BFG GTX 295 Review: Dual-GPU showdown

Author: Kevin Spiess
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, January 8th, 2009
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/s/bfggtx295/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

When it comes to the aeons old struggle between Nvidia and ATI, each new video card that comes out is a battle, and each successive generation is a war. Taking the top spot -- the bragging rights of the 'fastest card' -- is a key victory in each of these wars. Even if it has less to do with profits, and more to do with pride; claiming the performance crown is a goal that both companies continually joust for.

Most of the time, it comes down to who built the fastest GPU -- but not all the time. Such as the current generation, for example: the GT200 GPU powered Nvidia's flag-bearer, the GTX 280 video card, and it could best anything put up against it, including ATI's quickest, the RV770 (powering the HD4870.) But ATI probably wasn't all that psyched out by the GT200, as you might have guessed. Instead, they were confident because they rushed forward the production of the dual-GPU HD4870X2. All they had to do was pair a set of RV770s together, and presto, voila, they had the fastest card on the block: the HD4870X2.

Sales have slid towards ATI in the last year; the HD4870X2 was a big part of that. So was the HD 4850, and the HD 4870 -- no one could say that it hasn't been a good year for ATI. But in the same breath, no one who knew what they were talking about would dismiss Nvidia for being somehow out of the race, in anyway beyond temporarily. Of course they would be back, many Nvidia fans thought.

And back they are today indeed: today we are looking at another dual-GPU monster card, the GTX 295. Our particular GTX 295 comes from the fine folks of BFG Tech. Following the old hardware adage 'Why not double the processors?', the GTX 295 pushes the envelope of contemporary video card performance, and it'll most certainly be quite fast indeed.

But how fast? We gathered some likely GTX 295 arch-rivals, such as the duo-friendly Palit HD 4870 X2 and Sapphire HD 4850 X2, to see what we could see. Not for casual gamers, the powerful -- if expensive -- GTX 295 will be putting up some big numbers in our benchmarks, and we intend to see if these numbers are large enough to move the performance crown of off the head of the current reigning champ, the HD 4870 X2.  

 

Impressions

Video cards just keep getting larger and larger, it seems. Before about two years ago, the vast majority of video cards were fairly small, thin things. Some of the two-slot cooler designs had a bit more to them: larger fans, more copper, longer. But nothing like some of the monsters that we are seeing today. Such as the GTX 295. The trend really seemed to start with the 9800GX2 -- a behemoth in its own right. The GTX 295 is one such monster.

"10.5 long (long enough to hang off the end of your ATX motherboard), and heavy enough to cause serious injury if it fell on you, the GTX 295 is an intimating video card to behold. It is the kind of video card that will stare right back at you through your chassis (if you have a side window, of course.) The sheer weight of the card is testament to how much metal makes up its cooler.  

A HD 4850 resting

The reference-design BFG GTX 295 has two PCBs. Each GPU has its own circuit board. Between the two PCBs the cooling components work to dissipating a specified 289 watts of power. Today's 'hottest' games require a great deal of processing power to run well, and this translates into excess heat, that this dual GPU cooler seems able to handle effectively. A large, high RPM fan pushes air along an array of aluminum cooling fins that are sandwiched between the two PCBs, assisted by some copper heat pipes. Hot air exhaust seems to come out from the GTX 295 in equal amounts from both the top of the card, courtesy of the angled cooling fins, and out of the card's rear bracket. 

Covering the GTX 295 is a matte black cover. While at first it may seem to help cooling, it is actually not directly touched the circuit board. The cover seems to be more for looks, and for a small measure of protection, should you have the misfortune of some sort of video card fiasco striking.

The GTX 295 is capable of utilizing a SLI bridge to reach a new level of absurd performance for Nvidia: Quad-GPU power. For those game-destroying machines built by the most ardent of the hardcore enthusiasts, or purchased by those of the heaviest of pockets, two GTX 295 graphics cards can operate together, through QuadSLI, to reach some sort of obscene apex of game rendering potential.  

