AMD vs Nvidia: 10 Videocards Go Head-to-Head

Maximum PC Staff

A new generation of GPUs from Nvidia and AMD has hit the streets. Both camps are offering incredible performance and the widest array of features ever before seen in graphics cards. But, inevitably, each side brings its own unique strengths and weaknesses. What better way to determine the performance champ than by letting this season’s new crop of cards duke it out in the various price categories?

On one side is AMD, the self-proclaimed master of efficiency, looking to hold onto the glory it grabbed when it shipped the original Radeon HD 5870—a surprise contender that knocked former champ Nvidia to the canvas at the time by offering DirectX 11 feature sets at impressive performance levels without requiring a nuclear reactor to power it.

On the other side is Nvidia, looking to score a comeback. When Nvidia finally shipped its long-awaited Fermi, it managed to retake the performance crown, but with an asterisk next to the record, since it was forced to ship an incomplete chip that required massive power draws. Even then, AMD’s GPUs stayed close, while its dual-GPU HD 5970 dominated performance overall—but only when games took advantage of AMD’s CrossFire X dual-GPU capability.

Now it’s rematch time—a day of reckoning between the shiny, redesigned, and ready-to-rumble Fermis from Nvidia and AMD’s new Radeon HD 6000 series. While Nvidia’s new parts are streamlined versions of the original Fermi, more efficient and full-featured, AMD’s new GPUs have been completely re-architected from scratch. Can new AMD designs deliver a winning blow to Nvidia’s modernized GPUs?

The fight card includes battles in every price class, featuring a representative selection of cards. Contenders will be hit with a boatload of different games and benchmarks, as well as power-draw tests.

Whether they end in close calls or clear KOs, the results of these bouts will determine the videocard you choose for your next rig. Let’s take this party ringside, shall we?

The Technical Decision

What features and capabilities to look for in today’s graphics contenders

If you’re looking for a graphics card today, the decision is more difficult than ever. The two primary suppliers of graphics processors, AMD and Nvidia, have taken decidedly different paths, even as they add more robust support for new graphics and GPU-compute programming interfaces.

DirectX 11
Both AMD and Nvidia support Microsoft’s latest DirectX 11 graphics standard. So far, all DirectX 11 games have run well on both, though some run faster on Nvidia and others faster on AMD. So, you can feel comfortable that either AMD or Nvidia should be fine if you’re looking to run the latest games.

Both AMD and Nvidia are strong players when it comes to DX11 games.

Display Support
On the AMD side, the Radeon HD 6000 line of graphics chips continues to support a minimum of three displays with a single card, just as the older HD 5000 series did. However, all HD 6000 cards have DisplayPort 1.2 built in. What that means is that monitors with DisplayPort 1.2 support can be daisy-chained, so that one card can drive up to six LCD panels. Nvidia’s support for DisplayPort has been lukewarm on consumer graphics cards, but individual card manufacturers have occasionally added DisplayPort connectors. Almost all monitors still ship with DVI connectors, though, so if you’re running one or two monitors, you’re in good shape with a single Nvidia card.

Stereoscopic 3D
AMD has just begun adding stereoscopic 3D capability; the new Radeon HD 6000 series cards support stereoscopic 3D. In both games and Blu-ray movies, though, glasses must be obtained from third parties. Nvidia’s 3DVision offers robust stereoscopic 3D support, provided you’ve also got a PC monitor capable of running at the required 120Hz refresh rate. In addition, if you’re running an SLI setup, you can use 3DVision across three monitors, and the effect can be pretty startling. A system with an Nvidia card can connect to an HDTV and allow that TV’s native stereoscopic capability to work with the PC.

Nvidia has a clear lead in terms of 3D movies and games. AMD needs to catch up.

GPU Compute
If you’re into GPU-compute applications, Nvidia still has the edge here. While newer applications are moving toward multi-vendor standards like DirectCompute and OpenCL, a large library of applications exists for Nvidia’s proprietary CUDA GPU-compute architecture, including the recently released Adobe Premiere Pro CS5’s Mercury Playback Engine.

