Kepler in the House: nVidia GTX 670
nVidia for some time has championed the cause of the GPU compute direction for PCs. They have pushed out their CUDA programming system and shown how it can make the GPU in a computer do way more than put pictures on the screen. Now they have also discussed gaming with their cards and put some neat features on the cards but when you speak to them the push was always CUDA and GPU Computing, that is until now.
With the first release for the Kepler GPU there was a difference in the attitude of the people at nVidia. In the various briefings I have attended and even the keynote I listened to live by their CEO, I have not heard the same drive at Cuda or GPU computing. In fact I barely heard it mentioned at all. However what I have heard talked about is computer gaming and nVidia renewing their commitment to it.
As an avid computer gamer. this push and the vigor I hear in their words excites me, so when we got the chance to take our first hands on look at a Kepler based video card to say I was excited was an understatement. However I was cautious as well, history has shown us hardware companies love to hype a product, so it is not until I get my hands on it that I actually believe anything they say.
Lets begin by taking a look at the card itself, the particular card we are looking at is a reference design card provided by nVidia. The card came in a rather simple black box, however as I began to open the box it became apparent that nVidia was serious about this being a gaming card. Inside the outer box cover and on the back of the box was printed what you see in the picture to the left.
Since this is a reference designed card there was nothing in the box except for the card itself. The card we have in front of us is not a fancy design, in fact it looks from the front to be very similar to the already release GTX 680. It has the same looking cooler, a design that has over the years become the stock look for most basic higher end video cards.
In this case the appearances are correct, the cooler we are seeing is the same one used on the GTX 680. The fan and shroud are designed to push the air through the shroud to the back of the case and out vents on the back of the card next to the various display ports. The shroud is actually very tightly enclosed so that air does not escape from the top or the inside thus forcing the air out of the case and removing the GPUs heat from the system.
The design looks vary plain jane but again remember this is a reference design. This same design in fact is used in a lot of the cards that are on the market and basically just snazzed up with some artwork stuck to the shroud. The cooling solution works well, in our testing we found that the temp when gaming seldom went about about 65C, even with overclocking it did not rise about 70C. The testing was done in a Thermaltake Level 10 GT with the fans all set to low and only using the stock fans.
Not only is the stock design doing a good job of cooling the card it is also quiet. It was impossible to pick the fan for this card out of the normal sounds coming from the computer unless the GPU was pushed hard with stress testing. Under normal game play the card is very quiet and cool, exactly what we expect and want from a cooling solution.
The Kepler design is super efficient in the way the card handles power and even performance. Using a dynamic clock system that monitors the game you are playing for performance, the card kicks up or lowers the cards GPU speed as needed to ensure smooth game play. Now the kicking of the speed up makes sense to a lot of people but you might be confused by the kicking down. The simple truth is not all games need a card to run full tilt to ensure great game play. This design allows the card to pull back on the power of the GPU to still give a great game play experience and at the same time cut the heat and power usage. The design aspect of this was easy for us to test, we played games and watched the power levels. The 670 delivered on it’s promise and sipped juice, actually coming close in many cases to much lower powered cards when it came to power draw.
The card comes stock with a good set of connection options, 2 DVI ports, an HDMI and a Display Port. Where previous models of nVidia cards required two cards to game on multiple monitors, this card out of the box directly supports three monitors for gaming. Plus you can hook up a fourth monitor for other uses such as watching your voice comms software or searching the internet for gaming hints while you play. The mutli-monitor versatility built into this card is very impressive if that is the type of setup you enjoy using.
Flipping the card over I had a bit of a surprise, this card is much smaller than it seems. The fan area of the shroud is not actually over the card’s board but in a separate area. The board itself is tiny, in the picture on the right I wanted to give some perspective. The card of the 670 ends where the fan area starts as the picture shows. The card below it for perspective is a Sapphire HD 7850.
nVidia claims the reason for the smaller board is that the chip’s efficiency allows them to use smaller power components and this allowed them to move the power from the tail end of the card to the business end. This simple move meant that less space for the cards components were needed and has the added benefit of putting the heat producing power components near the exhaust and thus making them easier to cool.
Okay so at this point I imagine you are all chomping at the bit, tell us Ed, how does it perform! Well let me put it this way, the card performs from a raw horsepower point of view so well that it steals the thunder from nVidia’s higher end GTX 680. In all of our subjective testing the GTX 670 was able to deliver maxed out detail, some of the games we ran were Skyrim, Champions Online, Star Trek Online, Civilization, Batman; Arham Asylum and Mafia II. We did run other games as well but I think you get the idea. The system we used for performance testing was an i5 2500K on a Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3 with 8 Gigs of Kingston HyperX DDR3 1600 and using a Kingston HyperX 3K 240 Gig SSD. Our testing was done at a resolution of 1920×1080 and the system we ran was a typical usage system. What I mean by that was it was not purely for benchmarks, we had Comodo AV, Steam, Skydrive and Skype running in the backgrounds. Our goal is to test the card as you are likely to use it.
