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Is there a clear winner or loser of this year’s GPU war?


The tides of the consumer GPU (graphics processing unit) market are constantly ebbing and flowing, with AMD and Nvidia ever competing for the top spot. The winner often cycles between the two, and with a few new high end additions to the market, both companies can say they provide the best of something, but performance is only part of the story.

The state of the consumer GPU market has always seemed to be in a state of flux, but nothing really ever changes. Nvidia and AMD trade blows, and do their best to constantly one-up their rival.

Historically, Nvidia has tended to be more expensive but also took the performance crown, whereas AMD usually offered the best performance to price ratios. This is similar to AMD’s relationship with Intel in the CPU market, but not nearly to the same degree in the sense that AMD’s GPUs are much more competitive than their CPUs.

Less than two months ago, AMD announced its new line of GPUs which included an overhaul of their naming conventions. The only innovation of real significance is at the top end of the new line: the R9 290 and 290X cards. The 290 and 290X are based on AMD’s Hawaii Pro and Hawaii XT chips respectively.

290xBoth of these cards were touted as proof by many of AMD’s return to the top of the market. The R9 290X provides gaming performance that matches and sometimes exceeds Nvidia’s pricey $1000 GTX Titan, at a bargain price of $550. For most, this is a no-brainer: A $550 AMD powerhouse GPU that can outperform Nvidia’s $1000 GTX Titan flagship should spell out the end for Nvidia on the high end.

Many speculated that Nvidia would have to drastically slash prices in a panic. If the R9 290X beat the GTX Titan, then the GTX 780 was clearly inferior to the R9 290X in terms of performance as well, and was priced at a much more expensive $650. No one would ever mistake Nvidia for a humble company, but it initially appeared pragmatism trumped pride in this case, and the GTX 780 was cut down to $500.

While it may seem that the GTX 780 price cut was in response to the powerhouse R9 290X, the truth was more likely that Nvidia couldn’t care less about AMD’s offerings. Due to their arrogance, Nvidia’s price points rarely reflect the performance their products offer, but offer enough performance to go along with their swagger and brand strength to continue raking in profits from sales.

The GTX 780 price cut was mostly likely to make room in Nvidia’s price structure for the new GTX 780Ti. After all, someone willing to pay $500 for a graphics card (GTX 780) would probably be able to stretch an extra $50 for a card that is far better and more powerful (R9 290X).

780tiThe GTX 780Ti presents an interesting option. Whereas the GTX Titan has been the highest of the high end for consumers, it has been the budget card for professionals needing solid GPU computing and CUDA power. Due to this, the Titan was not gaming-focused, but a more general use GPU. The GTX 780Ti is Nvidia’s new top end gaming card meant to snatch the crown right back from AMD within a few weeks of the R9 290X going on sale. The GTX 780Ti runs on the GK110 chip, finally fully unlocked. Even the GTX Titan had a limited version of the chip, so the GTX 780Ti is really the true avatar of the GK110, providing 192 additional shaders and 16 more texture units over the GTX Titan.

Benchmarks quickly identified the GTX 780Ti as the new winner, but at what cost? The GTX 780Ti is priced at $700, making the jump from an R9 290X a fairly significant price increase. However, for the moment, the R9 290X is not part of any AMD Never Settle bundles which include free games with the purchase of certain graphics cards.

The Nvidia GTX 780Ti, on the other hand, comes with Batman: Arkham Origins, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist, as well as a coupon for $100 off of a new Nvidia Shield handheld. For the gamer who wants a new GPU and is planning to buy all of those games, with each one priced at $60, the price of the GTX 780Ti becomes $520 while still ignoring the Shield coupon. So for a price lower than the R9 290X, the consumer ends up with a faster graphics card.

Beyond basic benchmarks, there are more subjective and unique differences between graphics cards. In this writer’s experience, AMD’s drivers and software have always yielded inconsistent results and tended to seem rougher around the edges, whereas Nvidia’s experience has provided much more reliable performance and ease of use. Nvidia graphics cards support some interesting features such as G-Sync, GeForce Experience, and ShadowPlay. AMD’s latest graphics cards support Mantle, TrueAudio, and bridge-free CrossFire. Also, one should take into account that the R9 290X has 4 GB of GDDR5 RAM, whereas the GTX 780Ti only has 3 GB of GDDR5 RAM. This isn’t an issue for most gaming setups, but a gamer using three 2560×1440 displays will likely see that RAM limitation affect performance.

Which of those feature sets provide more value to the end user is open to discussion, however, AMD’s R9 290 and 290X performance numbers have lately been called into question due to variations between press samples and retail cards. This is one example of the various inconsistencies sometimes seen with AMD’s products. Others include current CrossFire frame pacing issues as well as driver issues that plagued consumers around the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim near the end of 2011.

Ultimately, the conclusions are the same as they always have been historically. Nvidia takes the top spot on performance, but at great expense. AMD almost reaches that performance level, and definitely wins on price to performance ratio, but its product is rougher around the edges so the lower price doesn’t come without a cost. This writer would like to see Nvidia’s sales take a hit in order to force the company to drop prices to more reasonable levels, at which point AMD would hopefully understand the need to refine their software and drivers in order to better compete.

That scenario is unfortunately not likely: fanboys of each brand will only buy their preferred brand, whereas the rest of the consumers will buy whatever their budget and requirements allow them, either begrudgingly buying AMD hardware because it’s affordable but not necessarily stable or reliable despite having solid performance, or begrudgingly buying Nvidia hardware despite the steep and questionable price points.

The state of the GPU market in 2013 is largely unchanged. Let us hope for the best in 2014.

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