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ASUS EAH3870 X2 1GB

Date: February 18, 2008
Author(s): Rob Williams

Does a multi-GPU setup with one card interest you? You may want to take a look at AMD’s latest high-end offering, the HD 3870 X2. We are taking a look at ASUS’ version of the card which features a fantastic bundle, including an HDMI adapter and Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts.



Introduction

Late last month, AMD’s ATI division unleashed their latest threat to NVIDIA in the form of the HD 3870 X2. Unlike AMD’s recent history with “performance”, however, this new card was indeed an actual threat in some regards, as it became the fastest single-card solution on the planet. But, the only way this was possible was by pairing two GPUs on the same piece of PCB. Some might call it a cheap move, but hey, it works, and that’s what’s important.

But because of this dual-GPU fact, specific issues that arise from normal dual-GPU (including SLI) setups can be seen, most notably in games that won’t do much to take advantage of a second graphics card. If all of the cards available power was delivered through a single GPU core, however, performance would then be increased all around, throughout most titles.

Along with AMD’s official launch came offerings from all of the popular manufacturers – ASUS included. Although most fresh GPU launches from ASUS include a TOP offering (overclocking-series), the 3870 X2 did not. In fact, the only pre-overclocked card I could find was from MSI, proving right off the bat that the card is not overclocking friendly. In our tests, that proved to be the case, so we’ve omitted overclocking reports from this review.

I won’t delve into 3870 X2 specifics in this review since those have been covered by other sites over the past month, but what is important to note is that this is the fastest single-card solution on the market right now, and retails for an average of $475USD, which, depending on the brand you choose, is about a $25 premium over purchasing two HD 3870 cards and pairing them in Crossfire.

So what about CrossfireX mode on this beast? Currently, that is not possible, but it should be very, very soon. It’s been rumored that ATI will unveil that technology at CeBit next month, so all we can do is cross our fingers. At CES early last month, we saw early samples of the card in manufacturers computers and from what we were told, the drivers were not that far off at that point. With CeBit being two full months after this time, the drivers have a good chance of being released… and hopefully deliver the performance we would hope to see.

Closer Look

Like the reference HD 3870 X2, ASUS’ version runs with a core clock of 825MHz and a memory clock of 900MHz (1.8GHz) and includes 1GB GDDR3 – 512MB dedicated to each core. Compared to an HD 3870, everything else is simply doubled, resulting in 640 stream processors, 32 texture units and over 1 TeraFLOPS worth of computational power.

At current time, I’ve been unable to find ASUS’ version of the card available online anywhere, but when it hits e-tail, you can expect it to retail between $475 – $500. ASUS products always carry a premium in price as their offerings normally reflect a premium touch with the help of added accessories and usually a bonus game.

In the case of this card, Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts is the included title – one that’s been available with many recent ASUS cards, including the EN8800GT and EAH3850/3870. Accessories include a Crossfire connector (they are thinking ahead), two DVI to VGA adapters, one DVI to HDMI adapter, one 4-Pin Molex to PCI-E 6-Pin adapter, TV-Out cable and lastly, an ASUS-branded CD case.

The picture is not playing tricks… that is one beastly card. It’s roughly the same size as an NVIDIA 8800GTX, but weighs about 30% more. Going along with reference design, the leaf-blower fan here does a good job of pushing air towards the back of the case. Surprisingly, even with the dual GPUs on this card, it keeps cooler than the 8800GTX I normally use.

Nothing about this card exclaims “weak”… it’s huge, great-looking and features a gorgeous computer generated woman. What more could you want? Seriously.

Like NVIDIA’s top-end offerings, this card requires dual PCI-E 6-pin power connectors. Using an 8-pin connector is recommended for overclocking. On this particular model, however, that is a waste of time and shouldn’t be a focus if your current PSU doesn’t have an 8-Pin connector.

The back includes a massive black brace that makes sure to keep the cooler in place, while exposing the backsides of the two cores in order to allow air to freely move about.

