Wednesday, December 1, 2010

GeForce GTX 460M SLI: Mobile Gaming Value From AVADirect?

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 480M may hold the mobile performance crown, but GF100 is certainly not the most practical solution when it comes to power and heat. Today we see how its newer, smaller sibling stands up to the same tasks, aided by SLI support.
Power and heat have long been the biggest obstacles to achieving smoking-fast performance on a portable device, as the larger enclosures needed to support high-performance hardware often leaves them less than mobile. It’s no small wonder that we had big concerns when Nvidia re-purposed its power-hungry GF100 GPU as a notebook component.
The fastest “portable” GPU ever produced, the GeForce GTX 480M was already beaten by a CrossFire'd pair of Mobility Radeon HD 5870 modules when it was launched. Most extra-large notebooks couldn’t support an SLI'd pair of GeForce GTX 480M modules, and the one notebook that does support these still has some power problems in such a demanding configuration. Price was another barrier for many customers, since big pieces of silicon cost big money.

A bit of additional refinement on its desktop 400-series allowed Nvidia to re-evaluate its portfolio in an effort to find a new, more energy-efficient Radeon HD 5870-killer.
That new product, the GeForce GTX 460M, should fit into the majority of chassis that formerly hosted such big-ticket parts as its competitor’s flagship, as well as its previous mobile performance star, the GTX 285M, in dual-GPU configurations.
Before we go into the new GPU’s specifics, let’s take a quick look at the system we received to host Nvidia’s latest SLI-capable modules.
AVADirect X7200 Component List
PlatformIntel LGA 1366, X58 Express/ICH10R, MXM-III Discrete Graphics
CPUIntel Core i7-950 (Bloomfield), Four Cores, 3.06-3.33 GHz, 4.8 GT/s QPI, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache, 45 nm, 130 W
RAMKingston 6 GB (3x 2GB) DDR3-1066 SODIMM, CL7, 1.5 V, Non-ECC
GraphicsDual Nvidia GeForce GTX 460M, 675 MHz, 1.5 GB GDDR5-2500, in SLI
Display17.3" Glossy LED Back-lit TFT, 1920x1080
Webcam3.0 Megapixel
AudioIntegrated HD Audio
SecurityBuilt-in Fingerprint Reader
Hard Drive 1Crucial C300 CTFDDAC256MAG 256 GB SSD, MLC, SATA 3Gb/s
Hard Drive 2Seagate Momentus XT ST95005620AS 500 GB, 32 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s, 7200 RPM
Optical DriveLite-On DS-4E1S 4x Blu-ray Reader/8x DVD Writer Combo Drive
Media Drive9-in-1 Flash Media Interface
Wireless LANIntel Ultimate-N 6300, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n, 11/54/450 Mb/s
Wireless PANOptional (not installed)
Gigabit NetworkJMicron PCIe 10/100/1000 Mb/s Ethernet
IEEE-1394Texas Instruments PCIe IEEE-1394 (400 Mb/s)
TelephonyNot Available
Peripheral Interfaces
USB3 x USB 2.0, 2 x USB 3.0
Expansion CardNot Available
HDD1 x eSATA 3Gb/s
AudioHeadphone, Microphone, Line-In, Digital Out Jacks
Video1 x Dual-Link DVI-I w/VGA Adapter, 1x HDMI
Power & Weight
AC Adapter300 W Power Brick, 100-240 V AC to 15 V DC
Battery14.8 V, 5300 mAh (78.44 Wh) Single
WeightNotebook 13.4 lbs, AC Adapter 3.6 lbs, Total 17.0 pounds
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit Edition, OEM
Warranty1-Year Full (Add $140 for 2-years, $274.40 for 3-years)

While the desktop-based CPU in AVADirect’s X7200 build left us with a few questions about which of our previously-tested notebooks might make this a fair comparison, its $3142 price will at least allow a performance-per-dollar analysis.

With a die size less than half that of the GeForce GTX 480M, the GTX 460M’s 1.5 GB memory configuration could leave some users confused about its origins. A little poking around with GPU-Z helps shed some light on the internals.

Like the mobile parts that came before it, Nvidia sources its GTX 460M GPU from the desktop lineup, in this case the now-familiar GF106 previously found on the GeForce GTS 450. But how did the desktop card end up with 1.0 GB memory if capacities are limited to bus width multiplied by exponents of two?
Desktop vs Mobile GeForce Graphics
 Desktop GeForce GTX 460Desktop GeForce GTS 450GeForce GTX 460M
Transistors1.95 billion1.17 billion1.17 billion
Engine Clock675 MHz783 MHz675 MHz
Texture Units563232
ROP Units321624
Compute Performance907 GFLOPS601 GFLOPS518 GFLOPS
DRAM Type1.0 GB GDDR5-36001.0 GB GDDR5-32061.5 GB GDDR5-2500
DRAM Interface256-bits128-bits192-bits
Memory Bandwidth115.2 GB/s57.7 GB/s60.0 GB/s
Module TDP160W106W65W

The desktop GeForce GTS 450 has been handicapped by Nvidia, in spite of what we were told at launch. The back-end was formerly limited to 16 ROP units and a 128-bit interface. The memory capacity difference now makes sense, because 128 x 8 equals 1024, and 192 x 8 equals 1536.

