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Geforce Gtx 460m Sli: Mobile Gaming Value From Avadirect?

NvidiaĘs GeForce GTX 480M may hold the mobile performance crown, but GF100 is certainly not the most practical solution when it comes to power and heat. Today we see how its newer, smaller sibling stands up to the same tasks, aided by SLI support.
Power and heat have long been the biggest obstacles to achieving smoking-fast performance on a portable device, as the larger enclosures needed to support high-performance hardware often leaves them less than mobile. ItĘs no small wonder that we had big concerns when Nvidia re-purposed its power-hungry GF100 GPU as a notebook component.

The fastest “portable” GPU ever produced, the GeForce GTX 480M was already beaten by a CrossFire'd pair of Mobility Radeon HD 5870 modules when it was launched. Most extra-large notebooks couldnĘt support an SLI'd pair of GeForce GTX 480M modules, and the one notebook that does support these still has some power problems in such a demanding configuration. Price was another barrier for many customers, since big pieces of silicon cost big money.

A bit of additional refinement on its desktop 400-series allowed Nvidia to re-evaluate its portfolio in an effort to find a new, more energy-efficient Radeon HD 5870-killer.

That new product, the GeForce GTX 460M, should fit into the majority of chassis that formerly hosted such big-ticket parts as its competitorĘs flagship, as well as its previous mobile performance star, the GTX 285M, in dual-GPU configurations.

Before we go into the new GPUĘs specifics, letĘs take a quick look at the system we received to host NvidiaĘs latest SLI-capable modules.
AVADirect X7200 Component List
Platform Intel LGA 1366, X58 Express/ICH10R, MXM-III Discrete Graphics
CPU Intel Core i7-950 (Bloomfield), Four Cores, 3.06-3.33 GHz, 4.8 GT/s QPI, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache, 45 nm, 130 W
RAM Kingston 6 GB (3x 2GB) DDR3-1066 SODIMM, CL7, 1.5 V, Non-ECC
Graphics Dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 460M, 675 MHz, 1.5 GB GDDR5-2500, in SLI
Display 17.3" Glossy LED Back-lit TFT, 1920x1080
Webcam 3.0 Megapixel
Audio Integrated HD Audio
Security Built-in Fingerprint Reader
Storage
Hard Drive 1 Crucial C300 CTFDDAC256MAG 256 GB SSD, MLC, SATA 3Gb/s
Hard Drive 2 Seagate Momentus XT ST95005620AS 500 GB, 32 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s, 7200 RPM
Optical Drive Lite-On DS-4E1S 4x Blu-ray Reader/8x DVD Writer Combo Drive
Media Drive 9-in-1 Flash Media Interface
Networking
Wireless LAN Intel Ultimate-N 6300, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n, 11/54/450 Mb/s
Wireless PAN Optional (not installed)
Gigabit Network JMicron PCIe 10/100/1000 Mb/s Ethernet
IEEE-1394 Texas Instruments PCIe IEEE-1394 (400 Mb/s)
Telephony Not Available
Peripheral Interfaces
USB 3 x USB 2.0, 2 x USB 3.0
Expansion Card Not Available
HDD 1 x eSATA 3Gb/s
Audio Headphone, Microphone, Line-In, Digital Out Jacks
Video 1 x Dual-Link DVI-I w/VGA Adapter, 1x HDMI
Power & Weight
AC Adapter 300 W Power Brick, 100-240 V AC to 15 V DC
Battery 14.8 V, 5300 mAh (78.44 Wh) Single
Weight Notebook 13.4 lbs, AC Adapter 3.6 lbs, Total 17.0 pounds
Software
Operating System Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit Edition, OEM
Service
Warranty 1-Year Full (Add $140 for 2-years, $274.40 for 3-years)
Price $3,142

While the desktop-based CPU in AVADirectĘs X7200 build left us with a few questions about which of our previously-tested notebooks might make this a fair comparison, its $3142 price will at least allow a performance-per-dollar analysis.