Physics

Nvidia has worked mightily to get game programmers to incorporate its PhysX technology, but only a few games really support it well. We’re starting to see more open APIs that support OpenCL, like Bullet Physics, arrive on the scene. Already, 3DMark 2011 is shipping with Bullet Physics support, and it’s likely we’ll see a variety of new games ship with Bullet Physics.

Power Consumption
Nvidia’s made some substantial strides in improving power efficiency, but cards using AMD GPUs still tend to consume less power. If you can save $50 a year in electricity, that could mean an additional game you can buy.

HD Video Encoding
While both cards support HD video decoding, AMD’s third-generation Unified Video Decoder (UVD3) offers hardware decoding of key HD codecs, including VC-1 and H.264. It also handles MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 Part 2, including DivX and xVid in hardware. AMD also supports hardware-accelerated transcoding in its fixed-function UVD3, with the ability to convert H.264 and MPEG-2 1080p streams to a different H.264 or MPEG-2 target bitrate and resolution.

Featherweights

In terms of sheer volume, cards under $150 sell better than all the higher-price categories. For the most part, these cards are suitable for light gaming, home-theater PCs, and general-purpose computers that need some GPU-compute capability.

XFX Radeon HD 5770

The Radeon HD 5770 is AMD’s only GPU that hasn’t been recently updated; it’s still based on AMD’s first DX11 architecture.

The XFX card fully supports AMD’s Eyefinity feature, offering four total video attachments: a pair of dual-link DVI ports, one DisplayPort connector, and an HDMI port. Three can be active simultaneously, so you can have full triple-monitor support with a single card. The card we tested is the standard dual-slot design. XFX also offers a single-slot version of the card, suitable for tight cases, but that model is priced above $150.

This card is 8.5 inches long, so will fit in most PC cases, and takes just a single 6-pin power connector. You’ll want a 450W PSU. As with all recent-generation AMD GPUs, it fully supports HDMI multichannel-audio pass-through. One of the real strong suits of XFX cards is the robust, limited lifetime warranty if you register the card. This warranty can even be passed on to a single buyer if you resell the card.

XFX Radeon HD 5770
FILET MIGNON

Terrific warranty; triple-monitor support with just one card.

TUBE STEAK

Gaming performance is so-so; relatively high power consumption at idle.

Asus ENGTS450 DirectCU

Call this the littlest Fermi. The Asus ENGTS450 is built on Nvidia’s GTS 450 GPU, a scaled-down version of Nvidia’s flagship architecture. The GTX 450 is its own chip, not a feature-reduced version of a large GPU. Asus’s GTS 450 card includes only a single dual-link DVI connector, plus VGA and HDMI outputs; only two can be simultaneously active. This is a newer design than the XFX HD 5770, launched in September 2010.

The Asus card wins in seven of 12 total benchmarks, while scoring five wins out of nine game tests. Idle power draw proved lower, too, although the Radeon GPU was more efficient under load. Note that the GTS 450 GPU is Nvidia’s first design to properly support full multichannel HDMI audio pass-through properly. While the HD 5770 offers some intriguing features, we’ll call this a TKO for the Asus card.

Note that in many games, you’ll still need to dial down resolution and graphics settings, particularly on bleeding-edge titles. That’s the trade-off with a sub-$150 card over the pricier spread.

Asus ENGTS450
SIZZLE

Reasonable gaming performance; efficient power consumption at idle; voltage tweak utility included.

SIZZLEAN

A VGA port? Really?

SPECS

XFX Radeon HD 5770
Asus ENGTS450
Shader Units*
800
192
Texture Units
36
32
ROPs
16
16
Power Connectors
1 x 6-pin
1 x 6-pin
Core Clock
850MHz
783MHz
Shader Clock
NA 1,566MHz
GDDR5 Memory Clock
1.2GHz
900MHz
GDDR5 Frame Buffer
1GB
1GB
Memory Interface
128-bit 128-bit

*AMD and Nvidia computer cores are not directly comparable.

