AMD vs. Nvidia – Who Makes the Best Graphics Cards in 2021?
Updated: March 29,2022
The GPU war is back on and in full swing. After years of having a reasonably one-sided race (especially in the high-end GPU market), the AMD vs Nvidia debate is again at the forefront of gaming discussions, thanks mainly to AMD’s rollout of the powerful RDNA 2 architecture.
While the rivalry dates back to the late 1990s, Nvidia has been consistently beating AMD in recent years. This was primarily due to the latter’s heavy focus on the Ryzen CPUs and next-gen Xbox and PS5 console architecture. Now that both the Ryzen 5000 series processors and the PS5 & Xbox X/S consoles are out, AMD has been able to focus on the graphics card market again, releasing the mighty 6000 series of GPUs to compete directly with Nvidia’s high-end Ampere cards.
So, you’ve got your rig all set up, have a brand new CPU, HDD, a fancy gaming chair, and desk… all that’s left is to buy a GPU. Which one should you pick in 2021? Is there even a clear winner? Check out our detailed AMD vs Nvidia graphics card comparison below, and let’s find out.
Performance and Value
The price to performance ratio is the most important category in any GPU comparison. Here we’ll be looking at the overall performance of AMD and Nvidia GPUs across the budget, midrange, and enthusiast gaming markets, trying to determine which cards are the best at any given price point.
If you are looking to get a cheap graphics card for 1080p gaming or just tide over the insane GPU markups due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and microchip shortage, this is the category for you. Both AMD and Nvidia have solid contenders here, but let’s start with the sub-$200 models, such as the aging but still capable RX 480 from AMD and NVIDIA’s older 1060.
In this AMD Nvidia matchup, the latter is the more powerful card – its 6 GB of VRAM gives it an edge in demanding 1080p content. However, the RX 480 is a fair bit cheaper, and due to its poor mining performance with just 4GB of VRAM, its current market price hasn’t gone up as much. It also handily beats the cheaper 3GB version of the 1060. You could also consider the 1650 series from NVIDIA, but these cards offer relatively poor performance with just 4GB of VRAM.
Moving onto the more powerful hardware, AMD has the RX 570, 580, and 590 models. While initially a fair bit behind NVIDIA’s 1660/Super/Ti series, these cards have aged pretty well, primarily due to AMD’s subsequent driver optimizations. Now we’re in the territory of capable 1080p gaming video cards, so picking either Nvidia or AMD will mostly come down to which cards are available and which games you play. Generally, AMD cards fare better in DX12 titles than older DX11 ones, though there are no hard rules.
The most realistic 1080p matchup probably comes from looking at the 5500XT AMD Radeon graphics card and Nvidia’s 1660 series (non-Ti) model. It’s a tough call, too. Both cards cost around the same ($200-ish MSRP), draw around the same power (120-130W peak), and have roughly the same performance. Nvidia’s GPU manages to outpace its AMD rival in most titles by a couple of percentage points, but in games that need VRAM, the 8GB version of the 5500XT fares better, so we expect it to age better in the future.
Midrange and Entry Level Enthusiast Cards
Whether you are an AMD or Nvidia fan, this segment has many great video cards to consider. For around $300 MSRP, you can get two powerful 6GB cards, AMD’s RX 5600 XT or Nvidia’s RTX 2060, both capable of high-FPS 1080p gaming or decent 2k performance. AMD’s GPU generally outperforms 2060 in most titles, with the margin in some games, such as Gears of War V, being rather large. That being said, the Radeon GPU doesn’t support ray tracing, and Nvidia’s GPU software can squeeze out extra frames through DLSS technology.
Moving on to more powerful 8GB models, we are now well into 2k gaming territory and models that will definitely put a dent in your pocket. For our AMD and Nvidia comparison, we’ll be taking a look at the RDNA-based 5700XT from Team Red and Nvidia’s Turing architecture offering, the 2070.
The story here is similar to the previous category, albeit 2070 initially had the upper hand against the AMD video card. These days, it’s really a toss-up: newer console-first DX12 titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Red Dead Redemption II work better on AMD’s card, while older DX11 titles perform better on 2070. That being said, while Nvidia’s model boasts DLSS and RT tech, the 5700XT is up to $50 cheaper, depending on what you can find on the market. If we compare the 5700 vs 2070, the price goes even more in AMD’s favor; however, that comes at the cost of lower performance across the board.
