The first card we were provided with for review is made by Zotac but apart from the Zotac sticker it is the exact same design as nVidia's reference board so that's what we will be basing our assessment on. We will address the specifics of the Zotac board along with a number of other partner cards when we do a roundup soon.
The GTX280 card is 267mm long, which is roughly the same length as the 9800 GX2. Also like the GX2, it is completely enclosed by a metal shroud. This protects the delicate electronics from potential damage due to static or general knocks and scrapes and is a development we welcome with open arms.
Again like all nVidia's recent high-end cards, GTX280 uses a dual-slot heatsink/fan design that employs the slightly off-parallel fan alignment that debuted with the 8800 GTS 512. As we've come to expect, the cooler is very effective with it remaining near silent when idle and although it gets loud when under load it is a gentle whoosh rather than a high-pitched squeal or annoying buzz. The card does get very hot and will require a well ventilated case to ensure it doesn't cause stability problems but, again, this is something we would fully expect from a high-end graphics card.
As mentioned, the peak power draw is a hefty 236W. However, this is a worst case scenario and nVidia has employed some great power saving measures that result in idle power being a mere 25W and power draw during accelerated video playback will only rise to 32W. These are very impressive figures that do make you wonder about the merits of HybridPower, especially as we've found the chipsets that support this power saving feature consume significant amounts of power themselves.
Even though the card can draw very little power, it still won't work without both auxiliary PCI-Express power sockets correctly connected - something that will be made obvious by an LED on the expansion bracket, which glows red if the card hasn't enough power. nVidia hasn't gone so far as to use the glowing PCI-Express sockets it used on the GX2 but that was really more of a bling feature than a necessity.
Hidden under rubber flaps along the top of the card are the SLI connectors and an S/PDIF socket. The former enables dual- and triple-SLI configurations and the latter brings the ability to carry digital audio out through the video connections. This supports two-channel LPCM at up to 192KHz, six-channel Dolby Digital at up to 48KHz and DTS 5.1 at up to 96KHz. It doesn't cover every option, with eight-channel LPCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio being obvious omissions, but it is enough for all but the most elaborate home cinema setups. A DVI-to-HDMI adapter is provided for utilising this.
Outputs are standard fare with two dual-link DVI-I connectors and a seven-pin analogue video connector that supports S-Video natively as well as composite and component via a break-out dongle. Both DVI connections support HDCP encryption so can be used to play back copy-protected HD content like Blu-ray discs.
Video acceleration is the same level as that seen on the 9000-series with H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 all benefitting from GPU acceleration. There's also the questionably useful image post processing, dynamic contrast enhancement, and blue, green and skin tone enhancements that were recently introduced.