Compared with other current GPUs, the 3870 X2 beats them all in terms of size, thanks to it’s humongous cooler. The PCB is near-identical to the 8800GTX to the right, while the 8800GTS and 8800GT to the left look like runts of the litter.

With a look at the ASUS offering out of the way, let’s jump right into our testing methodology page. This is our first GPU review in quite a while, and since we’ve just re-built our testing suite from scratch, we recommend that you take a look. After that, we will get right into testing.


Testing Methodology and Test System

Regardless of the OS we are running or product being reviewed, there are a few conditions that are met to assure accurate, repeatable results.

Below is our testing machine, which remains untouched throughout all testing except for the graphics card.

Testing Machine

In previous GPU reviews, we’ve used Windows XP Professional due to it’s stability (when compared to Vista), but as Vista becomes increasingly popular and the choice for many, it makes sense for us to make the switch as well. We choose to use the 64-Bit version of the OS due to it being the logical choice for gamers who want to use more than 2GB of RAM in their machine.

Game Benchmarks

Depending on the graphic card being reviewed, we split up models into two different categories: Low-End to Mid-Range and Mid-Range to High-End. The former will see the GPUs tested using 1280×1024 and 1680×1050 resolutions, since those are the most common resolutions for gamers looking to purchase a GPU in that price-range.

For our Mid-Range to High-End category, we test GPUs at 1680×1050, 1920×1200 and also 2560×1600 to better reflect the resolutions for those looking for a solid GPU offering.

We do not use time demos in our reviews except where necessary, and in the case of our current GPU reviews, the only game to be subject to a time demo is Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. This is due to that game disallowing greater than 60FPS without the use of a time demo. But since the game is a popular choice for multiplayer gamers, it should be included in some form or another.

Manual Benchmarks

In an attempt to deliver “real-world” results, all games except the above mentioned title are played through manually, with the average FPS recorded with the help of FRAPS 2.9.4. In our personal tests, we have found that manual benchmarks are the best way to deliver accurate results, since time demos rely heavily on the CPU.

In order to deliver the best results, each title we choose is explored to find the best possible level for our benchmarking. Once a level is chosen, we play through in order to find the best route, and then in future runs, we stick to that route as close as possible. We are not robots, so we cannot make sure that each run is identical, but they will never be far off from each other. As we see in our results, scaling is good, so we are confident that our methodology is a good one.

Crysis

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



Call of Duty 4

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600

Half Life 2: Episode Two

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600

Call of Juarez

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600

Unreal Tournament III

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



Need for Speed: Pro Street

1680×1050
1920×1200


Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



Note that the reason we do not test Need for Speed at 2560×1600 is because it’s a resolution not supported by the game. EA tends to be a little slow when it comes to supporting high-end hardware.


Crysis, Call of Duty 4

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

Crysis

It’s not often that a game comes along that truly pushes our hardware to the utmost limit. Crysis is one of those few games, and that will be the case for at least the next year. Don’t believe me? Boot up your top-end machine, max out your resolution and set the graphics to “Very High”. I guarantee tears will be shed within a few seconds of loading a level.

The level we chose here is Onslaught, also known as level five. We begin out in a tunnel, but what’s important is that we are in control of a tank. What could be more fun? Our run through consists of leaving the tunnel and hitting the other side of the battlefield, killing six or seven enemy tanks along the way.

It goes without saying that any level in Crysis would make for a great benchmark, but this one in particular is gorgeous. Using the “Medium” settings, the game looks spectacular and is playable on all of our graphic cards, so we stick with it. Throughout the level, there is much foliage and trees and also large view-distances. Explosions from the tanks is also a visual treat, making this one level I don’t mind playing over and over, and over.

Settings: Due to the intensiveness of the game, no AA is used at any resolution, and the secondary settings are all left to Medium.

Though the 3870 X2 is fastest card of the bunch, ATI’s current official drivers are premature where Crysis is concerned. Most launch reviews for ATI’s latest card in late January utilized beta drivers which helped put the card on top. However, that driver is not available to the public and I am unsure when it will be. ATI released Catalyst 8.2 on Feb 13, which lacked these updates, so we might see it happen in 8.3.

