Marco’s Musings: GPUs Sinking To New Lows To Get High Performance
I know we are tantalisingly close to the release and ensuing battle lines of the new “next-gen” consoles, but there has been another battle for what is probably a more “next-gen” next generation in gaming (oooo burn) in terms of 4k resolution gaming. Master Race Established. No other piece of hardware will affect your ability to play immersive games as much as this discrete dispatcher of pretty polygons. As we all know, polygons are emotions.
And this, dear gamer, is why I am getting my peripherals in a twist, but a good twist, like the twists you do in a game of Twister with a Thor cosplayer.
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Anyway, digression over.
Lately there has been so much happening in the GPU space in terms of releases and re-releases, re-brands and Russell Brands that I, and many others, are supremely captivated by the back and forth between Nvidia and AMD. This contemporary competitiveness is great as it’s been an Age of Man since the two GPU makers were this competitive in price, performance and game bundles. I am not in any two minds about this: AMD rocks for what they did to shake up the GPU marketplace and it all started with the R9 290X “Titan killer” which debuted at the end of October. At the time the card was faster and cheaper by $100 over any single card that Nvidia could muster.
It wasn’t as rosy a reception as the critics and reviewers, and indeed Nvidia fan boys, were quick to point out that AMD performed somewhat dismally in regards to noise, temperatures and varying clock speeds. These points are not to be dismissed and are actually well placed concerns by the gaming community, stuff I will get into later on in this article. Moving on though, shortly after the R9 290x release Nvidia did the sensible and composed thing: they threw a coin in the air, it landed on Tails, Jen-Hsun Huang nodded and smirked, and they dropped the price on the GTX 780 by $150, $70 on the GTX 770 and announced the GTX 780ti.
Well shit. That was the veritable rain on AMD’s parade; except instead of rain it was large chunks of green hail with these words inscribed on them “We are cooler, cheaper and still use up less electron juice…and have an extra card up our sleeve”. Your first question should be: How could Nvidia afford this green hail weather/inscribing machine to hail on AMD’s parade? Obviously from all the profits they gobbled up selling Kepler cards at massive profit margins…
….the story does not end there though. AMD haphazardly thought that the path to victory was launching its amazing but essentially coal powered giant we have all come to know as the R9 290x. Suffice it to say if we had 20 of these in the country they would probably give Eskom sleepless nights, as they consume as much power as Nvidia’s dual card 690! Anyway, after the Nvidia coin toss and resultant tactical retreat of their GTX780 and GTX770 I don’t think they anticipated that the obviously smaller, nimbler and “less” coal powered R9 290 card would actually steal the show from its bigger brother.
The R9 290 essentially weaved like a ninja, silently taking out the GTX 770 camp sentries as it strode deeper into the GPU market. It diverted momentarily to throw a spanner into the Green Hail Weather/Inscribing Machine in preparation for what was to follow. It eventually, on the 30th of October, found its way to the tent wherein lay the slumbering GTX 780 commander, confident and unsuspecting after its successful tactical retreat. With a $100 edge to its blade, the R9 290, not so silently, proceeded to give the GTX 780 an extended smile, from memory module to memory module, thus ending the fight in the $400 battlefield.
Forget for a moment the win that is that extended metaphor: The R9 290 card, even though it’s the 2nd tier AMD card, is most likely the clear winner in this new battleground of cards offering the best bang for buck out of the high end cards. It is still plagued by the same issues of power consumption, noise and temperature akin to its chunkier brother, but at freaking $400 (locally its priced around R5500) it, like its brother, is faster by about 6 % and, like the precedent set by its brother, is $100 cheaper than the GTX 780. In fact people who bought the R9 290x, even though that is still a faster card, might feel a bit cheated at the performance and price difference between the two. I’m not sure what else can be said. As ironic as it sounds, the R9 290 is shaping up to be the next “8800GT”, the card which at the time was such a considerable bang for buck champ its name became a category for future cards embodying the same spirit…such as this AMD card.
But (there is always a but), Nvidia was not finished. Remember earlier with the Nvidia coin flip? Did you wonder what would have happened had it landed heads? Sometimes, in some parallel universe, it plays out this way, but, much like the game featuring the Lutece’s, it does not really change the ending in any way: There’s always a Man, always a Conference Hall, and always a group of Journalists. If the coin toss had landed on Heads, Nvidia’s CEO would still have nodded and smirked, but instead of the GTX 780 and GTX 770 getting the price drop first, we would have had the release of the GTX 780ti probably a bit sooner, followed by said price drops. It’s not the most frequent occurring reality, but it always ends up the same way: with Nvidia on top….
