Red vs Green: Graphics card roundup

Longing for high-definition video and graphically-intensive games, beyond your CPU's onboard graphics capabilities?

Longing for high-definition video and graphically-intensive games, beyond your CPU’s onboard graphics capabilities? PC World rounds up standalone graphics cards from industry leaders AMD and Nvidia, to help you make the best buying decision for your PC... and your wallet.

As far as the graphics card market goes 2011 has started off with a hiss and a roar. Whether you’re looking to splash out a couple of hundred dollars on a basic GPU for light gaming, or you’re laying out the thick end of a grand to complete your monster gaming rig, you’re spoilt for choice. In every segment of the market the two main players – AMD and Nvidia – are battling for your dollars, and there are plenty of worthy options.

With this in mind, I set out to get a snapshot of what video cards your money can buy within five different price ranges. All products are available right now from New Zealand retailers. Each price range pits one product from AMD against one from Nvidia – I’ll give you a brief rundown of each card and then run them all through the gauntlet of gaming tests to see what provides the best bang for your buck.

Jargon Buster: “Shaders”

Shaders are processing cores which reside in the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). Video cards have many more processing cores than CPUs – shaders each do less work, of a much more specific nature, than CPU cores, thus the need for so many.

In a nutshell, the more shaders you have and the faster they operate, the more processing power a GPU has. However, not all shaders are created equally. Nvidia calls its version shader units, whereas AMD calls them stream processors – the way AMD designs them means that five stream processors on an HD 5700 or HD 6800 series card (or four improved stream processors on an HD 6900 series card) are roughly equivalent to one shader unit on an Nvidia card.

Throughout this feature I’ll use the term “shaders” to refer to both technologies.

Benchmarking System

The PC:

CPU: Intel Core i7 920 @ 3.6GHz, HyperThreading off

RAM: 6GB G.Skill Trident

@ DDR3-1800 CL9

Motherboard: Asus P6X58D Premium

Monitor: LG 21.5” 1920x1080 LCD

OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit

Drivers: 10.12 (AMD), 266.66 (Nvidia )

The Benchmarks:

Unigine: Default settings

STALKER CoP: High, 4xAA, HBAO low, Tessellation Enabled

Bad Company 2: High, 4xAA, HBAO/Bloom on

Dirt 2: Ultra, 4xAA

Crysis: Gamer, 0xAA

TMNF: Very High, 4xAA

Entry-level

For the purposes of gaming, $200 is roughly the starting price for a graphics card that’ll get the job done. Generally, these cards will do fine for even modern games at resolutions of 1280 x 1024 (1440 x 900 being the widescreen equivalent) or lower. If you have a higher resolution monitor, say 1680 x 1050 or 1920 x 1080, then you’re going to have to turn down some or all of the eye candy to ensure a playable framerate – and where’s the fun in that, right? On the plus side, other than being cheap, these cards are smaller, quieter, and use much less energy than the more powerful options.

Nvidia GeForce GTS 450

Compared to the older 400 series of cards, these wee fellows have one distinct drawback – lower memory bandwidth. In simple terms, when a game needs to render a texture on screen it first stores the data describing that texture on the video card’s onboard memory. The faster access the card’s processor has to this data, i.e. the “higher bandwidth” it has, the better performance you’ll get. 128bit is literally half of the bandwidth that all of the higher range cards have.

Other than that disadvantage, the GTS 450 is relatively highly-specced for an entry level video card. 192 shader units is not a lot by comparison to the other Nvidia cards, but they run at a reasonably crisp 810/1620MHz core/shader speed, and the card packs a whole gigabyte of GDDR5 memory. In my opinion, the card doesn’t have enough grunt to justify 1GB of video RAM – it would have been better to use 512MB instead and invest the savings into more shader units – but people sometimes assume that more memory equals better performance, so perhaps this is about marketing.

RRP incl GST: $219

Rating: 3/5

AMD Radeon HD 5770

Like Nvidia’s GTS 450, this card also packs 1GB of GDDR5 video RAM on a 128bit bus, albeit at a full 33% faster frequency (4.8GHz, compared to 3.6GHz). With 800 of AMD’s older stream processors running at 850MHz it appears slightly lower powered that its Nvidia rival but as you can see from the test results (below), the improved memory frequency helps it pump out almost 10% higher frame rates in our chosen games at 1920 x 1080.

