If you’re thinking about buying a graphics card, there’s a good chance you’ll buy from Nvidia. These cards have a strong hold on the market because of their phenomenal performance and excellent prices. But which one should you buy? What’s the difference between GeForce and Quadro? How much of a performance boost will you see going from a GTX 1070 to a 1080? What’s Pascal?
When you’re done reading this article, you’ll have a solid understanding of the different Nvidia graphics cards. And if you’re looking to build or upgrade your PC you’ll know which one to buy.
GeForce vs. Quadro vs. Tesla
Unless you work professionally with graphics or rendering, you might not even know that Nvidia has multiple sets of cards. The GeForce cards are classified as gaming graphics cards, while the Quadros and Teslas form the lesser known “workstation” line. What’s the difference between these lines of cards? Both price and gaming performance. The workstation graphics cards are very expensive because they’re optimized for professional-level graphics. The GeForce line comes optimized for gaming.
If you want to get into the different technical specifications, there are a few differences. For example, the Quadro P5000, the second-highest in the lineup, packs 16 GB of memory and a bandwidth of up to 288 Gb/s. The GeForce GTX 1080, also the second-highest in its lineup, has 8 GB of memory and a bandwidth of 10 Gb/s. Reading that, you might expect the Quadro to dominate in gaming. But you’d be wrong: benchmarks show that the GeForce outperforms it. Why? It likely comes down to driver optimizations. The GTX 1080 focuses on gaming so it can do a lot more with lower specs.
Of course, you can game on a Quadro or a Tesla. But you’re likely to get slightly lower performance at a significantly higher cost. The Quadro P5000 costs $2,500 on Newegg, whereas you can probably get a GTX 1080 for around 600 bucks. The situation with Tesla is similar.
The short version: Unless you’re a video producer, medical imager, 3D renderer, or high-level virtual reality designer, you want GeForce. But which one?
The majority of GeForce cards that Nvidia offers are in the GTX series, but there are also GT cards and some with no prefixes before their model numbers:
There’s also the Nvidia Titan X card, which isn’t branded as GeForce at all. The lineup is simple. From top to bottom, it goes Titan, GTX, GT, and no-prefix cards. The Titan can run up to over $2,000 with non-reference hardware. On the other hand, you can grab a lower-level GTX card for just over $200.
The short version: If you’re gaming on a desktop, you want a Titan or GTX card.
Nvidia’s Proprietary Technologies
When looking at different Nvidia graphics cards, you’re going to come across a lot of different terms. Some of them are standard for graphics cards, but some of them are unique to Nvidia. Here are a few key terms that you’ll probably want to know when you’re shopping around.
The microarchitecture of a GPU determines how the different components work together to process information. It includes things like buses, caches, buffers, instruction queues, decoders, and all of their connections. Nvidia’s latest architecture, named Pascal, has been touted as the most advanced in gaming. This is, of course, marketing speak.
However, when Nvidia comes out with a new architecture, it consistently shows increased performance with a lower power cost. Pascal, they say, packs up to three times more performance than previous-generation cards. That means your games look better without your card generating as much heat or drawing as much power.
PhysX, ShadowWorks, and HairWorks
All three of these technologies use Nvidia’s hardware to improve upon a particular area of gaming graphics. PhysX adds some very impressive lifelike physics animation to games. In the video below, you can see how Call of Duty gains interactive smoke and more realistic fur animations:
ShadowWorks and HairWorks, as you might expect, improve the graphical representation of shadows and hair/fur. Here’s a comparison of some Far Cry 4 animals with and without HairWorks:
Some games include support for these technologies, so if you’re looking at playing a particular title, you may want to make sure the card you’re thinking about buying supports this tech.
Much like PhysX, ShadowWorks, and HairWorks function with specific games, G-SYNC works with specific monitors. Put simply, G-SYNC makes sure your graphics card and monitor are working well together. It smooths out gameplay and reduces the likelihood of screen tearing at refresh rates of up to 240 Hz. In short, if you have a G-SYNC-compatible monitor, it’ll improve the visuals of your gaming.
The Scalable Link Interface (SLI) is a propriety Nvidia technology. It lets you use up to four different GPUs in tandem. SLI with two beefy graphics cards can play the newest games on the highest settings. You’ll need an SLI-compatible motherboard to make this work, and it’s not cheap to buy two cards. However, knowing that you can upgrade instead of purchasing a new card is something to keep in mind.
This piece of software helps optimize your graphics card’s performance. New drivers are released to ensure that your card is ready to play the latest games as soon as they come out. Your system is analyzed, and game settings are customized to make sure you get the best performance. You can share clips and highlights directly to social media. And you can stream your PC games to your Nvidia Shield portable console.
