NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti vs AMD Radeon R9 290X

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X

Chip giant nVidia has made quite a splash recently with its double-launch of the 'Maxwell' GTX 970 and GTX 980 graphics cards. While the 980's price will put off all but the most dedicated of gamers, the GTX 970 commands a price at around the £300 mark, making it a viable purchase for those who really love their graphics. However, it has some pretty stiff competition, and the GTX 780 Ti and AMD's Radeon R9 290X both come with very similar prices. (See all graphics cards and components reviews.)

The Radeon R9 290X, coming as it does from nVidia's hot rival, AMD, is unsurprising as a rival. However, the presence of the GTX 780 Ti is rather more unexpected, since this is a product from nVidia's previous generation, Kepler, and is effectively the GPU that the GTX 970 might be looking to replace. Supplies of GTX 780 Ti cards are already starting to thin out, and we suspect this GPU won't be available in a few months time. But while it is, it's worth comparing it with the newer technology to see whether, on this occasion, old is indeed better. See also Group test: what's the best graphics card?

The Shock of the New - The GTX 970 Takes On the 780 Ti

Perhaps the first surprising aspect of these two cards is that they're both manufactured using the same 0.28nm process. Traditionally, a smaller manufacturing process has been used for each new generation of chips. That allows the GPUs to be smaller, and means they generate less heat, and so can be run at higher speeds. Alternatively, there's more room available to be filled with extra goodies. However, we'll have to wait a bit longer before nVidia can improve on 0.28nm, so the company has had to look elsewhere for its new edge.

As it happens, we've already had a chance to taste what the new technology can do, since this isn't the first release from the new Maxwell family. Previously, we saw the mid-range GTX 750 Ti. In truth, this wasn't terribly impressive as a purchase. It produced amazing frame rates given what little power it put out. But its game frame rates were still no better than those of other chips retailing for a similar price. So unless customers were intent on conserving power, the 750 Ti was unexciting as a new product. However, that first showing of Maxwell promised much for the future. And now, with its new GM204 GPU, the GTX 970 is ready to deliver on that. (See also: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 & 970: Release Date, price and specs.)

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Maxwell vs Kepler

So how does the GTX 970's Maxwell architecture compare to that of the Kepler-equipped 780 Ti? Well, the older Kepler GPUs came with a carefully designed system that revolved around the SMX (Streaming Multiprocessor neXt generation) unit. Maxwell, though, will be built up from SMMs (Streaming Multiprocessor Maxwell). These are considerably smaller, so the newer architecture is far more efficient at manipulating data. There's more control over individual areas, and bottlenecks should be reduced. There's also a lot less sharing between different aspects of the architecture, and the high-performance L1 and L2 memory caches have also been enhanced. The L2 cache, in particular, has gone up from 512KB to 2MB.

Not that the newer arrangement is without its problems, though, and that reduced size does mean that each SMM has a lot less on board than the SMXes. A single SMX contains 192 shader cores, while the newer SMMs have just 128. The texture units have been reduced to eight a time on the SMM, from 16 in the case of the older SMXes. Added to that is the fact that the 780 Ti has 15 SMXes enabled, as opposed to the 13 of the GTX 970. So not only do the 780 Ti's SMXes have more of everything, but there are a greater quantity of them. That all adds up, and while the 970 has just 1664 shader cores and 104 texture units, the 780 Ti can boast 2880 shader cores and 240 texture units. These are very significant differences.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X

The 970 does use its reduced size to allow for higher clock speeds, and the standard version's Boost core clock speed of 1178MHz is some 250MHz higher than the default figure of the 780 Ti. Even so, more texture units might be more important. When it comes to traditional texture fill rates, for instance, the 780 Ti's higher number of texture units seem decisive, giving it a fill rate of 222.7GT/sec. The 970, in contrast, limps to a rather pathetic 122.5GT/sec.

