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PAX East: NVIDIA GTX 480 Impressions

On the evening of March 26th, NVIDIA's GeForce General Manager Drew Henry officially announced the launch of the cutting edge GeForce GTX 470 and 480 video cards in front of packed crowd at PAX East in Boston. The 400 series ushers in the next generation of PC gaming as the company's most powerful graphics cards to date. The GPU includes 3 billion transistors, which equals four Intel Quad Core i7 processors, which gives a clear indication of the kind of might this card packs. What it comes down to for gamers is a chance, in Drew Henry's words, to "blow some sh#t up." When summed up, gamers can expect the GTX 480 to double the performance output of the GTX 285, NVIDIA's previous top-of-the line GPU, for many games. According to the chart shown at the presentation, there will be at least a 50% boost in performance for most games, including recent ones like Battlefield Bad Company 2. In any case, players will be free to dial up to detail levels to their most extreme levels without worrying about a single particle effect or lighting and shadow feature to hinder performance. In addition to blowing stuff up, the 400 series motto invites you to "Crank that sh#t up!"

NVIDIA stated that the 400 cards are specifically engineered to better support key features like PhysX and 3D Vision. Additionally, the new cards will support DirectX 11 and three flat panel displays (or three DLP projectors) for the ultimate widescreen panoramic experience - an obvious response to ATI's Eyefinity technology. Gameplay demonstrations for Battlefield Bad Company 2, Metro 2033, Need for Speed SHIFT, and World of Warcraft showed exactly how immersive gaming across three panels could be, with the two side panels providing peripheral vision. This became very apparent in the Metro 2033 showing, where an NPC partner could be seen helping to pull off a welded metal door screen, where a single display would have limited the point of view to just his hands. The experience was highlighted with 3D technology that literally gave the games more depth. However, some of the most impressive uses of the technology were shown through interactive demos that will be bundled with the cards.

The first bundled demo is a mini design garage built in coordination with the Need for Speed SHIFT team that demonstrates interactive ray tracing. Although the processing power isn't there yet for real-time ray tracing, users can customize a near photo-realistic car using the design garage in spectacular detail. The quality of lighting, shadows and reflections rival if not match those see in major motion pictures and can be updated in a matter of minutes instead of days. The ray tracing processing capability is a major step toward bridging professional level graphics with consumer technology.

NVIDIA's Supersonic Sled tech demo puts all of its featured technologies to work using a rocket car on rails. The game allows players to push the speeds of a rather fragile looking vehicle with a giant rocket booster on the back. Not only do users try to push the speeds of the rocket car without blowing up, but they can actively sabotage the ride using a chicken gun. They can break off one of the struts, dent the booster, disconnect one of the fuel tanks, and a huge variety of other factors to see in real-time how that impacts the physics of the vehicle. Building up enough speed can tear apart a wooden house sitting next to the tracks, but the most impressive part of the bridge, which can be scaled to crumble into a million tiny particles. That's not an exaggeration. We're literally talking about 1 million individual particles. To highlight the effect, the bridge was frozen mid explosion and the camera flew through the cloud of debris before letting it all rain down into the canyon. Capping things off was a demonstration with liberal use of the chicken gun and a large stack of crates left in the middle of the sled track. The vehicle plowed through the crates, tossing up a ton of woodchips, but inside the debris were also individually rendered feathers. Yes, the crates had chickens inside of them, and their features were individually rendered as they floated back to the ground.

On the showroom floor, we got some in-depth hands-on time with the GTX 480. Much of it included the demonstrations from the presentation, but we were also treat to the Unigine Heaven DirectX 11 benchmark, which demonstrated the profound tessellation features. A built-in feature of the card is the ability to add details like plants to the landscape as the user zooms the camera closer. Furthermore, we were shown how the card speeds up the vReveal video enhancement software, which cleans up shaky, grainy, blurry and low resolution videos using technology adapted from forensic software used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The CUDA-enabled processor is able to clean up and render the video in real-time. We were able to see amazing results, compared using a split screen, making the videos come alive.

Yet there's a major downside to all this technology. Although the NVIDIA 400 cards have power to spare, the three display mode can only be enabled when there are two cards present, set in SLI. According to the EVGA website, the MSRP for the baseline GTX 470 is $349.99 while the GTX 480 is starting at $499.99. That means an initial investment of $700 - $1,000 before buying the displays or projectors. It also doesn't account for the amount of heat two 480 cards in SLI mode would generate nor the power consumption of the setup, which adds to the total cost. In comparison, the ATI Radeon HD 5970 (the competition's top-of-line video card) sells for about $700 - $750 on Newegg.com and supports three displays on a single card. The ATI Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6 Edition retails for a little under $500 and supports six monitors off one card.
Although product images show three output ports on the GTX 480 card (two DVI, one HDMI), only two can be active at once. This design is meant to support 3D Vision, which would have to render an image six times for stereoscopic 3D across three displays. We asked the presenter if users could mix and match video cards, either using a 480 with a 470 or possibly an older model for panoramic support, and he stated that two of the same card is required. 3D Vision in itself is a cost prohibitive technology, since basic kit costs $199. Things become even more costly when you factor in the 120Hz monitor, then imagine having to purchase three of them. We were assured that NVIDIA is working closely with various manufactures to help bring down the costs of 120Hz monitors, but couldn't foresee when or by how much. In any case, this still doesn't address the fact that that ATI was two booths away showing off six monitors linked to a single card. Not to mention, NVIDIA is just showing up now with its DirectX 11 offering after its rival has had a six month head start and uses the technology across a broad range of graphics cards.

Without a doubt, with the ability to process a million particles at once, real-time stereoscopic 3D across three displays, and super fast ray tracing, the NVIDIA Geforce GTX 480 is one of the most powerful graphics cards we've ever seen. We'll have to wait and see how the benchmarks compare to the ATI Radeon cards, but we're willing to bet that it will be a very close match. However, even with all this power, NVIDIA has some catching up to do. A more affordable version of the 400 card needs to come out soon. Even then, it'll be tough for many consumers to choose between getting the sweet panoramic view out of a single ATI card or two NVIDIA cards. It's Power vs Efficiency and Features vs Costs. Either way, welcome to the next generation of PC gaming. Put on a helmet, hold on tight and ready your chicken gun.

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