There's probably no more controversial topic in PC gaming than whether AMD's or Nvidia's video cards are superior. The debate has brought many a forum thread to virtual fisticuffs. Here at The Tech Buyer's Guru, we're not so interested in taking sides, as we'd rather just find the best video card picks for our readers. And while we could recommend every single video card on the market, which conveniently stratify themselves into different niches by price, we won't fall into that trap. Just because AMD and Nvidia are playing a game with consumers (and to a lesser extent with each other), there are in fact optimal picks and less optimal picks at every price point.
Our Video Card Rankings guide our readers in differentiating between previous-gen and current-gen cards, and with our new series, the "State of the Game Report," we'll compare some of the most popular cards on the market today, benched in the hottest games. And take note: we're going to be clear with you on the drivers and game patches we're running, because you really do need that information in front of you to make an educated decision on video card purchases. While it's easy to find benchmarks that list dozens of cards in various games, we can absolutely, positively guarantee you that they're not running them all on the latest patches and drivers. That would simply be impossible to do every time a new video card is reviewed. Furthermore, while there are also plenty of benchmarks released as soon as hot new games hit virtual store shelves, we can also guarantee you that these aren't going to hold up over time. The fact is that no game released today is in a final state, and patches over the first few month's of a game's lifespan can dramatically impact (and ideally improve) performance. That's not to mention the driver updates that play a huge role in performance, and given that most games today are sponsored by AMD or Nvidia, release-date benches will almost always favor one manufacturer or the other. Again, we won't play that "game."
So it is that we have selected three of the most popular, most award-winning, and most visually-impressive games on the market today for a bench-off among four top-selling video cards. While all of our sample cards came factory-overclocked, we ignored those settings, using MSI Afterburner to dial in reference clocks as well as the highest stable manual overclock we could achieve. Note that the clock speeds for the Nvidia GeForce cards represent in-game peak clock speeds, rather than the reported (but essentially fictional) base clock rates. Also note that we used an XFX Radeon R9 290X 8GB to emulate a 390X 8GB - they are identical in everything but name.
- Sapphire Radeon R9 290 Tri-X 4GB (tested at 947MHz/5000MHz and 1075MHz/5800MHz), running Radeon Crimson Edition 16.2.1 Hotfix Drivers, dated 2.29.16
- XFX Radeon R9 290X 8GB (tested at 1050MHz/6000MHz and 1100MHz/6600MHz), running Radeon Crimson Edition 16.2.1 Hotfix Drivers, dated 2.29.16
- EVGA GeForce GTX 970 FTW 4GB (tested at 1250MHz/7000MHz and 1500MHz/7800MHz), running GeForce 162.00 WHQL Drivers, dated 3.1.16
- EVGA GeForce GTX 980 SC 4GB (tested at 1253MHz/7000MHz and 1501MHz/7800MHz), running GeForce 162.00 WHQL Drivers, dated 3.1.16
We want to be clear that we chose not to adjust voltage in our overclocking endeavors. It's fairly well known that in general, AMD Radeon cards respond more positively to voltage than Nvidia GeForce cards (which sometimes drop in performance with voltage!), so we're sure there are readers out there who will point to this as a sign of bias. In our opinion, however, high-voltage overclocking appeals to a very niche audience, and it's not something that's even supported on all cards, let alone all overclocking software. Could the AMD cards have hit core clock rates about 50-75MHz higher that we achieved with the use of voltage adjustments? Yes, probably. But we don't think the extra 4-5% performance boost (taking into consideration the non-linear benefits of core clock increases) would change our overall findings significantly. If you enjoy overclocking with voltage, simply add 5% to all the Radeon OC results and you'll have the results you're looking for, although not necessarily the results you'll be able to achieve depending on the particular silicon you might end up with. In fact, that goes for all of our overclocks - we've found through testing of multiple samples of the same GPUs over time that overclocking absolutely varies between not just brands, but individual GPUs. We have tested Radeon HD 7850 samples that could easily punch through 1100MHz, while others stalled at 1025MHz. We have GTX 980 Ti cards that can hit 1450Mhz easily at stock voltage, while others struggle to hit 1400MHz with a voltage boost. And we have reference cards that far out-perform custom-cooled models. They don't call it a silicon lottery for nothing!
