There's never been a more glorious time to be a PC gamer. Once regarded as the red-headed stepchild of games, more and more titles have begun calling the PC home, thanks to the rise of Steam and the inclusion of AMD hardware in both next-generation consoles, which makes porting efforts easier. But the power inside the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are roughly equivalent to a mid-range modern gaming rig--meaning they can't hold a flame to the glorious visual excess today's top graphics cards can pump out. The PC offers today's best gaming experiences, period.
This week we're going to bask in that. Over the coming days, we're going to showcase a trio of fire-breathing PC builds celebrating the best that Intel, Nvidia, and AMD have to offer. On Friday, we'll showcase the PC games that melt eyeballs and push hardware to extremes. But today, we'll kick things off by comparing the most powerful single-GPU graphics cards available today: Nvidia's GTX 980 and 970 versus AMD's Radeon R9 290X and R9 290.
Let the benchmarks begin!
The hardware we're using
If you're looking for nitty-gritty architectural details for these cards, you'll have to look elsewhere; this article is dedicated to raw performance, pricing, and highlight features. You know, real-world worries. But fear not: PCWorld's intro articles for the R9 290, R9 290X, and Nvidia's recently launched 900-series cards can get you up to speed on ROPs and memory clockspeeds.
Our GTX 970 is a special case. While AMD and Nvidia provided reference cards of the R9 290, R9 290X, and GTX 980, Nvidia didn't create physical reference cards for the GTX 970. EVGA graciously provided PCWorld with an EVGA GeForce GTX 970 FTW with ACX 2.0 (whew!) for testing.
The EVGA GTX 970 FTW utilizes a large heat sink under a pair of large fans, and the ACX cooling set-up has been redesigned from previous versions to provide more cooling oomph with less fan noise and a reduced power draw. That lets you get more substantial overclocks, which in turn boosts performance. In fact, the EVGA GTX 970 FTW comes with a beastly overclock already put in place at the factory--1216MHz core clock and 1367MHz boost clock--and ships with EVGA's vaunted PrecisionX overclocking software if you want to push it even further.
The extra performance comes at a price, of course: The EVGA GTX 970 FTW costs $370, or $40 more than the MSRP for "stock" GTX 970 cards. But every available GTX 970 card features some variance in cooling technology and clock speed, given the lack of an official Nvidia reference model.
Testing such beastly graphics cards requires a similarly face-melting test bench. We're using Intel's top-of-the-line $999 Core i7-5960X, an 8-core Haswell-E processor with hyperthreading, 20MB of cache, and 40 PCIe 3.0 lanes. It'll eliminate any possibility whatsoever that CPU bottlenecks will affect benchmarks. We paired it with the Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard, 16GB of Corsair's bleeding-edge Vengeance DDR4 memory, a 480GB Intel 730-series SSD, a closed-loop CPU cooler, a 1200W power supply, and a case also provided by Corsair. (Look for full details tomorrow when we show you how to build the rig.)
By the numbers
But enough spec talk! Let's dig into frame rates.
You'll notice a trend as we work our way through these: Nvidia's new cards--even the overclocked GTX 970--soundly beat AMD's top-end hardware when it comes to pure frame rates. That's not incredibly surprising, since Nvidia's "Big Maxwell" GPU architecture was revealed mere weeks ago, while AMD's R-series cards are going on a year old. There's more to this debate than pure graphics performance, however, which we'll cover after the raw numbers.
A quick note: All Radeon R9 290X figures are in "Uber" mode. Transitioning the card to "Quiet" mode usually only resulted in about a 1 frame-per-second difference in our tests.
We'll start with our old standby, Bioshock Infinite, an Unreal Engine 3 title. Modern high-end cards easily handle Columbia's floating cities, but it allows us to see how today's graphics hardware treats games that aren't utter benchmark hogs--and we can compare the results against PCWorld's stable of systems benchmarked in the past couple of years.
Next up we have Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition and Metro: Last Light Redux, two recent remakes of demanding games with built-in benchmark features. First up, Sleeping Dogs.
Note that we test Metro: Last Light with SSAA filtering disabled, since it looks gorgeous enough as-is and--more importantly--enabling it effectively drops frame rates in half. You very likely wouldn't play Metro with SSAA active, and we won't test it with SSAA active, either. We also disable Advanced PhysX. All graphics cards deliver respectable frame rates, but again, the GTX 900-series comes away with the overall win.
Crytek's Crysis series is known for its system-hammering beauty, and Ryse: Call of Rome packs an improved version of the Crytek engine to deliver even more beautiful visuals than Crysis 3. We benchmarked a consistently reproducible section of Ryse's opening combat scene using the FRAPS tool.
Alien: Isolation is a gorgeous new game with a built-in benchmarking tool. While it seems to be CPU-bound to some degree, we decided to toss it into the mix as well, as all the graphics card were tested using the same base PC. Nvidia's clear victory here comes as a bit of a surprise, as Alien: Isolation was developed as part of AMD's Gaming Evolved program.
Finally, we also tested the cards using the Unigine Valley and 3DMark 11 Fire Strike benchmarking tools.
Power, sound, and heat
Nvidia's cards hold the clear performance crown over AMD's, but they have another ace in the hole as well. The GTX 980 and 970 sport Nvidia's "Big Maxwell" GPU architecture, which adapted tricks learned from the Nvidia CPU team to increase power efficiency while still pushing performance. Indeed, our tests reveal that Nvidia's cards consume drastically less power than AMD's when under full load--more than 100 watts less.
