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

Brad Chacos | Oct. 28, 2014
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.

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.


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