Similar in some ways to the 9800 GX2, the GTX 295 has two LEDs to help out with some simple diagnostics. The first light is green, and lights up if the card is receiving the proper supply of power. The second light is blue, and it lets you know which card the computer considers the primary display (which could be useful in some circumstances troubleshooting a SLI setup.) 

Specifications

Where to begin. For starters,the designation of the two GPUs powering the BFG GTX 295 is the GT200b.The GT200b is a update, refresh retrofit of the GT200 that powers the GTX 260 and GTX 280. The most important, mentionable thing here is that the GT200b marks the end of the 65nm era for Nvida. The GT200b is built with a 55nm fabrication process. Smaller, faster, cooler, cheaper -- the transition from 65nm to 55nm pays great dividends indeed.

One of the drawbacks of the GTX 280 was the massive  size of the GT200. It was the largest processor that Nvidia had ever made: so although its size afforded a great deal of raw horsepower, the big size was equally a drawback when it came to chip yields (which ultimately, eventually translates into street prices), and the generation of heat.

55nm was the only way to go.

A single GT200b lies somewhere between ability of a GTX 260 (216 shader version), and GTX 280 in gaming terms. With 240 shaders, 28 ROP units, 80 texture filtering units, a single GT200b card will soon be available in the GTX 285. As for the GTX 295, take those numbers and multiply them by a factor of two to reach the specifications of the dual-GPU GTX 295.

A 448 memory bus feeds data to the GPUs from a whopping 1792 MBs of GDDR3 memory. Though it would perhaps be nice to see GDDR5 memory here, as ATI has been using recently in high end cards, the total memory bandwidth of the GTX 295 is a reported 223.8 GB/s, which is nothing anyone can sneeze at.

The GTX 295 also has a HDMI output, which will become increasingly common sight on video cards as we march into 2009. Like the GTX 280, the GTX 295 supports DirectX 10.0, PCI Express 2.0, Shader Model 4.0, regular slew of Nvidia features, most notably support for CUDA parallel processing applications, high-definition hardware video decoding, and PhysX. PhysX is one particular nice feature for this video card, because with Nvida's new drivers, you can choose to devote of the cards two GPUs exclusively to PhysX processing -- which may offer better performance in some PhysX supported games, instead of running both GPUs in normal mode. 

Judging from the clock speeds below, it seems the default clocks of the GTX 295 are fairly conservative. Whether this was to leave a great deal of room for future overclocked models, or for more practical reasons such as heat dissipation, we'll have to discover through testing.

 

 

GTX 280

GTX 260

 GTX 295

HD 4850

 HD 4870 HD 4870 X2

Processing Cores

240

192

480

800

800 1600

Core Clock

602

576

576

625

750 750

Shader Clock

1296

1240

1242

625

750 750

Memory Clock (effective) 

2214

1998

1998

1986

3600 3600

Memory Interface

512 bit

448 bit

448 bit

256 bit

256 bit 256 bit (x2)

Memory Type

1024MB GDDR3

896MB GDDR3

1792MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR3

512MB GDDR5 2048MB GDDR5

Fabrication Process

65nm

65nm

55nm

55nm

55nm 55nm

 

 

 

 

Bundle'n'Box

The BFG GTX 295 comes in a misleadingly small box, that features some sort of helmeted, tatooed yoga instructor on the front, who appears to be on fire.

The back of the box lauds the features of the heavy duty video card.

As for the bundle, this card comes with a manual, a driver CD, a DVI adapter, a molex-to-PCIe power adapter, a two-6pinPCIe-to-one-8pin-PCIe power adapater, some BFG stickers, and a very welcome addition: a HDMI cable. This is the first video card we've reviewed that has come with an HDMI cable, and is a welcome sight -- these come in very handy, and you'd probably have to buy one (eventually) if it didn't come with the card.  

Overclocking

Compared to the clock speeds of the GTX 280 and GTX 260 (and not to mention the overclocked models which have come out recently), the GTX 295 would appear to have lower than you would expect clock speeds, running at 576 / 1242 / 1998 (core / shader / memory.) With those clock speeds, we felt certain that there was a lot of overclocking headroom to be had, and started with a reasonably aggressive overclock, using Nvidia's System Tools Utility. 

