SAN FRANCISCO, 1 JULY 2008 - Think of the ongoing battle between nVidia and AMD as one painfully long prize fight to see who can deliver the better graphics processing unit. In the last round, nVidia delivered a series of 8800-based haymakers that AMD only now is recovering from. And while nVidia continues to swing hard with its GTX 200-series cards, the spunky ATI Radeon HD 4000 boards deliver a gut punch in the form of solid performance at lower price points.
The latest in the HD 4000 line--the Palit-branded, 512MB HD 4850--is currently in our Test Center, and is an elegantly designed, single-slot board that already looks to have top marks in the sub-US$200 weight class.
AMD's plan: Create an easily scalable GPU that can stack up on a single card, so if you need more horsepower, you have an affordable upgrade path. With GPU upgrades, you can either buy multiple cards, go the route of high-powered dual-slot solutions--or take the hard-core gamer route and do both, blowing a small fortune in the process. AMD, though, is banking on mainstream users who hesitate to drop more than $300 on a discrete graphics board. So who is coming out on top? It's the classic standoff of brawn versus grace. Let's go to the tale of the tape.
The Battle Beyond the Graphics
Both GPU makers continue pursuing a card that does more than just paint a pretty picture. By releasing its CUDA SDK (software developers' kit), nVidia--as explained in our earlier story on the GTX 200 series--achieved a good head start in tasking the GPU with nongraphical tasks. That means it can promote this balanced computing model. The general idea: You shouldn't need to blow money on a top-notch CPU when you can partner a midlevel one with a good graphics card. The results in some tests right now are fascinating--encoding video files at a pace at least twice as fast, or just being able to manipulate photos (and 3D images) faster.
Don't count AMD out. The company can now pull off many of the same tasks with some of the same programs. One telling example: Adobe was on hand at both nVidia and AMD demos to show how its new version of Photoshop will work better thanks to GPU acceleration. While spokespeople are unable to say which graphics platform works better, the program at least provides one potential apples-to-apples test down the road. For now, the best shot for a fair comparison will be the full AMD-friendly client for the distributed-computing software called folding@home, when it's ready. That way, we can see how the software behaves on nVidia, AMD, and CPU-bound tests. Until then, it's a lopsided battle in nVidia's favor.
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