Recently we've looked back at the GeForce GTX 980 Ti and the GTX 960, both popular GPUs from yesteryear. Those features have been warmly welcomed, but besides the overall positive responses what we noticed in common in your feedback was the request to test the GeForce GTX 970, which was the performance/value offering of the time and a GPU some of you are still rocking in today's games with some success.
So today we’ve got an old fashioned GPU battle pitting the GeForce GTX 970 against the Radeon R9 290. Whether you're looking to upgrade or not, it should be interesting to see after 5 years which GPU is the ultimate winner...
Quickly rewinding for a moment, Nvidia revealed the GTX 970 for the first time in September 2014, some ten months after the Radeon R9 290’s release. The GTX 970 was the newer product and unsurprisingly it came in offering a little extra performance at a slightly better price. AMD did respond with aggressive R9 290 price cuts but with the 970 generally 10-15% faster on average and considerably better power efficiency, it went on to be a best seller, despite the VRAM controversy.
Throughout 2015 the GTX 970 was typically the puncher GPU and with a slew of quality AIB models to pick from, it easily outsold the R9 290. However many of those who purchased the R9 290 were jumping up and down about how it would be a better investment down the track. At least today we can settle which GPU offers the best performance in 2019.
For this test we have 33 games tested at 1080p, a suitable resolution for these GPUs. We’ll look closely at the results for 13 of the titles before moving into a few head to head comparison graphs. As usual the test system used is powered by a Core i9-9900K clocked at 5 GHz with 32GB of DDR4-3200 memory. Let's see those blue bar graphs now...
First up we have Apex Legends and right away we’re seeing pretty neck and neck performance between the GTX 970 and R9 290. This one’s too close to call and well within the margin of error. It’s safe to say performance is identical using either GPU. When compared to a modern GPU we’re looking at GTX 1060 3GB-like performance.
The Division 2 is a title that works exceptionally well with AMD hardware. As evidenced by Vega 64 beating the GTX 1080 and RTX 2060, while the RX 580 crushed the GTX 1060. With those comparisons previously established it comes as no surprise that the R9 290 dusts the GTX 970 beating it by a 19% margin. The 970 does perform significantly better than the 3GB 1060, but even so you’ll want to dial the quality settings down a little.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is another title that sees AMD GPUs doing quite well and here the GTX 970 was 12% slower than the R9 290. The GTX 970 mimicked the GTX 1060 3GB, or I guess you could say the 1060 mimics the 970, either way performance was decent despite trailing the R9 290.
We promise the order of the games wasn’t chosen on purpose but here we have yet another title that works extremely well with AMD GPUs. Again, the GTX 970 was 12% slower than the R9 290, though despite that performance was still very playable. Still in three of the more recently released titles we’ve seen the R9 290 doing well.
Finally a solid win for the GTX 970, this time testing with Hitman 2 using the DirectX 11 API. The GeForce GPU was 12% faster though I should point out that enabling the new patched-in DX12 mode didn’t change things. The 970 was still the superior GPU in this title.
Performance in Just Cause 4 was similar using either GPU. The GeForce pulled ahead in our test when looking at the average frame rate, however the 1% low result was identical with both managing 40 fps, so overall the experience was much the same.
Moving on we find a close battle when testing with Resident Evil 2, here the R9 290 was just 6fps faster at 1080p and this meant the 970 performed more like a 3GB 1060, not a bad result given the average frame rate was 66 fps, but this one is still a win for the Radeon 290.
Fortnite is a game that favors Nvidia GPUs thanks to its use of the Unreal Engine 4. This can be seen when comparing the GTX 1060 and RX 580 for example, it can also be seen when comparing older GPUs such as the GTX 970 and R9 290. Here the 970 was 18% faster, delivering 87 fps on average.
The GTX 970 also stacks up really well in Metro Exodus with an average of 48 fps at 1080p using the ultra quality settings. This meant it was 23% faster than the R9 290, placing it basically on par with 6GB GTX 1060 and RX 590. So a very solid result for the old Maxwell GPU.
Next up we have Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege and here the GTX 970 is more competitive than I was expecting. I recall this being a very easy win for the R9 290 back in the day, but here it was just 5% on average. That said the 1% low performance was more consistent, though the experience was still extremely smooth with the 970.