And we were right. We eventually settled on 672 / 1483 / 2238 -- which offered a significant boost in performance.  With these settings (and the fan manually set to 100% power) we did not have any crashes in an hour of Far Cry 2 benchmarking looping. Not that bad. It is possible that you may be able to reach a bit higher overclocks, but the absolute top-out does not seem to be much further than those clock speeds we reached -- we had some crashes with core clock raised a bit higher.

The GTX 295 is good overclocker -- but this almost seems in somewhat part to the default clock speeds being a bit too conservative. All we can say with dead certainty is that the GTX 295 running at 672 / 1483 / 2238 should be just about as much video card performance as any sane and reasonable person needs -- at least this early in the year, anyways. For all purposes, with a bit overclocking you are looking at a GTX 280 (x 2), not a GTX 260+ (x 2).

 

Hardware

In order to feed these impressive video cards we are testing today, we upgraded our benchmarking system to a Core i7 system. Here are the specifications:

As for our benchmarking video cards, we used a BFG GTX 285, a VisionTek HD 4870, a Palit HD 4870 X2, an Nvidia GTX 280, Sapphire HD 4850 X2, and a VisionTek HD 3870 X2 (OC).

Software

For the drivers, all the ATI cards used Catalyst 8.12, and all the Nvidia cards all used Forceware 180.43, except for the BFG GTX 285, which used the 180.87 beta drivers.

As we do on a regular basis, we updated our benchmark programs, taking some programs out, and adding others. Here is the current line-up:

3DMark06 and 3DMark Vantage: These popular synthetic benchmarking programs were used at a resolution of 1280x1024. Vantage was run in 'Performance' mode, and only the two GPU tests were used.

Bioshock: For this benchmark, all of the Detail settings were set to 'High'. All of the graphic option switches were set to 'On', with the exception of the following three settings: Vsync, Windowed mode, and Force Global Lighting. We used FRAPS to measure frame rate performance. The FRAPS run was 138 seconds, triggered from pulling the switch in the sub at game's beginning. The sub's dive involves many big models moving around, which should strain the GPUs and be a good measure of the game's engine.

Devil May Cry 4: This Capcom action game runs well on most systems; but at 'Super High' detail settings, even the fastest systems get taxed. This is built-in benchmark.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars: We use this id FPS benchmark to test out higher resolutions. We used the highest possible detail settings. We tested the resolutions at 4x AA as well as at 8x AA. 16x AF was also used.  

Far Cry 2: This open-world FPS is great looking game that really puts the strain on a gaming rig. We used the built-in benchmarking tool, and the overall 'Very High' quality setting was used.

Furmark: This intensive benchmarking program models fur, and generates a FPS score.

World In Conflict: We used the built-in benchmark of the demo version of this game. We ran the benchmark in DX9 rendering mode, with a 'High' level of quality. For the AA testing, we used a setting of 4x, and a setting of 16x for AF.

Unreal Tournament 3: We tested the game using a fly-through of the vehicle capture-the-flag map 'Suspense.'ShangriLa (map) running for 90 seconds. Details were set to 'High', and a AF setting of 16x was used.

X3: Terran Conflict: This FPS benchmark features massive models and impressive lighting effects. We used the highest detail settings, including an AF setting of 16x.

If you would like any further information about our benchmark settings, feel free to ask us in the forums.

The BFG GTX 295 performs well in probably the two most important benchmarks here, the Vantage score and the fill rate bench, but slips a bit in the other benches, and completely stumbles in the particles test.

Here we go. The BFG GTX 295 shows it true colors here, taking its natural position at the top of the charts -- however, it doesn't outshine the HD 4870 X2 by much of a margin.

Update: For those that are interested, running at our maximum overclock of 672 / 1483 / 2238, the GTX 295 returned the following overclocked results for this benchmark, from lowest resolution to highest: 145.01, 131.43, 114.70, 133.10, 115.65, 99.14.

Not the best bench results for the GTX 295 here -- it perhaps the SLI isn't working fully with Quake Wars here, as the GTX 280 puts in a better performance.

The BFG GTX 295 zips once again to the top of the charts, breaking 200 FPS without much trouble in Unreal Tournament 3.

