Tech blogs might rank certain cards “equal,” but they’re not.
Updated Opinion: In light of all the deals and price cuts to the AMD 7000 lineup, I think this point is even more important.
Having come off a recent upgrade binge this past holiday season, I thought talking (blogging, rambling, etc) about the high-level differences between nVidia and AMD cards would make a decent post (I apologize in advance for any ‘ATI’ slip-ups, history is hard to forget). A lot of gamers on a budget these days are always looking for the best graphics card to fit a certain price range, and the metric of choice is almost always in-game performance. Sure there are some weirdos who look for power consumption (HTPC nuts), or form factor (i.e. single slot, passive, etc. Also HTPC nuts.), but by and large, you want the smoothest game performance for the least amount of money.
A lot of people (maybe not fanboys, just spec-junkies), have been claiming that AMD cards offer the best bang for your buck. And looking at raw floating-point operation crunching ability, they would be correct. For any GPGPU needs, AMD has overtaken nVidia as the most cost-effective “consumer super computer” platform (though Titan might signal a shift back to nVidia dominance). But a raw FLOPS measuring contests don’t always tell the whole story. It’s like asking if a 600 HP car is faster than a 550 HP car, there’s a lot ‘under the hood’ you have to take into account.
Graphics drivers, in addition to the hardware stack of course, are a big factor in how well a GPU can put power to pavement (if I may continue this car analogy). AMD has an update release schedule that’s typically on the order of a couple of months (1-3), unless a more pressing issue arises. It’s kind of like how Ubuntu does its releases. nVidia tends to release performance-enhancements as they come, in addition to having generally better drivers to begin with. This can be frustrating if you’re an AMD user, as bugs and other problems can cripple your games for weeks on end. That’s not to say that nVidia is an angel, but AMD is more notorious for hit-or-miss driver experiences.
Winner: NVidia. Aside from the one instance where they released a potentially GPU-melting beta driver, their updates are more consistent and less likely to break compatability/ruin performance. But 90% of the time, you’ll be okay with either vendor. It’s that last 10% that make or break loyalties though…
This leads to the main GPU battleground: specific usage scenarios. Games will tax your hardware in different ways, and certain combinations of hardware and graphics drivers will work out better than others. Maybe a game is shader heavy, maybe it’s making up for shitty geometry and effects with lightmaps and textures (CoD?), or maybe the game’s a memory hog. Maybe it’s making specific calls to graphics APIs that just flat out favor one brand over another. These are things that specs won’t tell you.
Anandtech’s Bench is an excellent tool you can use where the site’s thorough test metrics, gathered from its numerous product reviews, are laid out for anyone to peruse. They put CPUs and GPUs through numerous benchmark suites and games, and let you be the judge.
Let’s setup a hypothetical matchup between two mid-range cards: AMD’s HD 7870 and nVidia’s GTX 660 Ti. I know it’s a liiiittle on the pricey side of “mid-range”, since the 7770 and 650 Ti are probably what mainstream consumers are more likely to consider, but the 7870 vs. 660 Ti is a battle I already looked at in my own shopping. Tom’s Hardware’s GPU Hierarchy chart lines up the two cards as neck and neck competitors, this is based on the average of multiple benchmarks. And price wise the HD 7870 is much cheaper. We’re talking $30-50 if you get the right deals. So is it a bargain?
Looking at the top of Bench, the results seem encouraging. The 7870 is more than holding it’s own against the 660 Ti. But that’s for one particular game. Most of you probably know that I’m a huge Battlefield junkie. How do the cards stack up when dealing with a AAA 2011 DX11 title?
Uh oh. AMD just fell apart. The 660 Ti more than justifies its price premium here. How about another game? Portal 2, a Valve offering I quite enjoy, and probably a similar engine as what Half Life 3 (Pleeeeease release it, Gabe???) will be rocking.
Double uh oh. In some other fronts, the 7870 and 660 Ti trade blows. In Compute metrics, the AMD card wins. Power, temps and noise show neither card pulling ahead. They square off pretty evenly in Civilization 5. So yes, on average, Toms Hardware was right. They two cards can be considered rivals.
But for some specific games and programs, the confluence of hardware and drivers makes the 7870 a letdown. And in my case, that was a big no-no. The Source and Frostbite engines are two platforms I wanted to enjoy to the max, and nVidia is the clear winner here.
The big takeaway from this isn’t that AMD’s cheapness comes at the cost of performance. For the average consumer, you’ll be fine regardless of if you’re in the red camp or the green. You’re already literally 5 times better off with a “real” graphics card over an integrated P.o.S., if not more. But if you’re serious about stretching every last dollar, you’ll have to take a close look at what it is you want to do with your computer. You may not be saving money by going AMD.