MSI Radeon HD 4890 Review

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  • Pros

    Pros

    • Runs quiet by default
    • Good performance on most games
    • Great overclocking potential
  • Cons

    Cons

    • Power adapters on ends of card make it difficult to connect in smaller cases
    • Card either runs hot and quiet or cool and very loud
    • One year warranty not as great as some other options

Ever since ATI introduced the Radeon HD48xx cards in the summer of 2008, users have scrambled to choose sides in the graphics card debate.  What really shook things up was the price at which ATI introduced the newest cards, offering the performance of rival NVIDIA’s top GPUs at much lower price points.  Up until now the HD4870 has been ATI’s most powerful single GPU solution.  ATI has retooled the RV770 GPU found in the 4870 and 4850 cards and reintroduced it in the all-new HD4890.  With a reported increase in stability and reduced signal noise, is the HD4890 a sufficient competitor to the GeForce GTX 275?  Read on for our full review.

Specifications

  •     GPU: 55nm RV790
  •     Core clock: 850MHz
  •     Memory: 1024MB GDDR5 @ 975MHz
  •     Digital output: 2 x DVI-I
  •     Analog output: 1 x S-video
  •     Power: 2 x 6-pin PCI Express
  •     Interface: PCI Express 2.0 x16
  •     Warranty: one year limited parts and labor warranty

The overclocked MSI R4890-T2D1G-OC has a GPU clocked at 880MHz and carries a suggested retail price of $259.99.  The R4890-T2D1G reference version in this review, tuned to 850MHz, comes in slightly cheaper.

Build and Design
Lately, MSI has been jumping on the netbook and nettop bandwagon, introducing model after model.  It’s easy to forget that they produce a lot of motherboards and video cards for all sides of the market.  In this case, it’s the HD4890, ATI’s newest high-end graphics card.  The card itself is sturdy and well designed, though heavier than it looks.  I didn’t get a chance to directly measure the weights but it actually feels heavier than the GTX 275, despite the fact that it’s over an inch shorter.  Like most MSI products, the circuit board is a brilliant red color, as is the bottom of the heatsink assembly and fan.

The cooler is painted black on top with a picture of a menacing ogre or troll on top.  Similar to the EVGA GeForce GTX 275, the fan here is a cylindrical multi-blade model that helps cool the unit without getting too loud.  This 4890 is the first card to use ATI’s new GPU, the RV790.  The new GPU microarchitecture is essentially a tweaked version of its predecessor, the RV770 found in the 4870 and 4850 cards.  While the basic components of the chip and card are the same, there are a few differences.  Among the changes are an improved layout that allows for better power distribution as well as a significant clock speed increase.  To counter the increased signal noise resulting from higher clock speeds, ATI added decoupling capacitors, which account somewhat for the increased transistor count and die size. 

As mentioned in the specifications, the reference design for this card calls for a clock speed of 850MHz and a memory clock of 975MHz.  Board partners will also be releasing overclocked variants, ranging anywhere from 880MHz to 900MHz and above.  The RV790 reportedly lends itself very well to overclocking, with some users reporting overclocks of well over 100MHz on the card.  Rumors are already flying that at least one manufacturer is planning an HD4890X2 with memory ranges of 2 – 4GB GDDR5, though it is certainly still up in the air.

The card itself is pretty large, physically, though not as large as the HD4870X2 or even the GeForce GTX 275.  MSI’s HD4890 measures up to just a hair under ten inches, which may cause some users a few issues especially in small cases.  A bigger issue, however, is the placement of the power adapters on the end of the card.  Even though the card may not be as long as some, having to connect the PCI-E power cables can be problematic, with hard drives and SATA cords in the way.

Performance
So what do nearly a billion transistors do in terms of performance?  The price point of this card looks to pit it squarely against NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 275, and fortunately we just took a look at an example from EVGA.  Our test system includes an AMD Phenom II 955 CPU, an ASUS M4A79T Deluxe motherboard, 4 GB of Corsair XMS3 DDR3 RAM, an OCZ Vertex SSD and of course the Radeon HD4890 video card.

Granted, the EVGA GeForce GTX 275 card that we got in is an overclocked version, though not by much.  The MSI Radeon HD4890 wasn’t overclocked for any of the benchmarks, though users looking for some extra oomph shouldn’t have any difficulty in upping the card’s clock speeds.

3DMark Vantage results:

Category 3DMark Vantage score 3DMark06 score
GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890
Overall score P11705 P10584 15226 3DMarks 16966 3DMarks
GPU subscore 11496 10041
CPU subscore 12381 12636

The 3DMark tests foreshadow how the rest of the benchmarks seem to be going: the two cards trade blows back and forth, with no clear victor.  PPU tests are disabled during 3DMark Vantage since otherwise it skews the CPU score results and weights the overall score incorrectly.

Bioshock results:

Settings

Minimum framerate Maximum framerate Average framerate
GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890
1680×1050, settings maxed 82 fps 90 fps 265 fps 198 fps 146.5 fps 126.8 fps
1920×1200, settings maxed 73 fps 76 fps 188 fps 209 fps 123.9 fps 116.6 fps

Despite the age of the game, it still scales well and therefore can be used to benchmark even new systems.  The cards are fairly neck and neck here, except for the significantly higher maximum framerate found in the GTX 275 on WXGA settings.  It’s probably safe to say that this is going to be a fluke, considering how similar the rest of the table is.

