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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.

Finally, we also tested the cards using the Unigine Valley and 3DMark 11 Fire Strike benchmarking tools.

Power, sound, and heat

Nvidia's cards hold the clear performance crown over AMD's, but they have another ace in the hole as well. The GTX 980 and 970 sport Nvidia's "Big Maxwell" GPU architecture, which adapted tricks learned from the Nvidia CPU team to increase power efficiency while still pushing performance. Indeed, our tests reveal that Nvidia's cards consume drastically less power than AMD's when under full load — more than 100 watts less.

Not shown in the benchmarks is how much cooler and quieter Nvidia's cards run compared to AMD's. While the R9 290 and R9 290X are a vast sonic improvement over past-generation Radeon hardware — which sometimes sounded like a plane taking off — they're still much louder than Nvidia's supremely quiet GeForce duo under full load. Peeking at GPU temperatures revealed a big reason why: The GTX 980 and 970 can run all day long under full load and top out at 72 degrees Celsius, while the Radeons chug along at 92 degrees. That much extra heat requires more fan power to keep cool, though to AMD's credit, its cards stayed stable even after long stress tests.

Read on for pricing, extra features, AMD's framerate-boosting Mantle technolovy, and other considerations that may turn the tide of this battle, as well as the final verdict.

Price

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.

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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