|Some people buy $400 graphics cards, and some people buy $600+ graphics cards. Some people even buy two or three of them. Most people, even gamers, just don't have that kind of money, or see little value in spending that much on something that will be outmoded in relatively short order. The vast majority of graphics sales happen at $300 and below, and volumes really go up once you hit $200 or less. It is for this market that ATI has developed their latest GPU, the RV770. Their new product strategy is to avoid making huge, monolithic, mega-powerful GPUs that can only go into high-end graphics cards, following those up with cut-back versions for the performance and mainstream markets. Instead, the plan is to make a really good performance chip aimed at the $200–300 market, design it to work better in two-chips-on-a-card situations, and use products similar to the Radeon HD 3870 X2 to address the high-end market. The first product to hit the market in this new strategy is the Radeon HD 4850. Aimed at a $200 price tag, this chip utilized the RV770 GPU with 512MB of GDDR3 memory. ATI's goal is to gain a substantial lead in price/performance, but Nvidia won't go down that easily; a $100 price drop on GeForce 9800 GTX cards keeps them in the race. Let's take a look at the performance and value of this new graphics card|
The Competition Heats Up
When the Radeon HD 3870 hit the market for a little more than $200, we thought it was a pretty good, energy-efficient card that wasn't faster than Nvidia's fantastic GeForce 8800 GT, but at least it cost a bit less. Over time, the price of the 8800 GT dropped to comparable levels, making it a clear winner despite a series of driver improvements that really improved the 3870's performance. As we were preparing this review, we were all set to call the Radeon HD 4850, at a price of about $200, a major slam-dunk over even the overclocked GeForce 8800 GT cards that sold for $200. It's as fast as a GeForce 9800 GTX, which costs 50% more! Then, in a major competitive move, Nvidia dropped the price of the 9800 GTX down to $200, making it the Radeon HD 4850's primary competition.
Performance-wise, they're a wash. They trade performance wins from one game to the next and from one setting to the other. This is a pretty major accomplishment for ATI, and Nvidia's pricing reaction turns your purchase decision to other factors.
The Radeon HD 4850 is a shorter, single-slot card with a single power connector. That means it'll fit in more cases and work with more power supplies than the 10.5-inch GeForce 9800 GTX with its dual 6-pin power plugs. Nvidia has support for their CUDA language and the apps that will come from that. ATI has their own GPGPU initiative and support for DirectX 10.1 and hardware tessellation, though neither one is really used right now. Nvidia will soon add PhysX hardware acceleration to its GPUs, but there aren't tons of major PC games right around the corner to support that, either.
They are both supported by a beta client for folding@home, though we should warn you that the current beta supports the 4800 series cards, but is not optimized for it, using only 320 of the 800 stream processors. Within a few weeks, well-optimized and stable folding@home clients should be available for a fairly wide range of Nvidia and ATI cards.
So what to pick? Until DirectX 10.1 games, PhysX hardware support, and other GPU-accelerated apps become more commonplace in the market, it's hard to put a lot of stock in those features. So you're left with a $200 card that performs as well as a GeForce 9800 GTX, but in a smaller, single slot, single PCIe plug configuration. ATI has a real winner on their hands. If 3DMark Vantage is any predictor of relative performance in future games, it's a slam dunk.