We performed our benchmarks on the following test system:
- CPU: Intel Core i7-6700K (overclocked to 4.4GHz)
- Motherboard: Asus Z170-A (thanks to Newegg and Asus for providing this review sample)
- RAM: G.Skill Ripjaws4 4x8GB DDR4-3000
- Solid-State Drive: Samsung 850 Evo M.2 500GB
- Power Supply: EVGA Supernova GS 850W
- Case: Phanteks Evolv
- CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U14S (thanks to Noctua for providing this review sample)
- Operating System: Windows 10
- Monitor: Acer XB270HU
As far as resolution goes, we tested at the two most popular standards today, 1920x1080 and 2560x1440, setting our high-refresh-rate monitor to 120Hz at both resolutions and shutting off Nvidia's proprietary G-Sync.
Here are the three games we benched:
- Grand Theft Auto V (Patch 1.32, Feb. 11, 2016)
- The Witcher 3 (Patch 1.12, Jan. 11, 2016)
- Rise of the Tomb Raider (Patch 1.0.629.3, Mar. 1, 2016)
Note that Rise of the Tomb Raider is a borderline choice for this roundup, as it's still in the midst of receiving performance upgrades. We'd typically prefer to avoid benching such a new game, but it's so cutting-edge, and so well-received, that we just couldn't pass up the opportunity. Luckily, we were able to bench it with the latest patch, released at the beginning of March 2016, just before we started our testing. That patch added stereoscopic 3D to the game, which is a nice bonus feature, but it was in fact a mid-February patch that actually directly addressed GPU performance. That's the kind of update that can quickly make launch-day benches obsolete. We realize that additional patches may in turn make our benches obsolete, but we're hoping for the best! As for the other two games, they've been out over six months at this point, so we're hoping that most game and driver optimizations have been implemented at this point.
Finally, there are two elephants in the room that we'd be remiss not to address: overclocking headroom and driver performance over time. As it happens, they cut in different ways depending on manufacturer. First, in the current generation of cards on the market, AMD's Radeon GPUs are most definitely spec'd with a reference clock much closer to their limit than Nvidia's GeForce cards are. That's why you see so many custom GeForce cards with 100-150MHz factory overclocks, while most factory-tuned Radeon cards have 10-30MHz overclocks. That hasn't always been the case (the Radeon HD 5850, for example, had far more OC headroom than its direct competitor, the GeForce GTX 470), and it may change when next-gen GPUs arrive later this year. But for now, among current-gen products, you can generally count on GeForce cards to be better overclockers, even when overvolting is taken into account. Very lucky Radeon R9 390X owners might get to 12% over reference, while 980 owners are almost guaranteed a 16% overclock, for example.
As to drivers, we've found that AMD generally improves its performance more over time than Nvidia does. That could be viewed in two ways: either Nvidia does a better job optimizing out of the gate, or AMD spends more time providing further optimizations to current-gen and even previous-gen hardware. There's no way for us to know what the truth is here, but we know based on our own testing, for instance, that Nvidia's Kepler generation of cards, including the vaunted GTX 780 Ti 3GB, simply have not held up that well over time, and our Radeon R9 290 sample, which at one time was a class or two below the 780 Ti, can now generally perform equally-well in the latest games. As for the current Nvidia Maxwell generation of cards, well, that's what we're testing today, so you can be the judge of how they're holding up against their Radeon compeition. We can't tell you what will happen in future games, but with the three popular games we're testing here, we do indeed have some answers.
So, without further ado, let's turn to our 1080p benchmarks!