The question, as usual, comes down to the software. Nvidia provided us with a prerelease beta of a video transcoding application called BadaBoom, from a developer called Elemental. BadaBoom uses the GTX280 to transform a video file from one format to another, and the results are very fast, much faster than if you ran the same operation on a CPU-based program. Adobe has said that the next version of its Creative Suite will support GPU-based processing (and it's going to support graphics cards from both Nvidia and ATI). Apple has also recently announced that it will offer a similar GPU computer-programming language called OpenCL in the next version of its OS X operating system.
In other words, GPU computing is coming regardless of whether Intel likes it, and we expect programs that take advantage of it will be out before the end of the year. And, as we said earlier, we also expect that Nvidia will have another graphics card out before the end of the year. Thus, we fully endorse the idea of moving appropriate tasks to the 3D card, but if you can't buy software that will do that today, it doesn't make sense to spend $650 for that purpose now either, especially if it's possible that a better 3D card than the GTX280 is available for the same price around the same time the software is ready. It's also worth pointing out that all GeForce cards from the 8000 series on up support Cuda-based GPU processing (pending driver support), so you may already be prepared to take advantage of the new software when it comes.
Parallel to general computing on the GPU, Nvidia is also touting the GTX280's support for its recently acquired PhysX game physics software. As with Cuda, all GeForce 8000 series graphics cards on up will support physics processing on the GPU for games that use the PhysX standard, although Nvidia says that while the GTX200-series will support hardware physics with a new software driver out this week, older cards that can support it won't get support until the third quarter.
Game physics is a poorly understood concept right now, and we suspect not something most gamers really want to have to think about. Right now there are two major physics standards, PhysX and the more prevalent Havok, the owners of which, also called Havok, announced an alliance with AMD last week. Both can run on your CPU, but as physics processing is a parallel data task, the GPU looks like a more promising alternative.
Thus far, hardware-based physics in games has mostly involved either relatively unimpressive, superficial effects (like more debris per explosion), or specialized, one-off levels. The reason is that few gamers have sprung for standalone PhysX cards (whose developer, Ageia, Nvidia acquired earlier this year), and game developers don't want to isolate customers who can't support the added effects. With the capability to move the physics processing to the 3D card, we may eventually see more games where material and objects have more realistic behavior. We hope that we do. But going full-bore on PhysX means that game developers would again lose gamers who can't support it. As the installed base of supporting 3D cards grows, hardware-based physics in games will grow. And with Nvidia's backing, PhysX may eventually become the de facto standard. But until both of those issues are sorted out, we don't expect any game to take advantage of either standard in a meaningful way throughout the core gameplay.
From a buying perspective, Nvidia has listed several games coming out this year and next that will offer some kind of PhysX support. But again, they're not out yet, we don't know to what extent they'll take advantage of PhysX, nor can we say what that support will do to your overall frame rate. We think the concept of hardware physics is great, but we're wary of buying expensive hardware today for the above-stated reasons.
In addition to its processing power, the GTX280 also brings some familiar additional capabilities. It can, of course transmit protected HD video content, including Blu-ray movies, and at full 1080p resolution. As before, you'll need a separate audio cable (included in the box from Asus) to drive audio out through the video ports if you have a DVI-to-HDMI adapter. If you have an AMD CPU-based Nvidia Nforce 700a series motherboard, the GTX2 series will also support HybridPower, Nvidia's power management technology that throttles down your graphics cards' power consumption when it's not doing a lot of work. And of course, the GTX280 and the GTX260 are SLI capable, which means you can use two, or even three cards in the same system provided you can supply them with enough power, and that you have at least one other PCI-Express graphics card slot.
Getting it to work
About the power supply--like the GeForce 9800GX2 before it, the GTX280 requires one six-pin and one eight-pin connection to your PC's power supply unit. For a single card, Nvidia recommends at least a 550 watt PSU, for two or three you'll need between a 1,000-watt to a 1,500 watt PSU, depending on the rest of the hardware in your system. A single card won't require a more powerful PSU than we've come to expect in midrange gaming PCs, but for two- or three-way SLI that's a lot of power, and it's not cheap, with prices ranging from $250 to $400 for PSUs in that range of wattage. We did not find the GTX280 overly loud under load, at least, which we were happy to find.
As you may have surmised, we find it hard to get overly excited about the new features available on the GTX280, at least today. It's fast, there's no question about that, and for those wary of multichip solutions, that might be enough to justify a purchase. We expect you'll enjoy this card if you do. But similar to early GeForce 8000 series cards that offered DirectX 10 support before Windows Vista was out, the physics and GPU computing capabilities of the GTX280 has few applications to make use of today. You can argue that buying now is a wise future-proofing measure, and we suspect that when the software is ready it will indeed put the GTX280 to work. For our $650, we'd rather not have to wait for the software to catch up.
Test bed: Windows Vista SP1; 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650; EVGA NForce 780i motherboard; 2GB 1,142MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 750GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive.
Thanks to our GameSpot colleague Sarju Shah for providing us with benchmark results.