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AMD ATI Radeon HD 4890 Review

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £234.99

It hardly feels like it but it’s actually been nine months since AMD/ATI released its last single-chip high-end graphics card, the HD 4870. Now that may not be a great length of time in most walks of life but in the computer industry where we quite often see new releases every six months, that’s quite a stretch. Nevertheless, ATI has today launched the HD 4870s successor, the single-chip HD 4890.


Available immediately and, in the case of the XFX card we’re looking at, priced at £229.99, it’s about the same as the HD4870 was at launch and £60 more expensive than the HD4870 1GB is currently. This makes its nearest competitor from nVidia, the GTX 260 and will immediately alert you to the fact this is not a card meant to compete at the bleeding-edge in terms of performance. Still £200 can get you a heck of a lot of bang for your buck so let’s see how the HD 4890 holds up.


The card itself is outwardly very similar to the HD 4870 with the same 9.5in PCB length, identical dual slot cooler design, and same duo of extra power connections on its front edge. The video output configuration is also identical with two dual-link DVI sockets and a multi-format analogue output that natively supports S-Video but also outputs component and composite with the help of dongles. Meanwhile, the top edge of the PCB is home to the usual pair of Crossfire connectors.


Casting an eye over the specification of the actual graphics chip, reveals that the card looks pretty similar internally, as well. The HD 4890 still features 800 stream processors, 40 texture units, and 16 ROPs, communicating across a 256-bit wide interface to1GB of GDDR5 memory. However, this new chip has been completely reworked to enable it to run at higher clock speeds. Specifically, a ring of decoupling capacitors has been added round the whole chip to reduce signal noise and the relative timings of all the components have been tweaked.


The result isn’t particularly dramatic with just a 100MHz (13 per cent) increase of core clock speed but along with faster memory it should result in a noticeable boost in performance. Consequently the transistor count has gone up slightly, from 956 million to 959 million, but the difference is likely to have a negligible impact on production, and thus final board, costs.


ATI has also focussed on making the new card less power hungry when idling. We couldn’t get any specific details as to what measures had been taken to achieve this but ATI quotes that idle power has dropped from 90W on the HD 4870 to 60W on the HD 4890. Unfortunately this isn’t something that’s carried over to the card running at full pelt where the HD 4890 now consumes 190W, up from 160W on the HD 4870.


With so little changes to talk about we might as well get right onto testing.

As mentioned, our review sample is made by XFX but apart from the XFX sticker it is exactly the same as any other HD 4890 so can be considered a reference model. Unfortunately we didn’t receive a fully boxed retail sample so we can’t vouch for the accessories/extras you get. However, we’ve been informed that retails versions of the card will include a full copy of the Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X arcade flight sim game. Also included in the box will be a CrossFire bridge, a 6-pin to 4-pin power adapter, DVI to VGA and a DVI to HDMI dongles, an HDTV component adapter, and the all important XFX door hanger. All XFX cards are covered by a two year warranty.



Now, I’m sure most of you are aware that today was also the launch date (though very limited stock is available) for nVidia’s new card at this price range, the GeForce GTX 275. Unfortunately, we only received our card this morning so rather than shoehorn the two cards in together for a head to head, we’ve stuck to our schedule and will compare the HD 4890 to existing cards. Then tomorrow we’ll follow up with a full review of the GTX 275 and compare these two very evenly matched cards directly.


As for those existing cards, well there’s such a price gap, both above and below, the HD 4870 and GTX 260 that these are really the only major competition for the new HD 4890 so that’s what we’ve kept our comparisons to.


”’Test System”’

* Intel Core i7 965 Extreme Edition

* Asus P6T motherboard

* 3 x 1GB Qimonda IMSH1GU03A1F1C-10F PC3-8500 DDR3 RAM

* 150GB Western Digital Raptor

* Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit


”’Cards Tested”’

* ATI HD 4890

* ATI HD 4870

* nVidia GeForce GTX 260


”’Drivers”’

* ATI HD 4890 – Beta Driver

* Other ATI cards – Catalyst 9.2

* nVidia cards – 182.08


”’Games Tested”’

* Crysis

* Race Driver: GRID

* Call of Duty 4

* Counter-Strike: Source

While it hasn’t been a huge commercial success and its gameplay is far from revolutionary, the graphical fidelity of Crysis is still second to none and as such it’s still the ultimate test for a graphics card. With masses of dynamic foliage, rolling mountain ranges, bright blue seas, and big explosions, this game has all the eye-candy you could wish for and then some.


We test using the 64-bit version of the game patched to version 1.1 and running in DirectX 10 mode. We use a custom timedemo that’s taken from the first moments at the start of the game, wandering around the beach. Surprisingly, considering its claustrophobic setting and graphically rich environment, we find that any frame rate above 30fps is about sufficient to play this game. All in-game settings are set to high for our test runs and we test with both 0xAA and 2xAA.




