Graphics card slugfest: AMD and Nvidia's most powerful gaming hardware compared

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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. (Update: The morning this article aired, Radeon R9 290X prices on Newegg and Amazon were as low as $300 after mail-in rebates.)

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.

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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. 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.

civ beyond earth

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.)

Further reading: DirectX 12 vs. Mantle: Comparing PC gaming's software-supercharged future

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

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When all is said and done, however, Nvidia’s cards are the clear winners here (though they're still unlikely to match the raw performance of a dual-GPU graphics card like the $1,000 Radeon R9 295X2).

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. EVGA's combination of a beastly (and warrantied!) overclock with cold, quiet cooling in the GTX 970 FTW is highly appealing, while the GTX 980 is just a beast that smokes all single-GPU comers.

I’m not the only one who thinks so either: All GTX 970s are completely out of stock on Newegg at the time of this writing, as well as all but two GTX 980 models. 

(Update: The morning this article published, several R9 290X graphics cards were selling for $300 to $370 on Newegg and Amazon. If you manage to find at R9 290X at that price, the free games and inclusion of Mantle make the Radeon much more compelling, no matter how impressive the GTX 970 is—assuming you're not building a power- or noise-limited PC and are willing to give up some performance in non-Mantle games in exchange for freebies.)

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.

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