Nvidia has been on something of a hot streak lately. Having spent the better part of a year in the shadow of AMD's 5800 series, and after a false start with the GeForce GTX 480 launch, we saw Nvidia's long awaited Fermi architecture "done right" with the GeForce GTX 580. And again just a few weeks later, with the launch of the GeForce GTX 570.
They aren't done yet. Launching today is Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560 Ti. While the 570 and 580 sat at the upper echelons of graphics card category, the new GTX 560 Ti is aimed squarely at the mid-range market, where AMD's 6800 series holds sway.
The GTX 560 pays homage to Nvidia's Titanium GPU line, resurrecting a fondly remembered graphics card lineage. It's not meant to replace the GeForce GTX 460, but instead serve as a faster, slightly more expensive alternative.
Physically, the card looks quite a bit like the rest of the 500 series. It's equipped with a pair of DVI-ports and a mini-HDMI port. It's also built on the Fermi architecture, but sports transistor-level tweaks to improve performance and power consumption.
The GTX 560 Ti has been purposefully matched up against AMD's 6800 series of graphics cards, namely the Radeon HD 6850 and Radeon HD 6870. And it's a close call. Nvidia's part makes a strong showing on our benchmarks, but a last minute price shuffle from the competition has left AMD's mid-range and higher-end wares as the better value, overall.
Performance: Synthetic Benchmarks
Let's dive into the numbers. We'll start, as always, with the synthetic benchmarks. These exist as a means to stress test graphics cards in ways that conventional games and applications generally don't. They aren't the best "real world" assessment of how a particular part well perform (we'll move on to games testing in a bit), but they serve as a general yardstick with which a graphics card can be measured.
In the forward-looking Unigine Heaven benchmark, Nvidia's entry is the clear winner. But this isn't too surprising, as Nvidia's wares generally perform well on this DirectX 11-based test.
The Unigine engine places quite a bit of emphasis on tessellation, an area to which Nvidia has devoted much of the Fermi architecture's computational muscle. Even on the "Normal" tessellation setting, Nvidia's card takes top honours here.
We'll look at 3DMark's Vantage benchmark suite next. This DirectX 10-based benchmark is showing its age, and its DirectX 11-based successor recently arrived on the scene. That said, 3DMark Vantage is an industry mainstay.
On both the High and Extreme profile settings Nvidia's part maintained a 25% lead over AMD's Radeon HD 6870, while the relatively inexpensive Radeon HD 6850 trails at the rear of the pack.
The results were a bit less direct once we moved on to testing actual games. Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is a DirectX 10.1-based arcade flight game, as graphically intensive as it is action packed.
While all three cards posted excellent results, the GTX 560 Ti maintained a strong lead, consistently hovering between 15 - 20 frames per second ahead of the Radeon HD 6870.
Roles are reversed when looking at Just Cause 2's demanding benchmark. We maximised the available graphics settings and ran the "Concrete Jungle" scenario. This is one of the more strenuous tests graphics tests that Just Cause 2 offers, and one of the tougher ones in our retinue.
The results are tantalisingly close, consistently within 2 to 3 frames per second, but on our tests Nvidia's GTX 560 Ti lags slightly behind the Radeon HD 6870 in all but one setting.
Efficiency and Value
To get a real sense of the GTX 560 Ti's efficiency, we'll take a few factors into account.
First, there's the raw power usage. When sitting idle, Nvidia's card drew 111W of power. The Radeon HD 6870 drew 103W, while the Radeon HD 6850 drew 102. Under a full load, the GTX 560 Ti ramped up to 300W, while the 6870 and the 6850 saw 246W and 219W, respectively.
By coupling our power readings with the average frames per second across our games tests, arrive at a number we call the Performance per Watt, the watts used per average frames per second. Lower is better here.
These results aren't too surprising: AMD's graphics cards are generally known for their energy efficiency. Of interest is how much Nvidia has closed the gap: the month-old GTX 570 drew close to 350W while under load.
A more significant metric for the savvy shopper will be found on our Value chart, where we measure the cash per FPS by dividing the price tag of each GPU by the average frame rates across our tests.
And as has generally been the case with our tests thus far, there is no blowout here: Nvidia's card is generally in third place from a value proposition, but never more than negligibly behind the Radeon HD 6870.
Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560 Ti is ultimately a victim of circumstance. The performance at its price point is excellent, and the reduced power consumption shows that Nvidia is taking energy efficiency seriously. But it was dropped into a crowded market.
AMD decided it would rather drop its prices than give up the midrange GPU crown. Adding insult to injury, they also brought the price tag on the Radeon HD 6950 down, bringing AMD's performance-oriented Radeon HD 6900 series within spitting distance of Nvidia's GTX 560 Ti. With so many winning models on the table its a step the competition can afford to take, whereas those eyeing Nvidia's wares are suddenly presented with a few more tantalising offers from AMD's camp.
There's only one clear winner in this bout: the consumer.