Moving on from entry and midrange 2k models, now we are squarely in the land of the rudely expensive graphics cards meant to tackle 4k gaming and burn a gaping hole in your wallet. Models here start from high-end 2k gaming cards such as the 6700 XT and 3060 Ti models, going all the way to the frankly ridiculous 6900 XT and 3090, cards which cost as much as a decent car even before the global chip shortage blew up the prices.
For the purposes of our AMD vs Nvidia comparison, we’ll take a look at the beefy 6800 XT and RTX 3080 cards. These cards compete for the next-gen-console-beating 4k 60fps enthusiast market. They should definitely be able to do that, considering they both cost significantly more than the PS5 or Xbox Series X consoles. The 6800XT slots in between the 3070 and 3080, costing $649 MSRP, while coming on a 256-bit bus and featuring a 7nm die. The 3080 comes in at $50 more, offering a 320-bit memory bandwidth and using Nvidia’s 8nm die. Both cards also feature ray tracing.
In terms of performance, it’s a mixed bag. Suppose we look at Nvidia vs AMD purely from an RTX perspective. In that case, Nvidia’s graphics card crushes its rival due to having a whole generation more to work with ray tracing technology and tensor cores, first introduced in the 2000 series of GPUs. Outside of RTX and DLSS workloads, the 6800 XT is generally about 3% faster in 2k and 3% slower in 4k scenarios. It is a negligible difference; however, $50 at MSRP prices is not.
Another thing that we should mention here is the VRAM. While most games today do fine with 8GB, future-proofing logic tells us that AMD’s 16GB is a much better deal than Nvidia’s 10GB on the 3080. The GeForce vs Radeon debate here boils down to whether you want to save some money and get more VRAM or get better ray tracing performance and future-proof yourself through DLSS upscaling tech.
Features and Software
While the price-to-performance ratio is generally 90% of the reason we buy the graphics cards that we do, comparing graphics cards sometimes comes down to which one has the better additional features since the gaming performance is so tightly matched.
In the following paragraphs, we’ll talk about some unique advantages that each company’s tech offers, as well as looking briefly at AMD vs Nvidia drivers and other software.
First introduced on the Nvidia’s last-gen Ampere GPU models, the tech has come to AMD’s cards since the debut of the RDNA 2 architecture. A very demanding but visually impressive rendering technique, ray tracing allows for more realistic lighting in games by taking into account how light reflects off different materials. The tech is still new to AMD, who only started pursuing it due to the current-gen console demands for having the “latest and greatest tech.” As such, RDNA 2 cards have roughly comparable performance to Nvidia’s last-gen Turing architecture; however, current-gen Ampere GPUs from the 3000 series perform much better in RTX-heavy tasks.
Variable Refresh Rate Technology
One area in which the Nvidia vs Radeon debate has no clear winner is the variable refresh rate tech. This technology aims to reduce stuttering and screen tearing caused by the misalignment between a display screen's refresh rate and the frame rate that the graphics card is outputting.
AMD’s Freesync tech is open source, while Nvidia’s G-Sync requires special hardware built into the monitor, and for the longest time, they used to be utterly incompatible with each other. These days, however, Nvidia has softened their approach a little, and there are several high-end OLED TVs and gaming monitors which natively support both technologies.
Image Sharpening and Upscaling Technologies
So, the AMD Freesync vs Nvidia G Sync tech has no clear winner, but what about other technologies? Nvidia is currently beating AMD in performance on a budget, thanks to its machine-assisted upscaling tech, Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS). This technology allows lower resolution images to be “corrected” using sophisticated AI-driven algorithms, creating an image almost indistinguishable from a higher-res one at a fraction of the rendering cost. AMD should release its answer, the open-source FidelityFX Super Resolution tool, by the end of 2021.
Speaking of FidelityFX, this set of post-processing tools already offers excellent ways to enhance image quality through adaptive ambient occlusion, variable shading, screen-space reflections, an HDR mapper, and several other graphic fidelity enhancing tools.