Call of Duty 4

While Crysis has the ability to bring any system to its knees with reasonable graphic settings, Call of Duty 4 is a title that looks great no matter what setting you choose, even if you have it running well! It’s also one of the few games on the market that will benefit from having more than one core in your machine, as well.

The level chosen here is The Bog, for the simple fact that it’s incredibly intensive on the system. Though it takes place at night, there is more gunfire, explosions and specular lighting than you can shake an assault rifle at.

Our run consists of proceeding through the level to a point where we are about to leave a building we entered a minute before, after killing off a slew of enemies. The entire run-through takes about four minutes on average.

Settings: High details are used overall throughout all tests, although 4x AA is used for our 1920×1200 setting. That AA is removed in our 2560×1600. As we can see in the graphs below, both of those settings are quite similar in performance.

While the X2 lacked in Crysis performance, it certainly made up for it in Call of Duty 4, topping charts in all three of our settings. The gains were not huge as one would expect, however. As we will see soon, the card might perform better than average in a few titles, but really excel in others.


Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Call of Juarez

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

If there is one game in our line-up that most everyone has played at some point, it would be Half-Life 2. The most recent release is Episode Two, a game that took far too long to see the light of day. But despite that, it proved to be worth the wait as it delivered more of what fans loved.

We are using the Silo level for our testing, which is a level most people who haven’t even played the game know about, thanks to Valves inclusion of it in their Episode Two trailers during the year before its release. During our gameplay, we shoot down a total of three Striders (their locations are identical with each run, since we are running a saved game file) and a barn is blown to smithereens.

Overall it’s a great level, but the Strider’s minions can prove a pain in the rear at times – most notably when they headbutt you. Nothing a little flying log won’t solve, however! This levels graphics consist mostly of open fields and trees, although there is a few explosions in the process as well, such as when you blow the Striders apart with the help of the Magnusson Device.

Settings: High graphic settings are used throughout all three resolutions, with 4x AA and 8xAF.

Once again, the X2 tops our charts by a rather healthy margin, with our 8800GTS 512 trailing behind by 15% on average.

Call of Juarez

Western FPS games are not common, so when one hits, people notice. Luckily for FPS fans, Call of Juarez delivered great graphics, solid gameplay and a very high difficulty. It’s a great game to benchmark due to its ability to run in DX10 mode, under Windows Vista. This mode is far more demanding than the DX9 mode, but the results are better.

We take the role of Billy Candle in the level we chose, which is rather simple in concept. We begin out at the end of a linear path that we must follow in order to reach a ravine that we must cross.

The goal of the level is to sneak through a farm and ride off with a horse in order to make the jump, but since that process takes far too long, our run through consists of following the exact same path each time, which ends up on the opposite side of the farm near an edge with water below.

Settings: Very high graphic settings are used here, although AA is never used. The fact that the game uses DX10 is enough to drag performance down.

Like Crysis, CoJ doesn’t sway much in our results. If the card has ample power, it seems to hover around a certain area instead of delivering large differentials. So while the scores were all rather close, the X2 still came out in top on our top two resolutions.


S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Unreal Tournament III

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Post-apocalyptic FPS games have been done over and over, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl was unique in many ways. First was the fact that the story was loosely based off of a real-life tragedy, the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, with the player starting out post-disaster working to survive in the now very brutal world.

One of the areas where the game excelled was with the depth. It was an open world with non-linear gameplay. AI was not top-rate, but reacted in a mostly realistic way, so it’s pretty much impossible to just stroll through the game and not expect to die. Coupled with the ability to keep an inventory and sell artifacts you find along your journey makes this game an immersive experience.

The level we use for our testing is a “Thumb Drive” mission that occurs earlier in the game. The premise is simple… walk into a small camp that’s being inhabited by enemy Stalkers, wipe them out and go deliver a thumb drive to a lone Stalker huddled around a campfire. The entire quest takes between four and five minutes from our starting point.

