AMD vs. Nvidia – Who is the King of GPUs?

The war between graphics chip manufacturers AMD and Nvidia has raged on for ages. While it was once a neck-and-neck struggle, it’s recently felt more like a one-sided battle, with Nvidia taking cash and customers as the spoils of victory. But before we can try to declare a victor in our battle of GPUs, we should get a quick snapshot of the market.

Nvidia’s most recent chipset release was the GeForce 10 series. These cards are built into GP100-series cores and marketed to consumers as the GeForce GTX 1060, 1070, 1080 and 1080ti, Titan Xp and others. These cards were the first cards to sport Nvidia’s new micro-architecture, codenamed Pascal, which Nvidia claims in ten times faster than the old Maxwell architecture.

While Pascal featured a new process size (16mm FinFET, specifically), it otherwise shares major design features with the Maxwell architecture it replaced. Yet it still offered major new features, including unified memory, which reduces developer effort in optimizing for their chipsets, high bandwidth memory (HBM), which supports up to 1 TB of bandwidth and 16 GB of GDDR5X memory, and NVLink, which boasts communication speeds five to twelve times faster than PCIE 3.0’s speed.

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AMD also recently launched a line of graphics cards in the spring of 2017. The Polaris 20, 11 and 12 power the Radeon 500 line, with cards like the Radeon RX 550, 560, 570 and 580. These cards used fourth iteration of the Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture, which has been steadily updated since its release in 2011. GCN includes both a micro-architecture and instruction set and has been the basis of AMD cards since 2011. The most recent Polaris cards benefit from ongoing optimization and refinement GCN, with improved manufacturing capability allowing for greater clock speeds than in previous generations. AMD is also on the verge of launching their brand-new Vega micro-architecture, which is poised to compete with higher-end Nvidia cards for gaming dominance.

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Declaring the “king” of GPUs depends heavily on your projected use. If you’re interested in gaming, Nvidia is currently ahead of AMD in performance. But if you want computing power for mining a cryptocurrency like Ethereum, AMD is by far the most powerful.

This has to do with design choices made by the card manufactures. AMD made a conscious choice to target the “compute” market for GPUs, providing microarchitectures and instruction sets better suited to low-level computational operations that underlie cryptocurrencies and password cracking. However, this comes at a cost: the cards aren’t as powerful when rendering polygons.

Nvidia chipsets are currently king in the gaming market, but their edge could be narrowing as AMD readies the release of their new Vega microarchitecture. For now, Pascal reigns supreme. Looking at the top-end consumer cards from each, Nvidia’a GeForce GTX 1080ti shows a significant lead over AMD’s Radeon RX 580, and even mid-range cards like the GTX 1070 stay competitive against the RX 580.

In the budget range, AMD’s less-expensive offers win the price-to-performance comparison, however, with the RX 550 coming out on top when compared to the GTX 1050 and 1050ti. Yet across the board, Nvidia’s cards offer superior gaming performance.

nvidia-chipset

For cryptocurrency mining, however, the trend is reversed. A recent rush in the Ethereum market put serious pressure on GPU stock throughout the spring and summer, with AMD cards becoming virtually unavailable for months as they were instantly snapped up by miners.

Part of this owes to AMD’s superior reputation in the compute sector, but that reputation is not unearned: their cards do significantly outperform similarly-specced Nvidia cards for tasks like encrypting and decrypting data. This is thanks again to AMD’s instruction sets and microarchitecture, which are better suited to the demands of compute-based workflows.

While it’s not possible to declare an overall victor in the ongoing battle for GPU supremacy, Nvidia and AMD have the advantage over one another in certain sectors. Nvidia GPUs currently reign supreme in the gaming market, while AMD chips surpass Nvidia’s offerings in compute.

Image credit: Nvidia Riva TNT2 M64 GPU

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