THE CURRENT reference design single card graphics performance leader is the AMD ATI Radeon HD5970. Basically a combination of two HD5870 1GB GPU blocks slowed down by some 20 per cent to accommodate the heat and power limits of the PCIe card specification, and connected via an on-board PLX PCIe bridge, the HD5970 has led the market for nearly all of the past year. Now, prior to the arrival of the AMD ATI Radeon HD6000 'Southern Islands' GPU line in October, there is a kind of unofficial refresh going on at the high end.
Basically, the key vendors like Asus, Gigabyte, XFX and Sapphire are offering sped-up top end graphics cards that would have otherwise qualified to be called, say, HD5890 and HD5990, but since it's not a full new product SKU rollout they are considered the accelerated factory pre-overclocked units. At the very top of the pack is Asus' Ares.
The card has the same architecture as the normal AMD ATI Radeon HD5970 dual GPU setup, and even the PCB dimensions are about the same. However, the GPUs on board run at the full HD5870 individual speed of 850MHz GPU and 4.8GHz GDDR5 memory, and, on top of that, each GPU has 2GB of RAM for a total of 4GB on the card. Wonderful! But, the changes required a brand new cooling system barely fitting the two slot width and, of course, much more power. Here you have two 8-pin plus one 6-pin graphics power connectors on the card. Put two of those cards in a QuadFire parallel GPU setup on a, say, Intel Core i7-980X six core platform, and you'll exhaust a 1000W PSU.
The card comes in an ultra large carton box, larger than even server mainboard packaging. Inside it is a black suitcase, James Bond style, which when open reveals the card and its accessories.
At the first look, the Asus Ares card is big and beautiful, a statement that fits this monstrous card just perfectly. It is impressive looking and, in a defensive situation, with its combination of weight and sharp edges, it could be a deadly weapon.
It took a bit of extra care to insert the card into our initial test platform, the Asus Rampage III Extreme mainboard using the Intel Core i7-980X six core CPU running at the default 3.33GHz clock. The 6GB of Geil Black Dragon DDR3-1600 RAM and an Intel X25-M 160GB SSD, as well as the Thermaltake 1000W PSU in our trusty Xigmatek Midgard-S chasis, which by now has survived three board swaps without a scratch, rounded out the test bed system configuration. The card was surprisingly silent, even during the benchmark runs at full load.
Before overclocking the card further and using its Asus Smartdoctor and GamerOSD utilities, I ran the usual Windows 7 64-bit platform with the 3Dmark Vantage DX 10 and Unigine Heaven 2 DX 11 tests, as well as Sandra synthetic GPU performance benchmarks. Here they are:
3Dmark Vantage on Ares:
And on the generic Asus HD5970 on the same system:
Sandra GPU render:
Sandra GPGPU compute, over 5 TFLOPs single precision and 1.2 TFLOPs double precision floating point on a single card, with plenty of local RAM for the job:
And GPU memory too:
Impressive! This is by far the fastest GPU setup in a single slot I've ever seen. I wonder how it'd scale in a quad GPU dual card configuration, but what I can say is that Asus has, with this extra bit of engineering, created a true multi GPU performance monster, without sacrificing single GPU performance or memory capacity.
Note yet another configuration opportunity here: if you're using the card for GPGPU compute applications, where the extra 2GB of memory per GPU chip helps a lot, you are not bound by the Crossfire limits. In fact, on a mainboard like the EVGA SR2 or the Gigabyte X58A-UD9, you could insert four of these Ares cards, each with its own PCIe X16 link, and have eight GPUs for over 20 TFLOPs single precision and over 4 TFLOPs double precision floating point capability, in a single box. All that, of course, assuming that your compute routines are happy with relying on the AMD Stream or OpenCL programming approaches.
Asus set another record here with the Ares Limited Edition ATI Radeon HD5970 graphics card, though it could improve on it if it releases the rumoured Mars 2 dual Nvidia GTX480 GPU Limited Edition on a single card.
Maybe Nvidia will be nice enough to provide Asus with those rare, kept aside, full 512-shader bins of the GF100 chip to make a thousand core dual GPU card. That thing would need three 8-pin power plugs, which is even more than the Ares. Compared to the dual Nvidia GF100 card's projected 600W power draw, this dual ATI Radeon HD5970 Ares card will look positively power saving.
In the meantime, we'll look more closely at the Asus Ares card's graphics performance against other GPUs in more environments, as well as how well it overclocks. Watch this space. µ
Top performance, reasonably compact design, large memory, limited edition card.
Since AMD's next-generation 'Southern Islands' HD6000 line of GPUs is just around the corner, there might have to be an Ares 2 soon.
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