With a die size less than half that of the GeForce GTX 480M, the GTX 460MĘs 1.5 GB memory configuration could leave some users confused about its origins. A little poking around with GPU-Z helps shed some light on the internals.

Like the mobile parts that came before it, Nvidia sources its GTX 460M GPU from the desktop lineup, in this case the now-familiar GF106 previously found on the GeForce GTS 450. But how did the desktop card end up with 1.0 GB memory if capacities are limited to bus width multiplied by exponents of two?
Desktop vs Mobile GeForce Graphics
Desktop GeForce GTX 460 Desktop GeForce GTS 450 GeForce GTX 460M
Transistors 1.95 billion 1.17 billion 1.17 billion
Engine Clock 675 MHz 783 MHz 675 MHz
Stream
Processors 336 192 192
Texture Units 56 32 32
ROP Units 32 16 24
Compute Performance 907 GFLOPS 601 GFLOPS 518 GFLOPS
DRAM Type 1.0 GB GDDR5-3600 1.0 GB GDDR5-3206 1.5 GB GDDR5-2500
DRAM Interface 256-bits 128-bits 192-bits
Memory Bandwidth 115.2 GB/s 57.7 GB/s 60.0 GB/s
Module TDP 160W 106W 65W


The desktop GeForce GTS 450 has been handicapped by Nvidia, in spite of what we were told at launch. The back-end was formerly limited to 16 ROP units and a 128-bit interface. The memory capacity difference now makes sense, because 128 x 8 equals 1024, and 192 x 8 equals 1536.

The added ROP units make it appear as though the GeForce GTX 460M might be a little more powerful than the desktop GeForce GTS 450, but a lower clock speed on an identical number of stream processors more than makes up the difference. The GTX 460M ends up short of the GTS 450, in spite of its extra bandwidth. But thatĘs probably fine with Nvidia since the desktop part often performs on par with the super-expensive GeForce GTX 480M.

Aside from what appears to be a huge performance deficit compared to the desktop GeForce GTX 460, the best reference point for GTX 460M performance could be the GTX 480M. With twice the memory bandwidth and twice the die size, Nvidia's GTX 480M undoubtedly costs more to manufacture than the GTX 460M. We checked the prices of two major vendors to find out how much a single-card to dual-card upgrade costs, in an effort to determine the cost-per-card built into each notebook.
Mobile Graphics Module Prices (Upgrade from Single to Dual GPU)
GeForce GTX 480M Mobility Radeon HD 5870 GeForce GTX 460M
Die Size 529 mm≤ 170 mm≤ 238 mm≤
Memory 2 GB GDDR5-2400 1 GB GDDR5-4000 1.5 GB GDDR5-2500
Module Price $588 $382 $213

Before we even begin testing, the smaller part looks like it could provide a huge value benefit. The GeForce GTX 460M costs less than half the price of a GTX 480M, though higher yields on the smaller part could potentially account for the difference.

With the exception of its desktop background, AVADirectĘs sample looks like many of the other Clevo-based X7200 enclosures we've tested, complete with its 1920x1080 LED back-lit screen, black-anodized aluminum palm rest, lighted touchpad, fingerprint reader, and three-megapixel Webcam.

Images from our previous review show the two USB 3.0 and three USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and DVI video outputs, eSATA and networking jacks identical to the product weĘre reviewing today.

AVADirect uses the same 300 W power brick, a part that exceeds its namesake in both size and weight.

The real difference is on the inside, where we find AVADirectĘs build with a Core i7-950 desktop processor and two GeForce GTX 460M mobile graphics modules.

Because this notebook has a Blu-ray combo drive, AVADirect includes CyberLink's BD Solution in addition to two driver disks and an OEM version of Windows 7.