Benchmarks

XFX Radeon HD 5770 Asus ENGTS450
3DMark 2011
2,688
2,486
3DMark Vantage
11,231
11,498
Unigine Heaven 2.1 (fps) 11
14
Crysis (fps) 17 15
Battle Forge (fps) 24
26
Far Cry 2 (fps) 47 52
F1 2010 (fps) 37
28
HAWX 2 (fps) 47
67
Metro 2033 (fps) 8 9
STALKER: CoP (fps) 20 23
Just Cause 2 Concrete Jungle (fps) 23
23
Aliens vs. Predator (fps) 16
16
Power @ idle (W)
150
127
Power @ full throttle (W) 224 257

Our test bed is a 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition in an Asus P6X58D Premium motherboard with 6GB of DDR3/1333 and an 850TX Corsair PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows Ultimate. All games are run at 1920x1200 with 4x AA.


Lightweights

Now we’re starting to get to some gaming meat. Cards costing between $150 and $200 offer substantially better gaming performance than lower-cost cards. These mainstream gaming cards won’t punish your wallet, yet you should be able to get good gaming performance on a 1080p display.

XFX Radeon HD 6850

AMD’s Radeon HD 6850 had some big shoes to fill. The original Radeon HD 5850 delivered surprisingly good performance in its price class for the time. However, the new HD 6850 doesn’t quite deliver the goods, though it’s still a capable card in its own right. The robust XFX warranty plus AMD Eyefinity make this an attractive card, but the competition’s price drop pulls down the score a bit.

The HD 6850 did win four of our 11 game tests and tied the 768MB GTX 460 in two, so we’ll call it a TKO. It’s somewhat better, on average, than the 768MB GTX 460, but costs more. On the other hand, three fully functional display connectors make this a great card for gamers who want three displays for productivity apps.

One distinguishing feature of the card is power efficiency, consuming 133W at idle (just a tad more than the 768MB GTX 460), but a scant 218W in our full-throttle load test. The card was overall a touch quieter than the Asus card, as well. This could be the core of a solid home-theater PC that’s also capable of high-definition gaming.

XFX Radeon HD 6850
SHINY

Efficient under load; Eyefinity support; quieter than the other two cards.

DULL

Performance could be better.

Asus ENGTX460 TOP 768MB

The 768MB version of Nvidia’s GTX 460 is a strange beast. Some models can actually be found for less than $150, though this overclocked Asus card tends to be priced closer to $170. The 192-bit memory interface and sub-1GB frame-buffer size seem a little lightweight for its class. Asus beefs up its version with its DirectCU heatsink technology and slightly higher clock speeds, pushing performance a bit higher.

As a result, its performance is generally on par with the newer Radeon HD 6850. So maybe it’s in the right class after all, though we still worry about that memory interface.

As with all Asus DirectCU cards, the 768MB 460 GTX model ships with the company’s VoltageTweak utility. Output connectors consist of two dual-link DVI and one mini-HDMI port.

Asus ENGTX 460 TOP 768M
STREAMLINED

Surprisingly good game performance; high performance cooling.

BLUFF BODY

Noisy, and priced a little high for a 768MB card.

SPECS

XFX Radeon HD 6850
Asus ENGTX 460
Shader Units*
960
336
Texture Units
48
56
ROPs
32
24
Power Connectors
2 x 6-pin
2 x 6-pin
Core Clock
775MHz
700MHz
Shader Clock
NA 1,400MHz
GDDR5 Memory Clock
1,000MHz
920MHz
GDDR5 Frame Buffer
1GB
1GB
Memory Interface
256-bit 192-bit

*AMD and Nvidia computer cores are not directly comparable.

Benchmarks

XFX Radeon HD 6850 Asus ENGTX 460
3DMark 2011
3,596
3,201
3DMark Vantage
14,292
13,737
Unigine Heaven 2.1 (fps) 16
18
Crysis (fps) 24 19
Battle Forge (fps) 36
38
Far Cry 2 (fps) 68 68
F1 2010 (fps) 46
36
HAWX 2 (fps) 68
85
Metro 2033 (fps) 9 15
STALKER: CoP (fps) 28 25
Just Cause 2 Concrete Jungle (fps) 30
30
Aliens vs. Predator (fps) 23
21
Power @ idle (W)
133
128
Power @ full throttle (W) 218 248

Our test bed is a 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition in an Asus P6X58D Premium motherboard with 6GB of DDR3/1333 and an 850TX Corsair PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows Ultimate. All games are run at 1920x1200 with 4x AA.

