AMD Polaris and Nvidia Pascal GPUs: What You Need to Know

In this article we’ll be discussing the latest advances in graphics technology: AMD Polaris and Nvidia Pascal. These two new graphics technologies are boasting better power efficiency, better price-to-performance and better 4K/Virtual Reality application compatibility than ever before. These advances are making waves across the world of gaming and PC hardware enthusiasts, and in this article we’ll be telling you why.

What Are Polaris and Pascal exactly?


Graphics architectures are used to power a wide range of different graphics cards offered by the reference designers (AMD and Nvidia, in this case) as well as non-reference designs made by other businesses (such as EVGA, MSI, etc). In other words, the latest generation of graphics technology for PCs is all based on the work AMD and Nvidia have done here.

Additionally, the recently-announced Xbox Scorpio is slated to use a customized version of AMD’s RX 480, based on their Polaris architecture. Rumors about the PS4 Neo also indicate a Polaris-based GPU, which makes sense since both of those console manufacturers work with AMD.

Both of these new architectures are also optimized around the latest graphics APIs: DirectX 12 and Vulkan.

What Are DirectX 12 and Vulkan?


“API” is short for Application Program Interface, and graphics APIs are used with various gaming/3D applications alongside the engine to display the game’s graphics. In general, newer APIs boast better efficiency and performance alongside newer features.

DirectX 12 and Vulkan are two of the latest graphics APIs. Vulkan is the successor to the various versions of OpenGL (a prominent open-source graphics API used by most non-Microsoft systems), while DX 12 is another big step forward for Microsoft’s proprietary DirectX, used exclusively by Windows and Xbox. These new APIs take better advantage of GPUs than ever before, allowing for significantly higher performance in supported games and an alleviation of CPU bottlenecks on machines with weaker CPUs.

Both DirectX 12 and Vulkan, however, actually take pages from AMD’s Mantle. The Mantle API was open-source and designed to dramatically increase an AMD GPU’s performance in supported titles by alleviating CPU bottlenecks (which are a big issue for AMD-only builds). With these new standards, everyone can enjoy the benefits of Mantle and the latest graphics technology.

What Applications Are These New GPUs Suited For?


Your low-end options just at/below $200 will handle newer games at high settings with no problem. At $250 and above, performance starts to increase dramatically with the AMD RX 480 and the GTX 1060. Once you break this barrier, you’re not only maxing games out at 1080p, you’re also meeting the graphics specifications required to play games in Virtual Reality or at higher resolutions like 1440p and 4K.

What once cost a whopping $400 dollars in GPU power now costs literally half that, which lowers the barrier for these new ways to play significantly. Both the RX 480 and GTX 1060 provide a huge value offer in terms of performance while lowering the bar of entry for the next big thing in PC gaming.

But how do you choose?

How Do I Choose the Right One for Me?


Well, just go with what you can afford, basically. At the time of writing, the RX 480 is the cheapest and can easily keep up with anything you’ll be doing for the next four years. Bumping up by $50-150 to the GTX 1060 or 1070 provides another large performance boost, and AMD is slated to debut the RX 490, a full 4K-capable beast, soon.

In short: the budget option is AMD, better (but more expensive) is Nvidia. However, we’re fresh at the beginning of a new generation of GPUs, so these two companies are bound to tweak prices and start fighting each other over them. I recommend using a tool like PCPartPicker to compare prices before making any purchases.

Christopher Harper
Christopher Harper

I'm a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.

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