A drop from the previous six-core to four-core processor meant we couldnĘt use the performance data from our last X7200-based review, and were instead forced to try to find the fastest previously-tested four-core models in todayĘs comparison. ThatĘs unfortunate, since its Core i7-950 desktop processor has a higher non-Turbo Boost clock than the Core i7-940XM mobile processor used in EurocomĘs X8100. Of course, any performance gained by using a desktop processor will turn into energy lost in our efficiency comparison.
Test System Configuration
AVADirect X7200 CPU Intel Core i7-950 (Bloomfield), LGA 1366, 3.06-3.33 GHz, 8MB Shared L3 Cache
AVADirect X7200 RAM 3 x Kingston KVR1333D3S9/2G (3 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 at DDR3-1066 CAS 7-7-7-20, 6 GB Total
AVADirect X7200
Graphics 2 x Nvidia GeForce GTX 460M 1.5 GB
675 MHz GPU Core, GDDR5-2500
Mobile Driver Version 259.51, Patched 260.99
AVADirect X7200
Hard Drive Crucial C300 CTFDDAC256MAG SSD
256 GB, SATA 6Gb/s
Alienware M17x CPU Intel Core i7-920XM (Clarksfield) PGA988, 2.00-3.20 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Alienware M17x RAM 2 x Kingston KHX1333C7S3K2/4G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24, 4 GB Total
Alienware M17x
Graphics 2 x AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5870 1 GB, CrossFire
700 MHz GPU, GDDR5-4000
Mobile Driver Version 8.692.2-100203a1-095371C-Dell
Alienware M17x
Hard Drive Corsair CSSD-V128GB2-BRKT SSD
128 GB, SATA 3Gb/s
Eurocom X8100 CPU Intel Core i7-940XM (Clarksfield) PGA988, 2.13-3.33 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Eurocom X8100 RAM 2 x Kingston KHX1333C7S3K2/4G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 7-7-7-20 4 GB Total
Eurocom X8100
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M 2 GB
425 MHz GPU Core, GDDR5-2400
Mobile Driver Version 257.07
Eurocom X8100
Hard Drive Corsair CSSD-V128GB2-BRKT SSD
128 GB, SATA 3Gb/s
Sound Integrated HD Audio
Network Integrated Gigabit Networking
Software
OS Microsoft Windows 7 64-bit


Two GeForce GTX 460M modules cost less than a single GTX 480M, so thatĘs the most logical Nvidia GPU match-up. AlienwareĘs super-performing M17x takes up arms for AMDĘs Radeon series, its dual Mobility Radeon HD 5870 modules in CrossFire mode.

Also notice that the X7200 was tested twice, using the as-delivered 259.51 graphics drivers and specially-patched 260.99 “Verde” versions. The 259.51 driver often crashed when the cards dropped out of 3D mode at the end of a game test, and we found that the 260.99 drivers fixed it. The only problem for notebook buyers is, the public 260.99 drivers would not install without a little prep work.

Because Nvidia has not yet validated ClevoĘs cards, the public driver INFs donĘt list the cardĘs ID. We found three methods to enable “Verde” driver installations on AVADirectĘs Clevo notebook.

The easiest method is to patch the public driverĘs NVAM.INF file, finding the lines that refer to the GTX 460M device ID “0DD1” and replacing the ID of one card with that of another. We found six instances of this code, representing three cards on two different driver models. Replacing both instances of the first card listed (20401043) with the ID of our card (72001558) allowed the drivers to install without a hitch, including the Nvidia HDMI audio drivers. Because the installer removes all HD audio codec drivers before updating NvidiaĘs audio drivers, the Realtek driver must also be reinstalled.

Nvidia used a different method in its own 260.99 preview driver for AsusĘ G73Jw notebook, adding the lines %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section017, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_71001558 and %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section018, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_71001558 to the appropriate places in NVCV.INF. We tried changing AsusĘ customized driver to match our card (72001558), and the graphics drivers installed without updating the Nvidia audio drivers.

Users who know a little bit more about INF structure can do to the public driver what Nvidia did to the Asus driver, adding %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section017, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_72001558 and %NVIDIA_DEV.0DD1.02% = Section018, PCI\VEN_10DE&DEV_0DD1&SUBSYS_72001558 to the appropriate places in NVCV.INF. The results are identical to using the modified Asus driver, and we tested all three methods to make sure they worked.