Middleweights

If you’re willing to drop up to $300 on a graphics card, you can expect something that’s pretty bleeding-edge, with solid gaming performance and lots of features.

Asus Radeon HD 6870 DirectCU

At just less than $250, the Asus variant of AMD’s Radeon HD 6870 delivers excellent performance. While it is somewhat overshadowed by its newer cousin, the HD 6950, it costs considerably less than that part. If you do most of your gaming on a single 1080p display, this card won’t disappoint.

Even though Asus only pushes the clock rate slightly—915MHZ versus the stock 900MHz— the finned backplate gets pretty warm after a stiff gaming session. This card also shows one of the key weaknesses of Asus’s DirectCU cooler—it’s noticeably more noisy than a standard HD 6870.

On the other hand, unlike cards built on AMD’s reference design, the HD 6870 DirectCU ships with two full-size DisplayPort connectors, plus one dual-link DVI and one single-link DVI port. And if you crave an HDMI connection, the card comes with a DVI-to-HDMI adapter. System idle power was 140W, while the full-throttle power draw was just slightly over 250W.

In the end, Asus delivers a unique take on the Radeon HD 6870 while keeping the price to a reasonable level. If you have a well-ventilated case, the feature-rich HD 6870 DirectCU is the clear winner in this matchup.

Asus Radeon HD 6870 DirectCU
DRACULA

Good gaming performance at a reasonable cost; low power draw.

EDWARD

It’s louder than we like; gets a little hot on the back of the card.

Asus ENGTX460 TOP 1GB

The Asus TOP edition of the GTX 460 adds its now-familiar DirectCU cooling engine and pushes the clock speed a full 100MHz higher than the stock GTX 460’s 675MHz. That’s a 15 percent overclock. That, plus the 11 percent memory overclock, says as much about the cooler design as the GPU. However, that also raises the price. You can find this card for less than $210 at a few retailers, but it’s more likely to be around $220.

Pushing the GTX 460 this hard pays off dividends. Asus’s TOP card delivers impressive performance, but even that 100MHz overclock can’t quite keep up with the HD 6870.

In other respects, the card’s design is pretty standard: two dual-link DVI connectors plus a Mini-HDMI port handle output chores (only two can be active at once). The card supports SLI (two cards maximum) for additional performance. Note that the maximum power draw approached 300W in our test system, which is pretty high for a sub-$300 card.

Overall, the Asus GTX 460 1GB TOP is an impressive engineering feat that offers good gaming performance without hammering your wallet.

Asus GeForce ENGTX460 DirectCU TOP 1GB
BIG LEAGUE

Great gaming performance for the price.

MINOR LEAGUE

Gets a little loud.

SPECS

Asus Radeon HD 6870 DirectCU
Asus ENGTX460 TOP 1GB
Shader Units*
1,120
336
Texture Units
56
56
ROPs
32
32
Power Connectors
2 x 6-pin
2 x 6-pin
Core Clock
915MHz
775MHz
Shader Clock
NA 1,550MHz
GDDR5 Memory Clock
1,050MHz
1,000MHz
GDDR5 Frame Buffer
1GB
1GB
Memory Interface
256-bit 256-bit

*AMD and Nvidia computer cores are not directly comparable.

Benchmarks

Asus Radeon HD 6870 DirectCU Asus ENGTX460 TOP 1GB
3DMark 2011
4,314
3,963
3DMark Vantage
17,041
16,226
Unigine Heaven 2.1 (fps) 18
18
Crysis (fps) 29 23
Battle Forge (fps) 42
40
Far Cry 2 (fps) 78 83
F1 2010 (fps) 54
43
HAWX 2 (fps) 77
101
Metro 2033 (fps) 20 15
STALKER: CoP (fps) 34 35
Just Cause 2 Concrete Jungle (fps) 35
35
Aliens vs. Predator (fps) 26
21
Power @ idle (W)
140
133
Power @ full throttle (W) 252 298

Our test bed is a 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition in an Asus P6X58D Premium motherboard with 6GB of DDR3/1333 and an 850TX Corsair PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows Ultimate. All games are run at 1920x1200 with 4x AA.

Heavyweights

Once you go north of $300, you’re getting into some rarified atmosphere. This is the arena for AMD’s top single-GPU card and Nvidia’s second-to-top card. It’s the fight that matters to most power users.

