Barely seven months have passed since AMD launched its $149 Radeon HD 7790. Today, the company is introducing a new, faster graphics card based on the same silicon: the $139.99 Radeon R7 260X.
AMD gave us an early peek at the R7 260X during its GPU14 press event in Hawaii. We now know much more about it. For example, we know that it improves upon the Radeon HD 7790 by raising the core and memory speeds and by doubling the amount of memory onboard. We know that it has some new features, and that, in a surprising twist, those same features were lying dormant inside the 7790’s GPU silicon all along. We even know that driver updates will soon enable all of those features in the 7790.
And, of course, we have a whole boatload of benchmarks—inside-the-second numbers that tell us how the R7 260X stacks up against both its predecessor and its competitors.
(By the way, AMD is also cranking out a couple of higher-end cards today: the R9 270X and 280X. You can find Scott’s review of them here.)
AMD’s Bonaire graphics processor has been kicking around inside the Radeon HD 7790 since March, and all the while, it’s been harboring some secret features. Behind closed doors at the GPU14 event, we learned that Bonaire is based on the same “IP pool” as Hawaii, the next-gen GPU scheduled to premiere inside the R9 290X later this year.
In short, Bonaire has many of the same architectural perks as Hawaii: improved shaders (which also appeared in the Kabini APU), embedded TrueAudio DSP cores, and greater flexibility when it comes to connecting multiple monitors. Bonaire also has the same power management mojo as Hawaii, but unlike the other features, AMD made that functionality public at the 7790’s launch. You can read all about it in our 7790 review here.
Like Hawaii, Bonaire has shaders that support flat memory addressing and MQSAD (or masked quad sum of absolute difference) operations. With flat addressing, the idea seems to be to combine system and GPU memory into a single address space. This, among other things, should help facilitate the development of GPU computing applications.
Bonaire also supports AMD’s new TrueAudio technology. Inside the GPU silicon are Tensilica HiFi EP Audio DSP cores, a streaming DMA engine, 384KB of shared internal memory, and a low-latency bus interface that ties the DSP cores to the GPU’s frame buffer and main system memory. AMD doesn’t say how many DSP cores there are, but it tells us they run at 800MHz, and it claims Bonaire and Hawaii have the same DSP config. That means the two chips should have the same audio processing capabilities, despite their being aimed at wildly different price points.
Thanks to TrueAudio, game developers will be able to implement advanced spatialization and reverb effects based on in-game geometry. At the GPU14 event, AMD demoed elevation and depth perception simulations on a 7.1-speaker setup. A 3D sound stage was also emulated using two speakers. The TrueAudio pipeline is programmable, so developers should have some freedom to tweak those effects and perhaps to use the DSPs for other things.
As we understand it, using specialized DSP cores is better than simply processing advanced audio effects in software, which can tax low-end CPUs and yield inconsistent performance. Crucially for audio, the specialized DSP approach also incurs lower latency than processing sound in GPU shaders via DirectCompute or OpenCL.
Lastly, Bonaire makes it easier to connect multiple displays. With previous-gen GPUs, triple-monitor configs wouldn’t work unless one of the displays was hooked up via DisplayPort. That requirement has been lifted. Users can now, for example, connect two monitors via DVI and a third one via HDMI. Additionally, setting up five or six monitors no longer requires a graphics card with a corresponding number of outputs. Users can now daisy-chain displays or use a DisplayPort hub.
Those features are present in the R7 260X, and AMD says its current drivers enable the improved shaders and multi-monitor mojo in the Radeon HD 7790, as well. TrueAudio support will come to both cards later, in a driver update.
In the end, then, the R7 260X’s only real advantages over the 7790 are its higher clock speeds and its larger frame buffer. The two cards have otherwise very similar specifications:
|Radeon HD 7790||1000||896||56/28||16||6.0 GT/s||128||85W|
|Radeon R7 260X||1100||896||56/28||16||6.5 GT/s||128||115W|
Those similarities are compounded by the fact that many, if not most, retail 7790s are clocked higher than the reference speeds you see above. AMD bragged about this fact earlier this year. It’s not uncommon to see retail 7790 cards with peak GPU and memory speeds of 1075MHz and 6.4Gbps, respectively—quite close to the reference R7 260X.
