Category Archives: Graphics cards

Ashes of the Singularity DirectX 12 Benchmark

We don’t often cover things like benchmarks or new APIs, but DirectX 12 is an exception. DirectX is a piece of software that enables programs to give instructions to your graphics card(s) and then read the results. We’ve been using DirectX 11 since 2009 and it’s not just on PCs, DirectX has become an industry standard and is used in the consoles too. So now DirectX 12 is coming out with Ashes of the Singularity looking to be the first game that uses it, we can start to see how much more performance developers can get out your GPUs, and it’s very good news for AMD fans.

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Ashes of the Singularity is an upcoming RTS game in the vein of Total Annihilation or Supreme Commander. As opposed to more micro-heavy games like Starcraft, AotS is all about the macro, with huge armies clashing around the map in wars of attrition. Units are tough and hard to wear down, so the focus is on producing more than your opponent and picking the right times and places to attack. At this point the game is still a way away from being finished, but the engine is mostly complete and so the developers have kindly made their benchmark available for testing to those who want to see what the next few years is going to hold for us.

Individual units don’t look particularly impressive, but once the benchmark scales out and you can see thousands clashing, with smoke plumes from rockets streaking across the sky, lasers seeking out fighters and bombers dropping electric blue payloads on ranks of armoured vehicles, you suddenly start to understand what the developers are going for. This is about scale and it serves as a brilliant way to test CPUs and GPUs. They even included a DirectX 11 mode so you can see the difference.

Right now we have two AMD cards – the MSI R7 370 2GB that we tested the other day, and our Powercolor R9 290 that hasn’t been particularly stable lately, but it still a real powerhouse with 4GB of VRAM. We’ve tested both in DirectX 11 and 12 modes and the results are below.

R7 370 2GB

The R7 370 is a card designed for 1080p. It’s surprisingly capable in actual games as seen in our review, but doesn’t hold up too well in benchmarks and the 2GB of memory is really beginning to hold it back (a 4GB version is available, we just don’t have it).

DirectX11: 15.7fps

DirectX12: 19.2fps

While 19.2fps might not be anything to write home about, what is worth noting is that this is a massive 22% increase in framerate with no settings change, no new hardware, nothing but a new version of DirectX. That’s the sort of gain in framerates that lots of people buy whole new cards for, but here you’re getting it for free.

R9 290 4GB

Our 290 reminds us of the Russian military in the old Red Alert games. They’re big, powerful and noisy, and had a tendency to explode, but they were cheaper than the opponents. Our 290 has developed some interesting rattles over the years and likes to crash to a black screen whenever we have two monitors running, but it’s still pretty great at benchmarks and performance in games is usually very good, with the overheating only occasionally getting in the way. This card is from the last generation of AMD cards, the 200 series, but these are still going to benefit from DirectX12 as we saw.

DirectX11: 21.2fps

DirectX12: 35.6fps

So here we’re going from ‘unplayable at these settings’ to ‘completely playable’ and in most of the benchmark this score was much higher, hovering around 48fps, just the heavier scenes brought it crashing down. This is a 68% increase in framerate, using just the standard drivers, with no other changes. That is quite frankly ridiculous, but a very good sign for those of us with more powerful AMD cards. We’d be keen to see the difference in their top end cards like the Fury X and also to compare these results to NVidia boards.

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So overall Ashes of the Singularity is a very good sign of things to come. With huge increases in framerates from just using a new version of DirectX, it’ll be interesting to see how this changes the GPU market. All the reports we’ve heard so far have suggested that AMD are seeing the biggest gains, so if you’re in the market for a new GPU and leaning towards NVidia, it might be worth waiting a few weeks to see if this results is replicated in other benchmarks.

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MSI R7 370 Gaming 2G Review

The fine folks at AMD supplied us this card for reviewing purposes.

Update: There was an issue with Futuremark’s website that caused the card details to be shown incorrectly on the website when looking at benchmark results. We mistakenly attributed this to the driver, but this has now been amended.

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If you were ever looking at getting into PC gaming, you’d be easily fooled into thinking you need to spend £1000 to create (or buy) a gaming machine. Prebuilt systems are often vastly overpriced and many of the enthusiast websites focus on the higher-end components where you’re getting rapidly diminishing returns on your money. While many people who game for hours on end every day as a hobby (like us) are keen to make sure they can get 60 frames per second at 1440p or even 4k, that’s just not necessary for most gamers. Many will simply want a machine that lets them play games in a similar way to how they play on the current-gen consoles. That’s where the R7 370 comes in.

At £120 it’s definitely on the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to dedicated graphics cards. For comparison, the current most popular enthusiast card (the NVidia 970) is about £260, so around twice as expensive. For your £120 you’re only getting the 2GB edition (it’s an extra £20 for the 4gb edition) but you are getting something that can handle 1080p at 60fps on most modern games as long as you turn a few settings down.

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This being an MSI card, the packaging is second to none. Inside the box you get a DVI to VGA adapter, the driver/software cd and a quickstart guide. Like any GPU nowadays, it’s incredibly simple to set up. If you had an NVidia card previously, make sure you completely uninstall their drivers (possible using a driver sweeper program to make sure you get it all) then switch your PC off, take the old card out and fit this one into the PCI slot. It takes up two slots which is the standard for enthusiast cards, and just requires a 6-pin power connector, seeing as this card hardly draws any power at all. When you’re putting it in you might notice the nice white MSI logo – this actually lights up and can be made to flash, breathe or simple shine bright using some of the software provided by MSI. Clearly for most people you’ll never see it, but if you have a window on your case it’s actually quite a nice effect.