Now everyone knows we do not put much stock in benchmarks and with a tons of sites on the web doing extensive benchmark testing I do not see the need to rehash the material they found here. If you need specific benchmark scores to look at I suggest heading over to the review of this card done by our friends at Overclockers Club, the numbers they got were in line with our findings. I can say however that the performance is impressive, in Skyrim with the HD pack from Bethesda and maxed out in game settings I was able to pin the frame rate counter at 60 FPS. Now that is with vSync enabled and by pinned I mean it was never under 55 FPS and was mostly right at 60 FPS. I did the same in Champions and Star Trek Online with maxed out settings in each. No card that we have ever had in the labs was able to deliver such a consistent frame rate in a game.
However even with the impressive horse power, this is not what has impressed me the most. The card is fast no doubt, in fact it is safe to say that it is the fastest card in it’s price point and is even close in performance to the top end cards from both nVidia and AMD. That is so strange nVidia building their own competition. What impresses me more however is the effort made by nVidia to have a real impact on the gaming experience other than pure frame rates.
Lets begin with efforts to refine anti-aliasing, nVidia introduced FXA a while back but with the Kepler they have placed to ability to force FXAA to be enabled, even in older games that did not directly support it. FXAA allows for better image quality with less of a performance hit. In Kepler this is being further enhanced to TXAA, a new method that is available only on Kepler based cards. This new method allows for even higher levels of anti-aliasing with less performance hit. What this means for all of you is your games look better and you do not lose your smooth game play by using it.
Next we come to the GPU Boost, this system basically monitors the work load on the hardware and makes changes dynamically to the GPU clock speed to ensure it stays within it’s power/heat envelope yet gives maximum GPU speed. We have seen this feature before in CPUs and it only makes sense to see it move into the GPU. While tweakers can still overclock the card even more if they desire, there is little need as the card at stock speeds does a lot of auto-overclocking. In fact I do not recall ever seeing my GPU running at stock speeds, it seems like when it was under load it was always running jacked up. This increases the gamers experience by offer extra power when it needed and reduced power when it not thus saving electricity.
We also see Adaptive VSync, basically this feature allows VSync to work more effectively than the stock on and off options. VSync is the setting that ensures your game does not produce frames faster than the monitor can show them. A lot of games turn this off but doing so risks something call tearing. That is were the monitor could not keep up and you get some textures that tear on the screen. By keeping VSync enabled the gamer does not get this but does suffer through some performance issues. Adaptive VSync takes out those potential performance issues by capping the frame rate but also leaving it more open at lower speeds. This has the effect of removing the downside of VSync and thus means you have no reason to see tearing.
A similar tool that we now have is Frame Rate Targeting. The reasoning behind this is that some older games would take the GPU to max power and have incredible frame rates but lets face it, at around 75 it is hard to see performance boost in real game play so 300 FPS is just crazy. Rather than force you to waste the power and potential of your card the Frame Rate Target lets you set a max frame rate your system will strive for and actually slow down the GPU if it can once that target is met. This tied in with the GPU Boost means you only use as much of the GPU as you need to use. This however can in my opinion replace the Adaptive VSync, it can be used to create the same effect after all. Set your Frame Rate Target at 60 FPS and you do not need any form of VSync since the GPU will hold down the frame rates to 60 and with this you have none of the down side of VSync.
Add to these features the old standards from nVidia of PhysX and their 3D Vision and you have a card lineup that is geared to give the gamers the best experience possible with their games.
Priced at $399 the GTX 670 is at the upper end of the gaming cards in cost. The card sits squarely in the second tier of the nVidia lineup for single GPU cards and is direct competition to AMD’s 7950 and 7970.
The GTX 670 really does change the gaming experience when put to full effect. The horsepower of the card lets you run your games at maxed out detail and the features make sure the game looks great and the card is efficient in it’s use. In June nVidia is going to up their game for the user experience with GeForce Experience, which we will review. Right now however they offer great support for games on GeForce.com which has a great section of optimized settings for various game and card combinations.
If you are a PC Gamer then nVidia has you squarely in it’s sites. They are looking to become the defacto gaming card for the PC. With the Kepler releases to date and the features they offer that are aimed at improving the gaming experience I would say so far they are hitting the target dead center.
nVidia GTX 670 Review as aired 12 May 2012