The R7’s larger frame buffer is a notable improvement, though. Variants of the 7790 cards with 2GB of memory do exist, but they’re few and far between. Newegg carries only two of them right now: one priced at $139.99, and another at $169.99. The R7 260X will make 2GB of video RAM the new standard at $139.99. Given the slew of graphically intensive next-gen games coming later this fall, that’s probably a good thing.
Not to be outdone, Nvidia has responded to the R7 260X launch with some price cuts, which it says are permanent.
EVGA’s GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 1GB and Asus’ GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB.
As of Monday, the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB is available for $149.99, or $129.99 after a mail-in rebate. The 1GB version of the same card is down to $129.99, or $109.99 after a mail-in rebate. Those are $20 cuts over last week’s prices, and they put the 650 Ti Boost cards smack dab in R7 260X territory.
That’s a big deal. Our review of the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB showed that card substantially outperforming a retail 7790 clocked not far below the R7 260X. The GTX 650 Ti Boost 1GB should be slower than its 2GB sibling, since its memory runs at 5 GT/s instead of 6 GT/s, but it should still be a tantalizing solution at $129.
For reference, here’s how these cards all stack up on paper. (Don’t worry; we’ll get to the game benchmarks in a minute.)
|Radeon HD 7790||16||56||28||1.8||2.0||96.0|
|Radeon HD 7790 (Asus)||17||60||30||1.9||2.2||102|
|Radeon R7 260X||18||62||31||2.0||2.2||104|
|Radeon HD 7850||28||55||28||1.8||1.7||154|
|GeForce GTX 650 Ti||15||59||59||1.4||1.9||86|
|GeForce GTX 650 Ti 2GB (Zotac)||15||60||60||1.4||1.9||86|
|GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 1GB||25||66||66||1.6||2.1||120|
|GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB||25||66||66||1.6||2.1||144|
|GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB (Asus)||26||69||69||1.7||2.2||144|
The Radeon R7 260X has higher peak shader performance and a higher peak rasterization rate than both versions of the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost. However, 650 Ti Boost cards have higher peak pixel fill rates and texture filtering rates. They also have higher peak memory bandwidth, thanks to their wider, 192-bit memory interfaces. The R7 260X may fare better in highly shader- or tessellation-intensive titles, but it looks like the GeForces could have the edge otherwise.
Our testing methods
We tested using our tried-and-true “inside the second” methods. Since we don’t have FCAT equipment up here at TR North, we used Fraps to generate all our performance numbers.
Fraps gives us information about things happening at the start of the rendering pipeline—not, as FCAT does, at the end of the pipeline, when frames reach the display. Having both sets of numbers would be better, but the Fraps data is largely sufficient for the kind of testing we’re doing here. We don’t expect there to be much of a discrepancy between Fraps and FCAT numbers on single-GPU, single-monitor configurations like these.
In any event, our “inside the second” Fraps numbers are far more informative than the raw frames-per-second data produced by more conventional benchmarking techniques. Such data can cover up problems like latency spikes and micro-stuttering, which have a real, palpable impact on gameplay.
For more information about Fraps, FCAT, and our inside-the-second methodology, be sure to read Scott’s articles on the subject: Inside the second: A new look at game benchmarking and Inside the second with Nvidia’s frame capture tools.
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median results. Our test systems were configured like so:
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3770K|
|North bridge||Intel Z77 Express|
|Memory size||4GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||AMD Memory
DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
|Chipset drivers||INF update 22.214.171.1241
Rapid Storage Technology 11.6
|Audio||Integrated Via audio
with 6.0.01.10800 drivers
|Hard drive||Crucial m4 256GB|
|Power supply||Corsair HX750W 750W|
|OS||Windows 8 Professional x64 Edition|
|Driver revision||Base GPU
|Asus Radeon HD 7790||Catalyst 13.11 beta V1||1075||1600||1024|
|AMD Radeon R7 260X||Catalyst 13.11 beta V1||1100||1625||2048|
|XFX Radeon HD 7850 1GB||Catalyst 13.11 beta V1||860||1200||1024|
|Zotac GeForce GTX 650 Ti 2GB (simulated)||GeForce 331.40 beta||941||1350||2048|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 1GB||GeForce 331.40 beta||980||1502||1024|
|Asus GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB||GeForce 331.40 beta||1020||1502||2048|
Thanks to AMD, Corsair, and Crucial for helping to outfit our test rig. AMD, Asus, Nvidia, XFX, and Zotac have our gratitude, as well, for supplying the various graphics cards we tested.
