Saturday, July 17, 2010

Asus ARES: Is This The One Graphics Card

Asus' new ARES immediately earns bragging rights as one of the fastest single graphics cards ever created. We put the beast through a gauntlet of tests to measure this product's true power. At the end of the day, we answer whether it's worth four digits.
I love computer hardware. In fact, I love it so much that I built my career around it. But I have to admit, after reviewing countless graphics cards, nothing has ever come close to the excitement I experienced when I purchased my first 'big league' graphics card (It was the Canopus Pure3D by the way, sporting a colossal 6 MB of RAM when all of the other 3dfx Voodoo cards only had 4 MB). The point is that, as an experienced reviewer tasked with testing hardware all day, it's rare that I feel anything close to the gleeful anticipation I did in the days of my youth.
With the card installed, I turned my attention to the drivers, discovering some interesting news: AMD's reference Catalyst 10.6 drivers may detect the card, but they don't seem to work properly, and even cause a few crashes. This is one of those few cases (Sapphire's Radeon HD 4850 X2 being one of the most memorable) where you'll have to rely on a third-party board vendor for custom drivers. ASUS strongly recommends a fresh windows install for the card, but this isn't necessarily a reasonable solution for people who are happy with their OS the way it is. In this case, ASUS recommends uninstalling the ATI driver normally, rebooting and uninstalling the the driver again via the device manager, and after that removing all remnants of ATI drivers with the Driver Sweeper utility before rebooting and installing the ASUS ARES driver.
Overclocking the ARES.
Unfortunately, the ARES' fan gets quite loud under load to keep temperatures low, as we see in our benchmarks later on. We also experienced after a crash caused by overclocking the card too far and the SmartDoctor utility attempted to reboot using the failed overclock setting, causing an inescapable crashing loop. We fixed this by removing the SmartDoctor utility in safe mode, and this issue disappeared completely after a fresh Windows install.

Crysis demonstrates a preference for CrossFire-based configurations until 2560x1600, where the GeForce GTX 480 cards in SLI dominate. The Asus ARES puts up a great fight here though, beating the GeForce GTX 480 cards in SLI at 1920x1080 and matching the performance of two Radeon HD 5870 cards in CrossFire.

[EDIT] We've had some questions regarding the GeForce GTX 480 SLI performance at 1920x1080 in the comments section, and frankly the results look a little strange to us, too. We are aware that Crysis has a strange relationship with SLI so we aren't as surprised as some of our readers, but we went ahead and did some further tests. We re-benchmarked Crysis at 1920x1080 using three GeForce drivers: the 197.75 WHQL, 256.21 WHQL, and the 258.96 betas:

1920x1080 results, Crysis, high Detail, No AA, No AF:
197.75 WHQL: 68 FPS average
256.21 WHQL: 66 FPS average
258.96 BETA: 72 FPS average
equipped with two GeForce GTX 470 cards in SLI using the 197.75 WHQL drivers. This result is 4 FPS below our GeForce GTX 480 SLI result, and this is about where we'd expect the performance difference between 470's and 480's to be in this particular game. At this point, it seems reasonable to assume our benchmark results are valid and SLI simply has some kind of bottlenecking problem at the 1920x1080 resolution at high detail in Crysis. [/EDIT]

Now we'll test anti-aliasing performance by benchmarking Far Cry 2 with 0, 2x, 4x, and 8x AA:

The Asus ARES performs just as well as a couple of Radeon HD 5870s in CrossFire when it comes to anti-aliasing, although our particular CrossFire setup had problems with 8x AA at 2560x1600. It's notable that the GeForce cards seem to take less of a relative performance hit with AA, especially when paired together in SLI mode.

As mentioned previously, we managed to overclock the ARES to 1003 MHz core and 1275 MHz memory speeds. Let's see how this overclock pans out when it comes to performance:

3DMark Vantage shows us about a 4% performance increase over the stock ARES when the card is overclocked. That's not enough to topple the GeForce GTX 480 cards in SLI.

In Crysis we actually see a slight decrease in average performance, but strangely enough the minimum frame rate is showing us that same 4% increase.

The power benchmark is where we can see the GeForce GTX 480 SLI solution at a disadvantage. It pulls about 220 more watts under load than the ARES. Aside from minimal electricity costs, a GeForce GTX 480 system will require a much beefier power supply than Radeon HD 5870 cards in CrossFire, a Radeon HD 5970, or even the Asus ARES card. The high-end Radeon options seem to use similar power under load, but the ARES and Radeon HD 5970 use less than the cards in CrossFire at idle.
  We measured the temperature of the hottest of the two GPUs on the ARES card and found that it has a high idle temperature. Under load, the ARES cooler keeps things just below the temperature of a reference Radeon HD 5870 card, while the GeForce GTX 480 temperature is quite high.
Here we can see that the ARES can be quite loud, notably louder than a single GeForce GTX 480 reference card under load.
 When it's all said and done, the Asus ARES remains an impressive piece of hardware, drool-worthy and deserving of admiration for the engineering that went into it. But the blind glee we had upon opening the card's spectacular package is fleeting, replaced with a respect for what the card can do, combined with a sinking realization of what the price tag puts it up against
  That price tag is $1200, folks, and aside from any other complaints we might have about the ARES, this is the elephant in the room. ASUS let us know they originally targeted the $1000 price range but the cost of binning the cards to ensure that they could perform above par raised the MSRP substantially. At $1200 the ARES is $280 more than a couple of GeForce GTX 480s in SLI at the time of writing this article, and as we've seen in the benchmarks, a dual-GeForce GTX 480 configuration can put a real hurt on the Asus card, especially at 2560x1600 with AA enabled. Even if you're not a fan of the GeForce GTX 480, a pair of Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6 Edition cards a combined 4 GB of memory will set you back $1000, $200 less than the ARES.
 But perhaps the most appropriate price comparison is the Sapphire Radeon HD 5970 TOXIC, equipped with the same 4 GB of GDDR5 as the Asus card, but factory overclocked with a 50 MHz core clock advantage, available for under $1100. The Radeon HD 5970 TOXIC doesn't come with a gaming mouse, mind you, but it does include Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, DiRT 2, and an active DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter to make Eyefinity a lot easier--things that may be more or less attractive than Asus' GX800 gaming mouse. But Sapphire delivers all of this for $100 less than the ARES, and that doesn't make Asus' card look like a good value in comparison (we should note that the ARES is not yet available for purchase at the time of writing).
  Certainly there's a case to be made for the ARES as the overclocker's choice, with adjustable voltage ready from the factory and a beefy cooling system. But while the overclocking results are undeniably impressive, the cooler's impressive ability to move air was muted by the noise it makes under load.

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