Not shown in the benchmarks is how much cooler and quieter Nvidia's cards run compared to AMD's. While the R9 290 and R9 290X are a vast sonic improvement over past-generation Radeon hardware--which sometimes sounded like a plane taking off--they're still much louder than Nvidia's supremely quiet GeForce duo under full load. Peeking at GPU temperatures revealed a big reason why: The GTX 980 and 970 can run all day long under full load and top out at 72 degrees Celsius, while the Radeons chug along at 92 degrees. That much extra heat requires more fan power to keep cool, though to AMD's credit, its cards stayed stable even after long stress tests.
Read on for pricing, extra features, AMD's framerate-boosting Mantle technolovy, and other considerations that may turn the tide of this battle, as well as the final verdict.
So Nvidia's GTX 980 and 970 are faster, cooler, and quieter than AMD's R9 290 and R9 290X. Slam dunk, right? Not so fast.
While Nvidia's "Big Maxwell" cards are the clear performance leaders, AMD dramatically slashed Radeon prices after the launch of Nvidia's new architecture, and the company sweetens the deal with its "Never Settle" free game bundles. Radeon R9 290 cards have hit $290, down from their original $400 price point, while the R9 290X has dropped as low as $360, down from $550.
The $550 price point is now claimed by the GTX 980 alone--the clear single-GPU king of all graphics cards. But its price is a bit harder to swallow now, considering how swiftly and steeply AMD dropped Radeon prices--unless you're looking to buy the best of the best, period.
The GTX 970 is a more interesting proposition. The $370 EVGA GTX 970 FTW and its overclock outpunched even the R9 290X, while staying cooler and quieter to boot. Underclocking the card back to Nvidia's GTX 970 reference speeds still saw it going toe-to-toe with AMD's flagship, slightly trumping the R9 290X at 1080p resolution. (Results at 2560x1600 resolution were more mixed, with the two cards trading victories.) And remember, stock GTX 970s start at $330.
While it isn't nearly as powerful, AMD's R9 290 costs $40 less than a stock GTX 970, and AMD offers three free games of your choice when you purchase a R9-series graphics card. You can choose from a stable of 27 solid, but mostly slightly older titles, though you'll also find Alien: Isolation, Sniper Elite 3, and some Star Citizen modules, as well as a handful of indie options. That could be a deciding factor for frugal gamers, though many of the games can be picked up fairly cheap in a Steam sale or the odd Humble Bundle. Still, everybody likes free stuff, and this is a compelling offer.
Mantle and other extra features
Beyond the free games, AMD's TrueAudio and Mantle technologies are also trump cards--at least in games that support the technology. The former offloads digital audio processing from the CPU to a dedicated audio block in the GPU, comprised of Tensilica audio DSP cores, while the latter is an optional application programming interface that allows developers deeper access to your PC's hardware, opening the door for potentially enhanced performance.
The most notable Mantle frame rate increases occur in gaming rigs with limited CPU capabilities, however. Gamers purchasing ultra-high-end graphics cards likely have a decent processor to match--limiting Mantle's likely frame rate enhancements when used with the R9-series cards. But enabling Mantle was enough to push the R9 290X's frame rates slightly past the GTX 980 in Civilization: Beyond Earth's built-in benchmark at 2560x1600 resolution (measured using FRAPS starting when the screen goes black and the scene begins to load). Similar results were achieved in Sniper Elite 3: While Nvidia's cards outperformed AMD's using DirectX 11, enabling Mantle boosted the Radeon R9 290X slightly ahead of the GTX 980.
AMD also claims that enabling Mantle allows the R9 290X to juuuuust slightly triumph over Nvidia's champion at 4K resolution. I don't have a 4K monitor on hand for testing, but other sites have found that AMD's Radeon R9 290X actually beats (or at least ties) Nvidia's Maxwell cards at 4K fairly often, especially in Mantle-enabled titles.
Mantle can provide more than mere frame rate boosts however. Beyond Earth also leveraged Mantle's deeper control options to enable a "split-frame rendering" subsystem in multi-card setups, basically assigning each GPU a portion of the frame to render, rather than having the cards alternate rendering full frames, as is the norm in CrossFire and SLI setups. While this prevents raw frame rates from doubling, as you often see with multi-GPU setups, split-frame rendering reduces "microstuttering"--drastic variances in frame-to-frame rendering rates--and helps Civilization keep a smooth, responsive feel. Alas, I haven't had an opportunity to test this feature either.
While AMD has had some very high-profile titles embrace its technology--Civilization: Beyond Earth, Battlefield 4, Star Citizen, Sniper Elite 3, and Dragon Age: Inquisition among them--the majority of PC games do not support Mantle. It's also worth noting that using the flagship R9 290X, the Mantle-enabled games only slightly beat out the GTX 980. (As I said, performance gains would likely be greater in more modest gaming PCs.)
Nvidia, of course, has several unique features of its own, including VR Direct technology that improves latency when a GTX 980 or 970 is paired with an Oculus Rift, and "Dynamic Super Resolution," which enables the new GPUs to deliver 4K-quality graphics downsampled to a 1080p display. What's more, Nvidia cards can stream PC games to the company's Shield tablet, and Nvidia's ShadowPlay functionality is one of the best game recording tools available.
The bottom line
When all is said and done, however, Nvidia's cards are the clear winners here. Even taking AMD's Mantle and price drops into account, the GTX 970's performance and power efficiency is so incredibly compelling at $330 to $370 that it's hard to recommend buying an R9-series Radeon right now, unless you're going to be playing on a 4K monitor or think some combination of three free games outweighs Nvidia's advantages.
And I'm not the only one who thinks so: All GTX 970s are completely out of stock on Newegg at the time of this writing.
But the R9 series is nearly a year old. The rumor mill suggests we could see AMD's next-gen Radeon R9 300-series cards appear in the coming months, potentially featuring a 20nm manufacturing process more advanced than today's 28nm technology. One thing's for certain: AMD's Radeon response can't come soon enough. Nvidia's GTX 980 and GTX 970 are that damned good.