NVIDIA GTX 970 vs. AMD HD 7870 vs. NVIDIA GTX 560 Ti

My gaming PC is about two years old now (read this and this for more information) and although I didn’t really have any serious, permanent performance issues in games, I felt that it was about time to change something.

Here’s a short review and benchmark comparison of NVIDIA’s latest GTX 970 vs. the AMD Radeon HD 7870 (quite a mouthful) that I had installed before. The latter also had to show what it can do compared to an older NVIDIA GTX 560 Ti.

Since there’s no blog post of mine that doesn’t start with a story on what moved me to do something, I see no reason why I would do anything differently this time. After all, I have mentioned in the introduction that I didn’t really have any problems in games. So why go out and spend hundreds of Euros on a new graphics card?

For one, you can’t argue a hobby with rational expectations. But, to my defense, I got really hooked on The Witcher and in some areas I experienced stuttering gameplay. It wasn’t in combat situations where it is crucial to have a smooth experience, but only in parts of the town, so nothing critical actually. It bugged me nevertheless (and as it turns out this can’t be solved with more graphics power). Then there’s Bioshock Infinite. I’m yet to play through it but from trying it for about an hour it was obvious that the HD7870 couldn’t always run this game with everything maxed. The funny thing: Bioshock was bundled with the AMD card. Lastly, The Witcher 2 was on my short term shopping list (“was” because I bought the game while this post was still in the making) and this game’s graphics look more complex, probably too much for the Radeon.

Additionally, The Witcher doesn’t provide an option for V-Sync and forcing this via the Catalyst Control Center (another mouthful) had no effect either. My hope was that NVIDIA would do this better. Although V-Sync has its drawbacks, no V-Sync is just terrible to look at. I at least wanted to have the option to decide between perfect images with eventual stuttering or no stuttering with torn images.

The question then was: what should I buy? Since the headline already gives this away I’ll make it short. The GTX 970 was the best bang for the buck, not only from a performance perspective (however, especially there), but also when it comes to energy consumption and how effective the generated heat could be moved away from the chip. NVIDIA’s new Maxwell architecture is very efficient and there are numerous products on the market that are equipped with a powerful and silent cooling solution. Compare that to AMD’s current high end products and you’ll see that they have powerful cooling solutions as well, but they also sound like a jumbo jet flying around in your living room while not always offering superior performance, if at all, than the GTX 970. That’s what happens when you generate heat rather than many frames per second. Something Intel has learned from the Pentium 4 Prescott era.

Now, I know about the bad press NVIDIA is getting for releasing false specs for the GTX 970 chip. Yes, this is very unfortunate, but I didn’t buy the hardware because of some specs (that in itself make sense to me but I couldn’t ever estimate the performance by that). I did a fair amount of research to be sure this is the product I wanted and I made my decision based on numerous benchmarks and reviews (each word is a different link, some are in German).

Let’s get to the fun part, shall we? The card I bought is an ASUS Strix GTX 970. It is my first real high-end graphics card ever. Even the Radeon HD7870 was a mid-range product (although in the higher ranks of the 2013 benchmark charts). The thing I really like the most: it shuts the fuck up when running the desktop. Now my PC is actually quiet. This alone was worth the money (although it can be achieved with much less so – but where’s the fun in that, right?). Even games like Diablo 3 or Borderlands 2 don’t really bother the graphics card and it stays silent.

Once the chip reaches 65° C the fans kick in. Enabling DSR or PhysX (in Borderlands 2; this is so awesome!) will make the GPU heat up and the fans spin. During gaming the maximum fan speed was 37% but I don’t know how much RPMs that means. At that level the card is definitely audible but not so much to call it loud. Calling it quiet isn’t the right description either. The truth is somewhere in between. The good news is, it’s not an annoying kind of sound. It is two big fans pushing air through a cooler’s fins. The Gigabyte card created a much higher tone in comparison and even ran at 40% on the desktop. In cases that are completely closed or even insulated the result will very likely be even better. Mine has a lot of holes on the sides to allow air to come in (and sound to get out).

The firmware basically tries to keep the chip at exactly 65° and gradually increases fan speed until, from what I have seen so far, it reaches the aforementioned 37%. Playing The Witcher 2 or looping the Unigine Heaven graphics demo doesn’t stress it enough to go beyond that so I don’t know if the fan speed would increase further or the chip will get hotter. ASUS’ Tweak utility allows you to set a custom fan speed or even a curve but unfortunately none of these options allow you to select a value below 40%. In other words: Not using the automatic fan control will always make the fans spin at a very audible levels, no matter the load on the GPU. A terrible decision.

Look at this monster. The Gigabyte card left quite an impression on me back when I first unboxed it a few years ago. The ASUS card is a whole other beast.

Now to the performance numbers. The GTX 970 has been tested against the HD7870 on a Core i5 3570 (non-K) with 16 GB of RAM. The AMD card has then been installed on a computer with a Core i5 2500 (again, non-K) with 8 GB of RAM to be compared to the GTX 560 Ti.
These are very high level benchmarks. I just want to give a rough overview of how the performance changes from one card to the other. I’m only showing the average framerate of a few games, some of them are only tested using a still image on a complex scene, just to get the idea. Nothing fancy. I’m not a game reviewer, I’m a player. Maybe these numbers can help someone else get a picture about the possible gains.

I cranked the graphics in each game to maximum quality, turned off V-Sync and forgot which anti-aliasing settings I used. My gut tells me that it was at most 2x of whatever was available.
Let’s start with the GTX970 versus the Radeon HD7870.

Anno 2070
Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider (TressFX)

That’s pretty much what I expected. The GTX970 is almost twice as fast if the emphasis is on graphics limited games.

Last but not least, the HD7870 against the GTX560Ti.

Anno 2070
Tomb Raider
Dragon Age: Origins
Counter Strike Source

In Counter Strike Source I selected 6x or 8x anti-aliasing and the FPS output was still that high. The Source Engine certainly shows its age. Dragon Age might have been with 2x and the other games probably without any AA, but I’m not really sure.

Anyhow, I hope these numbers may actually help someone in his decision. I found that no benchmark I stumbled on online compared my old card against the one I laid my eyes on as a replacement.

2 thoughts on “NVIDIA GTX 970 vs. AMD HD 7870 vs. NVIDIA GTX 560 Ti

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