Twice as nice, or overpriced? We investigate.
By Bennett Ring on October 25, 2012 at 4:52 pm
Using your mobile at a gas station can cause the pump to explode into flames. Increasing the amount of memory on a video card from 2GB to 4GB will increase game performance. Blue whales are the largest living things on Earth. Which of these three facts is actually true? The answer will probably surprise you – they’re all bollocks. Mobiles have never caused a fire at a petrol station, the largest living thing on the planet is technically a mushroom colony in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, and doubling your VRAM from 2GB to 4GB has absolutely no impact on performance… for 99.99% of users.
The vast majority of today’s video cards have enough memory that size isn’t an issue, with mid-range cards equipped with 1024MB while premium jobbies are decked out with 2048MB. Sure, running at 16x antialiasing with 2650 x 1600 resolution will hit the 1024MB limit of a GTX 650 Ti, but the GPU doesn’t have the horsepower to process that kind of quality anyway. Cards that do have the grunt to churn out such cracking graphics, like the GTX 680, have the full 2048MB of memory, and that amount is plenty even when running at such stupidly high settings. Sadly most gamers don’t realise this; they simply see a big number on the box and thinks it means they’ll get a squillion frames per second in Battlefield 3.
This myth is perpetuated by AMD in particular, endowing its products with copious amounts of memory well over the upper end used by games of the period. Currently AMD’s Radeon HD 7970 ships with a whopping 3GB of GDDR5, yet PC developers aim for a video memory amount of between 1024MB and 2048MB, depending on the card. I can only conclude AMD does so because gamers believe it makes for a better experience, resulting in more sales.
This same company often trots out the myth that folks packing triple monitors need the extra video memory due to the higher demands of running at 5760 x 1080. In theory it makes sense – the larger the image, the more memory needed for textures. Antialiasing also gulps up memory like a Tour De France rider in a steroid factory. However, in reality the memory bandwidth – that is, the speed at which the memory can be accessed – is much more important than how much of it there is. Less memory running at faster speeds will generally beat more memory running at lower speeds. There’s a reason that a 2GB GTX 680 generally beats the 3GB Radeon HD 7970, even while running triple screens.
Let’s put it to the test
But what about a video card like Gigabyte’s new GV-N680OC-4GD, which uses the powerful GTX 680 GPU to drive a whopping 4096MB of memory? How does this compare to other GTX 680 cards packing 2GB, but otherwise identical? The memory bandwidth on both versions is identical, with an effective memory frequency of 6008MHz running over a 256-bit memory bus. Does doubling the memory have any impact on game performance?
We ran one of the most demanding games currently available to find out. Battlefield 3 is known for using as much memory as it can get its battle-fatigued mitts on, so we ran it at three resolutions including triple 1920 x 1080 screens, and also compared it with an NVIDIA GTX 680 reference card overclocked to the same speed as the Gigabyte card. An AMD Radeon 7970 was thrown in to see whether its 3GB of memory would help.
As you can see, the extra memory made absolutely no difference. In fact, the 2GB version was 1 frame per second faster at 1080p, but this is within the limits of variance. Buying a 4GB card to play today’s games just doesn’t make sense.
We ran one more test, just to double check the results, and this time left the Radeon HD 7970 out so you could focus on 2GB versus 4GB. Dirt 3 uses DirectX 11 effects to create one of the best looking racers around, and serious drivers often race with three monitors to get that “in-cockpit” sensation. Will a 4GB card help them out?
Once again it’s plain to see that doubling the VRAM has had no impact at all.
And yet, we’re about to toss everything we just said out of the window. Buying a video card with more memory can be a good idea, but only if you’re buying with an eye on future gaming performance. It’s inevitable that in the next few years 2048MB will become the bare minimum acceptable for gaming, with the preferred amount leaping to 3072MB. If you’re buying your card today with the idea that it’ll last you another three or four years, it’s wise to buy a model with more memory to meet those future demands. However, if you’re like me and silly enough to upgrade every year or two, the added memory isn’t worth it unless it costs exactly the same as a card with less memory.
So the doubling of memory on the Gigabyte GV-N680OC-4GD doesn’t make much difference in today’s games, but what about the rest of the card? Being based on NVIDIA’s GTX 680 GPU we know that it’ll perform basically identically to every other GTX 680 on the market; this is the fastest single GPU product currently available. Gigabyte has given the card a very slight factory overclock, increasing the GPU core speed to 1071MHz, which is about the same as competing cards from Zotac and ASUS. Where it differs is the use of a triple fan Windforce cooler. It might not look like much, but those three fans are remarkably efficient at moving heat away from the GPU. We ran FurMark to test the fan noise under load, and were blown away at the 46dB rating, which makes this one of the quietest GTX 680′s on the market.
With street prices hovering around $650, the GV-N680OC-4GD costs around $100 more than Gigabyte’s 2GB GTX 680 products. Whether or not you want to pay the extra amount totally and utterly depends on how long you think you’ll be using the product. If you plan on upgrading to next year’s GTX 780 when it comes out, stick with the 2GB version and spend the $100 you’ll save on another SSD. However, if you’re holding off for several generations until the GTX 980 releases, the extra memory will come in handy. By 2015, when Battlefield 6 requires more video memory than that found in an entire 2012 PC, the 4GB of onboard memory will probably come in mighty handy.
- Great for future-proofing if you upgrade infrequently
- Overclocked to 1071MHz
- Whisper-quiet at 46dB, one of the quietest GTX 680′s on the market
- Essentially zero performance improvement over stock 2GB version of the same card under current gaming conditions