XFX Radeon HD 6970

We’re not sure why this card isn’t faster than it is. In many ways, it’s two HD 6870s built onto one chip, but overall throughput may be hobbled by having only 32 ROPs and a 256-bit memory interface. Overall performance is nowhere near double an HD 6870, and the card beats the GTX 570 in only five of 12 benchmarks. The HD 6870’s power draw is a bit lower, but only marginally so. If we had to hazard a guess, it’s likely that AMD still has significant driver work to do to realize the full potential of the HD 6970.

If you look at the benchmark spreads, it’s essentially an even match between the XFX card and the GTX 570; it’s only the super-tessellated HAWX 2 that shows a huge margin, and even then, the HD 6970 is pumping out an impressive 81fps.

There are other things to like about the XFX HD 6970, too. Two Mini DisplayPort connectors fully support DisplayPort 1.2, which will let the card take full advantage of up to six monitors via daisy-chaining, once new LCDs supporting DisplayPort 1.2 ship.

All that aside, for purely gaming purposes, it’s tough to recommend the HD 6970 over the lower-cost GTX 570 card. Driver updates and price drops could shift our opinion.

XFX Radeon HD 6970
SUAVE

2GB frame buffer; good performance; Eyefinity support; great warranty.

GAUCHE

Drivers still immature; priced too high relative to the competition.

Asus ENGTX570

The GTX 570 is the little brother of Nvidia’s current high-end GTX 580. Like the original GTX 480, the GTX 570 has 480 shader cores active, and 32 disabled. Since it’s based on the GTX 580 GPU, however, Nvidia’s able to run the GTX 570 at a higher clock rate than the GTX 480. On the other hand, the memory controller is 320 bits wide, versus the GTX 480’s 384-bit controller. That’s still wider than the 256-bit memory bus on the Radeon HD 6970.

The Asus ENGTX570 is pretty much a reference card, although it runs the GPU core just a bit above reference clock, at 742MHz (versus 732MHz for Nvidia’s reference design). Memory weighs in at 1.2GHz running at the default 950MHz. Also standard are a pair of dual-link DVI D-shells plus a Mini-HDMI port.

At $355, the ENGTX570 costs about $25 less than the XFX HD 6970, but wins in seven of 12 benchmarks. It’s slightly quieter as well, even though it uses more power at idle and full throttle than the AMD-based XFX card. So, it really comes down to a trade-off. Performance between the cards is relatively similar, but feature sets differ. Asus supports Nvidia’s 3DVision stereoscopic 3D technology and PhysX accelerated physics, while the HD 6970 offers robust video decode and AMD’s Eyefinity multi-display technology. We lean toward the ENGTX570 for gamers.

Asus GTX570
JEDI

Great performance for the price; fits inside most cases.

PADAWAN

No DisplayPort connector; power hungry.

SPECS

XFX Radeon HD 6970
Asus ENGTX570
Shader Units*
1,536
480
Texture Units
96
60
ROPs
32
40
Power Connectors
1 x 8-pin, 1 x 6-pin
2 x 6-pin
Core Clock
880MHz
742MHz
Shader Clock
NA 1,484MHz
GDDR5 Memory Clock
1,375MHz
950MHz
GDDR5 Frame Buffer
2GB
1282MB
Memory Interface
256-bit 320-bit

*AMD and Nvidia computer cores are not directly comparable.

Benchmarks

XFX Radeon HD 6970 Asus ENGTX570
3DMark 2011
5,313
5,316
3DMark Vantage
20,443
21,299
Unigine Heaven 2.1 (fps) 27
30
Crysis (fps) 36 33
Battle Forge (fps) 47
65
Far Cry 2 (fps) 94 105
F1 2010 (fps) 65
62
HAWX 2 (fps) 81
144
Metro 2033 (fps) 22 21
STALKER: CoP (fps) 53 49
Just Cause 2 Concrete Jungle (fps) 41
46
Aliens vs. Predator (fps) 40
36
Power @ idle (W)
139
144
Power @ full throttle (W) 331 339

Our test bed is a 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition in an Asus P6X58D Premium motherboard with 6GB of DDR3/1333 and an 850TX Corsair PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows Ultimate. All games are run at 1920x1200 with 4x AA.