Both cards are quite power efficient, rated at just under 110W each under full load, and they require only a single 6-pin PCIE power connector to operate. You can also theoretically run three-monitor surround vision or 3D stereoscopy on both of these cards, however there’s a small catch. AMD’s HD 5770 requires one of the monitors to be connected via DisplayPort, while you’ll need two Nvidia GTS 450 cards running in SLI to be able to use more than two monitors.

RRP incl GST: $229

Rating: 3.5/5

Considering the similar price tags, the AMD Radeon HD 5770 appears to be the obvious choice of these two entry level cards with its superior performance.

Winner: AMD

Mainstream

This category is where things get a bit more interesting. I’ve always considered $300-400 the sweet spot for gaming video cards as far as return on investment goes. Many notable GPUs have debuted in this price range over the years, such as the AMD (then ATI) Radeon 9800 Pro, Nvidia GeForce 6600GT and more recently the Nvidia GeForce 9600GT and AMD Radeon HD 4850 (high-five if you’ve owned one or more of them).

The appeal is that you can start to get smooth performance in games at higher resolutions without turning all the visual quality settings down. Sure, you can’t crank everything up to the max, but you should be able to play all modern games at a decently high resolution such as 1920 x 1080 with medium to high quality settings.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 OC

The versatile GTX 460 will go down in history as a great mainstream video card, it's just that popular. One reason for its success is the immense overclocking potential these cards have. In fact, running them at higher-than-normal speeds is so easy that Nvidia allows manufacturers to release special overclocked (OC) editions which come factory set to run faster than the original design. I’ve chosen one of these OC cards for the test today (the Asus TOP edition, to be specific).

The number of shader units in the GTX 460 is a huge jump above the GTS 450 – it comes with a total of 336. On the card I tested, the core/shader runs at 775/1550MHz. The 1GB of GDDR5 memory is faster on the GTX460, too, with a minor speed boost up to 4.0GHz. More importantly, it’s connected via a 256bit bus which instantly doubles the memory bandwidth compared to the weaker GTS 450.

This card has much higher power requirements however, with Nvidia rating it to consume up to 160W under full load.

RRP incl. GST: $359

Rating: 4/5

AMD Radeon HD 6850

Even though the HD 6800 series cards are a new family of products compared to the HD 5000 series, there are no really notable performance differences between the two (the HD 6900 series is a different story however). The main difference is that through a change in microarchitecture, AMD was able to build a chip of similar performance with many fewer transistors, thus lowering production costs and power requirements.

The most obvious feature change is to the video outputs. Firstly, all HD 6000 series cards are DisplayPort 1.2 compliant which means they can drive more monitors than DP1.1 devices (up to four 1080p screens per port or six 1080p screens via two ports), and high bitrate multichannel audio can be passed along the same cable. HDMI 1.4a support is also provided, which allows 1080p 3D stereoscopy for movies and 720p for games.

Much like the jump from GTS 450 to GTX 460, the HD6850 has more stream processors than its predecessor the HD 5770, though they run at a slightly slower clock speed and the memory has both increased in speed and doubled in bus width.

RRP incl. GST: $309

Rating: 3/5

Going by our test results, the GTX 460 costs about 16% more than the HD 6850, but delivers 20% higher performance, so even though the AMD card is cheaper, Nvidia provides better value in this range.

Winner: Nvidia

Mid-range

You might not consider $400 or $500 to be “middle of the road” when it comes to a video card, but as far as the spectrum of GPU prices goes, that’s exactly where it lands. Generally this is where the smaller siblings of the flagship cards come in – usually they’re very similar in specification to the more expensive cards, just with slightly slower clock speeds, fewer shaders and often a little bit less onboard memory.

With these cards you can expect to start turning on the high-quality settings to get really eye-popping effects in your games.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC

The GTX 560 Ti OC is another overclocked variant of an Nvidia card – the Gigabyte model I found cost only $10 more than a non-overclocked version, and it still ends up much cheaper than the comparable card from AMD, the Radeon HD 6950.

If you’re wondering what the “Ti” stands for, then join the club – the consensus on the web is “Titanium” but I’m not sure how that’s relevant to the card. What I can tell you however is that they haven’t used the Ti branding since the Geforce4 series back in 2002. In those days Nvidia absolutely crushed any and all cards from ATI (what the manufacturer was called before AMD acquired it), so perhaps they’re trying to hark back to those days of undisputed glory.

