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Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB Graphics Card

The GTS 250 shares the same GPU core as the 9800 GTX+, a midrange gaming graphics card. Though the core is unchanged, the PCB has undergone some revision, perhaps to reduce power consumption. That could be one explanation for the smaller heatsink atop Sparkle’s 1GB version of the GTS 250.

Mar. 30, 2009 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB
SXS2501024D3-NM
PCI-E Graphics Card
Manufacturer
Street Price
~US$150

nVidia has received a lot of flak for their newest GPU, the GeForce GTS 250.
The name would seem to indicate a slightly cut-down version of the GTX 260,
but it is a simple renaming of the 9800 GTX+, a midrange gaming card marketed
to compete against ATI’s Radeon
HD 4850
. Revising nomenclature is nothing new to nVidia, after all the
entire 9800 series was fabricated out of the 8800 series. The 9800 GT is actually
a 8800GT and the 9800 GTX+, is an overclocked 9800 GTX, which in-turn is a really
a G92 8800 GTS. With the economic climate worsening and demand for high-end
graphics dwindling, there’s no telling how many more times nVidia will recycle
the venerable G92 core.

While nVidia did not touch the GPU core, the PCB has undergone some changes.
There are two different GTS 250 board designs floating around — one is 9″
long with a single power connector, while the second is 9.5″ long with
two power connectors. The reference 9800 GTX+ is 10.5″ long so some changes,
probably to power regulation have been implemented, even if the core itself
has been left untouched. The 250 is also available with three different memory
sizes: 512MB, 1GB, and a whopping 2GB.


The box.

The card we’re examining is made by Sparkle Computer — not in any way
related to Sparkle Power. Not a huge name in the industry, Sparkle Computer
seems to focus their sole attention on producing graphics cards.


The box contents include two power adapters, a S/PDIF cable and driver
CD.

Our sample is a 1GB model with a native HDMI port, though a S/PDIF cable is
still required to patch through audio. The card is equipped with a uniquely
designed heatsink rather than the common all-encompassing box coolers residing
on most GTS 250s and GTX series cards.

Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB: Specifications
(from the
product web page
)
Model number SXS2501024D3-NM
Graphics Processing NVIDIA GeForce GTS250
Stream Processors 128
Core Clock 738MHz
Memory Clock 2200MHz
Memory Type 1024MB GDDR3
Memory Interface 256Bit
Shader Clock 1836MHz
Bus Type PCI-Express 2.0
RAMDAC 400 MHz

 


Technical specifications according to GPU-Z.

According to GPU-Z, our GTS 250 sample shares the same number of shaders and
core/memory/shader frequency as a reference 9800 GTX+. Nothing surprising here.

PHYSICAL DETAILS


A spiral-type heatsink is employed to cool the GPU core. A metal cover
spans the length of the card, presumably to direct airflow over the PCB.
However, this may also trap the hot air emanating from various components.
The fan is made of translucent plastic and has a span of 74 mm.

 


The card has two 6-pin power connectors on the side of the card, sides
so it does not add to card’s overall length of 24.1 cm. On the top side
of the card is a S/PDIF connector to feed in an audio source for the card’s
HDMI port. There is a small vent on the interior end of the cooler just
above a VRM heatsink.

 


A side view shows the card’s memory chips are bare.

 


The back panel features a native HDMI port, as well as the standard VGA
and DVI-I outputs.

 

THE COOLER & INSTALLATION

Note that all testing on the card was performed before the cooler was removed.
Warning — removing the heatsink from a card generally voids the product’s
warranty. Do so at your own risk.


Removing the heatsink is a trivial task as it is attached by four screws
and a back-plate. The mounting holes form a 53.5 mm square around the
GPU core, the same as the Radeon 3850/3870/4850/4870.

 


With the cooler off we can see that an ample amount of thermal compound
was used, though the heatsink’s copper core isn’t lined up to the core
properly. The memory chips are made by Hynix and are rated for 1200 MHz,
a full 100 MHz higher than stock.