Which Nvidia Graphics Card Should You Buy?
It’s obvious that if you want the absolute best in gaming, and can pay for it, you should buy the Titan X. It beats everything on the market (at least until AMD’s Vega arrives). But what if you can’t drop $1,500 on a graphics card and you’re looking to make the most of your money? Here’s how the GeForce GTX 10-series cards break down.
A couple notes: prices will vary depending on the manufacturer (we’ll discuss that in a moment), but we’ve tried to give you an average price. You could pay up to $100 more or less than the price listed here for an expensive card. The benchmarks reported are from VideocardBenchmark.net and are derived from thousands of users using their service to benchmark their own hardware, so keep those things in mind.
The flagship model of the GTX series packs crazy-fast GDDR5X RAM and blazing memory speed. That results in a phenomenal performance benchmark for less than half the price tag of the Titan X, giving you a fantastic option for no-compromise gaming.
- 8 GB GDDR5X RAM.
- 10 Gb/s memory speed.
- 1733 MHz boost clock.
- Benchmark performance: 92% of Titan X.
The GTX 1070 is a big step down in price from the 1080, but the difference in performance is likely to be negligible for all but the most intensive gaming. GDDR5 RAM is still super fast, and the memory speed is remarkably high. But the price tag is much more manageable.
- 8 GB GDDR5 RAM.
- 8 Gb/s memory speed.
- 1683 MHz clock speed.
- Benchmark performance: 92% of GTX 1080, 85% of Titan X.
This is the card that brings Nvidia’s GeForce line into the more reasonable price range. With very respectable specs and a non-wallet-busting price tag, this is going to appeal to a very wide range of people. Even though it’s more affordable, it’ll still run today’s newest games.
- 6 GB GDDR5 RAM.
- 8 Gb/s memory speed.
- 1708 MHz boost clock.
- Benchmark performance: 80% of GTX 1070, 68% of Titan X.
Note that the image above is the GTX 1050Ti produced by EVGA as Nvidia didn’t make an own-brand version.
If you’re building a gaming rig on a tight budget, the GTX 1050Ti should be near the top of your list. It’s a jump down from the 1060 in RAM and speed, but for the price, it’s a solid card. There’s just not much else you’re going to get for this much money that will come close. In fact, it has one of the highest performance-to-price ratios on VideocardBenchmark.net.
- 4 GB GDDR5 RAM.
- 7 Gb/s memory speed.
- 1392 MHz boost clock.
- Benchmark performance: 67% of GTX 1060, 46% of Titan X.
Note that because there’s no Nvidia-branded version, the image above is EVGA’s card.
To save a bit more cash, you can go with the non-Ti version of the GTX 1050.The performance-to-price ratio is higher than the Ti version. You even get a slightly higher boost clock speed. Even though it only has 2 GB of RAM, it’s GDDR5, and will likely support some moderate weight lifting.
- 2 GB GDDR5 RAM.
- 7 Gb/s memory speed.
- 1455 MHz boost clock.
- Benchmark performance: 88% of GTX 1050Ti, 40% of Titan X.
Making the Right Choice
If you’ve already started budgeting out your gaming build or graphic card upgrade, you’ll probably already know which card is in your range. If you’re not sure how much to spend, though, check out the recommended system requirements of the games you want to play.
That’ll give you an idea of how much you should spend to get the best performance out of your system. If you’re looking for the most performance for the least money, the GTX 1050 is your card: it has the highest performance-to-price ratio of any 10-series card. And if you can spend a bit more than that, the GTX 1060 is a solid bet for all-around performance.
Non-Reference Nvidia Graphics Cards
While Nvidia does produce a few stock version of its cards, other companies handle most of its production. You’re likely to get a better price and even more improved performance from one of these third parties. EVGA, MSI, Zotac, ASUS, Gigabyte, PNY, and other companies modify the cards and sell them with different fan configurations, built-in overclocking, various clock speeds, and other minor changes. For the most part, they aren’t going to make a huge difference. Find the card you want, then find a vendor that provides a reliable cooling system for a good price, and go with that one.
You can compare specific clock speeds and cooling systems, but beware: you can go down an endless black hole of people arguing over which non-reference cards are better. Unless you need absolutely world-beating performance, it’s not worth your time.
Everything You Need to Choose
Now that you understand why you should stick with GeForce cards, the particular technologies they come with, and the difference between the various options, you should be able to pick the right Nvidia graphics card for your needs. Whether you’re building up a new PC or upgrading an old one, you can’t go wrong with Nvidia. So look at some options, make a purchase, and get to it!
Which factors are important to you in selecting a graphics card? Where do you think Nvidia excels or lags behind AMD? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Image Credit: Hadrian via Shutterstock.com