Super Heavyweights

Once prices surpass $500, most mortal users lose interest. Only the truly fanatical want to spend more than the cost of a modest laptop on a single graphics card.

HIS Radeon HD 5970

Performance on the HD 5970 depends heavily on how well AMD’s dual-GPU CrossFire X drivers work. The good news is that AMD’s driver support for dual-GPU capability has improved dramatically in the past year. The downside: You’ll need to update CrossFire X profiles every few weeks as new games come out. (It’s not just an AMD problem, either. Nvidia’s SLI feature suffered from a bug in the last driver release that limited performance in some cases.)

Even with the raw GPU capability of two Radeon HD 5800 series GPUs, AMD only managed to pull off wins in seven of 12 benchmarks. Then there’s the price. Typical prices for Radeon HD 5970 cards start at $580, and many are priced well north of $600.

If you’re into gaming using AMD’s Eyefinity multi-display feature, the HD 5970 is your card, delivering reasonable frame rates even on three 1080p displays. And you can add a second HD 5970, though the performance gain with that fourth GPU will be limited. Another problem with the card is that it’s so big that it simply won’t fit in the majority of PC cases. Be sure to check the depth behind your primary PCI Express slot before buying.

In the end, the HD 5970 is an impressive engineering achievement, but its complexity may be its Achilles’ heel.

HIS Radeon HD 5970
STAR WARS

Extremely high frame rates.

PHANTOM MENACE

Dual GPUs add complexity; card length limits use in some cases; really expensive.

EVGA GTX 580 SC

It’s a familiar story. EVGA takes the high end of Nvidia’s GPU line, pushes up the clock speed a few percentage points, adds a little extra to the price, and the net result is a really, really speedy graphics card. The company’s limited lifetime warranty (product registration required, North America only) lets you breathe a little easier; after all, you’re spending $540 on a graphics card.

Even with only a single GPU, the EVGA card scored wins against the dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970 in five of 12 benchmarks. And in a bit of role reversal, the GTX 580 SuperClocked draws a little less power at idle than AMD’s HD 5970 beast of a card, though system power does peak at 395W, the highest power draw in our roundup.

Output connectors are limited to two dual-link DVI ports plus a Mini-HDMI port. Note that the minimum recommended power supply needs to support a +12v current draw of 42A— make sure you have a good PSU. On the other hand, the card is a more standard 10.5 inches long—big, but not too big for most cases.

Overall, the EVGA GTX 580 SC is fast, polished, and well-mannered. Despite the large power draw at full load, the card never got overly loud. If you really want top-of-the-line, this is the card for you.

EVGA GeForce GTX 580 SC
QUORRA

Really fast; impressively quiet for its performance; excellent warranty.

CLU

Requires a beefy PSU; no direct support for DisplayPort.

SPECS

HIS Radeon HD 5970
EVGA GTX 580 SC
Shader Units*
2 x 1600 (3,200 total)
512
Texture Units
2 x 80 (160 total)
64
ROPs
2 x 32 (64 total)
48
Power Connectors
1 x 8-pin, 1 x 6-pin
1 x 8-pin, 1 x 6-pin
Core Clock
725MHz
797MHz
Shader Clock
NA 1,594MHz
GDDR5 Memory Clock
1,000MHz
1,050MHz
GDDR5 Frame Buffer
2 x 1GB
1,536MB
Memory Interface
2 x 256-bit 384-bit

*AMD and Nvidia computer cores are not directly comparable.

Benchmarks

HIS Radeon HD 5970
EVGA GTX 580 SC
3DMark 2011
6,695
6,105
3DMark Vantage
24,654
23,888
Unigine Heaven 2.1 (fps) 28
36
Crysis (fps) 44 36
Battle Forge (fps) 73
40
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114 122
F1 2010 (fps) 80
72
HAWX 2 (fps) 102
158
Metro 2033 (fps) 20 26
STALKER: CoP (fps) 54 58
Just Cause 2 Concrete Jungle (fps) 55
52
Aliens vs. Predator (fps) 49
44
Power @ idle (W)
169
141
Power @ full throttle (W) 364 395

Our test bed is a 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition in an Asus P6X58D Premium motherboard with 6GB of DDR3/1333 and an 850TX Corsair PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows Ultimate. All games are run at 1920x1200 with 4x AA.