It doesn't get any better for the memory, either. The 970 has 4GB of GDDR5, which gives it a small advantage over the 3GB 780 Ti. However, while both GPUs have the same 1.75GHz memory clock (effectively 7GHz given the RAM's quadrupling properties), the 780 Ti's 384bit memory bus has been reduced to 256bit on the 970. On paper, then, the 970 doesn't fare well on traditional memory bandwidth calculations, producing a bandwidth figure of just 224GB/sec, rather than the 336GB/sec of the 780 Ti.

However, it's important to stress that many of these advantages are on paper rather than in reality. Traditional calculations can't take into account the greater organisation and flexibility of the Maxwell architecture. Nor can they make allowances for Maxwell's Third Generation Delta Color Compression. This interesting concept uses compression to allow the memory bus to work with more data without creating bottlenecks. So while the 256bit memory bus may be vastly inferior to the 780 Ti's 384bit version on paper, the reality may see the two come rather closer together. See all PC Components and Upgrades reviews.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: the AMD Radeon R9 290X

So where does the R9 290X come into this? After all, this product is likely to be still around and competing long after the 780 Ti disappears from the shelves. Well, on paper, it comes in somewhere between the 970 and the 780 Ti. The standard 290X offers 2816 shader cores - only a smidge ahead of the 780 Ti's 2880, and a huge distance clear of the 970's 1664 shader cores. The 290X also has rather more texture units compared to the 970's - 176, against the 104 of the Maxwell GPU. The 970 retains a lead in terms of core clock speeds - 1178MHz rather than the 290X's 1GHz - but it's the 290X that wins out on overall texture fill rates, touting a figure of 176GT/sec over the 970's 122.5GT/sec.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X

It's little better on traditional memory bandwidth, despite the 970's effective 7GHz memory clock speed being some 2GHz higher than the 290X's 5GHz. The 290X does match the new Maxwell GPU on GDDR5 memory though, offering an identical 4GB complement. And the 290X's massive 512bit memory bus is twice the size of the 970's, culminating in a bandwidth rate of 320GB/sec for the 290X rather than the paltry 224GB/sec of the 970. As with the 780 Ti, though, these figures don't reflect the high efficiency of the Maxwell GPUs, so we'll have to look at the games tests to determine how they compare in a realworld situation.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: High Performance Low Power

Maxwell's real charm comes in its low power consumption. These days, it's about conserving energy, and the 970 puts out an astonishingly small amount of wattage given its capabilities. The GPUs come with a TDP (Thermal Design Power) figure, that estimates how much power your system will need to handle when using one of these products. The GTX 970's TDP of 145 watts compares very favourably with the 170 watts quoted for the much older and significantly slower GTX 760. The 780 Ti hits a rather steep 250 watts in comparison, while the R9 290X gets up to 300 watts. In reality, the difference isn't quite as large, although we did frequently see a gap of 89 watts under load between the R9 290X and the 970. The latter was also rather lower than the 780 Ti, this time seeing a difference of 74 watts. This is remarkable given the technology, and is proof that Maxwell really does extract performance at a fraction of the power. See also Best graphics card of 2014.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Benchmark Tests

And so on to those tests. We've put versions of these cards up against one another at default settings, and across four different titles and three resolutions.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Crysis 3

The 780 Ti leads all the way, although its advantage seems the best at the lowest resolution of 1900x1200, leading here by 5.4fps. By the time we get up to 3840x2160, the gap over the rest has fallen to just 1.3fps. The 290X is the best of the other two, albeit not by much. It leads the 970 by a mere 0.2fps at the lowest resolution, although that lead does go up to 1.9fps as the resolution goes up.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Bioshock Infinite Rage

As a percentage, the 780 Ti is much closer to the competition in this game, ekeing out a lead of 3.6fps at 1920x1080, and seeing this fall to just 1.3fps at 3840x2160. This time, though, it's its stablemate, the Maxwell-powered 970, that hits hardest, working up a 10.7fps lead at the lowest resolution. The AMD almost closes the gap at 2560x1440 to 7.4fps, and actually overtakes its rival at 3840x2160, leading it by 0.5fps. Overall, though, the 970 is better than the AMD here.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Battlefield 4

