Tuesday, October 19, 2010

GeForce GTS 450 O/C Roundup: Six Custom-Tuned Cards


Anyone interested in Nvidia's GeForce GTS 450 has a keen eye for value. But many enthusiasts still want the best performance they can afford. In today’s test, six factory-overclocked models challenge a standard-speed card in performance and value.

A month has passed since we first put the spotlight on Nvidia’s GTS 450, comparing it to everything from the Radeon HD 4850 to the GeForce GTX 460. While the basic reference card wasn’t much of an upgrade from last year’s competing parts, its combination of low price and middling performance made it a worthy contender for new, low-cost gaming builds.

Several manufacturers were already prepared at launch to take this part to a higher level of performance, and today we examine a few examples of those efforts.

We invited all major manufacturers to show of their best parts, and six took us up on the offer. Before we move on to individual package descriptions, here’s a brief look at specification differences.


Asus ENGTS450 TOP/DI/1GD5 ECS Black GTS 450 Gigabyte GTS 450 GV-N450OC-1GI
GPU Clock925 MHz850 MHz830 MHz
Shader Clock1850 MHz1700 MHz1660 MHz
DRAM RateGDDR5-4000GDDR5-4000GDDR5-3608
DVIOne Dual-LinkTwo Dual-LinkTwo Dual-Link
HDMIFull HDMIMini HDMIMini HDMI
DisplayPortNoneNoneNone
VGAOne 15-PinBy Adapter
By Adapter
Output
Adapters
NoneDVI to HDMI
DVI-I to VGA
Mini to Full HDMI
DVI-I to VGA
Length9.3"8.5"9.1"
Height4.9"5.4"4.5"
Total
Thickness
1.4"2.4"1.4"
Cooler
Thickness
1.3"2.2"1.3"
Weight19 Ounces23 Ounces20 Ounces
PCB VersionCustomP1060 V1.03rd-party Reference
VRMFour PhasesFour PhasesFour Phases
WarrantyThree YearsThree YearsThree Years

MSI N450GTS Cyclone 1GD5/OC Sparkle Calibre GTS 450 1024 MB Zotac GTS 450 ZT-40502-10L
GPU Clock850 MHz850 MHz875 MHz
Shader Clock1700 MHz1700 MHz1750 MHz
DRAM RateGDDR5-4000GDDR5-3800GDDR5-4000
DVITwo Dual-LinkTwo Dual-LinkTwo Dual-Link
HDMIMini HDMIMini HDMIFull HDMI
DisplayPortNoneNoneFull-Size
VGABy AdapterBy AdapterBy Adapter
Output
Adapters
DVI to HDMI
DVI-I to VGA
HDMI Cable
DVI-I to VGA
DVI-I to VGA
Length8.3"8.5"7.5"
Height5.1"5.4"4.4"
Total
Thickness
1.3"2.2"1.6"
Cooler
Thickness
1.2"2.0"1.4"
Weight14 Ounces22 Ounces15 Ounces
PCB VersionP1060-000(B)Nvidia P1060Custom
VRMFour PhasesFour PhasesThree Phases
WarrantyThree YearsThree YearsLifetime

Listed on the box without the first space in its name (as ENGTS450), Asus’ TOP GTS 450 is also the highest-clocked part in today’s comparison.

Asus makes room for a full-sized HDMI port on its ENGTS450 TOP by ridding the card of its second DVI output and replacing it with VGA. While that might disappoint some DVI monitor users, industry-standard adapters are able to convert from HDMI to single-link DVI and vice-versa.

Compatibility with standard adapters is really important, since the card doesn’t include any. What it does include is that previously mentioned high-overclock and a mid-sized software suite.

Asus turns its PCIe power connector to face outward, rather than towards the front. While this could help it avoid drive clearance issues in some small tower cases, the optical drive or power supply locations of some cube-shaped enclosures could make cable installation a challenge.

A GPU clock of 925 MHz and GDDR5-4000 could give the ENGTS450 TOP a significant advantage over stock-speed cards, though competing overclocked models aren’t very far behind.

Funny story: the roundup invitations we sent in the first week of September contained a typo, referring to the “GTX 450." ECS responded in kind by sending review samples of its NBGTS450-1GPI-F graphics cards with the label “Black GTX 450." The company later changed its package to reflect the actual model name, and the naming mystery encountered by other review sites has now been solved.

The Black GTS 450 uses Nvidia’s reference PCB design along with Arctic Cooling’s Accelero Twin Turbo Pro universal cooler. The reference PCB requires adapters to host VGA and full-sized DVI connectors, while the universal cooler transforms the card into a tripe-slot design.

The unfortunate side effect of using a universal cooler design is that it lacks clearance for onboard components like capacitors and voltage regulator chokes. Thus, while the finished product requires three slots of mounting space, one slot of that space is “wasted” between the sink and the card to prevent compatibility issues with other board designs. And yet, that space isn’t completely wasted, since it provides extra room for air to exit the sink.

