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Today's mid-range graphics cards in BioShock Infinite

AMD and Nvidia fight it out in Columbia

Not many game sequels spend half a decade in incubation. Even fewer manage to live up to their predecessors, especially when those predecessors are true classics. Looking around store shelves today, it's far more common to see piles of slipshod follow-ups—titles that only register on the radar because of their higher-caliber forerunners.

BioShock Infinite is a welcome reprieve amid the constant deluge of crappy games and crappier sequels. Just take a look at its Metacritic score, which has settled at a stratospheric 95%—or its average user rating on the same site, which is even higher than that of the original BioShock. Play Infinite for yourself, and see how Irrational Games managed to roll together gorgeous visuals, a thought-provoking story, memorable characters, and hybridized FPS-RPG gameplay into a seamless, delectable whole.

Or just take a glimpse at one of the game's screenshots, and try to resist the urge to jump in and explore this tantalizing alternate-history take on pre-WWI America.

Okay, I know I dragged BioShock Infinite through the mud last week by whining about its gameplay. I stand by what I said: BioShock Infinite may deliver originality in many places, but its running and gunning doesn't stray far from the classic (and rather dull) shooter formula. That's okay, though. The game is still head and shoulders above the tear-jerkingly boring competition, and its story and visuals more than make up for lapses in gameplay originality.

BioShock Infinite also happens to be an excellent PC game. Irrational went the extra mile to ensure PC gamers have a far-and-away better experience than their console-using peers. The studio collaborated with AMD to implement DirectX 11 visual enhancements, added higher-resolution textures, and included graphical settings like field of vision right in the game menus. Also, BioShock Infinite belongs to AMD's Gaming Evolved program, and it's currently bundled free of charge with the Radeon HD 7790, the Radeon HD 7800 series, and the Radeon HD 7900 series.

Given all of these things, we were particularly curious to see how well the game handled itself on modern hardware. After all, gorgeous graphics and PC-centric optimizations are no use if the game performs poorly—or if it requires one of those upcoming Radeon HD 7990 dual-GPU cards to unleash its potential. So, with a little help from our friends at Asus, MSI, and XFX, we gathered six graphics cards representative of AMD's and Nvidia's mid-range lineups, and we took the game for a spin on a fairly typical gaming PC.

Our testing methods
Let's start by giving our graphics cards a proper introduction. In the green corner, we have three beautiful GeForces kindly provided by Asus:

These are, from left to right, the GeForce GTX 650 Ti 1GB OC Edition, the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost DirectCU II, and the GeForce GTX 660 DirectCU II. Newegg's prices for these bad boys are $139.99, $174.99, and $234.99, respectively.

At 980MHz, the Asus GTX 650 Ti 1GB's GPU frequency is a little higher than Nvidia's 928MHz reference clock, but not enough to command an outlandish price premium. The same goes for the DirectCU II version of the GTX 650 Ti Boost, which sports a similar dual-fan cooler and runs at 1020MHz—just above the 980MHz reference speed for that card. This version of the GTX 650 Ti Boost is actually one of the least expensive available today; the more affordable alternatives are only about five bucks cheaper.

Finally, on the far right, you can see Asus' GeForce GTX 660 DirectCU II. That card doesn't have souped-up clock speeds, but it makes up for that omission with a beefy dual-fan cooler that's riddled with heat pipes. Oddly, Newegg charges more for this card than it does for Asus' own "DC2O" model, which features slightly higher clock speeds, (apparently) the same cooler, and an asking price of just $209.99. That may be more of a temporary pricing incongruity than anything, though.

In the red corner, we have our three Radeons: MSI's Radeon HD 7790 OC, XFX's Radeon HD 7850 2GB Black Edition, and XFX's Radeon HD 7870 Black Edition. The MSI card will set you back $149.99 at Newegg right now; it's clocked 50MHz above the 1000MHz reference speed, and it sports a "propeller blade" fan that circulates air through a dual-slot, heat-pipe-equipped heatsink. This baby also comes with a free copy of BioShock Infinite.

As for the XFX cards, those are holdovers from one of our older reviews. The 7850 2GB Black Edition isn't available anymore, and the 7870 model is priced much higher than other 7870s. (It costs $269.99.) In order to keep the contest with the GeForces fair, we've underclocked both XFX cards to match the speeds of reference cards. Reference versions of the 7850 2GB and 7870 can be found for $184.99 and $219.99, respectively. Oh, and all 7800-series graphics cards are bundled with free copies of BioShock Infinite and the new Tomb Raider.

See below for a complete listing of the cards, their clock rates, their memory capacities, and the driver versions we used.

As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Our test systems were configured like so:

Processor Intel Core i7-3770K
Motherboard Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H
North bridge Intel Z77 Express
South bridge
Memory size 4GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type AMD Memory
DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-28
Chipset drivers INF update
Rapid Storage Technology 11.6
Audio Integrated Via audio
with drivers
Hard drive Crucial m4 256GB
Power supply Corsair HX750W 750W
OS Windows 8 Professional x64 Edition


  Driver revision GPU base
MSI Radeon HD 7790 Catalyst beta 1050 6000 1GB
XFX Radeon HD 7850 2GB Black Edition (underclocked) Catalyst 13.3 beta 3 860 1200 2GB
XFX Radeon HD 7870 Black Edition (underclocked) Catalyst 13.3 beta 3 1000 1200 2GB
Asus GeForce GTX 650 Ti 1GB OC Edition GeForce 314.22 WHQL 980 1350 1GB
Asus GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost DirectCU II GeForce 314.22 WHQL 1020 1502 2GB
Asus GeForce GTX 660 DirectCU II GeForce 314.22 WHQL 980 1502 2GB

Thanks to AMD, Corsair, and Crucial for helping to outfit our test rig. Asus, MSI, and XFX have our gratitude, as well, for supplying the various graphics cards we tested.

We used the latest compatible drivers for each card. In the case of the Radeon HD 7790, that meant using the same driver release AMD sent us for the review. (The Catalyst 13.3 betas don't seem to recognize that GPU properly, perhaps because they were released just before it.)

Image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults, except on the Radeon cards, where surface format optimizations were disabled and the tessellation mode was set to "use application settings." Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following test applications:

We used the Fraps utility to record frame rates while playing a sequence from the game. Although capturing frame rates while playing isn't precisely repeatable, we tried to make each run as similar as possible to all of the others. We tested each Fraps sequence five times per video card in order to counteract any variability. We've included frame-by-frame results from Fraps for each game, and in those plots, you're seeing the results from a single, representative pass through the test sequence.

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.