AMD vs Nvidia: How much of a difference do drivers make?
Every time a new graphics card comes out from either AMD or Nvidia, we get new drivers, which are good enough to show the average potential of the card. Still, as with all early releases and beta drivers at launch, we know that it isn’t until the manufacturers and game developers work together over the coming months, that the true power of a card is revealed.
So basically what I’ve decided is to take the first officially supported drivers for the test cards and the latest stable release (WHQL) drivers from both the companies. Beta drivers weren’t considered due to their inherent nature of being potentially unstable with various hardware configurations and creating conflicts with patches and driver software.
For starters I tracked down which drivers supported the AMD HD 7970 (non GHz Edition running at 925MHz on Core Clock) and the NVIDIA GTX 680 at launch. The Catalyst 12.2 came out in March 2012 and was the first driver to officially support the HD 7970 outside of the original beta which came out with the card’s release in December 2011. So it took AMD three months to bring out officially supported drivers for their highest-end card. Their latest drivers are the Catalyst 13.1.
On the NVIDIA front the GeForce 301.10 were the drivers of choice that officially supported the GTX 680, which came out mere days after launch. The latest version of the GeForce drivers are 310.90.
Over the course of 2012 most driver updates from either company focused on official support for recently launched cards, or supporting the most recent game, or giving better performance on SLI/ CrossFire setups. Squeezing out performance for already released cards seems low on the priority list. And then there were advanced features such as improved anti-aliasing techniques and bug fixes on specific games.
So let’s have a look at the test system and the hardware used.
And now let’s look at our benchmarking methodology:
It’s interesting to see the GTX 680 leading the benchmarks in 3DMark 11, yet in the latest 3DMark benchmarks the HD 7970 takes the lead. How DirectX 11 programming has changed to take advantage of AMD hardware. Note: that the Launch 301.10 drivers for the GTX 680 kept on crashing on the Fire Strike Extreme benchmark.
As you can see both the AMD HD 7970 and the NVIDIA GTX 680 perform on par, my guess being that the HD 7970 GHz Edition will outperform the GTX 680 in F1 2012, Battlefield 3 and Civilization V. However, none of these would be meaningful performance bumps as anything beyond 60fps is only for boasting, unless you have a monitor running at 120Hz refresh rate. Even then, though, actual performance benefits are arguable for most competitive games.
So useless framerates aside, what we’ve learned today is that either AMD releases their cards with poorly optimized drivers, or they have some of the best programming engineers who know how to really exploit the hardware available to them over the course of a few months. Of course, it could be a mix of both.