the GeForce GTX 260's VP2 fixed-function logic are incapable of assisting the CPU with this task.

When it comes to power draw, the GeForce GT 430 fares better than Nvidia's GeForce GT 240 by 25 watts under load. At the same time, it is bested by the GeForce GT 220 by 20 watts.

The Radeons fare a little better than their GeForce counterparts here. The new GeForce GT 430 does boast the lowest idle power usage of the cards tested, but this is hardly significant considering the 9 watt spread between contenders.

When you look at those temps, bear in mind that the Radeon boards employ reference cooling. The Asus GeForce GT 430, Gigabyte GeForce GT 240, and Gigabyte GeForce GT 220 all have custom cooling solutions.

The Asus NGTS430's cooler does a fantastic of keeping the GF108 GPU running tepidly at idle, and it does a fine job under load. We also see that the large Gigabyte cooler completely outclasses the tiny GeForce GT 220 GPU.

We’re used to testing graphics cards with coolers that can reach 60 decibels or more. In comparison, all of these products have a very small noise footprint.

The GeForce GT 430 is undeniably compelling for buyers looking for a combination of the following features: a small half-height profile, low power/temperature/noise characteristics, 3D Blu-ray support, and the ability to bitstream lossless audio through HDMI.

If you count yourself among the HTPC enthusiasts out there, you'll likely enjoy the GeForce GT 430's feature set. This is the only real product out there that addresses all of the aforementioned needs in one package, and for less than $100. In addition, the new GeForce can handle gaming at 720p, and can throw down 30 FPS or more, even in some very demanding game titles. Integrated graphics won’t come anywhere near this kind of performance.

ZoomThe good news is that there are no bad GeForce or Radeon cards anymore; there are only inappropriate prices.

If your needs don’t include what Nvidia's GeForce GT 430 offers, there are better options in this price range. The Radeon HD 5670 is a vastly superior gaming card, the Radeon HD 5570 is a better half-height option for this task, and both serve up lossless audio through HDMI. If you want to add 3D Vision to your gaming and Blu-ray playback, the GDDR5-based GeForce GT 240 is a much better option than the GeForce GT 430—assuming you don’t mind standard multi-channel audio. DirectX 11 just isn’t that important for gaming yet and probably won't be for some time to come (who knows if it'll ever be pervasive under $100).

If 3D Blu-ray playback is your only requisite, and you don't have the audio equipment needed to decode lossless HD audio, the GeForce GT 220 offers a half-height form factor and a very low power signature. A low-cost DDR2-equipped model might be just the thing you're looking for. All of these cards cost about the same price as Nvidia's new GeForce GT 430.

The bottom line is that, if you want an HTPC graphics card to bitstream lossless HD audio and play 3D Blu-ray discs, the GeForce GT 430 is your one and only choice under $130. It's also the only half-height card available with these options at any price. The $79 MSRP is fine if you need the specific features that this card offers, but brings it far too close to other alternatives that can perform specific roles a lot better. A mere $14 drop to $65 would put the GeForce GT 430 in a league of its own, making it a far more compelling option in this crowded segment. We hope the competitive nature of the market will help make this happen in the near future. Perhaps more important, it would create room for an appropriately-priced $79 GDDR5-based GeForce GT 430.



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