Nvidia’s newest dual-GPU video card, the GeForce GTX 690, came out yesterday. And it’s amazing.
I’m not just throwing that word around. It’s based on the same GK104 GPU at the heart of Nvidia’s current-generation single-GPU leader, the GTX 680, and its performance stops just shy of what you’d get with two of those hooked up in SLI; Nvidia’s claims of this being the fastest video card in the world weren’t exaggerations. But compared with an SLI setup, the GTX 690 requires only one expansion slot and uses a lot less power (my test system drew 56 watts less under full graphics load with the GTX 690 than it did with two GTX 680s — 414 watts versus 470 watts). Plus, it’s received such a thorough physical redesign it almost doesn’t look like a video card anymore: It’s more like a jet engine crossed with an aluminum sculpture. Everything else aside, it looks… sexy. (Did I really just say that about a video card? Heaven help me.)
In other words, Nvidia has gone out of its way to make sure that the GTX 690 is a completely satisfying product. Sure, there’s the little problem of price: It costs $1,000, or the same as two GTX 680s. As for availability, there are a few out floating around out there now and there will be a few more on May 7, but whether we’ll see many more is not clear at this point — nor is it particularly relevant, as works of art (which is obviously how Nvidia has styled the GTX 690) are praised as much for their rarity as their features.
Only one question remains: Do you need one?
If you’re reading this, chances are you don’t need to be convinced of the worth of discrete video, even high-level discrete video. But, in the past, how much have you been willing to pay for one? How much have you had to pay for one? It’s an unfortunate fact of life with computer building that, in most cases, you get exactly what you pay for, and previous releases of even ultra–high end models seemed to keep this in mind.
Previous dual-GPU cards, like Nvidia’s last one, the GTX 590, or the Radeon HD 6990 or Radeon HD 5990 from AMD’s last two generations, capped their prices around the $700-$800 mark. True, you weren’t getting exactly double the performance of the highest-level cards with them — the 6990, for example, was closer to what you’d see with two of the next-best cards of that series, the 6950 — but you were still getting a lot. And maybe it’s just me, but $800 seems fair for what you get. Not sensible, mind you — that’s not a word I tend to apply very often to computer components with four-digit prices — but fair: something that could legitimately be part of a full, jealousy-inciting gaming PC.
Even so, $1000 for a video card is… a lot. I’d even go as far as saying that, with this pricing, Nvidia has smashed a psychological barrier that maybe should have been left intact. For the first time, the video card could reasonably be more expensive than the rest of an otherwise very good computer — you’ve long been able to put together something acceptable for $800, but $1,000 is where (for me, at least) the magic has traditionally started. Worse, the chances are now excellent we’ll start seeing cards that cost even more. And once you’ve established that a $1,000 video card is acceptable, how can you legitimately argue against an $1,100 card? Or a $1,200 card? Or a $1,500 card? It’s a slippery slope, and the mud-slicked grass on that slope is tessellated.
As we’ve already established, the card works as intended. (If it didn’t, I would have written something very different!) But whether it needs to — or rather, if you need it to — is another matter altogether. From my perspective, for most gaming, even of the seriously serious kind, the GTX 690 is overkill. Glorious, thrilling, eye-caressing overkill. But overkill nonetheless.
In my testing, I found that at 1920×1200, a single GTX 680 can run the Aliens vs. Predator benchmark at a solid 52 frames per second (fps) — and that’s with all of the detail options maxed out. With just the tiniest bit of tweaking here and there, you should be able to easily reach the magic number of 60 fps. Batman: Arkham City (I’m running really low on activation codes here, Warner Bros. — for a game I already own) doesn’t even need that much help: With all the graphics options (except advanced PhysX) turned on, it hits a solid 68 fps at the same resolution.
Under the same conditions, DiRT 3 ends up around 93 fps, Tom Clancy’s HAWX 2 at 143 fps (yeah, yeah, I know, I really need to retire that one),Just Cause 2 at 67 fps and Lost Planet 2 at 70 fps. By no stretch of the imagination are these not outstanding frame rates — and this is at a resolution very close to 1920×1080, which is what the highest number (24.84%) of Steam gamers use according to the April 2012 Steam Hardware Survey.
These numbers show that a GTX 690 (or, for that matter, a second GTX 680) simply aren’t necessary if that’s as far as you take your gaming. Sure, the GTX 690 gets 98 fps in Aliens vs. Predator, 114 fps in Batman: Arkham City, 151 fps in DiRT 3, 232 fps in HAWX 2 (sigh), 81 fps in Just Cause 2, and 98 fps in Lost Planet 2 (again, all at 1920×1200, with every setting cranked) — but so what? At a certain point it becomes more about prestige than performance, and I had a mighty tough time discerning differences in video quality and smoothness at this level of achievement; most people are going to.
Where the GTX 690 truly and usefully shines is if you want to press things still further. It is, for example, a remarkable 2560×1600 card. With all the graphics options remaining at their highest levels (I really wanted to see what the GTX 690 could do), it earned 60 fps on Aliens vs. Predator, 74 fps on Batman: Arkham City, 112.71 fps on DiRT 3, 171 fps on HAWX 2, 72 ps on Just Cause 2, and 84 on Lost Planet 2. Even Unigine’s Heaven Benchmark, a punishing DirectX 11 feature fest, all but melts before it, with the GTX 690 attaining a relatively incredible 55 fps. (I haven’t had a chance to try multimonitor gaming yet, but I’m predicting things will turn out much the same.) We’re finally at the point where high-quality gaming at that resolution isn’t becoming a reality — it is a reality.
The only catch is that 2560×1600 isn’t exactly a popular resolution. Granted, this may change as newer technologies like DisplayPort gain broader adoption, and the death of DVI opens up additional possibilities as far as still higher resolutions are concerned. But for now, Newegg sells only three monitors that use it (at least the least expensive is nearly $1200, and Steam’s statistics show that only 0.17% of its users play on monitors that size.
So if you’re one of the 99.83%, do everything within your power to not be swayed by the ubiquitous (and, admittedly, well-deserved) hype about this shiny new video card. There’s a lot to be said for having the best something, but there’s even more to be said about having the best something for you. If the two don’t naturally overlap, don’t try to force them. You’ll never be able to fully appreciate what you’ve bought, and you’ll almost certainly be a lot poorer (in this case, $1,000 poorer) as a result. If all you want is a really good video card and you have $500 to spend, the GTX 680 is not going to disappoint you.
If, however, you want the ne plus ultra of discrete graphics, then yeah, the GTX 690 is the right thing to lust after. Just get in line behind me, okay?