As with the transition from the HD 5770 to HD 6800 series in the AMD camp, there are no architectural changes or major feature enhancements between the GTX 460 and GTX 560 Ti. It’s all just added horsepower – as you can see from our tests, the GTX 560 averages over 71 frames per second compared to just under 59 for the older card.

RRP incl. GST: $439

Rating: 4.5/5

AMD Radeon HD 6950

The HD 6900 series cards are the latest addition to AMD’s arsenal and are the true replacements for last year’s HD 5850 and 5870. AMD has made some improvements in shader technology, so that now four stream processors in an HD 6900 series card are worth five when compared to the older series (technically speaking; ­ in reality the performance improvements won’t always abide by that formula).

The memory also receives a healthy boost: not only does the HD 6950’s onboard video RAM run at a whopping 5.0GHz, there’s also a massive 2GB of it. Truth be told, there are currently very few instances where you’ll require more than 1GB of video RAM, but it’s nice to know it’s there if needed for future applications.

At the time of writing there are 1GB models selling in NZ for about $50 less than this 2GB model; we were unable to include these in our tests but in my opinion it would likely provide much better value for money.

RRP incl GST: $499

Rating: 3/5

Unfortunately for AMD, none of the HD 6950’s improvements give it superiority over its Nvidia competition in the tests we’ve put them through. The HD 6950 runs on average 7 frames per second slower than the cheaper GTX 560 Ti.

Winner: Nvidia

Performance

In the performance category we start to get into the top-shelf stuff. For people gaming on multiple monitors, using 3D stereoscopy, or just using monitors with insanely high resolutions such as 2560 x 1600, a $600 video card will, for the most part, satiate your gaming requirements.

As has been the case for a while now, buying a card in this price range will net you the second best single-GPU solution from both AMD and Nvidia (neither camp has dual-GPU cards available at the moment), and right now both offerings compared here have an RRP of $599.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 570

Despite having a higher model number and being more powerful, the GTX 570 is actually an older model than the GTX 560 Ti. Under the hood is a larger, less efficient processor which is rated to consume almost 50W more power than its younger sibling. Its specifications are of course much higher in most areas, though.

The GPU packs 480 shader units, almost 100 more than the GTX 560 Ti. Although these are clocked slightly slower at 732MHz, the sheer number of them makes up for this. Likewise, the memory is clocked 5% slower at 3.8GHz, however the bus width is upped to 320bit. Don’t sneeze at this figure: Nvidia has proved time and time again that wider bus widths like this can result in dramatic performance improvements. It also adds significantly to the cost, which along with the extra quarter-gigabyte of RAM would account for the $160 price difference between this card and its sibling.

Looking at the charts, you can see that the GTX 570 pumps out just over 10% more frames per second in our tests than both its AMD adversary and the lower-specced GTX 560 Ti.

RRP incl. GST: $599

Rating: 3.5/5

AMD Radeon HD 6970

The HD 6970 is AMD’s flagship card – the fastest and most expensive product it has on the market right now (the dual-GPU HD 6990 should be out sometime soon in all its wallet-busting glory). For the extra $100 you’re paying over the cost of the HD 6950 you get 10% faster core and memory speed, 128 more shaders, and another 50W hit on your power supply.

Going by our test suite the HD6970 also provides 10% more performance than the HD 6950, but given that it costs 20% more, the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head as it did with NVidia’s GTX 570.

Compared to the GTX 570 in our tests, the HD 6970 actually manages to stay just a whisker behind in most of the game benchmarks – although in the Trackmania bench it gets absolutely creamed.

RRP incl. GST: $599

Rating: 3/5

Even with my soft spot for AMD (call it Underdog Syndrome) I’m going to have to tip my hat to Nvidia again in this showdown.

Winner: Nvidia

Extreme

Ah yes, time for some proper decadence now. If you want to experience all the jaw-dropping eye candy programmed into modern games which most mere mortals are forced to disable on the options screen, then you’ve come to the right place.

If you can afford a graphics card in this price range, but you’re unsure as to whether it’s really worth it, then I suggest you walk into your nearest, bestest PC retailer and ask if you can play one or two of your favourite games on one of their display models. In those situations, I would say at least nine out of ten people would walk out of the shop with one of these cards in their hot little hands.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 580

The GTX 580 is Nvidia’s top card at the moment, and its specifications pull out all the stops. The 512 shaders run at 772MHz core speed, and the amount of video memory has been bumped up to 1536MB, running at 4.0GHz . More importantly, this memory is connected via a massive 384bit bus.

