ATI Radeon 4870X2
Let me preface by saying that I checked Anandtech, HardOCP, Tom's Hardware, and even skimmed through stuff over at TechIMO and still had not decided for sure I wanted to get one of these things. It wasn't until several users over on the Bethesda forums began reporting phenomenal results with it and as Oblivion is pretty much the only 3D game I play that was enough to convince me.
So why did I want one you say? The short answer to that is nVidia + HDR + AA = Unstable. At least with the 8800 series of cards. HDR lighting is a vastly superior system to the normal thing, or to the Bloom lighting Oblivion uses if you want AA using the in-game controls. The problem is the drivers nVidia is currently putting out for the 8800 family don't work properly. Sometimes you get HDR+AA to work. Sometimes it works for a short while and then mysteriously fails but the game continues on. The worst cases are when it fails, and the game hard locks the system and proceeds to display a lovely screen full of texture corruption that doesn't go away until you power down and restart. This experience has been reported across a number of different games with varying results. The big difference in what happens is the driver version. The last one reported to consistently work with HDR+AA was something like 157.90 ( I'd have to look it up again ) but that driver version was also the last one they had out before fixing some nasty VRAM corruption bug. Unlikely to be a coincidence. I'd have used it myself except for one small problem. It turned my LCD monitor display into unreadable fuzz and turned the game into a blurry mess. So that option is out.
I've been vacillating on upgrading for awhile but I also wanted more VRAM. It became clear that with texture replacers Oblivion was eating more and more and the collection of them I have now is beyond the capacity of my 8800GTX to deal with effectively anymore. It can easily be flooded to the point of crashing the game. nVidia has had a number of 1GB models on the market for awhile now but their pricing on them has been way too high to afford. No way I was going to pay $800, then $750, then $690, and then $650 for a card. The most I was ever willing to put out was $600 at most but even then the stats on them weren't impressive enough compared to what I have now with 768MB.
I had read the review at Anandtech and they were less than impressed by this card. They more or less came right out and said that it's a 2x1 solution where the GPU's and the memory banks are walled off from each other and are in effect CrossfireX in a single card. Every last other place I'd been to besides them came off as claiming I'd indeed have the full 2GB at my disposal and the 2 GPUs would split the load evenly between themselves, which is what most of them used to back up their insanely high FPS ratings. Nobody ever mentioned heat other than Anandtech. Nobody mentioned the locked out fan controls other than Anandtech. Nobody mentioned the wall of separation other than Anandtech. So in the end I thought the users who were chastising them as anti-AMD were right. That they'd allowed bias to intrude on their review process. Turns out, they were the only ones right which now has me calling everyone else into question. We'll note now that several of these sites are now singing a different tune after the release. Coincidence? We don't think so.
With that in mind, here's my experience:
I bought the card at Multiwave ( thank God for that! ). Your typical Sapphire ATI card like they've sold for years. Since these are all reference boards with vendor stickers I opted for the cheapest one available. They were $10 below everyone else. I deinstalled the nVidia drivers and ran a driver cleaning utility to get rid of the remaining bits it left behind. Powered everything down and took the 8800GTX out. Set it aside. Took the 4870X2 out and looked over the manual. Straightforward "this is how you install cards, this is how you install our driver" and nothing else. Easy enough. Popped it in, booted the system, Windows detects new hardware. So far so good. I figured I'd play it safe and use the driver that came in the box since the standard driver available from AMD didn't support 4870X2 card yet. Odd, but whatever. The driver install worked fine and after rebooting the display returned to normal. Again, so far so good. The fan wasn't making much noise so I figured all was well.
Figuring I was good to go, I fired up Oblivion. I took a quick wander around the Waterfront area of the Imperial City. It took almost no time to realize the disaster. I checked my FPS. The reading said it was averaging 21. I had just been in the area prior to card swapping and saw 26 while debug checking something else. This had to be a mistake, or so I thought. I whirled around and noticed something wrong in the water. There was a big fat hole in the surface. Upon getting closer I thought perhaps a mod had busted the water. Not quite. There were "holes" but where the water surface stopped you could see large jagged triangles and then just nothing but the sea floor terrain. I jumped off the railing and landed with a splash. Then dove under and everything came back where it belonged. Well that's no good. So I exited the game.