ECS ties for third-place in clock frequency at 850MHz GPU, GDDR5-4000. While this setting isn’t very aggressive, the card’s oversized sink will allow buyers to test the upper-reaches of GPU overclocking without overheating.

Zoom

ECS doesn’t, however, include an overclocking utility. Fortunately, one of its competitor’s collaborations with RivaTuner has made that universal software freely available to use with any brand of card.

MSI’s overclocked N450GTS comes equipped with the same cooler style as its highly-rated sibling, yet the assembled product is four ounces lighter.

MSI includes a DVI-to-VGA and mini-HDMI-to-full-HDMI adapter for a PCB that closely follows Nvidia’s reference design. A custom backplate announces brand presence to onlookers.

MSI is tied for third-place in factory overclocking, at 850 MHz GPU clock and GDDR5-4000. Its oversized cooler allows buyers to push for even more performance.



The second company in our comparison to use an Arctic Cooling Accelero Twin Turbo Pro cooler, Sparkle’s Calibre X450G also follows the same reference design circuit board with the same two dual-link DVI and mini-HDMI ports.

Sparkle employs a custom fan color to make its card appear different, and differentiates the installation kit with a six-foot mini-HDMI-to-full-HDMI cable, rather than an adapter. Whether the cable is worth more than an adapter depends on the length of cable you need, but it’s certain to save most desktop users a little money.

Sparkle’s version of Arctic Cooling’s sink also omits one of the heat pipes, and the complete card package also measures around 0.2” thinner. The difference in thickness could be due to a change in mounting hardware however, as the bottom of the cooling fins appear to sit closer to the card. We’ll welcome any space savings we can get in a three-slot graphics product!

The X450G appears to be 1 MHz faster than two of its competitors, but that might be a rounding error specific to this card. Sparkle rates it as 850 MHz, with GDDR5-3800 memory.

Zoom

Much like the similar-appearing brand in today’s roundup, the X450G lacks vendor-specific overclocking software. Fortunately, it works with other, universal utilities. Sparkle adds several freeware demos and trial software.

The only card in today’s lineup to provide a lifetime warranty, Zotac wins before testing even begins. Need we even bother with a further description?

OK, so maybe the shorter warranties of other products haven’t disqualified them quite yet, but Zotac certainly starts strong with that statement. Equally-unusual is its inclusion of a full-sized DisplayPort connection—an AMD-backed standard—on an Nvidia-based graphics card.

The unusual design continues with a shorter circuit board that more easily fits tight cases, and extends to a two-row connector set that includes both full-sized HDMI and twin dual-link DVI outputs. Over-the-top features like this could put Zotac into many hard-to-match configurations, be they twin dual-link displays or compact cases.

Zotac does economize on its cooling solution, its all-aluminum sink lacking even so much as a single heat-pipe. Yet, so long as this one stays cool enough, we can appreciate the card’s remaining strong points.

Those strong points include the second-fastest GPU clock of 875 MHz, which, in combination with the lifetime warranty, prove Zotac’s faith in its low-cost cooling solution. The memory is equally impressive at GDDR5-4000.

Test System Configuration
CPUIntel Core i3-530 (2.93 GHz, 4 MB Shared L3 Cache)
Overclocked to 4.00 GHz at 1.25 V, 200 MHz BCLK
MotherboardASRock P55 Extreme4 BIOS 1.42 (08-20-2010), Intel P55 Express, LGA 1156
RAMKingston KHX2133C9D3T1K2/4GX (4 GB), DDR3-2133 at DDR3-1600 CAS 7-7-7-21
OS Hard DriveWestern Digital Velociraptor WD3000HLFS, 300 GB, 10 000 RPM, SATA 3Gb/s, 16 MB cache
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking
PowerOCZ-Z1000 1000 W Modular
ATX12V v2.2, EPS12V, 80 PLUS Gold
Software
OSMicrosoft Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
GeForce GraphicsNvidia Ion 260.63
ChipsetIntel INF 9.1.1.1020


Seeking a platform that represented the settings an enthusiastic GeForce GTS 450 buyer might employ, we pushed a Core i3-530 CPU to 4 GHz while keeping heat in check at 1.25 volts.

ASRock’s P55 Extreme4 was already on the bench from a previous review, and happens to match the high-value market that GeForce GTS 450 buyers are likely to embrace.

Zoom

The one sticking point in our configuration, its memory was chosen for convenience. “Keeping it real” forced us to use settings that are possible with lower-cost parts.

