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Tested: Nvidia GeForce and AMD Radeon graphics cards for every budget

Brad Chacos | Feb. 16, 2015
Which graphics card is best for your money? We test over a dozen AMD and Nvidia GPUs to help find the answer.

On the hardware front, the new Maxwell GPU architecture is vastly superior to AMD's R9-series cards in terms of thermals, noise, and power efficiency. It's a night-and-day difference. If you're building a power-constrained computer or a small form-factor PC where heat is a major concern, you'll want to strongly consider going with an Nvidia graphics card.

Nvidia's GameStream technology lets you stream full-blown PC games to a Nvidia Shield handheld or tablet, which you could then connect to your TV for a living room gaming sessions if you wanted to. GameStream holds up very well, streaming games at low latency on home networks. It's slightly less useful now that Steam's killer in-home streaming feature is live and rockin', however.

Some software features also stand out. Nvidia's ShadowPlay is hands-down the best option for video recording your gaming sessions, delivering practically no hit on frame rates. Next, Nvidia's multi-frame-Sampled anti-aliasing (MFAA) smoothes out jagged edges similarly to traditional multi-sample anti-aliasing, but with far less of a performance impact--giving you the same level of eye candy with a decent-to-big frame rate boost. MFAA works in any DirectX 10 or DX11 game that supports MSAA; in fact, Nvidia's GeForce Experience software enables MFAA by default in compatible titles.

Speaking of GeForce Experience, most gamers give Nvidia the edge when it comes to software polish and driver support, though AMD's working hard to dispel that belief with initiatives like the recent Catalyst Omega driver.

AMD holds some key advantages as well. Most notable software-wise is Mantle, a graphics API that grants game developers "closer to the metal" access to Radeon hardware and eliminates CPU bottlenecks. In the right hands and with the right CPU/GPU configurations, the frame rate increases can be downright staggering. Developers can also opt to use Mantle to deliver far smoother performance rather than staggering frame rates when you're using a multi-GPU CrossFire setup, as Firaxis chose to do with Civilization: Beyond Earth.

There are some crucial gotchas though: Only a handful of games support Mantle, and the most mind-blowing performance increases typically come when you're using a low-end processor or APU. What's more, it remains to be seen whether Mantle will continue gaining traction once the very similar DirectX 12 ships with Windows 10 later this year, as it supports all major hardware configurations--not just Radeons.

But until AMD launches its next-gen graphics hardware to counter Nvidia's Maxwell-powered GeForce 900-series GPUs, the Radeon cards' true strength lies in their price-to-performance ratio. AMD has long been the favorite for price-conscious gamers, and steep price cuts in the wake of the GTX 970 and 980's launch have only driven that home. You can more often than not find the flagship Radeon R9 290X selling for right around $300 these days, and that's with a fancy aftermarket cooler.


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