It's a big year if you're a PC gaming enthusiast. Alongside Intel's new Extreme Edition CPUs, both Nvidia and AMD have released new graphics cards. All price points from $300 to $1200 have been overhauled with new GPUs offering much-increased performance, more efficient power consumption and new VR-friendly feature-sets — so here's how they all perform relative to each other.
We chose a few key synthetic and real-world benchmarks to trial different DirectX 11 and DirectX 12 graphics loads, as well as dipping our toes into VR with Steam's very-early-days synthetic SteamVR Performance Test. Tomb Raider from 2013 and Rise Of The Tomb Raider from 2016 are two well-optimised DirectX 11 and DirectX 12 titles that showcase modern cards' performance at 1920x1080p (2K), 2560x1440p (2.7K) and 3840x2160p (4K) resolutions. 3DMark's suite of three Fire Strike benchmarks does a similar three-level, good-better-best benchmark and delivers verifiable results. Unigine Heaven is a DirectX 11 benchmark that has its own easily comparable score and a baseline average frame rate, and Ashes Of The Singularity is a modern DirectX 12 title that delivers detailed data but, also importantly, a simple averaged result.
Importantly, all games were left at their default settings — straight out of the box — apart from switching resolutions for different benchmarks and enabling DirectX 12 processing in Rise Of The Tomb Raider. We didn't get a chance to test out the new 3DMark Time Spy benchmark, unfortunately, which accurately and effectively — and in an unbiased fashion — synthetically measures DirectX 12 performance, including the new asynchronous compute feature. That would have given a more holistic feature-level comparison of DX 12, but maybe we'll revisit them some time in the future.
Our benchmark rig for each of these cards was identical, and represents a high-end (but not ridiculously so) gaming PC — the kind that you'd probably buy if you were building a new machine from scratch in 2016. The rig runs an Intel Core i7-6700K quad-core CPU on an Asus Maximus VIII Gene motherboard, with 32GB of Crucial Ballistix Elite DDR4 RAM and a 512GB Samsung 950 Pro NVMe M.2 SSD. Power comes from a Corsair HX750i, cooling is courtesy of a Noctua NH-D15S, there's a couple of 140mm fans keeping air moving, and everything is crammed inside a Corsair Carbide 400Q mid-tower case.
Every card tested was a reference design directly from either Nvidia or AMD, and used those cards' stock blower fans, which draw in ambient temperature air from inside the (open-air, inside an air-conditioned office) case and exhaust it out the rear. Any thermal throttling that might have affected results is an artifact of those blower designs. We didn't notice any clearly errant results, for what it's worth. Put simply, you'd likely see superior performance, but not hugely so, from third-party cards with different coolers. Every card and other component was run at stock clocks, memory speeds and voltages.
We've done some SLI testing for the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080, but haven't included it in this list. Let us know in the comments below if you'd like to see it. It's just a little janky when you have to dive into Nvidia's Profile Inspector to figure out SLI for Rise of The Tomb Raider, and so on... and we're busy.
Without further ado, here's how each graphics card compares, in raw performance data and frame rates.
AMD Radeon RX 480
The Radeon RX 480 is a circa-$360 graphics card built on the company's newest 14-nanometre FinFET process architecture. It ships with either 4GB or 8GB of 7Gbps or 8Gbps GDDR5 RAM with a 256-bit memory interface, has a 1120MHz and 1266MHz base and boost clock, and 5.8 teraflops of peak performance. It has a reported thermal design power rating of 150 Watts, and uses one six-pin auxiliary PCI-E power connector.
