Graphics Cards: Choose the Best Board for Your Budget

The Mainstream Gamer ($350):
AMD Radeon HD 6970 vs. Nvidia GeForce GTX 570

Farther up the line are AMD’s Radeon HD 6970 and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 570. Each card costs from $300 to $350. Although they’re a little pricier than budget offerings, your investment will pay off in the long run: Neither card will be obsolete anytime soon, and both will tackle the latest and greatest games with all the bells and whistles cranked up.

SYNTHETIC BENCHMARKS
TestSettingAMD Radeon HD 6970Nvidia GeForce GTX 570
3DMark 11 Performance 5326 5603
Extreme 1736 1813
Unigine Heaven 2.5 1920 by 1200 39.7 fps 42.0 fps
1920 by 1200, 4xAA 34.5 fps 34.5 fps
2560 by 1600 24.4 fps 25.1 fps
2560 by 1600, 4xAA 21.6 fps 20.8 fps
REAL-WORLD GAMES
TestSettingAMD Radeon HD 6970Nvidia GeForce GTX 570
Crysis 2 1920 by 1200 39.3 fps 46.0 fps
1920 by 1200, 4xAA 34.8 fps 42.6 fps
2560 by 1600 22.9 fps 26.7 fps
2560 by 1600, 4xAA 20.6 fps 24.6 fps
Dirt 3 1920 by 1200 64.2 fps 69.1 fps
1920 by 1200, 4xAA 60.9 fps 62.1 fps
2560 by 1600 42.6 fps 44.9 fps
2560 by 1600, 4xAA 40.5 fps 41.0 fps

CHART NOTES: 4xAA = 4x antialiasing; fps = frames per second. For all scores, higher (shown in red) is better. For more information about interpreting 3DMark 11 scores, visit 3DMark.com.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 570
On our benchmark tests, the HD 6970 regularly trailed the GTX 570, but the margins were even tighter this time around. On Unigine Heaven at 1920 by 1200 resolution without antialiasing, the GTX 570 managed to stay ahead of the HD 6970 by a scant 2.3 frames per second. When we cranked the resolution up to 2560 by 1600 and turned antialiasing on, their roles briefly reversed: The HD 6970 reached a rate of 21.6 fps, versus the GTX 570’s 20.8 fps. Blink, and you’ll miss the difference.

On real-world games the results were a little more noticeable: At 2560 by 1600 with antialiasing, the HD 6970 ran Dirt 3 at 40.5 fps, whereas the GTX 570 chugged along at 41.0 fps. In Crysis 2 at the same settings, the gap was a bit more pronounced, with AMD’s card managing 20.6 fps and Nvidia’s card achieving 24.6 fps. Keep in mind that we got these results at the maximum available settings on 30-inch monitors. Mere mortals equipped with 24-inch panels set at 1920 by 1200 (or a lower resolution) can enjoy these games in all their glory on either card, without compromises.

AMD Radeon HD 6970
This race boils down to features, and again AMD takes top honors in that respect: The HD 6970 is outfitted with two DVI ports, a pair of mini-DisplayPort ports, and an HDMI connector. The GTX 570 offers two DVI ports and an HDMI port. As for power consumption, under load the HD 6970 draws 233 watts, versus the GTX 570’s 267 watts.

Winner: AMD Radeon HD 6970
After you’ve spent $350 (or less) on this card, you should have enough left in your wallet to grab a third monitor; Eyefinity will serve you well. And even if you stick with two screens (or just one), you’ll save money without suffering many drawbacks--feel free to buy extra RAM, or that nice keyboard you’ve been eyeing.

The Well-Heeled Gamer ($700):
AMD Radeon HD 6990 vs. Nvidia GeForce GTX 590

These are the graphics cards that legends are made of: You won’t find AMD's Radeon HD 6990 or Nvidia's GeForce GTX 590 for less than $700. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them at all, owing to seriously limited supply.

SYNTHETIC BENCHMARKS
TestSettingAMD Radeon HD 6990Nvidia GeForce GTX 590
3DMark 11 Performance 9230 9096
Extreme 3315 3206
Unigine Heaven 2.5 1920 by 1200 74.6 fps 80.0 fps
1920 by 1200, 4xAA 65.6 fps 66.5 fps
2560 by 1600 46.2 fps 49.0 fps
2560 by 1600, 4xAA 40.9 fps 40.3 fps
REAL-WORLD GAMES
TestSettingAMD Radeon HD 6990Nvidia GeForce GTX 590
Crysis 2 1920 by 1200 69.8 fps 76.3 fps
1920 by 1200, 4xAA 64.8 fps 72.3 fps
2560 by 1600 43.4 fps 46.2 fps
2560 by 1600, 4xAA 39.6 fps 43.1 fps
Dirt 3 1920 by 1200 115.3 fps 117.8 fps
1920 by 1200, 4xAA 125.9 fps 128.7 fps
2560 by 1600 77.6 fps 77.8 fps
2560 by 1600, 4xAA 73.6 fps 72.1 fps

CHART NOTES: 4xAA = 4x antialiasing; fps = frames per second. For all scores, higher (shown in red) is better. For more information about interpreting 3DMark 11 scores, visit 3DMark.com.

So which one deserves the title of the world’s fastest graphics card? It depends. On our synthetic-benchmark tests, the HD 6990 edged out ahead. In Unigine Heaven at 2560 by 1600 with antialiasing, it ran at 40.9 frames per second, versus the GTX 590’s rate of 40.3 fps. In 3DMark 11, AMD’s card maintained the lead, with a score that was 3.4 percent higher than the Nvidia card’s result.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 590
Synthetic benchmarks are a nice way to estimate how the cards would theoretically perform in future games, but what about the games people are playing right now? In Dirt 3, the HD 6990 reached 73.6 fps at 2560 by 1600 resolution with antialiasing, while the GTX 590 achieved 72.1 fps. Once we moved to Crysis 2, the positions reversed: While AMD’s card hit 39.6 fps, Nvidia’s card reached 43.1 fps.

The difference in power consumption between these two titans is par for the course: The HD 6990 pulled 371 watts of power under load, while the GTX 590 consumed 470 watts. That’s a dramatic difference--and one that’s sure to make you fast friends with your utilities provider, should you choose the Nvidia card.

Both cards sport dual GPUs; think SLI or CrossFire on a single card. AMD’s Eyefinity technology allows the HD 6990--which carries four mini-DisplayPort connectors and a DVI port--to drive five 24-inch displays. The GTX 590 can support four 24-inch displays, since it’s equipped with three DVI ports and one mini-DisplayPort connector. If you opt for Nvidia’s 3D Vision Surround, the card can support three 3D displays.

Winner: A draw
The testing results are tight, and will only muddle further as driver improvements optimize each card’s performance. If you’re in the market for a $700 graphics card, working a few 30-inch monitors into the mix might not be out of the realm of possibility--the HD 6990 will let you run three at once. But if you’re into 3D, nothing can beat Nvidia’s 3D Vision Surround.

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