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nVidia GeForce GTX 580 review

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It has been more than a year since nVidia revealed its new GPU architecture, called Fermi. The flagship GPU of the Fermi line, GF100, is a monster at more than 500 square millimeters and 3 billion transistors. Its size and complexity led to manufacturing problems that caused a six-month delay before it finally reached gamers in the GeForce GTX 480. Even after the delay, nVidia had to disable some parts of the GF100 chip and still had on its hands a graphics card that was widely criticized for being too hot and too noisy.

Now, six months later, the GF110 GPU debuts in the nVidia's new flagship graphics card, the GeForce GTX 580. It is essentially a remaking of the GF100 that corrects the problems that plagued that chip earlier this year.

Let's take a look at the specs for the new graphics card, matched against nVidia's previous flagship graphics card and against AMD's fastest two competing cards. The Radeon HD 5870, now a year old, is still the fastest AMD-based graphics card equipped with a single GPU.

Though the Radeon HD 5970 is the fastest single graphics card from the AMD camp, it is essentially two 5870 graphics cards on the same board. Call it "CrossFire on a stick." This design yields high performance, but the HD 5970 is quite expensive in addition to being big, heavy and hot.

The GeForce GTX 580 is very much like the GTX 480. The 480 had one of the GF100's 16 shader modules disabled, which effectively removed 32 of the shader units (nVidia calls them CUDA cores), four of the texture processing units and one of the geometry processing engines. The new GF110 chip in the GTX 580 is nearly the same, but this time nVidia fully enables all of the chip's functional units. Due to the different ways in which the nVidia and AMD chips are designed, a single shader unit in nVidia's chip can do more work than one in AMD's chip. It is also larger, which explains why there aren't as many of them in the GPU.

At the chip level, the GeForce GTX 580 is essentially the same as the GTX 480. The new chip that powers it is made using TSMC's 40-nanometer manufacturing process. It's architecturally similar to the GF100, with the same dimensions and the same transistor count. If you were to look at a block diagram of the chip, it would look identical. Features such as cache sizes and the composition of the shader processors are the same. But with the GF110, nVidia fully retooled the chip from the transistor level, fixing many of the problems that made the GF100 hard to manufacture. This enabled the company to release a chip that has all the functional units enabled and yet draws less power and produces less heat than its predecessor. Together with better manufacturing and an enhanced cooling system, the GTX 580 runs the GF110 chip at a somewhat higher clock speed than the GF100 runs in the GTX 480.

There are no major new technologies in the GF110 GPU. It doesn't have support for new display output types, for instance. Cards will have two dual-link DVI connectors, one mini-HDMI connector and no DisplayPort. There is no new video decoder unit and no additional render backends. That's not to say that nVidia didn't take the opportunity of remaking the chip to sneak in a few enhancements.

Cooler and quieter: Reworking the GF110 GPU has permitted nVidia to run it at a roughly 10 percent faster clock speed while drawing less wattage (about 20 watts less, in our tests). This is analogous to when a CPU company like Intel produces a new "stepping" of its CPU: The hardware is functionally identical, but it runs cooler. A new vapour chamber heat spreader and a quieter fan design allow nVidia to cool the GeForce GTX 580 cards more efficiently and quietly, too.


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