Reviewing the Scorecard

Today’s GPUs are faster than ever, but what’s the future of the discrete GPU?

Let’s take a moment to recap. If you’re on a tight budget, or are building a home-theater PC focused on video performance, but still want a little gaming on the side, Nvidia’s GTS 450 looks like a good bet, and the Asus ENGTS450 proves to be a capable card. If you can step up to $200, it’s a tough choice between the XFX Radeon HD 6850 and the 768MB GTX 460, but we’d lean toward the HD 6850, although it does cost a little more.

Serious gamers with a little more coin can move up to the massively overclocked Asus ENGTX460 DirectCU or the Asus Radeon HD 6870 DirectCU. The HD 6870 costs a bit more, but delivers a little better overall performance in games, plus robust video playback and excellent support for multiple displays.

North of $300, the XFX Radeon HD 6950 and the Asus GTX 570 run neck-and-neck; we lean toward the GTX 570, but the different feature sets may sway you one way or the other. When you get to the really high-price spread, the EVGA single-GPU GTX 580 SC really shines, performing very well without the hiccups and complexities inherent to the massive dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970.

So, what’s next?

Right now, PC gaming is a mixed bag. Some games, like F1: 2010 and Metro 2033, push the envelope, employing demanding effects that improve image quality, but at a big performance hit. Still, will games like these be enough to sustain ever-higher transistor counts and feature sets? The future of discrete graphics cards—particularly lower-priced cards—is starting to look a little murky, as AMD implements DirectX 11 GPU features into its Fusion APU processor and Intel builds better graphics into its CPU line. Will on-die graphics become fast enough to challenge midrange or high-end graphics cards? That’s still an unknown.

Given the limited growth in feature sets of most PC games, it’s no wonder that both companies are pushing hard for features that will suck more cycles out of the GPU. Stereoscopic 3D, like Nvidia’s 3DVision, requires double the GPU performance to hit the same frame rates at the same resolution. AMD’s Eyefinity requires massive horsepower if you want to drive 4 million pixels in 3D gaming. Given that most monitor resolutions have stagnated at 1080p, what else can they do?

One thing is sure: Today’s GPUs may seem fast and impressive. Big frame buffers and fast frame rates rule the roost in most games. Will tomorrow’s GPUs be even faster, and offer even better eye candy? Probably, and we’ll be there to tell you which one is best.

So, You Want to Plop a PC in Your AV Rack?

If you’re interested in building a home-theater PC, a good GPU is a must. Today’s high-definition content requires lots of bandwidth plus the dedicated video circuitry built into modern GPUs.

If all you’re doing is playing back high-definition content, then an entry-level GPU is probably good enough. A card like the Asus ENGTS450 offers good video-decode performance and robust HDMI-audio pass-through capability. While a lot has been made of the video-decode and -encode capability of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processor, codec support is limited to mainstream high-definition codecs. An entry-level GPU offers more options, like DivX acceleration. Entry-level GPUs tend to draw less power and generate less heat, which translates into an overall quieter HTPC.

The relative quietude of XFX's Radeon 6850 makes it a good choice for an HTPC.

You also need to consider the form factor. If you’re really trying to build a compact, low-profile system, cards like the single-slot XFX Radeon HD 5770 or 5750 or the low-profile Asus ENGT430 look interesting. Just don’t expect full-throttle 3D gaming with this class of cards, particularly in a rig with a constrained thermal environment.

If serious gaming is desired, you need to step up to at least a midrange GPU. Here, it starts to get tricky. Some graphics card in this range can be noisy. For example, we thought the Asus ENGTX460 TOP 1GB card was the cats pajamas for gaming in its price class, but there’s no denying that it’s loud when it’s working hard. We’d sacrifice a little performance, and maybe even spend a few more dollars for something like XFX’s single-wide Radeon HD 6850, which is noticeably quieter.

A midrange GPU is also useful if you plan on taking advantage of emerging graphics technologies, like WebGL 3D browser capability. You’ll want more horsepower than an entry-level GPU offers if you plan on stereoscopic 3D viewing and gaming, too.

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