In line with its 13 per cent core clock speed increase, the HD 4890 shows a similar increase in performance in Crysis, opening up a comfortable lead over both the HD 4870 and GTX 260 throughout our testing. It’s early days but this is certainly a good start for the HD 4890.

Call of Duty 4 has to be one of our favourite games of 2007. It brought the Call of Duty brand bang up to date and proved that first person shooters didn’t need to have the best graphics, or the longest game time. It was just eight hours of pure adrenaline rush that constantly kept you on edge.


We test using the 64-bit version of the game patched to version 1.4. FRAPS is used to record frame rates while we manually walk through a short section of the second level of the game. We find a frame rate of 30fps is quite sufficient because, although the atmosphere is intense, the gameplay is less so – it doesn’t hang on quick reactions and high-speed movement. All in-game settings are set to their maximum and we test with 0xAA and 4xAA.




The trend continues in this game with the HD 4890 proving to be by far the pick of the bunch.

What can we say about Counter-Strike: Source that hasn’t already been said before? It is quite simply the benchmark for team-based online shooters and, five years after its release, it’s still one of the most popular games in its genre. It focuses on small environments and incredibly intensive small-scale battles with one-shot kills the order of the day. If you want to test all elements of your first person shooter skills in one go, this is the game to do it.


We test using the 64-bit version of the game using a custom timedemo taken during a game against bots on the cs_militia map. This has a large amount of foliage and is generally one of the most graphically intensive maps available. We find a frame rate of at least 60fps is required for serious gaming as this game relies massively on quick, accurate reactions that simply can’t be compromised by dropped frames. All in-game settings are set to their maximum and we test with 0xAA 0xAF, 2xAA 4xAF, and 4xAA 8xAA.




As we’re beginning to see more and more often, Counter-Strike: Source really doesn’t pose a threat to graphics cards of this calibre. There’s simply nothing to choose between the three cards on test.

Race Driver: GRID is the newest game in our testing arsenal and it’s currently one of our favourites too. Its combination of arcade style thrills and spills with a healthy dose of realism and extras like Flashback makes it a great pick-up-and-go driving game. It’s also visually stunning with beautifully rendered settings, interactive crowds, destructible environments, and stunning lighting. All that and it’s not the most demanding game on hardware, either.


We test using the 64-bit version of the game, patched to version 1.2, and running in DirectX 10 mode. FRAPS is used to record frame rates while we manually complete one circuit of the Okutama Grand Circuit, in a Pro Tuned race on normal difficulty. We find a frame rate of at least 40fps is required to play this game satisfactorily as significant stutters can ruin your timing and precision. We’d also consider 4xAA as a minimum as the aliasing on the straight lines of track, barriers, and car bodies is a constant distraction. All in-game settings are set to their maximum and we test with 0xAA and 4xAA.




Finishing off a clean sweep, the HD 4890 again shows itself to be well and truly the best in class. So nVidia’s challenge in this price segment really does ride on how the GTX 275 performs when we look at it tomorrow.

”’Power Consumption”’


Despite ATI’s efforts to reduce the idle power consumption of the HD 4890, the real world reduction we’ve observed is not as significant as the expected 30W, indeed it’s just 5W. More to the point, though, nVidia’s GTX 260 holds a significant lead in this regard. It’s a similar, though less dramatic, story when the cards are under load but here the performance advantage of the HD 4890 compensates for the fact it is the most power hungry. All in all, the HD 4890 holds its own with regards to power consumption.


”’Verdict”’


The ATI Radeon HD 4890 actually brings very little in the way of surprises to the table. ATI has gone away and tweaked the design of an existing product, the HD 4870, and optimised it to go a bit faster and consume, relatively speaking, less power. The result is a card that should be the first choice for people looking to spend around £200 to upgrade from either a card in a lower price bracket or from a card that’s a year or more old.


If you already own something like an HD 4870 or GTX 260, then the small performance difference may come as a slight disappointment but I don’t feel this is something that can be cause for serious complaint. If you’ve spent £200 on a graphics card and want to get a significant performance boost nine months later then you should expect to be paying a significant amount more. That said, if you can put off your purchase for another four to six months then that £200 will likely get you a more marked performance improvement.


As for the GTX 275, well looking round the web it looks pretty clear that the GTX 275 performs on a par with the HD 4890 and is priced very similarly, so we’ll definitely have to withhold our definitive judgement until we’ve tested it ourselves. For now, though, what we can say is that you’re unlikely to be disappointed whichever card you choose.

Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Value 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

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