 


The heatsink is a three piece assembly consisting of the cover, the heatsink,
and mounting brackets, each layer secured to the main cooler via screws.
The fins of the heatsink are 0.9 mm thick.

 


The card installed in our test system.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Our test procedure is an in-system test, designed to:

1. Determine whether the card’s cooler is adequate for use in a low-noise system.
By adequately cooled, we mean cooled well enough that no misbehavior
related to thermal overload is exhibited. Thermal misbehavior in a graphics
card can show up in a variety of ways, including:

  • Sudden system shutdown, bluescreen or reboot without warning.
  • Jaggies and other visual artifacts on the screen.
  • Motion slowing and/or screen freezing.

Any of these misbehaviors are annoying at best and dangerous at worst —
dangerous to the health and life span of the graphics card, and sometimes to
the system OS.

2. Estimate the card’s power consumption. This is a good indicator of how efficient
the card is and will have an effect on how hot the stock cooler becomes due
to power lost in the form of heat. The lower the better.

3. Determine the card’s ability to play back high definition video, to see
if whether it is a suitable choice for a home theater PC.

Test Platform

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Testing Procedures

Our first test involves recording the system power consumption using a Seasonic
Power Angel as well as CPU and GPU temperatures using SpeedFan and GPU-Z during
different states: Idle, under load with CPUBurn running to stress the processor,
and with CPUBurn and ATITool’s artifact scanner (or FurMark — whichever produces
higher power consumption) running to stress both the CPU and GPU simultaneously.
This last state mimics the stress on the CPU and GPU produced by a modern video
game. The software is left running until the GPU temperature remains stable
for at least 10 minutes. If artifacts are detected by ATITool or any other instability
is noted, the heatsink is deemed inadequate to cool the video card in our test
system.

If the heatsink has a fan, the load state tests are repeated at various fan
speeds while the system case fan is left at its lowest setting of 7V. If the
card utilizes a passive cooler, the system fan is varied instead to study the
effect of system airflow on the heatsink’s performance. System noise measurements
are made at each fan speed.

Power consumption is also measured during playback of a variety of video clips
with PowerDVD to test the efficiency of the card’s H.264/VC-1 hardware acceleration.

Video Test Suite


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is a H.264 encoded clip inside an Apple
Quicktime container.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~8mbps
WMV-HD:
Coral Reef Adventure Trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the WMV3
codec commonly recognized by the “WMV-HD” moniker.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~19mbps
VC-1: Drag Race is a recording of a scene from
network television re-encoded with TMPGEnc using the WVC1 codec, a more
demanding VC-1 codec.

 

Estimating DC Power

The following power efficiency figures were obtained for the
Seasonic S12-600
used in our test system:

Seasonic S12-500 / 600 TEST RESULTS
DC Output (W)
65.3
89.7
148.7
198.5
249.5
300.2
AC Input (W)
87.0
115.0
183.1
242.1
305.0
370.2
Efficiency
75.1%
78.0%
81.2%
82.0%
81.8%
81.1%

This data is enough to give us a very good estimate of DC demand in our
test system. We extrapolate the DC power output from the measured AC power
input based on this data. We won’t go through the math; it’s easy enough
to figure out for yourself if you really want to.

TEST RESULTS

BASELINE, with Integrated Graphics: To establish a baseline, we measured
the power consumption of our test system using integrated graphics, at both
idle and while stressed with CPUburn

VGA Test Bed: Baseline Results
(no discrete graphics card installed)
System
State
CPU
Temp
System Power
AC
DC (Est.)
Idle
22°C
73W
Unknown
CPUBurn
39°C
144W
115W
Ambient temperature: 21°C
Ambient noise level: 11 dBA
System noise level: 12 dBA

Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB:

