December 28, 2010

ATI Radeon HD 5870 Graphics Card in an Early 2008 Mac Pro--How fast is it?

I'm a hooked gamer, as frequent readers know, so I am a sucker for the latest and greatest first person shooter game and graphics card for the Mac. I downloaded the pre-release version of Call of Duty: Black Ops and waited eagerly for the release date and hour so I could play the game. I also ordered the ATI Radeon HD 5870 graphics card just as soon as it became available from the online Apple Store for $449 a little over a month ago (Image at right courtesy of Apple, Inc.).

I have been waiting for the ATI Radeon HD 5870 ever since it was announced as an option on the 2010 Mac Pro in July, Apple listed it as a kit on the online Apple Store and I read that it worked in a 2008 Mac Pro. My 2008 Mac Pro has had the now previous top of the line graphics card for the Mac, an EVGA GeForce 285 GTX, installed since June of 2009 (see my review). So it has been awhile since a new graphics card has become available for the Mac Pro.

The ATI Radeon HD 5870 has 1GB of GDDR5 memory versus 1GB of slower DDR3 memory in the EVGA card. It also has three video ports, i.e. two Mini DisplayPorts and one dual-link DVI port, versus two video ports on the EVGA, i.e. one Mini DisplayPort and one dual-link DVI port. The 5870 allows one to connect two Mini DisplayPort-based displays like the 24" or 27" Apple LED Cinema Display and a DVI-based display like the 30-inch Apple Cinema HD Display that I use. There are display adapters available to connect regular VGA displays as well.

The GeForce 285 GTX has been pretty fast, especially at very high resolutions, but it struggled a bit with the highest resolution (2560x1600) when running Call of Duty: Black Ops. So, how fast is the new ATI Radeon HD 5870 on the Mac Pro with dual quad-core 2.8GHz Xeon CPUs, 10GB of RAM and a 30" Apple Cinema Display? I ran some of my standard graphics speed tests on it to find out.


ATI Radeon HD 5870 vs EVGA GeForce GTX 285 Standard Speed Tests
(Higher is faster)
Test ATI Radeon HD 5870

GeForce GTX 285

Percent Faster
10.6.5 10.6.5  
Cinebench 11.5
-OpenGL Hardware Lighting
26.8 22.6 19
Xbench 1.3
- Quartz Graphics
228 227 <1
- OpenGL Graphics
230 160 44
OpenGL Ext. Viewer 3.22
145 143 >1
Quake III Arena (frames/sec)
982 899 9
Halo 2.0.4 (frames/sec)
216 172 26
Red is faster.

As expected, the Radeon HD 5870 is significantly faster than the GeForce 285 GTX in my standard graphics tests, especially where the GPU makes a major difference relative to the CPU, e.g. Halo vs Quake. But so was the previous generation Radeon HD 4870 (see my review), although by not as much.

Where the GeForce 285 GTX excelled against the older Radeon was in very high resolutions and quality settings. So here are the results of the two 3D games at their highest resolutions (2048x1536 for Quake and 2560x1600 for Halo) and highest quality settings.

ATI Radeon HD 5870 vs EVGA GeForce GTX 285 Game Speed Tests at Highest resolutions & Settings (Higher is faster)
Test ATI Radeon HD 5870 GeForce GTX 285 Percent Faster
10.6.5 10.6.5  
Quake III Arena (frames/sec)
974 877 11
Halo 2.0.4 (frames/sec)
155 124 25
Red is faster.

The Radeon HD 5870 maintained its advantage over the GeForce 285 GTX at the highest possible settings in both 3D games.

I have now used the Radeon HD 5870 for over a month for all of my standard work, both with Mac OS X 10.6.5 and Windows XP SP3 in Boot Camp. That includes Mail, Safari, iCal, Office for Mac 2011, iWork '09, Photoshop Elements 8, Acrobat 8 and iTunes 10.1.1 plus numerous others. Although I can hear its fan, it is a relatively quiet super graphics card (as is the GeForce 285 GTX) at idle or doing general work. Even when I am playing one of the Call of Duty series 3D games using Boot Camp, it is relatively quiet.

In Boot Camp, I mostly play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, CoD: MW2 and, most recently, CoD: Black Ops. The Radeon HD 5870 let me tweak up the quality settings in the two older games to get the same performance as with the GeForce 285 GTX since it already let me play those games at 2560x1600. However, CoD: Black Ops is in another league in terms of graphics demands. With the GeForce 285 GTX, I had to keep it at the default settings except for FSAA which I set at none and use a resolution of only 1600x1000 to get performance similar to the previous games in the CoD series. The Radeon HD 5870 does somewhat better, allowing me to use a resolution of 2560x1600 for about the same performance.

I like the colors better on the Radeon than the GeForce. They are more vivid, i.e. less washed out, and I can turn up the brightness a lot more before the colors begin looking less vivid.

While I am quite happy with the ATI Radeon HD 5870, it is a bit disappointing that its performance is not hugely better than that of the EVGA GeForce 285 GTX. Still, my Mac Pro is over 2 years old, I'm using the older Windows XP SP3 platform instead of Windows 7 and the graphics drivers and the code in the just-released CoD: Black Ops may not yet be fully optimized. After I upgrade to Windows 7 and a few updates to COD: Black Ops are released, I'll do a re-test.

[Bill Fox]

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