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:
Some further notes on our methods:
- We used the Fraps utility to record frame rates while playing 60- or 90-second sequences 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.
We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using a P3 Kill A Watt digital power meter. The monitor was plugged into a separate outlet, so its power draw was not part of our measurement. The cards were plugged into a motherboard on an open test bench.
The idle measurements were taken at the Windows desktop with the Aero theme enabled. The cards were tested under load running Crysis 3 at the same quality settings used for our performance testing.
We measured noise levels on our test system, sitting on an open test bench, using a TES-52 digital sound level meter. The meter was held approximately 8″ from the test system at a height even with the top of the video card.
You can think of these noise level measurements much like our system power consumption tests, because the entire systems’ noise levels were measured. Of course, noise levels will vary greatly in the real world along with the acoustic properties of the PC enclosure used, whether the enclosure provides adequate cooling to avoid a card’s highest fan speeds, placement of the enclosure in the room, and a whole range of other variables. These results should give a reasonably good picture of comparative fan noise, though.
- We used GPU-Z to log GPU temperatures during our load testing.
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.
Irrational Games’ latest BioShock title uses a modified Unreal engine to deliver some truly stunning vistas. To test it, I ran around the “Raffle Square” area for 60 seconds, heading toward a large crowd before doubling back and roaming around empty streets.
Testing was conducted at 1080p using the game’s built-in “Very High” detail preset. As we saw during our in-depth look at BioShock Infinite performance, the “Very High” preset can be hard to tell apart from the “Ultra” preset, but it’s much less taxing on sub-$150 graphics cards like these.
Right away, we can see that the Radeon R7 260X performs very similarly to the Radeon HD 7790. The two cards’ lines on the plot almost overlap.
The GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 1GB is a little quicker than the R7 260X and 7790, but it seems to produce more uneven frame times—including a 70-ms spike a third of the way through the run. The 2GB version of the same card is somewhat better-behaved.
The R7 260X and 7790 have nearly identical frame rates and 99th-percentile frame times, as well. The GTX 650 Ti Boost 1GB churns out a higher frame rate, but because of those latency spikes we saw in the plots, its 99th-percentile frame time is lower.
Funnily enough, the Radeon HD 7850 1GB appears to be the best performer here. This card was supposed to disappear from store shelves months ago—AMD told us so in no uncertain terms—but it’s still widely available, and prices range as low as $144.99 before a $20 mail-in rebate—right in the same ballpark as the R7 260X.
Our last set of graphs confirms what we saw in the frame-by-frame plots: the Nvidia cards have less even frame delivery than the Radeons overall in BioShock Infinite. To be fair, though, the differences aren’t very big. The worst offender, Nvidia’s GTX 650 Ti 2GB, spends only 55 ms working on high-latency frames over 33.3 ms.
Developed by Crystal Dynamics, this reboot of the famous franchise features a young Lara Croft. I tested it by running around a small mountain village near the beginning of the single-player campaign.
I tested at 1080p using the game’s “High” detail preset.
These plots look a little different from those on the previous page. Note the Y axis, though. Our cards all spend most of their runs under 25 ms, which works out to around 40 FPS. More importantly, there are no big latency spikes. Translation: gameplay is smooth and largely stutter-free across the board.
Here again, the R7 260X is virtually indistinguishable from the 7790, and the 7850 1GB is faster than both of them. Also, in this game, both variants of the GTX 650 Ti Boost pull ahead of the Radeons.
None of our cards grapple with frame times over 50 or 33.3 ms. The 7850 1GB and the two versions of the GTX 650 Ti Boost also spend very little time above 16.7 ms. That means they crank out at least 60 FPS through nearly the entire run.