VGA Test Bed: Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB
System
State
VGA Fan Speed
SPL
@1m
GPU
Temp
CPU
Temp
System Power
AC
DC (Est.)
Idle
35%
14 dBA
40°C
23°C
97W
74W
CPUBurn
40°C
41°C
170W
137W
CPUBurn + ATITool
63%
24 dBA
73°C
49°C
246W
202W
CPUBurn + FurMark
86%
27 dBA
84°C
52°C
292W
239W
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

The Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 acoustics were more or less like a typical midrange
graphics card. Idle, it was fairly quiet, increasing the measured SPL of our
test system by only 2 dB, though it did hum and click somewhat. Luckily, much
of this was masked once behind the case’s side panel. Upon stress, the fan sped
up almost immediately, becoming increasingly buzzy and whiny. The system noise
level topped out an annoying 27 dBA with CPUBurn and FurMark running.

The heatsink kept the GPU very cool, reaching a maximum of just 73°C when
stressed with ATITool. We would have preferred the fan not spin quite so fast,
as temperatures in the low 80’s are perfectly acceptable in our book. When stressed
with FurMark, the GPU temperature maxed out at 84°C and the system power
consumption neared 300W AC.

Fan Control

Our sample did not ship with any utility for monitoring or fan control. For
those who wish to control the fan’s speed directly, it is possible to do so
with RivaTuner.

RivaTuner: Fan control tab.

While the fan’s speed can be manipulated in a linear progression between 35%
and 100% with RivaTuner, actually there are only three or four ‘stages’ of fan
speed. For example, the 35% and 40% setting sound identical — the fan speed
does not actually change until it is set past a threshold. By contrast, the
card’s automatic fan control has a smoother, more extensive range.

POWER

The power consumption of an add-on video card can be estimated by comparing
the total system power draw with and without the card installed. Our results
were derived thus:

1. Power consumption of the graphics card at idle – When CPUBurn is
run on a system, the video card is not stressed at all, and stays in idle mode.
This is true whether the video card is integrated or an add-on PCIe 16X device.
Hence, when the power consumption of the base system under CPUBurn is subtracted
from the power consumption of the same test with the graphics card installed,
we obtain the increase in idle power of the add-on card over the
integrated graphics chip (Intel GMA950). (The actual idle power
of the add-on card cannot be derived, because the integrated graphics does draw
some power — we’d guess no more than a watt or two.)

2. Power consumption of the graphics card under load – The power draw
of the system is measured with the add-on video card, with CPUBurn and FurMark
running simultaneously. Then the power of the baseline system (with integrated
graphics) running just CPUBurn is subtracted. The difference is the load power
of the add-on card. (If you want to nitpick, the 1~2W power of the integrated
graphics at idle should be added to this number.) Any load on the CPU from FurMark
should not skew the results, since the CPU was running at full load in both
systems.

Both results are scaled by the efficiency of the power supply (tested
here
) to obtain a final estimate of the DC power consumption.

Power Consumption Comparison (DC)
Card
Est. Power (Idle)
Est. Power (ATITool)
Est. Power (FurMark)
Asus EN9800GT 512MB
32W
72W
80W
ATI HD 4830 512MB*
18W
80W
87W
Sparkle GTS 250 1GB
22W
87W
124W
Diamond HD 4850 512MB
50W
101W
N/A
Asus ENGTX260 896MB
35W
122W
N/A
ATI HD 4870 1GB
67W
121W
134W
* sample with unknown number of stream processors

Our Sparkle GTS 250 1GB sample exhibited relatively low idle power consumption
compared to other gaming-oriented cards. Among tested card the same league,
only our HD 4830 sample consumed
less power when the system is idle, and even then only 4W less. When stressed
however, the GTS 250 can use as much as 124W DC by our estimates.

Video Playback Power Consumption (AC)
Card
Rush Hour
(H.264)
Coral Reef
(WMV-HD)
Drag Race
(VC-1)
Asus EN9800GT 512MB
119W
127W
141W
ATI HD 4830 512MB*
131W
139W
153W
Sparkle GTS 250 1GB
133W
136W
164W
Diamond HD 4850 512MB
123W
134W
160W
Asus ENGTX260 896MB
136W
151W
176W
ATI HD 4870 1GB
183W
176W
199W
* sample with unknown number of stream processors

For video playback, the faster 3D cards all draw relatively high power. The
GTS 250 holds its own against its main rival, the HD
4850
. In the big picture, this probably isn’t going to sway any gamer
to one card or another. The faster the card, the more power its going to draw,
whether during video playback or intense gaming.

