Buying Your Next Graphics Card: nVidia vs. AMD

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by Charles Owen-Jackson

If you were playing PC video games back in the late 90s, you might remember the graphics card industry being a much more competitive one that it is now.  However, the rise of AMD and nVidia in the early 2000s saw the fall of companies like 3Dfx and various other manufacturers, leaving the two tech giants to dominate the market.  Unfortunately, however, these changes haven't made it much easier to choose a new graphics card, since both manufacturers offer an extensive range of products to suit all budgets.  Nonetheless, if you don't play games, you generally won't need any dedicated graphics card at all, in which case the integrated chips that ship with many new laptop and desktop computers will provide more than enough power.

As is the case with choosing between AMD and Intel when it comes to processors, there's rarely a clear winner across the board, since the best solution relies heavily on the individual requirements of the user.  Nonetheless, many veteran gamers have strong opinions either way, with some of them refusing to budge.  However, it's important to remember that both manufacturers cater to fairly specific target audiences in order to solidify their places in what has become a brutally competitive marketplace.  As such, there are few set rules, but there are some important factors that should help you decide.

Price

Whether assembling a new PC, buying a new machine or upgrading an existing one, price is usually among the biggest concerns.  In this respect, AMD's offerings are generally cheaper than their nVidia counterparts although, with a little shopping around, you'll quickly find that this isn't always the case.  In reality, while AMD has long been seen as the budget-friendly choice for both processors and graphics card, this can and does change.  For example, a top-end Radeon R9 Fury X typically costs around the same as an nVidia GeForce 1080, despite nVidia's offering a significant performance advantage in almost every benchmark ever seen.  Ultimately, misconceptions aside, there's little difference when it comes to price.

Performance

As a gamer, you'll likely be more interested in getting the best performance for the price.  In this regard, nVidia was, as of July, 2016, by far the better option, and it has been for a few years now.  For example, a brand new GeForce 1080 costs around the same as AMD's highest-end consumer graphics cards but, benchmarks have shown that it offers almost 50% better performance across the board! Nonetheless, these statistics don't necessarily present AMD is the loser entirely.  After all, many games favour either AMD or nVidia, with some being better optimized for one manufacturer than the other.  While nVidia generally does beat AMD's competing graphics cards, certain games present exceptions to the rule.

When it comes to mid-range graphics cards, AMD's RX 480 presents a good buy, since it's generally cheaper than competing cards from nVidia.  The RX 480 uses AMD's new Polaris GPU architecture, and joins a line of products including the RX 460 and RX 470, all of which were released in summer of 2016.  As such, 2016 appears to be the year when AMD finally gets back on track to fill its niche in the market and its reputation as the more budget-friendly choice.  For casual gamers who either don't need or cannot afford the latest and greatest from nVidia, AMD's latest Polaris-based GPUs might be a preferable choice.

Features and Software

When it comes to software and features, nVidia generally has the upper hand over AMD.  Most importantly, nVidia has a number of major features that are exclusive to its own graphics cards, such as HairWorks and PhysX.  Nonetheless, AMD generally has equivalents of its own, but it really depends on the game in question as to whether you can take advantage of them or not.  For example, games that favour nVidia, such as The Witcher 3, tend to look better on nVidia graphics cards, since features like HairWorks are available.

Both manufacturers regularly offer driver updates, and you can install the same drivers for all graphics cards featuring chips made by that manufacturer.  As such, keeping your drivers up-to-date is a pretty straightforward process regardless of which graphics card you go for.  The only significant difference lies in the additional optional software suites provided.  AMD users can use the AMD Gaming Evolved program, while nVidia users can use the GeForce Experience software.  These tweaking programs can be useful, but which is better is largely a matter of personal preference.

The most important difference between the two with regards to software is that nVidia drivers provide relatively little tweaking power to the end user.  Since late 2015, their drivers have been locked behind a registration with the GeForce Experience program, meaning that you now have to use that program to keep your drivers and software up-to-date.  This lack of freedom is bound to irritate some users.  However, AMD users can continue to download their drivers directly from AMD's website.  The winner here really depends on how much control you want over your drivers, in which case AMD has a slight edge over nVidia. Again, this can also change at any time.

Final Words

Unfortunately, it's impossible to give a yes or no answer to the question of which manufacturer being the better one.  Both have the advantages and drawbacks, and the competition has long been a fierce one.  Exclusivity deals between certain developers and either nVidia or AMD do present a problem that continues to hurt the gaming industry as a whole and, in this respect, nVidia is often guilty.  However, those wanting the best of the best, regardless of the price, will generally still be better off going for one of nVidia's latest offerings.  On the other hand, for casual gamers seeking an affordable low- to mid-range graphics card, the distinction between the two is more difficult to determine, although AMD's mid-range cards tend to be better value.

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