AMD vs Nvidia: Whose Driver Updates Improve Performance More?


By now, AMD’s Radeon RX 480 and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1060 6GB are both very mature. The pair of cards gives us a rare opportunity to compare products designed to compete against each other and introduced mere weeks apart.

Although we benchmarked three driver builds from each company, allowing us to capture performance snapshots at launch, after a year of improvements, and under today’s newest builds, we’re most interested in pitting each card’s original behavior against their profiles now. We don’t want to reach too far in our attempt to derive meaning from the data, but certain trends are fairly obvious.

In older DirectX 11-based games, Nvidia’s advantage over AMD is huge. Even today, the GeForce GTX 1060 6GB is 12% faster than the Radeon RX 480 in Battlefield 3, 26% faster in Battlefield 4, 14% faster in Metro: Last Light Redux, and 30% faster in Grand Theft Auto V. The margins of victory shrink in newer DirectX 11-based games, and go the other direction in a couple of DirectX 12 titles, favoring AMD’s architecture.

Of the 11 titles we tested, seven see the GeForce GTX 1060 6GB and Radeon RX 480 separated by single-digit percentages in our average frame rate results. It’s no wonder that AMD saw fit to re-release an overclocked RX 480 as Radeon RX 580 just 10 months after the 480’s debut. As cryptocurrency prices stagnate, AMD fans can even find the newer RX 580 for about $20 less than GeForce GTX 1060 6GB.

As for speed-ups specifically attributable to drivers, they’re not as common (or as pronounced) as some enthusiasts might hope. AMD can boast of its gains in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Initially, the Radeon RX 480 didn’t do particularly well in this game. But driver version 16.7.3 included some big fixes that AMD called out in its patch notes. Today, Adrenalin Edition 18.7.1 arms the card with 13%-higher frame rates than the RX 480 at launch.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a win for AMD too, but mostly because the Radeon’s launch driver preceded Ghost Recon by eight months. Once AMD’s driver team started optimizing for the game, it boosted average frame rates by almost 10%. But in Tom Clancy’s The Division, Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, and Battlefield 1, the Radeon RX 480’s performance is actually lower today than it was at launch by a few percentage points. But to be fair, AMD’s newest drivers do even out a lot of frame time spikes we measured from earlier builds in those titles.

Nvidia’s most pronounced optimizations happened in Hitman and Ashes of the Singularity. In the former, GeForce GTX 1060 6GB got a 15% boost last year that carries over to the newest 398.36 driver. In Ashes, GeForce GTX 1060 6GB enjoys 13%-higher performance today compared to two years ago. Otherwise, gains range from one-tenth of a percent to about six percent. In Tom Clancy’s The Division, the GeForce GTX 1060 6GB even loses one-tenth of a percent compared to Nvidia’s launch driver.

Bottom Line

As expected, new video drivers increase frame rates in most titles, but the differences are often subtle. AMD averages a 2.3% speed-up across our benchmark suite, while Nvidia averages 4.3%. In some games, you will see noticeable improvements, with frame rate boosts as high as 15%. But in others, the change is so modest that you might not notice it. It's unlikely that a driver update will make a game that was formerly sluggish or unplayable suddenly run well on the same hardware.

Which graphics card comes out ahead in this experiment? Whether you count the overall improvement from 2016 to 2018 or tally the total number of average frame rate wins, Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1060 6GB bags the greatest number of victories. That's why AMD followed up its Radeon RX 480 with the RX 580 less than a year later.

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