Frame rates were surprisingly similar when testing with Battlefield V, here the GTX 970 was just 3 fps faster which comes to be a 5% margin. This is why we typically call it a tie when the margin is 5% or less. The GTX 970 did well in this title and as we’ve seen many times already, it’s often very similar to the 3GB GTX 1060.
World of Tanks is a game that doesn’t like AMD GPUs that much, or AMD GPUs don’t like World of Tanks. Either way it’s not great news for the red team. The R9 290 was able to deliver very playable performance but we see a 36% uplift when looking at the GTX 970 and that’s obviously significant.
And the last game we’re going to look at individually is Far Cry New Dawn and here we have a tie at 70 fps a piece. That placed both the GTX 970 and R9 290 on par with the 3GB 1060. Performance at 1080p using the ultra quality preset certainly was respectable and you won’t need to turn down any quality settings here.
This is one area where the Maxwell GPUs had a big advantage over the AMD competition and it’s an advantage Nvidia still holds today. For what is a similar level of performance the R9 290 drove up system power consumption by 30%. This is why GTX 970 graphics cards typically run cooler and quieter than R9 290 cards.
That’s how the GTX 970 and R9 290 stack up in those preliminary titles, seemed as though we saw quite a bit of back and forth. Based on what we’ve seen so far we don’t imagine the GTX 970 is still 10-15% faster like what most reviewers found back in late 2014. That said let’s see what the 33 game comparison has for us.
There’s your ‘fine wine’ working right there, a.k.a. AMD’s slow driver development. Seriously though, that’s an impressive comeback for the R9 290. Still the GeForce 970 was faster by a 5% margin or greater in 16 of the 33 games tested, while the R9 290 was faster by a 5% margin or greater in just 11 of the games.
So the GeForce GTX 970 was the more consistent performer, the smaller 3.5GB primary VRAM partition will have hurt it in Wolfenstein, especially with the settings used for testing. DiRT 4 also favors Radeon GPUs using CMAA, while Strange Brigade is an AMD sponsored title and well optimized for Radeon GPUs. AMD also does well in The Division 2, Sniper Elite 4, Forza Horizon 4, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
It was mostly the older titles, or Nvidia sponsored games where the green team did well, games such as World of Tanks, Warhammer II, Metro Exodus, Project Cars 2, and Fortnite, for example.
GeForce GTX 970 vs. GTX 1060 6GB
Moving on we decided to see how the GTX 970 stacks up against the GTX 1060 6GB. On average the 970 was 14% slower. So here we’re comparing a 2014 release with an MSRP of $330 to a 2016 release with a $250 MSRP. For those wondering back when we reviewed the GTX 1060 6GB at launch, the 970 was 15% slower, so no ‘Nvidia gimping’ as it’s often referred to appears to have taken place.
Of course, Nvidia doesn’t actively gimp performance, we’ve proven that’s a load of nonsense multiple times now, as have others. They are guilty of prioritizing newer architectures while optimizations for older generations tend to come later, if at all for the really old models.
GeForce GTX 970 vs. RTX 2060
Now if you’ve been holding out all these years for a $300-$400 upgrade, the GeForce RTX 2060 might be of interest.
There you have it, the GTX 970 went from ~10-15% faster four years ago to a percent faster in 2019 against the Radeon R9 290 based on our 33 game test sample that includes many newer titles.
Despite its 3.5GB of fast VRAM, the GTX 970 remains the more reliable performer which might surprise some of you, especially after you’ve no doubt heard over and over again how it’s doomed and will be completely useless before too long. It's also the cooler GPU but most important of all, either solution will let you play games at 1080p comfortably all these years later.
The doomsday scenario still hasn’t happened and with a few minor tweaks the GTX 970 can carve its way through the latest and greatest titles at 1080p without an issue. To give credit where credit is due, the Radeon R9 290 is also extremely impressive in 2019.
We’re completely attributing the R9 290’s comeback to AMD’s driver development and not anything to do with the partitioned VRAM buffer or Nvidia neglecting driver support. The 'fine wine' here is all about AMD getting on top of driver optimization over the past few years.