In all three cases, the 260.99 driver fixed the stability problem previously found in the 259.51 driver. Nvidia tells us to expect an official update in early December that will make manual driver hacks unnecessary for its unified software package.
Benchmark Configuration
3D Games
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Campaign, Act III, Second Sun (45 sec. FRAPS)
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
Crysis Patch 1.2.1, DirectX 10, 64-bit executable, benchmark tool
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Very High Quality, 4x AA
DiRT 2 Run with -benchmark example_benchmark.xml
Test Set 1: High Quality Preset, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset, 4x AA
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat Call Of Pripyat Benchmark version
Test Set 1: High Preset, DX11 EFDL, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, DX11 EFDL, 4x MSAA
Audio/Video Encoding
iTunes Version:9.0.2.25 x64
Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 min
Default format AAC
HandBrake 0.9.4 Version 0.9.4, convert first .vob file from The Last Samurai (1 GB) to .mp4, High Profile
TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress Version: 4.7.3.292
Import File: Terminator 2 SE DVD (5 Minutes)
Resolution: 720x576 (PAL) 16:9
DivX Codec 6.9.1 Encoding mode: Insane Quality
Enhanced multi-threading enabled using SSE4
Quarter-pixel search
Xvid 1.2.2 Display encoding status = off
MainConcept Reference 1.6.1 MPEG2 to MPEG2 (H.264), MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG-2), Audio: MPEG-2 (44.1 KHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 Kb/s), Mode: PAL (25 FPS)
Productivity
Adobe Photoshop CS4 Version: 11.0 x64, Filter 15.7 MB TIF Image
Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates
Autodesk 3ds Max 2010 Version: 11.0 x64, Rendering Dragon Image at 1920x1080 (HDTV)
Grisoft AVG Anti-Virus 9.0 Version: 9.0.663, Virus base: 270.14.1/2407, Benchmark: Scan 334 MB Folder of ZIP/RAR compressed files
WinRAR 3.90 Version x64 3.90, Dictionary = 4,096 KB, Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
7-Zip Version 4.65: Format=Zip, Compression=Ultra, Method=Deflate, Dictionary Size=32 KB, Word Size=128, Threads=8
Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings
3DMark Vantage Version: 1.0.1, GPU and CPU scores
PCMark Vantage Version: 1.0.1.0 x64, System, Productivity, Hard Disk Drive benchmarks
SiSoftware Sandra 2010 Version 2010.1.16.11, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / MultiMedia, Memory Test = Bandwidth Benchmark

DiRT 2 loves the GeForce GTX 460M SLI configuration using its “High” quality preset, and increasing to “Ultra” quality with 4x MSAA barely diminishes that lead.

The Call of Pripyat Benchmark shows the GTX 460M in a slight lead once again, making this a clean sweep for Nvidia. Reflecting our previous experience in going from 258 to 260 series drivers on desktop systems, the notebook “Verde” drivers see their sole big gain here.

The Ultra quality preset and 4x MSAA further spreads the performance differences, with a reduction in frame rates that force us to reconsider the minimum frame rates to assure playability. The 460M SLI configuration is playable under both driver versions with a minimum of 21 FPS, while the others couldnĘt reach our recommended lowest minimum of 20 FPS.

In other words, you really do need the 460M SLI configuration simply to play this game at its highest details.

3DMark shows similar results for the GeForce GTX 460M SLI and Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire configurations, with the Nvidia solution leading on average. We looked through our test notes for the GPU scores and found them consistent with the overall scores in spite of different processors.

AVADirectĘs PCMark score dropped slightly during every run, resulting in a lower score during the later “Verde” driver test. As with many end users, AVADirect relies on MicrosoftĘs AHCI drivers rather than IntelĘs. We tried IntelĘs drivers and got a higher score, but kept the original score for consistency's sake.