There’s not much to say about Crysis 3, except that it’s the latest Crysis game, and it has truly spectacular graphics. To benchmark it, I ran from weapon cache to weapon cache at the beginning of the Welcome to the Jungle level for 60 seconds per run.
Testing was done at 1080p using the medium detail preset with high textures and medium SMAA antialiasing.
The GeForces’ frame times are somewhat more irregular than the Radeons’, but other than that, these results are pretty similar to those we saw on the previous pages. The 7790 and R7 260X are neck and neck, and they’re both outmatched by the 7850 1GB and GTX 650 Ti Boost.
Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon is a little too technicolor for my taste, so I tested Far Cry 3, which is based on the same engine. I picked one of the first assassination missions, shortly after the dramatic intro sequence and the oddly sudden transition from on-rails action shooter to open-world RPG with guns.
The game was run at 1080p using the “High” detail preset. MSAA was disabled.
This is the first time the R7 260X pulls ahead of the 7790, delivering a lower 99th-percentile frame time and spending less time on frames over 33.3 ms. At the same time, the R7 260X spends slightly longer working on frames over 50 ms, so it’s not unequivocally superior to the 7790.
Yeah, it’s kind of a toss-up. And clearly, for Far Cry 3, you’re better off with either a 7850 1GB or one of the GTX 650 Ti Boost cards.
I tested Battlefield 3 by playing through the start of the Kaffarov mission, right after the player lands. Our 90-second runs involved walking through the woods and getting into a firefight with a group of hostiles, who fired and lobbed grenades at us.
I kept things simple, using the game’s “High” detail preset at 1080p.
In a highly unexpected turn of events, the R7 260X and 7790 perform almost indistinguishably, and they’re outpaced by the 7850 1GB and the GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB. Who could have foreseen this?
The R7 260X’s higher clock speeds have a drawback: a 16W hike in load power consumption compared to our 7790. Idle power draw is similar across both cards, however.
Noise levels and GPU temperatures
The R7 260X runs measurably hotter and subjectively louder than the 7790, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Our sample of the R7 has a stock AMD cooler. Stock coolers rarely, if ever, find their way onto retail cards in this price range. Our 7790 has a nice Asus dual-fan cooler, and I wouldn’t be surprised if retail R7 260X models shipped with similar cooling solutions.
We’ll once again wrap things up with a couple of value scatter plots. In both plots, the performance numbers are geometric means of data points from all the games we tested. The first plot shows 99th-percentile frame times converted into FPS for easier reading; the second plot shows simple FPS averages. Prices were fetched from Newegg, the GPU vendors, and the card makers, depending on what was appropriate.
The best deals should reside near the top left of each plot, where performance is high and pricing is low. Conversely, the least desirable offerings should be near the bottom right.
So, yeah. The Radeon R7 260X may not be the best deal out there right now.
As our 99th-percentile average shows, the R7 260X doesn’t really distance itself from the more affordable 7790, and it’s a fair bit slower overall than the Radeon HD 7850 1GB—a card you can find online for just $5 more (or $15 less, if you count the mail-in rebate). Not only does the 7850 1GB deliver better performance for the money, but it also comes with two free games as part of AMD’s Never Settle Forever promotion. The R7 260X ships with no freebies whatsoever.
It’s true that the R7 260X has more memory. That may help it close the gap with 1GB cards in upcoming next-gen titles. However, at 1080p, a 1GB memory capacity doesn’t seem to be much of a hindrance in current titles. Even Crysis 3, which is rather graphically intensive on the PC, runs better on the 7850 1GB.
To those who would prefer a 2GB card, it’s hard not to recommend the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB. This freshly discounted offering may cost $10 more than the R7 260X, but it’s also substantially faster, and mail-in rebates can knock it down to $129.99. It also comes with $75 of free-to-play game credit, which isn’t much, but is still better than nothing.
Given the current competitive landscape, the R7 260X would be much more compelling as a $130 card. Had AMD priced it at $120, I would recommend it in a heartbeat. As it is, though, the R7 260X seems a tad overpriced. Perhaps AMD thinks TrueAudio warrants a price premium, but that’s hard to justify with no games using the technology yet.