Settings: Static lighting and medium quality is used for our lowest resolution here, while 1920 and 2560 use full dynamic lighting along with high quality settings.

Results found here are similar to what we saw on the last page with Call of Juarez. The X2 fails to top the first chart but comes back to conquer the others. It’s becoming obvious quickly that the X2 thrives on higher resolutions… that’s where its power lies.

Unreal Tournament III

The Unreal series has always been one thats pushed graphics to the next level. Surprisingly, though, as the graphics improve, the game still remains playable on a reasonable machine, with good FPS. How often is that the case?

“Gateway” is our level of choice for a few different reasons. The first and most notable is the fact that it’s a great level, and chock-full of eye-candy. The entire level consists of three different areas that can be accessed through portals, or “gateways”. The area we begin out in is a snow-filled wonderland, similar to Lost Planet’s winter levels, with a futuristic city and waterfall area also being accessible.

Throughout our manual run, we make sure to hit all three areas for an ample amount of time, so the entire run through normally lasts between five and six minutes.

Settings: All in-game settings are maxed out, with physics and smooth frame rate disabled.

Finally, a game where the 3870 X2 truly shines. No matter the resolution, the X2 improved upon performance with a very noticeable difference, offering a beautiful 72FPS with fully maxed out graphics at 2560×1600. The NVIDIA logo might show during the games loading screens, but it’s AMD who shines here.


Need for Speed: Pro Street, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

Need for Speed: Pro Street

Electronic Arts is one of the largest game publishers in the world, and because of that, they have plenty of fans and plenty of enemies. Even if you don’t like them, it’s hard to dispute the fact that many of their games are solid, one being anything from the Need for Speed series.

“Pro Street” received rather poor reviews upon launch, and for mostly good reason. It removes the freedom of being able to explore a city at your leisure, which to many, is a huge step backwards. But despite that fact, it’s still a great game if you enjoy the series and want an offering that’s a little more realistic than previous versions (in terms of money and damage).

Our run through consists of racing through two laps at the Chicago Airfield, something that takes about three and a half minutes to accomplish from the moment we begin recording frames. The beginning of each race shows an automated camera fly-by over the cars in the race – we begin recording our FPS as soon as this clip begins.

Settings: Our lowest resolution uses fully default settings, while the 1920 resolution ups the AA to 4x and enables Anisotropic texture filtering.

It looks like NFS has been dipping into the Crysis cup, delivering very poor performance at our top setting. Like Crysis, however, hopefully ATI will correct this issue with a future driver update.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

The last game we will be using in our benchmarks is ET: Quake Wars. This is also the only game in our testing that’s executed as a time demo, as opposed to the manual play through like the rest of our games. The reason for this is twofold.

The first reason is that we like to include at least one time demo, despite it’s CPU-boundedness, in order to see how our cards scale when run in such a situation. The second is the fact that this game caps its FPS at 60, except during time demos.

Our time demo takes place in the Area 22 level, with the main goal to destroy the jamming generator. The actual play through took around five minutes, but the time demo goes far quicker, as is the case with most time demos.

Settings: Maxed settings are used here for the most part. Our 1680 resolution uses 2x AA while 1920 and 2560 use 4x.

Results like these are becoming a common theme. The 3870 X2 performed like a regular card with our lowest resolution but clearly proved it’s more powerful at 1920×1200 and 2560×1600.


Futuremark 3DMark 06

Welcome to the most loved and hated benchmark on the planet, Futuremark’s 3DMark 06. This benchmark was launched back in January of 2006, so it’s tests are not exactly up to par with today’s graphic cards, but it’s still a decent way to gauge how today’s cards scale with each other. The next version of 3DMark, Vantage, will be a complete revamp of the benchmark we know today and will no doubt make our computers feel useless once it’s released.

Because the X2 excels at higher resolutions, we don’t expect to gain much from our test at default settings, but as we’ll see, when the resolution is changed to 2560×1600, that’s where differences become more noticeable.