Benchmark Configuration
3D Games
Aliens Vs. Predator BenchmarkAlien vs Predator Benchmark Tool
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2Campaign, Act III, Second Sun (45 sec. FRAPS)
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
CrysisPatch 1.2.1, DirectX 10, 64-bit executable, benchmark tool
Test Set 1: Highest Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Quality, 4x AA
DiRT 2Run with -benchmark example_benchmark.xml
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of PripyatCall Of Pripyat Benchmark version
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x MSAA
Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings
3DMark VantageVersion: 1.0.1, System and GPU scores
FurMark 1.6.5Stability Test, 1920x1200, 4x AA

Crysis tears up weak graphics cards and weak processors, yet the ultimate proof of graphics advancement will come when onboard graphics can achieve playable frame rate in this elder title. Until then, we have the GeForce GTS 450 and an overclocked Core i3 CPU!

We actually kept track of minimum frame rate in our test notes and the good news is yes, it can play Crysis, even at Very High details. Then again, the only resolution where we saw that happen was at 1280x720, with AA disabled, at a minimum frame rate of 21 FPS.

Asus’s overclocking earns its buyers an extra 3 FPS minimum, which might be important when there are so few FPS to spare.

The Call of Pripyat Benchmark tests several lighting conditions, giving it far lower minimum FPS in its Sun Shafts test than its average FPS would have most readers believe. Once again, we kept notes.

Now for the mediocre news from our test notes: at 1600x900 pixels, the 4xAA minimum was 19 FPS using the base card with 20-22 minimum on the overclocked cards. That’s probably playable, and a repeat performance occurred at 1920x1080 with AA disabled. Those numbers sound fairly solid for a card that has a $120 starting price!

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 inflated our average performance levels to such a degree that per-resolution averages would only serve to confuse, but a chart of the average performance differences of each model could still be useful.

Asus takes a significant 14% lead over the baseline card, yet we never saw an instance where that extra 14% made the difference between playable and unplayable frame rates. We noticed that 1920x1080 is usually playable with AA disabled, while 1600x900 is usually playable at 4xAA using the highest detail levels, regardless of clock rates.

ECS and Sparkle might have used the same sink, but a slightly different heat-pipe configuration put the GTS 450 Black Edition in the lead for temperature control. Lacking the empty space that ECS’s cooler had beneath its sink, Gigabyte’s otherwise similar design falls to fourth place. Zotac fares worst with a basic aluminum sink and single fan, yet its temperatures are still far below thermal limits even with a huge factory overclock.

Overclocking hurts power consumption, but we don’t expect anyone to get out their calculators to see how this chart compares to the performance difference. Excel made the calculation for us.

A 26% power increase that accompanies its 14% performance improvement is certain to hurt Asus’ efficiency numbers, which we’ll examine on the next page.

We’ve already seen how overclocking hurts power consumption more than it helps performance, but by how much? We divided the numbers from our Relative Performance chart by those of our Relative Power chart to find out.

MSI actually beats the standard-frequency card in efficiency, while the rest of the pack falls in relation to heat and frequency. MSI credits its voltage regulator for the improvement, though we’re not certain whether this is a result of a better-than-average sample of the card or moderate overclocking at modest voltage levels.

MSI also has the second cheapest card in the roundup, which is an impressive feature since it’s tied for third in shipping clock speed. Let’s see how these stand up when we compare relative value to relative price, using the slowest and cheapest card as our baseline.

Asus’ 14% performance improvement makes its 17% higher price appear reasonable for performance fanatics, this being the fastest card in the roundup. Yet there is something funny going on with the Zotac card, so let us explain.

Zotac was only available at two U.S. sites by the end of September, and one of those sites operated on the pre-order model. That is, the cheapest site appears to pool buyers, waiting until it has enough orders to qualify for a bulk shipment before it even orders the cards. Nobody wants to wait weeks for cards, and the other site charges exhorbitant amounts for nearly everything it sells. We split the difference and checked European sources to find out what these cards should actually cost.

The answer is $144. US buyers can’t find the ZT-40502-10L for $140-145 yet, but that’s the price they should expect to pay as soon as these show up at big sellers like Newegg, TigerDirect, and ZipZoomFly. For now, UK buyers seeking a lifetime warranty win.

We’ve seen several solutions from several companies, yet we still need to decide which card is the best buy. Asus has the highest clock, MSI has the lowest price, and Zotac offers the best warranty. How much are each of these factors really worth?

Normally, we consider a lifetime warranty to be worth around $20 more than a 3-year warranty, and that valuation would put Zotac in the lead. The card also has several exclusive features that could put it on top, such as a DisplayPort connection and full-sized HDMI, in combination with twin dual-link DVI outputs. Another compelling feature is its shorter length and standard height, dimensions that allow it to fit into a wider variety of systems. Put all of those together with the second-highest factory overclock (generating temperatures well below thermal limits), and the oversized coolers of its competitors begin to look more like gimmick than value.

Yet we can’t give Zotac an award, at least not yet in the U.S., since poor availability makes it extremely difficult to buy. That leaves Asus and MSI as top picks for U.S. buyers who need a card right now, depending on how important efficiency is to you.


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