IntelĘs desktop processors have a higher non-Turbo Boost frequency, allowing the X7200 to take a clear lead in the eight-thread Sandra Arithmetic benchmark.

The higher clock speed keeps AVADirectĘs desktop-based notebook in the lead through SandraĘs Multimedia tests.

Triple-channel mode helps the X7200 in Sandra's Memory Bandwidth test, but its motherboardĘs inability to set non-reference memory speeds kept its DDR3-1333 running in DDR3-1066 mode.

The use of a desktop processor is certain to hurt the X7200Ęs power consumption, though increased performance could help its efficiency.

A single graphics card helps the X8100/GeForce GTX 480M combination place first in power consumption, while a desktop processor hurts the X7200 by more than many people might have thought. LetĘs see how these stack up in performance.

Using the CrossFire-equipped M17x as our high-end graphics baseline, we see that the single-GPU GeForce GTX 480M falls far behind, while the dual-GPU GeForce GTX 460M SLI setup surges ahead. Remember that, at the beginning of this article, we pointed out that the computational power of the 480M exceeds that of the 460M by only 15%, so this outcome is no surprise.

Dividing performance by power gives us an efficiency baseline of 100%. Since no electronic device is 100% efficient, we subtracted the baseline from all scores to focus only on the efficiency difference. The Core i7-940XMĘs low 55 W TDP puts the X8100 in the lead here, while the Core i7-950Ęs super-high 130 W TDP drops AVADirectĘs X7200 to the bottom of our efficiency chart. The processors have such vastly different power specifications that any reasonably-accurate assessment of graphics efficiency is impossible.

The X8100Ęs lower energy use is also seen in its superior battery life, which makes any of these notebooks capable of doing a few “notebook things” on-the-go. Of course youĘll need a wall outlet for high-end games, but any of these gaming notebooks is still at least 300% more portable than a similarly-capable desktop gaming system.

AVADirectĘs GeForce GTX 460M SLI-based machine presented us with a great opportunity to compare the latest mobile GPUs, as well as a bit of a testing dilemma. While its Core i7-950 processor was matched by the previously-tested Core i7-940XM in lightly-threaded applications like games, its multi-threaded application performance makes it a beast in encoding and productivity tests.

Yet, we were most interested in how well its new GPU configuration would perform, so we accepted the configuration, even in light of its mismatched host processor. Shortly afterward, someone (Ed.: I'm guilty) suggested comparing it based on price-per-performance in a chart that looks like this:

The problem with the above chart is that it doesnĘt account for features, such as the X8100Ęs larger 18.4” display and HDMI pass-through device (with added screen-grabbing capability). It doesnĘt even account for smaller improvements, such as AlienwareĘs enhanced-resolution 1920x1200 display. And it certainly doesnĘt account for the thinner design, lower heat, and longer battery life of its mobile CPU-based competitors. In fact, notebook CPUs cost more than the desktop part used to improve the X7200Ęs performance at the expense of cooler thickness, heat, battery life, and power supply weight.

Thus, we have two conclusions, and the first one is in regards to GPU alacrity. At less than half the cost and armed with most of the performance of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 480M, the GTX 460M becomes our preferred notebook GPU at this time. A pair of these easily smashes the performance of AMDĘs fastest CrossFire-based solution. So take two now, and then call the doctor in the morning if you find yourself suddenly addicted to gaming at full detail levels on a laptop.

Second, the X7200Ęs use of a desktop processor sets it up as a value leader, but only if you donĘt value having a notebook thatĘs less than 2.8” thick or less than 17 pounds heavy, with adapter. Had we been building our own GeForce GTX 460M SLI-equipped notebook, weĘd have likely picked the X8100 chassis for its lower weight, lower power use, and larger screen.

But weĘre not notebook builders; thatĘs AVADirectĘs job, and the company focused on providing the most performance for the money. This is the point where AVADirect gets our kudos for topping the above chart, and weĘre sure its builders are willing to assist any buyer in reaching their ultimate portability and performance goals.

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