Call of Duty: World at War results (4x AA/AF):

Settings Minimum framerate Maximum framerate Average framerate
GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890
1680×1050, settings on auto 64 fps 61 fps 94 fps 94 fps 83.7 fps 82.9 fps
1920×1200, settings on auto 45 fps 43 fps 93 fps 93 fps 79.4 fps 69.3 fps

The trend continues on here with the cards faring fairly close together, save for the average score on 1920×1200 resolutions.  Still, the HD 4890 remains competitive with the GTX 275, and both cards give a smooth performance, rendering the games easily playable.

Left 4 Dead results (8xAA/no AF):

Settings Minimum framerate Maximum framerate Average framerate
GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890
1680×1050, settings maxed 62 fps 91 fps 215 fps 203 fps 138.4 fps 145.7 fps
1920×1200, settings maxed 69 fps 80 fps 165 fps 164 fps 122.2 fps 125.1 fps

Left 4 Dead runs well on ATI video cards and it shows here, with the HD 4890 coming out on top in four out of the six metrics.  Despite this, the average scores have a difference of less than ten percent, just like most of the other benchmarks in the review.

Crysis v1.2 results (no AA/AF):

Settings Minimum framerate Maximum framerate Average framerate
GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890
1920×1200, all settings medium 23 fps 28 fps 82 fps 74 fps 46.9 fps 51.1 fps
1680×1050, all settings high 23 fps 24 fps 54 fps 55 fps 38.4 fps 40.5 fps
1920×1200, all settings high 22 fps 20 fps 64 fps 48 fps 36.6 fps 35.6 fps

Crysis has been the stress test for seeing how much game a video card can handle for some time, now, and it doesn’t help that the game is optimized to run better on NVIDIA cards, not ATI cards.  Despite this, the MSI 4890 performs admirably, giving average framerates of well over thirty frames per second in each of the three different tests.  Once again, however, the overall scores are less than ten percent better or worse than the competition’s offering.

Crysis Warhead results (no AA/AF):

Settings Minimum framerate Maximum framerate Average framerate
GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890 GTX 275 HD 4890
1920×1200, all settings mainstream 27 fps 28 fps 83 fps 74 fps 54.6 fps 52.7 fps
1680×1050, all settings gamer 21 fps 20 fps 54 fps 50 fps 37.3 fps 37.3 fps
1920×1200, all settings gamer 18 fps 17 fps 50 fps 41 fps 33.2 fps 30.8 fps

Crysis Warhead gives pretty similar results to Crysis, save for the fact that its high (now called “Gamer”) settings are a little tougher on video cards than the original game showed.  One thing to keep in mind is that neither card can run this game at high resolutions smoothly at all times.  In this case, MSI’s HD 4890 dropped down to 17 frames per second at certain points during the game.  Granted, the average was above thirty, but users would still experience jerkiness and/or slowdown during really intense scenes.

Power, Heat and Noise
The reference HD 4890 has lower idling power draws and higher maximum power draws than the HD 4870, and this seemed to bear out in our tests.  At idle, the card still drew an extra 66 watts over the system minimum.  When maxing out the graphics card, the test machine pulled an extra 187 watts.  Gamers wanting to push the limits and overclock their cards will likely see some additional power draws.  Recent ATI cards have opted to let the card run hotter by keeping fan speeds down, making the cards run a lot quieter than they otherwise might.  This trend continues into the HD 4890; even when maxing out the card, fans only ramped up to 36% of maximum speeds. 

When the computer first starts, the fans are impossibly loud, but they quickly spin down to almost silent.  At idle, the fans run around 26% of total, keeping the card at a really toasty idle temperature of 60 degrees Celsius.  After running for twenty minutes or so with FurMark, the card only managed to get to 71 degrees Celsius.  For users who don’t mind the noise, the fans can be dialed up a good bit faster; while it’s a lot louder, it’s also a lot cooler.

Conclusion
ATI has a solid performer on their hands with the Radeon HD 4890.  It’s certainly competitive against its closest twin on competitor NVIDIA’s side, leaving the choice of cards down to features aside from performance.  While NVIDIA grants users access to a relatively robust set of applications that take advantage of the computational abilities found in their GPUs, ATI gives users a lot of customization over how their cards work.  Fan speeds and clock speeds are all mutable, and early reviews peg the 4890 as a very worthy card if overclocking is among a user’s hobbies.

With prices almost the same and performance not much different, users are forced to look outside the box to decide which card to buy.  It might be brand loyalty, it might be the yearning for great new GPU-enhanced programs, it might be how well the card overclocks.  It comes down to which card meets a specific user’s preferences, and with two very similar and yet very different options from which to choose, it’s hard to pick the losing team.

Pros

  • Runs quiet by default
  • Good performance on most games
  • Great overclocking potential

Cons

  • Power adapters on ends of card make it difficult to connect in smaller cases
  • Card either runs hot and quiet or cool and very loud
  • One year warranty not as great as some other options


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