This time I figured I might as well see if I could pull off the AA support with HDR enabled. Set everything to 8xAA Edge Detect ( effectively 24X ) and made sure AF was maxed out. Loaded the game back up. AA working. Good. Except.... ugh. The general image quality took on a blurred consistency. The good news, if you could call it that, FPS didn't budge. Then again, when I managed to have AA up before crashing before the FPS never budged either. Still, 21 is bordering on bad shit no matter how you slice it. I wandered around for about 20 minutes or so trying to see how long it would last. During this I noted that all water had vanished entirely. It was still there, made splashy noises and the whole bit, and returned while swimming UNDER it, but gone it was at the surface. Bad shit. BAD BAD shit. Then it happened. I climbed out of the water and started noticing bright flashes popping up at random on the screen. The telltale sign. The card was overheating. Sure enough, about 30 seconds later, cut to black. No signal to the monitor. Yet, the game was still running. I could move, hear my footsteps, hear the background music, and had NPCs talking to each other. So the game was still up. I managed to alt-tab out and got the desktop back without a reboot. Quickly checked the Catalyst controls. The temp gauge needle was buried solidly at 100C and stayed there for several minutes before finally starting back down VERY slowly. Apparently I cooked the thing :)
Alright, so I figured maybe I pushed too hard. Dialed OB back to 4xAA @ 16xAF and disabled AA on transparencies. In other words, I mimicked the benchmark settings. Loaded the game back up. Return of water with holes. Also noted that there was visible enough jagged edges to be slightly irritating, but still better than no AA at all. So I wandered a bit anyway. Got about 15 minutes more from it before once again, cut to black. Alt-tab out, recovered the desktop, checked the needle. Buried past 100C again. Cooked x 2.
So by now I'm already pissed. The card is not performing to spec, and I've lost image quality to boot. So a hunting I went and dug up some stuff on how to tweak the fan settings and another utility to force the fan speed up. That's when I realized what this thing was idling at the desktop at. 85C at idle, doing nothing, after I took a break and went to eat dinner and share my story with my roommates. Came back, fired the system up again, rechecked. Sure enough, idle temp at 85C. Entirely unacceptable.
Gainword EXPERTool 4.00 is what I used to gain access to the fan after realizing the Catalyst Control Center has those controls completely locked out. The utility confirmed what I'd already seen posted. The default fan speed is set to 27% of maximum and is SUPPOSED to rise up to keep heat in check. It never does that. The Gainword utility is incapable of raising the minimum target speed. Apparently this is because it's locked at the BIOS level. Great. However it has a manual control option which I clicked. The lowest I could set it at was 50%. So I did. As soon as I applied it, the fan kicked up. Oh God the noise! The fan on this card running at 50% speed is loud enough to drown out everything else inside the case and is enough to overwhelm the sound of my speakers and the portable air conditioner I have in the room. It did do the job of getting the idle temp down though. It leveled off at 55C. Still 10 degrees higher than my 8800GTX idles at. Figured that's the price to pay for a more powerful GPU, but the noise is a deal breaker. So just for giggles, I cranked the levels to 100%. My ears bled. No, seriously, it was loud enough that one roommates came in to find out what I was doing. The sound made it through the walls and was loud enough to hear over the TV in the living room 40 feet away. He couldn't believe the deafening roar this thing was giving off. We had to shout over it to talk to each other. Needless to say that got kicked in the ass right away, but not before I noted that the extra 50% only brought the temp down to 50C. At max speed, under less than 1% load. I shudder to think, but I bet Oblivion could have cooked it x 3 if I wanted to.
If you've managed to stay with me up to this point, my advice is this: Stay away. Get an nVidia GTX 280. That's what I'm doing come morning. This piece of crap is getting packed up and sent back first thing. The only good thing to come of it is the Corsair 750W PSU I got to go with it will still be useful to power the GTX 280 instead.
BTW, if you're wondering why I failed to backup any of my claims with screenshots, it wouldn't really prove much to post what I got. They were all solid black. Go ATI. Yay black screens. And as I "go to press" with this - 50% fan speed, 65C. Yes folks, it's inching its way back up just TYPING TEXT!
RIP United States of America
July 1776 - November 2012.
My gaming box (and Dragona's too) has a Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX in it, only 512 MB of DDR3 onboard, but a vast improvement over what I'd been gaming under before... (an on-board intel GMA 950 in my laptop)
I was considering the 9800GTX but wanted at least the 1GB, so I opted to exchange out for a GTX280 and I'm rather pleased with the results. I may in fact post a review of that as well once I've verified it can handle an extended session without crapping out. My quicky testing produced awesome results that put the 4870X2 to shame.
Also, it seems the water issue carried back to my original card. Way to go assholes, damaged my game in the process.