As was expected, the X2 topped the chart here by a rather healthy margin. The 8800GTS 512 falls ever so slightly behind. It goes without saying, however, if the GTS 512 was in a dual-GPU mode like the 3870 X2, the chart would look a little different.

Sure enough, the 3870 X2 flexes it’s huge arms here, with rather drastic gains when the resolution is pushed to the max, beating the 8800GTS 512 by a full 43% in our overall, 40% with Shader 2.0 and a staggering 60% in the Shader 3.0 tests.

On the next page, I’ll take a brief look at power consumption and I’ll wrap up with my final thoughts.


Power Consumption, Final Thoughts

In testing power consumption for our graphic cards, the system components are kept consistent to help keep accurate results. To capture wattage, a Kill-a-Watt is used. It is plugged straight into the wall and the PSU is plugged in directly to it. After the computer is booted into Windows and is left idle for five minutes, the idle wattage is captured.

To capture the average, a run of 3DMark 2006 is run while keeping an eye on the voltage for the first two minutes. I record the value that the Kill-a-Watt reported the majority of the time. Sometimes the wattage might go higher, but scale right back down, and vice versa.

Not surprisingly, the 3870 X2 sucked the most power, but it’s reasonable since it also proved to be the best performer of the bunch. The GTX falls slightly behind, while the GTS 512 has the best power/performance ratio of all cards tested. Those 1000W PSU’s look ridiculous when looking at charts like this. Even with the GPU in full load, we didn’t even come close to 400W!

Final Thoughts

It goes without saying… this is the fastest single-card solution on the market right now. Is it for everyone? Not necessarily. As mentioned earlier, the card doesn’t scale as you’d imagine a single-GPU to in most games… simply because it’s not a single-GPU. It’s essentially Crossfire, only on a single card, so oddities that occur with Crossfire and SLI alike can also occur with this card.

But even that aside, performance on a single GPU is enough to get you by with all of today’s games, but it’s with the higher resolutions and AA that the X2 really begins to excel. This is most notable with our Unreal Tournament III tests. That’s one game that really shows off the power of a multi-GPU setup, and if all games reacted as such, it would make this card a no-brainer.

For those looking for a single-card solution, the 3870 X2 delivers. For those looking to take another route, dual NVIDIA 8800GT’s in SLI would offer better overall performance while costing roughly $20 less at the same time.

But to turn the tables on that argument, AMD will soon be releasing drivers to allow two 3870 X2’s to run in CrossfireX, effectively giving us the power of four GPU cores. Performance gains are not yet known, but if executed properly, we might see incredible gains in games like Crysis, but it’s impossible to tell until we get our hands on that driver.

The main downsides of the card are the bugs that arose during testing. Under Windows XP, the driver didn’t take care of one of the components (ATI Function Driver for High Definition Audio), so each time Windows was started, a hardware install prompt would open up. Allowing it to search Windows Update took care of that, but the official ATI driver should have taken care of it and not force the user to.

I also experienced a few issues under Vista 64-Bit, such as the Crysis splash-screens and main menu not displaying correctly. The videos were horribly distorted, while the main menu would flicker randomly. This did not occur under Windows XP, so I believe it to be an issue with Vista 64-Bit specifically.

Lastly, while the card performs exceptionally in a few tests, it performed equally poor in others, such as Crysis and Need for Speed. In all fairness, a Crysis driver fix is in the works, but to come in last in our NFS: Pro Street runs struck me as odd. Since a Crysis fix is on the way, I am hoping that the performance will be fixed with NFS and other potentially poor-performing games as well.

Overall, the 3870 X2 is priced right, performs well (with some caveats) and would make a solid purchase for anyone wanting a super-powerful single-card solution in their PC. If you have absolutely no desire to make the move to Crossfire 3870 X2’s once it’s possible, going with 8800GT’s in SLI is another option, as it costs slightly less, should prove a little faster and is also better supported.

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