The results are very similar in this game, with the 780 Ti holding small but consistent leads throughout, starting at 2.5fps at 1900x1200, and ending in 1.5fps at 3840x2160. Once more, the 970 beats the AMD at the lower resolutions, leading it by 5.1fps and 0.2fps at 1900x1200 and 2560x1440, before dropping 2.6fps behind at 3840x2160.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Thief

This is probably the game where the 970 is closest to the Kepler-powered 780 Ti. The latter leads by just 1.4fps at 1920x1080, but has extended this to 2.4fps by the time it reaches 3840x2160. The AMD is  again behind, although only at 1920x1080 is the gap significant - 6.2fps. The lead drops to 1.3fps at 2560x1440, and becomes a mere 1.1fps at 3840x2160.

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Verdict

A lot of the decision here comes down to price and availability. There's actually very little wrong with the 780 Ti. Kepler may be older technology, but cards with the 780 Ti are immensely powerful. At the time of the 970's launch in October, the 780 Ti was still rather expensive. But prices have come down, and if you can get a card for between £300 and £340, the Ti is still a superb card.

Failing this, the 970 is a very good product, despite its slightly lowly on-paper specifications. It's generally faster than the Radeon, particularly at the lower resolutions you're likely to use these cards with. There's also plenty of overclocking potential, and the gap will only increase as the clock speeds are pushed up. The 970 consumes relatively little power, and represents the best deal.

  nVidia GeForce GTX 970 nVidia GeForce GTX 780 Ti AMD Radeon R9 290X
Price £276 - £320 £300 - £390 £240 - £300
Memory 4GB 3GB 4GB
Chip GM204 (Maxwell) GK110 (Kepler) Hawaii
Transistor Count 5.2 billion 7.1 billion 6.2 billion
Manufacturing Process 28nm 28nm 28nm
Standard Core Clock 1050MHz (Boost to 1178MHz) 875MHz (Boost to 928MHz) Standard Boost to 1GHz
Standard Memory Clock (DDR Effective) 1.75GHz (7GHz) 1.75GHz (7GHz) 1.25GHz (5GHz)
Memory Bus 256bit 384bit 512bit
       
Compute Units (CU) or Streaming Multiprocessors (SMX) 13 SMMs enabled 15 SMXes enabled All 32 CUs enabled?
Stream Processors 1664 2880 2816
Texture Units 104 240 176
ROPs 64 48 64
FP64 1/32 FP32 1/24 FP32 1/8
Texture Fillrate 122.5GT/sec 222.7GT/sec 176GT/sec
TDP 145 watts 250 watts Around 300 watts

NVidia GTX 970 vs NVidia GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X: Available Cards

GTX 970

£276 - GALAX GeForce GTX 970 EX OC - 4GB, Core Clock 1,126MHz (1,266MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7010MHz, 2yr Warranty
£276 - Inno3D GeForce GTX 970 OC - 4GB, Core Clock 1,088MHz (1,228MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7010MHz, 2yr Warranty
£290 - Palit GeForce GTX 970 JetStream - 4GB, Core Clock 1,152MHz (1,304MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7010MHz, 2yr Warranty
£294 - MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming Edition - 4GB, Core Clock 1,140MHz (1,279MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7010MHz, 3yr Warranty
£308 - Zotac GeForce GTX 970 AMP Omega Edition - 4GB, Core Clock 1,102MHz (1,241MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7046MHz, 5yr Warranty
£308 - EVGA GeForce GTX 970 SC ACX 2.0 - 4GB, Core Clock 1,165MHz (1,317MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7010MHz, 3yr Warranty
£312 - Asus GeForce GTX 970 DirectCU II OC Strix - 4GB, Core Clock 1,114MHz (1,253MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7010MHz, 3yr Warranty
£320 - Gigabyte GeForce GTX 970 G1 Gaming - 4GB, Core Clock 1,178MHz (1,329MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7010MHz, 3yr Warranty

Verdict - The 970 needs to be affordable, and the £290 Palit is a great mix of power (a 1304MHz Boost clock) and pricing. It is possible to squeeze an extra 25MHz by paying £30 more from the Gigabyte, but most gamers will be very happy with the £290 Palit or the £294 MSI.

