Other Things to Consider
As ever, the GPUs we’ve tested here are available from a wide range of manufacturers and in a number of designs (or SKUs as they’re technically known), all of which have slightly different features and prices.
Nvidia’s triumphant GTX 970 ranges in price from £260 to £316. At the bottom end of that scale you’ll find cards that either run at stock speeds or have modest overclocks: a Zotac model we’ve found for £260 improves the core clock from 1,050MHz to 1,076MHz. At this end of the market there isn’t much experimentation with cooling – the cards on offer have conventional heatsinks.
Spend a little more and you’ll get a more ambitious card. At £300 there’s an Asus model with the core upped to 1,114MHz, and a £319 EVGA model goes a step further with a core clocked to 1,216MHz.
AMD’s card is slower, but it’s also much cheaper, with models that range in price from £220 to £287. The bottom end of the R9 290 market has cards with small overclocks: EVGA’s sample leaves memory at 5,000MHz and ups the core from 947MHz to 1,007MHz. Spend more and you’ll get a more powerful GPU – Sapphire’s £287 card runs its core and memory at 1,000MHz and 5,200MHz.
Both firms try to sweeten their deals by including free games. The R9 290 is part of AMD’s gold-level Never Settle bundle, which can be redeemed for three free titles from a broad selection – at the moment you can pick from titles like Star Citizen, Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs, Alien: Isolation and loads of indie titles. Right now, 33 games are available to be picked.
Nvidia only includes one free Ubisoft title with the more expensive GTX 970, but they are newer games. Gamers can choose from Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4 or The Crew.
A buying decision shouldn’t just concern prices, overclocks and free games, though – your own PC needs to be considered, too.
Both cards require two power connectors, so make sure your PSU has spares. Also ensure that you’ve got enough physical space, as these are chunky cards; it’s no good buying a new GPU only to find that your case isn’t long enough.
Also consider any potential upgrade path. These cards can’t handle most games at 4K, but adding a second GPU can turn any PC into a 4K-capable gaming system. It’s a tempting upgrade, but check your motherboard: you’ll need a spare PCI-Express x16 slot, and it needs to run at x8 speed with two cards installed – anything less just isn’t enough bandwidth.
Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 v AMD Radeon R9 290: Verdict
AMD’s card may be cheaper, but the smaller budget bites across almost all of our benchmarks. It’s beaten by Nvidia in almost every games test and, when it does manage to overhaul the pricier GTX 970, it’s only by a couple of frames.
The GTX 970 doesn’t just outpace its rival with pure speed, either. The Maxwell architecture consumes much less power, and our evidence suggests it’s cooler, too – so it’ll save on the electricity bill and should be quieter, too, because less effort is required to keep it chilled.
Nvidia’s chip might be more be more expensive – and that’s not always the case, given a slight price crossover between the two GPUs – but it justifies the cost with faster, more frugal performance. The Maxwell-powered GTX 970 is the winner here, which makes it the best card for high-end 1080p and 1440p gaming.