How the Current Cards Stack Up in 4K

Our experiment with early testing of high end graphics cards on a 4K display has definitely been interesting.  After using $3000 graphics card configurations on a 50-in 3840×2160 monitor it is going to be a struggle to go back to smaller display and single lowly graphics card.  But alas, that is part of the job!


Single GPU Performance

In our testing we looked at four different single GPU options including the GeForce GTX 680, the GTX Titan and AMD's Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition.  While the GTX 680 and the HD 7970 both cost around $450, the GTX Titan is more than twice that with a $999 price tag, realistically putting it in a different category all together.  That being said, the GeForce GTX Titan is the single best GPU for gaming at 4K resolutions.  It was faster than all of the other single GPU variants by a significant margin and was able to do so without introducing any kind of frame latency issues you might see with dual-GPU options. 

The Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition was the second best card and considering you can find it for less than half the price, it makes a compelling case at beating out the GTX Titan for 4K bragging rights.  It performed better than the GTX 680 2GB and GTX 680 4GB in our testing which follows the results we have seen at 2560×1440 previously.

The GK110 GPU was seemingly built for 4K resolutions

Problems creep up for the Radeon HD 7970 if you consider going to the route of SLI or CrossFire.  While the GTX Titan and GTX 680 scale very well in most of our titles at 3840×2160, the Radeon HD 7970s in CrossFire suffer from runt frames and high frame time variance that result in either much lower than expected animation smoothness and/or stutter.  The GTX cards in SLI do not have this behavior resulting in a much better multi-card scaling proposition.  Yes, the prototype driver would help the HD 7970s out quite a bit, but that option is still weeks or months away.


Single Card Performance

If we limit our options to single cards, whether they be single GPU or dual-GPU, the battle is even more interesting.  Because AMD's new Radeon HD 7990 depends on CrossFire technology to perform, the 13.5 beta driver that still has the runt frame and frame time variance problems places it in a very bad light compared to NVIDIA options like the GeForce GTX Titan and the GeForce GTX 690. 

The GTX 690 is comprised of two NVIDIA GK104 GPUs that run in SLI, but NVIDIA's multi-GPU options do not demonstrate the same performance issues that CrossFire does thanks to hardware frame metering technology.  As it stands today, the GTX 690 is clearly the best card for 4K gaming under $1000.  Even better than the GK110 based Titan, the GTX 690 only suffers in a couple of cases with the 2GB frame buffer per GPU despite the 6GB that reside on Titan.  Most of the time the frame metering on the GTX 690 produces nearly as smooth animation with better frame rates.

The GTX 690 sits as the best single card for 4K gaming today

If we take into account the prototype driver for the Radeon HD 7990, it makes a good case to take that spot away from the GTX 690.  With much more even frame distribution, the dual-Tahiti card looks like a better option in several games even though there is still much work to be had for the driver team to produce frame times as evenly as NVIDIA SLI does.  Long story short, even if the prototype driver were available today to consumers in its current form, I still think the GTX 690 would have the advantage.  But AMD is on the right track and with some more development they could make their card the better choice.


Final Thoughts

A single frame of a game at 1920×1080 produces 2.0 million pixels.  A single frame at 3840×2160 produces 8.3 million pixels.  The jump from a 1080p panel to something like the SEIKI 50-in 4K TV we got in last week greatly increases the computing power required for gaming.  Users that bought a single GTX 680 or single HD 7970 will find that newer games like Crysis 3 won't breach the 25 FPS level even with image quality settings dropped off the maximum levels a bit.  Even GTX Titan buyers will find that their card has a bit of a struggle to keep playable frame rates at this resolution.  Gamers that want the ultimate experience on a 4K display or TV will want to own a GTX 690 or better yet, a pair of GTX Titan cards running in SLI.  I guess if you are willing to invest in a 4K TV, you should be willing to invest in high performance graphics hardware as well.

4K puppies!

For the hardware community, this is great news.  For years now we have lamented about the lack of expansion in the world of monitors; that we were seemingly stuck at 1080p as the game resolution going forward.  The advent of the Korean-made 27-in 2560×1440 monitors was one step in the right direction and 4K TVs breaking the $1500 level is yet another.  Despite the rivalry between them, both AMD and NVIDIA want these 3840×2160 displays to be cheaper and more widespread as it will push demand for higher performing graphics cards. 

I know many users will want my opinion on buying this specific TV for gaming at 4K, but I am hesitant to offer up a full recommendation.  I have definitely liked my time with it and found gaming on it be a solid experience, despite the 30 Hz refresh level of the panel itself.  You'll more than likely want to play games with Vsync on to avoid the doubled-up instances of visual tearing and if you do that, I think the quad-HD resolution of 4K is a sight to behold.


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