Another area where the Radeon vs GeForce battle is set to take off in 2021 is the Variable Rate Shading tech. Initially only available on Nvidia cards, this clever technology calculates how many frames in your field of vision will be fully shaded and rendered, severely lowering the strain on your GPU at the expense of image quality in your peripheral vision. The underlying logic is that, especially in fast-paced games, you won’t be able to tell the difference, but your GPU definitely will. The technology has found great use in virtual reality applications. Now that it’s part of AMD’s FidelityFX suite, we can expect it to increase performance in specific supported titles for Radeon graphics cards.
Drivers and Software
In the past, any Nvidia and AMD comparison would be impossible without mentioning drivers. The reason for this is simple: AMD simply had atrocious drivers, which severely crippled the performance of its GPUs, even when the hardware inside them was superior to what Nvidia had to offer.
Nowhere was this more evident than when looking at Nvidia’s Pascal architecture vs. the Vega series of GPUs. On initial release, Vega 56 cost more, was significantly more power-hungry, and performed worse than the 1070. Years later, the AMD card has aged much better, thanks to AMD’s subsequent work on driver optimization. The same happened to the RX 4xx and 5xx series of cards, which nowadays tend to win the AMD vs Nvidia battles they used to lose badly.
Unfortunately, while performance improved, AMD’s driver problems didn’t stop with the 5xxx series RDNA architecture, which shipped with some serious launch issues, including black screens and random crashes. To be fair, Nvidia’s Turing and Ampere architectures also came with their fair share of bugs. Luckily, AMD worked hard on their software, with the 2020 version of the Adrenalin drivers boosting performance across the board by a staggering 12%, with some older cards getting much more significant boosts.
Likewise, the UI and design overhaul and addition of many useful features for game streamers and eSports enthusiasts pushed the Adrenalin software firmly ahead of Nvidia’s aging GeForce Experience app and dated-looking driver software. Is AMD better than Nvidia when it comes to software in 2021? It’s hard to tell, as both companies still have the occasional driver issues, despite rolling out new software regularly. AMD has come a long way, however, and if aesthetics and user experience are anything to go by, the Adrenalin software handily beats Nvidia’s solutions.
So, we’ve analyzed everything from performance, pricing, and features, to drivers and software. But who is the overall winner? If you’ve been reading carefully thus far, you probably know the answer already. If not, here it is: there is no clear winner, and your choice will have to depend on availability and preference.
Currently, Nvidia is better than AMD at ray tracing and offers fantastic FPS gains in supported games through DLSS technology. On the other hand, AMD cards have a slightly better value-for-money proposition at most tiers in non-RTX workloads while sporting more VRAM in the enthusiast card market (16GB on the 6800 and 6800 XT series vs. 8GB on the 3070 and 10 GB on the 3080 cards).
Our advice is this: get whichever card you can find in the current situation, and forget about brand loyalty. After many years, both companies are competitive at all price points, so we finally have a real choice on our hands.
Frequently Asked Questions
Neither. Both manufacturers have their strong points: Nvidia offers much better ray-tracing performance and fantastic framerate uplifts in DLSS-supported games, but AMD GPUs come with more VRAM for better future-proofing and traditionally age better in terms of performance. Check out our detailed comparison above for more details.
Right now, the primary differences are related to ray tracing performance, as Nvidia’s RTX cards come with the second generation of the tensor core technology that simply performs better in ray-traced workloads than AMD’s Radeon GPUs. AMD cards were traditionally cheaper than their Nvidia counterparts, but nowadays, that’s not always the case.
In the AMD vs Nvidia GPU race, the latter has had the upper hand for the better part of the last few years. This means that Nvidia set the rules, while AMD primarily focused on the CPU and console markets. As such, the company stayed competitive by undercutting Nvidia’s market prices. The trend is still present these days; however, some high-end AMD graphics cards are now more expensive than their Nvidia counterparts.
Either, depending on the specific CPU. AMD has been dominating Intel in the workload department lately, but high-end Intel CPUs are still great for high fps gaming. Nvidia cards work equally well with both, though.
Yes, and it already has in some aspects. The AMD vs Nvidia debate is raging stronger than ever, with AMD finishing up the Zen 3 and console launches and having the time and resources to focus on the GPU market. Right now, Nvidia still offers more through DLSS and RTX technologies, but AMD cards are finally competitive in non-ray-traced workloads across the entire GPU lineup, from low-end to enthusiast gaming cards.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.