The added ROP units make it appear as though the GeForce GTX 460M might be a little more powerful than the desktop GeForce GTS 450, but a lower clock speed on an identical number of stream processors more than makes up the difference. The GTX 460M ends up short of the GTS 450, in spite of its extra bandwidth. But that’s probably fine with Nvidia since the desktop part often performs on par with the super-expensive GeForce GTX 480M.
Aside from what appears to be a huge performance deficit compared to the desktop GeForce GTX 460, the best reference point for GTX 460M performance could be the GTX 480M. With twice the memory bandwidth and twice the die size, Nvidia's GTX 480M undoubtedly costs more to manufacture than the GTX 460M. We checked the prices of two major vendors to find out how much a single-card to dual-card upgrade costs, in an effort to determine the cost-per-card built into each notebook.
Mobile Graphics Module Prices (Upgrade from Single to Dual GPU)
 GeForce GTX 480MMobility Radeon HD 5870GeForce GTX 460M
Die Size529 mm²170 mm²238 mm²
Memory2 GB GDDR5-24001 GB GDDR5-40001.5 GB GDDR5-2500
Module Price$588$382$213

Before we even begin testing, the smaller part looks like it could provide a huge value benefit. The GeForce GTX 460M costs less than half the price of a GTX 480M, though higher yields on the smaller part could potentially account for the difference.

With the exception of its desktop background, AVADirect’s sample looks like many of the other Clevo-based X7200 enclosures we've tested, complete with its 1920x1080 LED back-lit screen, black-anodized aluminum palm rest, lighted touchpad, fingerprint reader, and three-megapixel Webcam.

Images from our previous review show the two USB 3.0 and three USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and DVI video outputs, eSATA and networking jacks identical to the product we’re reviewing today.

AVADirect uses the same 300 W power brick, a part that exceeds its namesake in both size and weight.

The real difference is on the inside, where we find AVADirect’s build with a Core i7-950 desktop processor and two GeForce GTX 460M mobile graphics modules.
Because this notebook has a Blu-ray combo drive, AVADirect includes CyberLink's BD Solution in addition to two driver disks and an OEM version of Windows 7.

More photos of Clevo’s X7200 can be found in our previous review.

A drop from the previous six-core to four-core processor meant we couldn’t use the performance data from our last X7200-based review, and were instead forced to try to find the fastest previously-tested four-core models in today’s comparison. That’s unfortunate, since its Core i7-950 desktop processor has a higher non-Turbo Boost clock than the Core i7-940XM mobile processor used in Eurocom’s X8100. Of course, any performance gained by using a desktop processor will turn into energy lost in our efficiency comparison.
Test System Configuration
AVADirect X7200 CPUIntel Core i7-950 (Bloomfield), LGA 1366, 3.06-3.33 GHz, 8MB Shared L3 Cache
AVADirect X7200 RAM3 x Kingston KVR1333D3S9/2G (3 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 at DDR3-1066 CAS 7-7-7-20, 6 GB Total
AVADirect X7200
2 x Nvidia GeForce GTX 460M 1.5 GB
675 MHz GPU Core, GDDR5-2500
Mobile Driver Version 259.51, Patched 260.99
AVADirect X7200
Hard Drive
Crucial C300 CTFDDAC256MAG SSD
256 GB, SATA 6Gb/s
Alienware M17x CPUIntel Core i7-920XM (Clarksfield) PGA988, 2.00-3.20 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Alienware M17x RAM2 x Kingston KHX1333C7S3K2/4G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24, 4 GB Total
Alienware M17x
2 x AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5870 1 GB, CrossFire
700 MHz GPU, GDDR5-4000
Mobile Driver Version 8.692.2-100203a1-095371C-Dell
Alienware M17x
Hard Drive
128 GB, SATA 3Gb/s
Eurocom X8100 CPUIntel Core i7-940XM (Clarksfield) PGA988, 2.13-3.33 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Eurocom X8100 RAM2 x Kingston KHX1333C7S3K2/4G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 7-7-7-20 4 GB Total
Eurocom X8100
Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M 2 GB
425 MHz GPU Core, GDDR5-2400
Mobile Driver Version 257.07
Eurocom X8100
Hard Drive
128 GB, SATA 3Gb/s
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking
OSMicrosoft Windows 7 64-bit