If you ever come across some game late in 2010 that has some sort of strange abundance of fur, it looks like an ATI card might be your better bet. However, looking at these results, again it seems that with these drivers at least, Furmark operates better with a one GPU card than it does with two GPUs working together in Crossfire, or SLI.

We double checked these results, because they didn't seem right -- but they came up twice. No doubt it isn't a matter of horsepower here, that is keeping the GTX 295 back, but a question of driver work to be done.

Out all the games so far, the most flattering of the GTX 295's power is Devil May Cry. Here it pushes the competition aside.

Besides the odd 1280x1024 result, here the BFG GTX 295 also does quite well, taking a respectable lead on the HD 4870 X2.

One more final good show for the GTX 295: the card manages to take a significant lead here in Bioshock.

Power Usage

To measure power usage, we used a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter. Note that the above numbers represent the power drain for the entire benchmarking system, not just the video cards themselves. For the 'idle' readings we measured the power drain from the desktop, with no applications running; for the 'load' situation, we took readings during a demanding part of 3DMark06.)

The GTX 295 requires a 6-pin, and an 8-pin, PCIE power connector. BFG states the minimum power requirements as a 680W PSU that has a combined 12V current rating of 46A or more. As always, when it comes to power supplies, it isn't so much as the advertised wattage supplied as it is the quality of build. We had no problems running this video card on a Corsair HX620W PSU -- a quality PSU for sure -- but of course, we can not officially recommend anything less than BFG's minimum requirements of a 680W power supply.

As for the results here: well, the move to 55nm did astonishing things for Nvidia when it comes to power usage. Incredibly, at full load, the GTX 295 used roughly the same amount of juice as did one GTX 280 -- not bad at all! When you compare the GTX 295's power consumption to the HD 3870 X2's, there is yet another reason to shine. The GTX 295 is putting out more performance than the HD 4870 X2, and doing it with less power.

In the end...

The BFG GeForce GTX 295 is a serious performer that doesn't mess around very much at all. For those that are looking for extreme levels of performance right now, the GTX 295 is an obvious choice to consider.

The design of the card is well-executed: the cooler is effective, the fan is very reasonable when it comes to noise, and amount of sheer engineering that produced this monster is impressive. If you are not considering purchasing something this powerful for your gaming needs, the most important thing to get out of this review, if the benchmarks did not make it clear, is that Nvidia has regained the crown. They can once again say that they sell the fastest video card on the planet. For long? Who knows. Probably a while, in hardware terms (5 or 6 months?), but the main thing is, they set out what they wanted to accomplish with this fine product. 

The GTX 295 is the quintessential dual-GPU monster card: it puts out big numbers, but comes with a steep price tag (roughly $500 USD), and has the usual, almost unavoidable flaw that dual-GPU Nvidia products have: SLI does not automatically work for every game. This last hiccup is somewhat mitigated by the ability of the GTX 295 do devote one GPU solely to PhysX processing. However the big catch is that right now, there is not a huge amount of AAA titles that use PhysX. Whether this will change significantly in the future depends on who you listen to.

Let's compare the GTX 295 to the HD 4870 X2. When it comes to performance, the GTX 295 takes the cake. The GTX 295 doesn't kill or maim the HD 4870 X2 in the benches; but it does win, more often than not. When it comes to price, and bang for buck, both of these video cards however, are fairly even. The GTX 295 is going to sell for about $500, and the going rate for the HD 4870 X2 is often about $450. Judging from the performance of these cards, you can expect that they will stay roughly the same price. Compared to the value of single GPU cards, well, it doesn't so much: no one expects the fastest video card you can get to offer great value; they just expect it to be fastest card you can get.

And if you need the fastest card you can get right now, and you can afford it, then the card to get is the BFG GTX 295.

Nvidia can take that performance crown back now -- but only time will tell how long they'll keep it, this time around.

Update Jan 08: It looks like ATI is dropping the price on the HD 4870 X2 by $50. A $100 price difference gives the edge to the HD 4870 X2. However our money would bet  that within a few weeks, a rough price parity will be reached between these two models.

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