Anyway, the point is that Nvidia was well prepared for AMD, so much so they confidently priced the GTX 780ti at $699, thus implicitly confirming that it was properly fast before one review NDA ever expired. And, as the reviews did show, it is the card the gamers wanted the Titan to be: a fully unlocked GK110 Kepler chip capable of bringing amazing high quality polygons, and thus emotion, to ones games. Although I don’t think Nvidia expected the 2nd tier AMD card to be sticking it quite convincingly to their GTX 780, and at a much cheaper price point. How much more wiggle room does the GTX 780 have? As it stands, without another significant price drop, the GTX 780 is probably is the most irrelevant card at the moment.
For all this tongue in cheek style, I am reservedly impressed with the performance of the “Titan Killer” Killer. Even though its $150 more expensive than the best AMD has, it’s only around 10% faster at 144p resolutions. That lead tapers off as AMD has it in its cross-hairs once we start getting hot and heavy with 4k resolutions, thanks to that extra dollop of memory in R9 290x, sitting smug at 4GB vs the 780ti’s 3GB. That being said AMD’s 290x was crowned the fastest card for a few weeks, but that title has now swung firmly back to Nvidia and their 780ti, and they are charging for that privilege.
Now it’s time to get critical. It saddens me to point fingers at any GPU maker, especially one that has made me so happy in recent times, but I am highly disappointed with AMD. Not their architecture or technology, as we can see the Hawaii chips are speedy when given the chance. No, I’m just upset with AMD’s downright silly incongruence in designing their cards. Let me elaborate : AMD’s new cards clocks are heavily dynamic, achieving minimum and maximum clocks as determined by TDP, thermals and fan speeds, all controllable via their PowerTune software. There is no “I want to get this or this clock speed”. You can essentially just alter percentages of variables in relation to the TDP, thermals and fan speed, and the software spits out a clock based on accommodating those variables you set. Basically the cooler the card the faster it will run.
So this is where it gets silly: Now if this is your system of attaining your performance, why go and produce a shitty and obscenely loud cooler that does not cater to extracting- not mind blowing performance- but performance that is understandable while keeping temps and noise in check? Sitting hot at 94 Degree’s and 63dB is not ideal, no matter which way AMD press spins it. For a blower styled cooler it does look pretty eye-catching and has some “innovative” air vents, but I feel if AMD invested just a little more, like a maximum of 50$, into a better cooling solution I think the cards would have had an even better reception than the one they have now, which are floating more around the “meh” space, especially the R9 290x. I mean listen to this thing roar.
No wonder it has been dubbed the “Windblower”. This is why I think even adding $50 more on the cards to cover the cost of making a better cooling design would have made the cards more popular, and in the R9 290’s case, it would still have been cheaper and undeniably faster than anything Nvidia has, bar the 780ti. AMD know how much fan speed and thermals influence their cards performance as they even released a firmware update just before the NDA lifted on the R9 290. It increased the default fan speed from 40% to 47%, thus increasing the highly erratic clock speeds witnessed on the card. Another testament that their implementation of PowerTune and the wholly under performing cooler makes such poor sense, and in fact highly irritates me.
PowerTune is a way of doing things differently and probably can work nicely in some situations, but some reviewers revealed a potential “Golden Samples Scandal” , in which different retail cards are achieving different maximum clock speeds from the ones reviewers achieved. No, not overclocking speeds, regular default out-the-box speeds. Nothing will infuriate gamers more than experiencing less default performance than what reviewers said they would. This has apparently been solved by an AMD driver update, so PR disaster mostly avoided. All in all the main reason I am saddened is that AMD have a chance to claw back some competitive edge and market share, but are basically being undone by poor execution and heatsink design of an immensely competitive product in relation to the competition. I feel AMD just rushed this card out to try cater to their new gaming chums, DICE and BF4.
Even with these criticisms there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And that light is the multiple AIB partners hopefully waiting in the wings. Aftermarket designs from the likes of Asus, Gigabyte or MSI might be the saving grace that AMD needs as their AIB partners might give the cards the chance AMD never did, a chance to really perform. Just take a look at what was achievable using an aftermarket cooler on a R9 290x? All in all I love what AMD are doing, they shook shit up with these cards, but they produced a wholly unbalanced end product, one of which could easily have been the next “8800gt” if they invested just a bit more into addressing it’s obvious failings. And, as much as this tail end of this article seems to AMD bash, I still commend them for making the high end GPU space a more competitive one, whereby the only winner in another round of AMD vs Nvidia is the consumer.