Looking back at the results of the top four Nvidia cards we’ve tested lately (the GTX 460 OC, 560 Ti, 570 and this 580), a nice little pattern has emerged, with respective averages of roughly 60, 70, 80 and now 90 frames per second. Of course, most monitors have a 60Hz refresh rate: anything above 60 frames per second is essentially wasted performance. However, the frame rate will obviously dip below the average, subject to gameplay and background tasks. The more framerate-fat you’ve got to cushion you, the better.

Remember that all these tests aren’t run at maximum quality, so you can see that cards like the GTX 580 have a lot of breathing room when it comes to turning the visual settings up.

RRP incl. GST: $869

Rating: 3/5

AMD Radeon HD 6870 Crossfire

AMD’s high end dual-GPU beast hasn’t quite hit our shores yet, so I’ve opted to use two less powerful cards – two HD 6870s to be precise – in a Crossfire (dual-card) configuration for the AMD “Extreme” option.

Separately the cards retail for $389 each, so even two of them combined works out cheaper than the GTX 580 that I’m pitting them against. Granted, you need a Crossfire-compatible motherboard to run them, but if you plan on spending over $700 on a graphics solution, I’d hazard a guess that you have a decent motherboard, most of which support Crossfire these days.

As the name implies, the HD 6870 is a beefier version of the HD 6850. It boasts a higher clock speed, more shaders and faster memory. Each card is rated to consume 151W under load, totalling a not-insignificant 300W once you have two of them running together.

The numbers speak for themselves though. They trail behind the GTX 580 in Trackmania, go neck and neck with it in the Heaven 2.0 test, but absolutely blitz it in all the other tests, most notably Bad Company 2 where they run 30 frames per second better.

RRP incl. GST: $778 ($389 per card)

Rating: 4/5

Cheaper price and better performance puts a pair of AMD Radeon HD 6870 cards in Crossfire configuration ahead of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 580. However, until the release of the HD 6990, AMD can’t compete in this area with a single-card solution.

Winner: AMD

Conclusion

What you see here are just a few examples of what’s out there in the video card market and what these cards are capable of. However, there are many aspects to consider before making a purchase.

For starters, you’ll need a motherboard with a 16x PCI-E slot for any modern graphics card. Virtually all motherboards sold in the last few years will have this, but it pays to check first if you’re upgrading an older computer.

Another consideration is physical size. The AMD HD 6970 was the biggest card in this roundup measuring 27.4cm in length, and I had to remove the motherboard from my Cooler Master Scout (quite a popular ATX-sized gaming case) and sit it on a bench just to install the card because it physically wouldn’t fit.

Power, noise and heat are also important things to check and think about.

Make sure you have a power supply capable of supplying enough juice to all of your components. As a general guide, a modern quad-core PC will require around 200W to power everything except the video card, so with the cards in today’s roundup you would be looking at anywhere between 300W and 500W total power draw. You want a power supply rated at least 20% higher than your estimated total power draw (so it can run efficiently); more if you plan on overclocking or upgrading in the future.

More powerful cards are generally louder, and brands which use non-standard coolers can be either much louder or much quieter than the stock AMD or Nvidia coolers. If noise is a concern for you, do some research on the particular model you’re looking at to determine which manufacturer’s offering is best. As far as heat goes, you really only need to worry about it if you have a hot-running system in the first place, in which case it’s worth looking for a video card which exhausts hot air out the back of your case, rather than recycling it inside.

Finally, deciding the price range to invest in can sometimes be the hardest choice.

If you can afford it and you want a card that will last you a few years without having to upgrade, then go for something in our Performance or Extreme category here.

If budget constraints dictate your options keep in mind that spending an extra 20% on a video card doesn’t always give you 20% better performance.

The best overall card here for performance per dollar is undoubtedly the Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC. If I can leave you with one piece of advice though – always, always search for reviews and opinions on the particular brand and model of video card you’re thinking of buying.

As they say, Google is your friend.

Overall Winner: Nvidia

Nvidia takes the prize with a 3-2 victory across the price ranges, and the best value overall with the GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC.

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Tags gamingAMDperformancegamesnvidiagpugraphics cardvideo card

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Paul Urquhart

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