MP3 SOUND RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high
resolution, lab quality, digital recording system
inside SPCR’s
own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber
, then converted to LAME 128kbps
encoded MP3s. We’ve listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation
from the original WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of
what we heard during the review.

These recordings are intended to give you an idea of how the product sounds
in actual use — one meter is a reasonable typical distance between a computer
or computer component and your ear. The recording contains stretches of ambient
noise that you can use to judge the relative loudness of the subject. Be aware
that very quiet subjects may not be audible — if we couldn’t hear it from
one meter, chances are we couldn’t record it either!

The recording starts with 5~10 seconds of room ambiance, followed by 5~10 seconds
of the VGA test system without a video card installed, and then the actual product’s
noise at various levels. As this particular card did not add any noise the test
system, we have provided only a recording of the test system with its system
fan set to the levels tested. For the most realistic results, set the
volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then don’t
change the volume setting again.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Gaming: Please check out the gaming-oriented reviews of the GTS 250
1GB at Tech
Report
, techPowerUp,
and Legit
Reviews
, The general consensus is that it is more or less equivalent
to the HD 4850, and offers slightly better performance than the 512MB version
of the GTS 250/9800 GTX+ when image quality settings and resolution are cranked
up.

Cooling/Noise: The cooler employed by Sparkle does an adequate job
cooling the GPU. It is practically inaudible when idle, but when the fan speed
increases under load, it becomes too loud for SPCR. This is classic low-cost,
brute-force fan cooling: A fan that spins fast enough is a cheaper alternative
to a larger, more costly heatsink. Most of the contemporary graphics cards we’ve
tested in the past year or so, the HD 4830/4850/4870
and GTX 260 for example,
all generate less noise on full load than the Sparkle GTS 250. The heatsink
seems too small to cool the card effectively unless the fan speed is cranked
up.

Power Consumption: By our estimates, the Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB
requires approximately 22W when idle and up to 124W DC when stressed to the
limit. The idle figure is impressively low for a card of the GTS 250’s caliber.
The load figure is more or less what you’d expect given the 3D performance.
It should also be noted that our sample is 9.5″ long with two power connectors,
while some GTS 250’s are 0.5″ shorter with only one power connector. These
slimmed down versions may be even more power efficient.

Overall, the Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB is a good midrange graphics card with
a competitive price-point to battle the Radeon HD 4850. It has a native HDMI
port (though a S/PDIF feed is needed for audio) and it is very quiet and power
efficient when idle. Once the GPU is stressed, however, the fan kicks into overdrive
to compensate for the undersized heatsink, making it unsuitable for any silent/quiet
PC. Among GTS 250 variants, this one may have the dubious distinction of the
cooler with the smallest surface area. With such a small heatsink on a card
that can draw more than 120W of power, it’s no wonder that the fan has to ramp
up to high speed under load. For silent PC gamers, a better aftermarket heasink/fan
replacement is probably mandatory with this Sparkle.

Sparkle GeForce GTS 250 1GB
PROS

* Quiet when idle
* Low idle power
* Native HDMI port

CONS

* Heatsink too small; has a loud fan to compensate

Our thanks to Sparkle
Computer
for the
video card sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Asus EN9400GT Silent Edition
Asus
Radeon HD 4870 Matrix


PowerColor SCS HD4650: A Fanless Budget Graphics Card

Asus
EN9800GT Matrix Edition

Filling
the Gap: ATI Radeon HD 4830

Redefining Budget Gaming Graphics: ATI’s
HD 4670

Asus ENGTX260: A Quiet Graphics
Card for Gamers?

* * *

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