Two GeForce GTX 460M modules cost less than a single GTX 480M, so that’s the most logical Nvidia GPU match-up. Alienware’s super-performing M17x takes up arms for AMD’s Radeon series, its dual Mobility Radeon HD 5870 modules in CrossFire mode.
Also notice that the X7200 was tested twice, using the as-delivered 259.51 graphics drivers and specially-patched 260.99 “Verde” versions. The 259.51 driver often crashed when the cards dropped out of 3D mode at the end of a game test, and we found that the 260.99 drivers fixed it. The only problem for notebook buyers is, the public 260.99 drivers would not install without a little prep work.
Because Nvidia has not yet validated Clevo’s cards, the public driver INFs don’t list the card’s ID. We found three methods to enable “Verde” driver installations on AVADirect’s Clevo notebook.
The easiest method is to patch the public driver’s NVAM.INF file, finding the lines that refer to the GTX 460M device ID “0DD1” and replacing the ID of one card with that of another. We found six instances of this code, representing three cards on two different driver models. Replacing both instances of the first card listed (20401043) with the ID of our card (72001558) allowed the drivers to install without a hitch, including the Nvidia HDMI audio drivers. Because the installer removes all HD audio codec drivers before updating Nvidia’s audio drivers, the Realtek driver must also be reinstalled.

Nvidia used a different method in its own 260.99 preview driver for Asus’ G73Jw notebook, adding the lines %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section017, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_71001558 and %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section018, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_71001558 to the appropriate places in NVCV.INF. We tried changing Asus’ customized driver to match our card (72001558), and the graphics drivers installed without updating the Nvidia audio drivers.
Users who know a little bit more about INF structure can do to the public driver what Nvidia did to the Asus driver, adding %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section017, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_72001558 and %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section018, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_72001558 to the appropriate places in NVCV.INF. The results are identical to using the modified Asus driver, and we tested all three methods to make sure they worked.
In all three cases, the 260.99 driver fixed the stability problem previously found in the 259.51 driver. Nvidia tells us to expect an official update in early December that will make manual driver hacks unnecessary for its unified software package.
Benchmark Configuration
3D Games
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: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Very High Quality, 4x AA
DiRT 2Run with -benchmark example_benchmark.xml
Test Set 1: High Quality Preset, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset, 4x AA
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of PripyatCall Of Pripyat Benchmark version
Test Set 1: High Preset, DX11 EFDL, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, DX11 EFDL, 4x MSAA
Audio/Video Encoding
iTunesVersion: x64
Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 min
Default format AAC
HandBrake 0.9.4Version 0.9.4, convert first .vob file from The Last Samurai (1 GB) to .mp4, High Profile
TMPGEnc 4.0 XPressVersion:
Import File: Terminator 2 SE DVD (5 Minutes)
Resolution: 720x576 (PAL) 16:9
DivX Codec 6.9.1Encoding mode: Insane Quality
Enhanced multi-threading enabled using SSE4
Quarter-pixel search
Xvid 1.2.2Display encoding status = off
MainConcept Reference 1.6.1MPEG2 to MPEG2 (H.264), MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG-2), Audio: MPEG-2 (44.1 KHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 Kb/s), Mode: PAL (25 FPS)
Adobe Photoshop CS4Version: 11.0 x64, Filter 15.7 MB TIF Image
Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates
Autodesk 3ds Max 2010Version: 11.0 x64, Rendering Dragon Image at 1920x1080 (HDTV)
Grisoft AVG Anti-Virus 9.0Version: 9.0.663, Virus base: 270.14.1/2407, Benchmark: Scan 334 MB Folder of ZIP/RAR compressed files
WinRAR 3.90Version x64 3.90, Dictionary = 4,096 KB, Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
7-ZipVersion 4.65: Format=Zip, Compression=Ultra, Method=Deflate, Dictionary Size=32 KB, Word Size=128, Threads=8
Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings
3DMark VantageVersion: 1.0.1, GPU and CPU scores
PCMark VantageVersion: x64, System, Productivity, Hard Disk Drive benchmarks
SiSoftware Sandra 2010Version 2010.1.16.11, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / MultiMedia, Memory Test = Bandwidth Benchmark

DiRT 2 loves the GeForce GTX 460M SLI configuration using its “High” quality preset, and increasing to “Ultra” quality with 4x MSAA barely diminishes that lead.

The Call of Pripyat Benchmark shows the GTX 460M in a slight lead once again, making this a clean sweep for Nvidia. Reflecting our previous experience in going from 258 to 260 series drivers on desktop systems, the notebook “Verde” drivers see their sole big gain here.