GTX 780 Ti

£300 - Zotac GeForce GTX 780 Ti OC GHz Edition - 3GB, Core Clock 941MHz (1,006MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7GHz, 5yr Warranty
£336 - Gainward GTX 780 Ti Phantom - 3GB, Core Clock 980MHz (1,046MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7GHz, 2yr Warranty
£390 - Asus GeForce GTX 780 Ti ROG Matrix Platinum - 3GB, Core Clock 1GHz (1,072MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7GHz, 3yr Warranty
£390 - Gigabyte GeForce GTX 780 Ti GHz Edition - 3GB, Core Clock 1,085MHz (1,150MHz Boost), Memory Clock DDR Effective 7GHz, 3yr Warranty

Verdict - There aren't many 780 Tis available, and the card can be quite expensive. However, Zotac's £300 model is exceptional value, if available. The Gainward is also a very good card for around £336. At these prices, they're great deals next to the 970.

Radeon R9 290X

£240 - Powercolor Radeon R9 290X - 4GB, Core Clock 1030MHz, Memory Clock DDR Effective 5GHz, 2yr Warranty
£276 - MSI Radeon R9 290X Gaming Edition - 4GB, Core Clock 1040MHz, Memory Clock DDR Effective 5GHz, 3yr Warranty
£290 - Gigabyte Radeon R9 290X OC WindForce - 4GB, Core Clock 1040MHz, Memory Clock DDR Effective 5GHz, 3yr Warranty
£290 - Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Vapor-X - 4GB, Core Clock 1030MHz, Memory Clock DDR Effective 5.3GHz, 2yr Warranty
£300 - XFX Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition - 4GB, Core Clock 1050MHz, Memory Clock DDR Effective 5GHz, 2yr Warranty

Verdict - The 290X is, if anything, the cheapest of the cards here. If you can get the Powercolor version, that's still a very good bargain. The Sapphire is probably the best of the more expensive cards, although a 970 is better here. See all graphics card reviews.

Gigabyte GeForce GTX 780 Ti: Specs

  • nVidia GeForce GTX 780 Ti
  • 3 GB GDDR5
  • 1020 MHz core clock (boost to 1080 MHz)
  • 1750 MHz memory clock (7 GHz DDR effective)
  • 384-bit memory interface
  • 2880 stream processors
  • 240 texture units
  • 48 ROP Units
  • PCI-E interface
  • DirectX 11.1
  • 2 x DVI, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DisplayPort
  • 1 x 8-pin and 1 x 6-pin PSU connector needed
  • 3-year warrant
  • nVidia GeForce GTX 780 Ti
  • 3 GB GDDR5
  • 1020 MHz core clock (boost to 1080 MHz)
  • 1750 MHz memory clock (7 GHz DDR effective)
  • 384-bit memory interface
  • 2880 stream processors
  • 240 texture units
  • 48 ROP Units
  • PCI-E interface
  • DirectX 11.1
  • 2 x DVI, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DisplayPort
  • 1 x 8-pin and 1 x 6-pin PSU connector needed
  • 3-year warrant

OUR VERDICT

A lot of the decision here comes down to price and availability. There's actually very little wrong with the 780 Ti. Kepler may be older technology, but cards with the 780 Ti are immensely powerful. At the time of the 970's launch in October, the 780 Ti was still rather expensive. But prices have come down, and if you can get a card for between £300 and £340, the Ti is still a superb card. Failing this, the 970 is a very good product, despite its slightly lowly on-paper specifications. It's generally faster than the Radeon, particularly at the lower resolutions you're likely to use these cards with. There's also plenty of overclocking potential, and the gap will only increase as the clock speeds are pushed up. The 970 consumes relatively little power, and represents the best deal.