3DMark: Fire Strike: 10133 Fire Strike Extreme: 5225 Fire Strike Ultra: 2726 Tomb Raider: 1080P: 244FPS 1440P: 150FPS 2160P: 70FPS Rise Of The Tomb Raider: 1080P: 82FPS 1440P: 58fPS 2160P: 30FPS Unigine Heaven (1440p): 59FPS, 1487 SteamVR Performance Test: 6.7 (High) Ashes Of The Singularity (DirectX12, 1080p): 58FPS
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
The GeForce GTX 1060 is a circa-$430 graphics card built on the company's newest 16-nanometre FinFET process architecture. It ships with 6GB of 8Gbps GDDR5 RAM with a 192-bit memory interface, has a 1506MHz and 1708MHz base and boost clock, and 4.4 teraflops of peak performance. It has a reported thermal design power rating of 120 Watts, and uses one six-pin auxiliary PCI-E power connector.
3DMark: Fire Strike: 11085 Fire Strike Extreme: 5784 Fire Strike Ultra: 2986 Tomb Raider: 1080P: 296FPS 1440P: 181FPS 2160P: 85FPS Rise Of The Tomb Raider: 1080P: 110FPS 1440P: 78FPS 2160P: 32FPS Unigine Heaven (1440p): 70FPS, 1750 SteamVR Performance Test: 7.9 (High) Ashes Of The Singularity (DirectX12, 1080p): 61FPS
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
The GeForce GTX 1070 is a circa-$690 graphics card built on the company's newest 16-nanometre FinFET process architecture. It ships with 8GB of 8Gbps GDDR5 RAM with a 256-bit memory interface, has a 1506MHz and 1683MHz base and boost clock, and 6.5 teraflops of peak performance. It has a reported thermal design power rating of 150 Watts, and uses one eight-pin auxiliary PCI-E power connector.
3DMark: Fire Strike: 15002 Fire Strike Extreme: 7811 Fire Strike Ultra: 4184 Tomb Raider: 1080P: 408FPS 1440P: 250FPS 2160P: 119FPS Rise Of The Tomb Raider: 1080P: 123FPS 1440P: 87FPS 2160P: 46FPS Unigine Heaven (1440p): 102FPS, 2573 SteamVR Performance Test: 10.7 (Very High) Ashes Of The Singularity (DirectX12, 1080p): 76FPS
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
The GeForce GTX 1080 is a circa-$1090 graphics card built on the company's newest 16-nanometre FinFET process architecture. It ships with 8GB of 10Gbps GDDR5X RAM with a 256-bit memory interface, has a 1607MHz and 1733MHz base and boost clock, and 9 teraflops of peak performance. It has a reported thermal design power rating of 180 Watts, and uses one six-pin and one eight-pin auxiliary PCI-E power connector.
3DMark: Fire Strike: 16799 Fire Strike Extreme: 9120 Fire Strike Ultra: 4808 Tomb Raider: 1080P: 453FPS 1440P: 291FPS 2160P: 137FPS Rise Of The Tomb Raider: 1080P: 130FPS 1440P: 98FPS 2160P: 52FPS Unigine Heaven (1440p): 112FPS, 2815 SteamVR Performance Test: 11 (Very High) Ashes Of The Singularity (DirectX12, 1080p): 78FPS
What's It All Mean?
No matter which card out of these that you buy, you're going to have a good time gaming at 1080p or 1440p resolutions, with performance consistently above the 30FPS mark in Rise Of The Tomb Raider even for the cheapest and least powerful RX 480. The jump in averaged gaming performance isn't consistent as the price of these cards rises, which makes sense — it's a diminishing rate of returns from the $360 Radeon RX 480 to the $1090 GeForce GTX 1080. But if you want to play at 1440p or 4K resolutions in a wider range of more demanding titles, the need for a more powerful card becomes clear.
Is it worth it for a $1000-plus card like the GeForce GTX 1080? Well, maybe, depending on your needs. If you're going to be using a 1080p 60Hz monitor or any regular Full HD TV? Then no. If you're going to be investing at the same time in a 1440p monitor with a higher-than-60Hz refresh rate, though, or a 4K monitor or TV that supports 60Hz, then this is the kind of card you're going to need to push out the maximum level of performance — and consistently to boot. For VR? That's less clear, and only time will tell.
And, in case you were wondering, yes — it's a good year to buy a new graphics card.