Layman Thoughts On The Latest Mainstream PC GPUs

Radeon-RX-480-MSRP-199

If you’re even just a bit interested in PC gaming but don’t closely follow developments in hardware, another interesting race is starting to get heated up, particularly in the mainstream graphics card pricing range. It looks like this summer is going to be a nice time to upgrade (or jump in). I’m trying to make sense of it as someone who intends to upgrade but is nowhere near an expert on PC hardware yet. Maybe my thoughts can help some other people in the same position.

A week ago tech websites were praising Nvidia’s latest GTX 1080 and 1070 as having incredible power, and in the case of the 1070, at an incredible price. The easiest way I can put it is to say the 1070, for around $380, is competitive with a card that costed $1000 last year. This week however, AMD is starting to jab back with the $200 RX 480 which, based on the very earliest reports and benchmarks from only one game (DOOM), has maybe 60 or 75 percent of the 1070’s power for just over half the price. No matter how it shakes out, that’s going to be a pretty significant leap in the $200 price range when it drops on June 29th.

One of the simplest ways to look at it is in terms of the resolutions and framerates you’ll get with 2016 AAA games. Every card I just mentioned, even the 480, is going to annihilate the performance of the current consoles and probably comfortably lead the upgraded PS4 as well (we don’t know enough about the upgraded Xbox yet). GameSpot calls the 1070 overkill for 1080p gaming unless you’re trying to run games at 90 or 120 frames per second on something like a 144Hz monitor. Many will likely get it for 1440p (2560 x 1440 pixels) monitors. The 480 will probably be enough to run today’s games at 1080p and 60fps. AMD showed it off running DOOM at around 70 whereas the 1070 got it to something like 120, but remember that’s pretty much the only benchmark we have for the 480 as of this writing.

As someone who is only aiming for 1080p and 60Hz (and not a lot of anti-aliasing) for the foreseeable future, I find myself weighing the 480 and 1070, and they’re probably what other people looking for that level of performance should think about too. Again, the 480 is probably going to be enough for a while, but a little extra headroom can’t hurt if you’ve got $400. The traditional wisdom with PC gaming graphics is that it’s better to get value cards and upgrade roughly every couple years than to spend big trying to future-proof yourself. The problem is you can’t really know what games are going to be like in 24-to-30 months.

The card I intend to upgrade from is the GTX 760 I got in late 2013. Two and a half years later, I’m having to run most high-end new games at 1080p and 30fps (Witcher 3, Dark Souls III), probably getting modestly above the PS4’s performance. I’m not even gonna try to run DOOM and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst on it. From what I understand the GTX 960 is only slightly above that (but get’s better driver support). Both the 480 and 1070 will be a massive leap above that — at least double the performance.

We’ve seen benchmarks of these new cards absolutely crushing DOOM, but it’s going to be interesting seeing how they fare with games like Deus Ex: Mankind DividedBattlefield 1, and whatever is coming in 2017 and 2018. DirectX 12 games like Quantum BreakGears of War Ultimate, and Rise of the Tomb Raider are already particularly demanding, which brings me to drivers.

From what I understand, AMD’s cards currently seem to be getting greater benefits from DX12 than Nvidia’s, but that may only be a greater boost in comparison to how AMD cards were doing in DX11 — not as well as Nvidia. It could be that DX11 was already bringing out most of the potential in Nvidia cards and AMD’s are just catching up. Then there’s Vulkan to think about– the successor to OpenGL. I think EA DICE’s games like Mirror’s Edge or Battlefield 1 might let people use it instead of DX, we’ve seen DOOM running on it.

It’s also hard to say how the upgraded consoles will push things. Most high-end games right now are optimized around the consoles, but in that space the probably won’t exclusively cater to the upgraded consoles. In the future we’re probably going to get games that are still optimized for the basic PS4 but will take advantage of the upgraded one a bit, which means system requirements for their PC versions might not change much.

One last thing to think about is Nvidia’s likely counter to the 480 — the inevitable GTX 1060 which will probably compete in the 480’s $200 price range. If you’re willing to wait another few weeks or months we’ll probably see a nice selection of cheap graphics cards that smash console performance. Personally I’m leaning towards the 1070, partly because I’d like to upgrade sooner rather than later (early June), but it might be hard to get my hands on one.

BULLETS:

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