The Ultra quality preset and 4x MSAA further spreads the performance differences, with a reduction in frame rates that force us to reconsider the minimum frame rates to assure playability. The 460M SLI configuration is playable under both driver versions with a minimum of 21 FPS, while the others couldn’t reach our recommended lowest minimum of 20 FPS.
In other words, you really do need the 460M SLI configuration simply to play this game at its highest details.

3DMark shows similar results for the GeForce GTX 460M SLI and Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire configurations, with the Nvidia solution leading on average. We looked through our test notes for the GPU scores and found them consistent with the overall scores in spite of different processors.

AVADirect’s PCMark score dropped slightly during every run, resulting in a lower score during the later “Verde” driver test. As with many end users, AVADirect relies on Microsoft’s AHCI drivers rather than Intel’s. We tried Intel’s drivers and got a higher score, but kept the original score for consistency's sake.

Intel’s desktop processors have a higher non-Turbo Boost frequency, allowing the X7200 to take a clear lead in the eight-thread Sandra Arithmetic benchmark.

The higher clock speed keeps AVADirect’s desktop-based notebook in the lead through Sandra’s Multimedia tests.

Triple-channel mode helps the X7200 in Sandra's Memory Bandwidth test, but its motherboard’s inability to set non-reference memory speeds kept its DDR3-1333 running in DDR3-1066 mode.

The use of a desktop processor is certain to hurt the X7200’s power consumption, though increased performance could help its efficiency.

A single graphics card helps the X8100/GeForce GTX 480M combination place first in power consumption, while a desktop processor hurts the X7200 by more than many people might have thought. Let’s see how these stack up in performance.

Using the CrossFire-equipped M17x as our high-end graphics baseline, we see that the single-GPU GeForce GTX 480M falls far behind, while the dual-GPU GeForce GTX 460M SLI setup surges ahead. Remember that, at the beginning of this article, we pointed out that the computational power of the 480M exceeds that of the 460M by only 15%, so this outcome is no surprise.

Dividing performance by power gives us an efficiency baseline of 100%. Since no electronic device is 100% efficient, we subtracted the baseline from all scores to focus only on the efficiency difference. The Core i7-940XM’s low 55 W TDP puts the X8100 in the lead here, while the Core i7-950’s super-high 130 W TDP drops AVADirect’s X7200 to the bottom of our efficiency chart. The processors have such vastly different power specifications that any reasonably-accurate assessment of graphics efficiency is impossible.

The X8100’s lower energy use is also seen in its superior battery life, which makes any of these notebooks capable of doing a few “notebook things” on-the-go. Of course you’ll need a wall outlet for high-end games, but any of these gaming notebooks is still at least 300% more portable than a similarly-capable desktop gaming system.

AVADirect’s GeForce GTX 460M SLI-based machine presented us with a great opportunity to compare the latest mobile GPUs, as well as a bit of a testing dilemma. While its Core i7-950 processor was matched by the previously-tested Core i7-940XM in lightly-threaded applications like games, its multi-threaded application performance makes it a beast in encoding and productivity tests.
Yet, we were most interested in how well its new GPU configuration would perform, so we accepted the configuration, even in light of its mismatched host processor. Shortly afterward, someone (Ed.: I'm guilty) suggested comparing it based on price-per-performance in a chart that looks like this:

The problem with the above chart is that it doesn’t account for features, such as the X8100’s larger 18.4” display and HDMI pass-through device (with added screen-grabbing capability). It doesn’t even account for smaller improvements, such as Alienware’s enhanced-resolution 1920x1200 display. And it certainly doesn’t account for the thinner design, lower heat, and longer battery life of its mobile CPU-based competitors. In fact, notebook CPUs cost more than the desktop part used to improve the X7200’s performance at the expense of cooler thickness, heat, battery life, and power supply weight.
Thus, we have two conclusions, and the first one is in regards to GPU alacrity. At less than half the cost and armed with most of the performance of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 480M, the GTX 460M becomes our preferred notebook GPU at this time. A pair of these easily smashes the performance of AMD’s fastest CrossFire-based solution. So take two now, and then call the doctor in the morning if you find yourself suddenly addicted to gaming at full detail levels on a laptop.
Second, the X7200’s use of a desktop processor sets it up as a value leader, but only if you don’t value having a notebook that’s less than 2.8” thick or less than 17 pounds heavy, with adapter. Had we been building our own GeForce GTX 460M SLI-equipped notebook, we’d have likely picked the X8100 chassis for its lower weight, lower power use, and larger screen.
But we’re not notebook builders; that’s AVADirect’s job, and the company focused on providing the most performance for the money. This is the point where AVADirect gets our kudos for topping the above chart, and we’re sure its builders are willing to assist any buyer in reaching their ultimate portability and performance goals.

1 comment:

  1. The NOT your AVADirect X7200 laptop results, the Toshiba laptop on Tom's Hardware laboratory.