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The software included is the standard catalyst suite for AMD (you’ll want to install the latest version straight away) plus some extra MSI software. This lets you change the LED sign on the side as we mentioned, but also lets you change the profile of the card from silent, to gaming, or to overclock mode. To be honest the difference in performance between gaming and overclocked mode is quite small (around 5fps in our tests) so we’d suggest leaving it in gaming mode. There’s also an ‘Eye Rest’ feature that alters the displayed colours to be a little easier on your eyes if it’s late, or to pump up the contrast a bit to make games ‘pop’ a little more. The eye rest feature is neat, but we’d leave anything that increases the contrast well alone as it tends to ruin the colours of games, you’d be much better off calibrating your monitor properly.

The most striking thing about the card is that it is completely silent at idle. Until the card reaches 60 degrees the fans won’t move at all, which means no noise from the GPU. As the card isn’t that powerful, it’s quite heat efficient, so you’ll often find less demanding games (like Starcraft 2 or Counterstrike) won’t even get the fans running. In our tests, including leaving the Heaven benchmark running for a few hours, we could barely get the card up to 68 degrees, so the fans were staying at around 30% speed, still very quiet. If you have a PC set up in a living area this is definitely a bonus to consider.

Starting up our benchmarks we found that performance is precisely how you’d expect. Anything that requires high resolution textures causes it to struggle immensely due to the limited 2GB of memory on the card, and while the processor is capable of handling nearly everything, it’s a far cry from enthusiast-level performance. Remember these are benchmarks though, and benchmarks rarely reflect the performance in real games.

firestrike

First off we tried the 3D Mark Fire Strike test. This is a 1080p test designed to push mid-range graphics cards. We’re running a system with an i7 4790k CPU and 16gb RAM so the GPU is always going to be the bottleneck, and we see here that although we’re getting the best out of the card, it’s decidedly in the middle when it comes to performance. Be aware there is a bug with Futuremark’s website where despite 3DMark detecting the card as a 370, the website displays it as a 270. 

fire strike extreme

Taking it up to the Fire Strike Extreme test, a 1440p version of the same benchmark, the r7 370 really starts to struggle. On this test it was barely getting 20fps at any moment as the card clearly wasn’t designed to handle this kind of resolution.

While the benchmarks don’t reflect real-life use of the cards, they do give you a good idea of the kind of power you need for something like 4k gaming or Oculus Rift. These are things to think about for the future, but the r7 370 is nowhere near capable enough to handle things over 1080p and if you’re looking to get ready for that kind of technology, you’ll need to be paying at least twice as much.

When it comes to games we ran through tests on three of the most demanding, varied, and popular games currently on offer. All of these were tested at 1080p.

Battlefield 4 -60fps on High

The Battlefield series benefits from a unique driver API called Mantle that is featured on AMD cards. This generally means you expect higher and more consistent framerates on Mantle cards than you would on other equally powerful models. This holds up with Battlefield 4, when on Ultra we see the framerate vary between 50-55fps which is very respectable and completely playable. By dropping the settings down to ‘high’ we could easily hit a stable 60fps no matter what was happening on screen. 60fps is the golden standard for gaming and it was extremely pleasing to see the r7 370 manage this with such high quality settings.

Grand Theft Auto V -60fps on High

GTAV has been a difficult game for many enthusiasts as while many cards handle it fine, seemingly randomly, quite powerful cards will struggle. Here the R7 370 is clearly limited by the 2GB of memory available, so it is impossible to play the game with anything other than ‘normal’ textures, but with everything else set to high, or normal at the lowest, we could again quite easily hit 60fps at 1080p and the lowest dips were down to 55fps when quite a lot was going on (explosions, mostly). This is a very impressive result, and much higher than we expected from the card.

Total War: Rome II

The Total War games are always an interesting benchmark because there’s not only huge draw distances, particle effects and weather, but the potential for hundreds or thousands of characters to be fighting on screen at once. Thankfully to give you a taste of this, the game comes complete with a benchmarking tool, so you can see how the card performs in all situations. Through the benchmark the average framerate (at 1080p on high settings) was a very respectable 53fps. This dipped down as low as 45 and up to 55, but nothing that we would call unplayable in any way.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a surprisingly competent card. For the price point, the only thing that comes close is the Nvidia 960 but we’re not convinced that anyone gaming at 1080p would any more value for the extra £50 that would cost. If you’re looking into gaming at 1080p and have no ambitions of 1440p, 4k, 144hz, or virtual reality, it’s hard to think of a reason not to recommend this card. You’ll be able to play all current games on at least high settings at 1080p60 and if you’re a little bit low it’s always easy to turn something down (usually shadows). The lack of memory is becoming more and more of a problem as more games are using at least 4GB nowadays, but you can get the 4gb version of this card and be protected from that. It’s almost eerily silent, barely uses any power, and looks great in your case. As long as you don’t mind the size of the card (it is rather large for what it is) this is a fantastic piece of hardware.

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Powercolor AMD R9 290 4GB TurboDuo review

This card was provided by AMD so we did not pay for it. It can however be bought here for £300 but you might be able to get other models of the r9 290 for slightly lower prices if you shop around.

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High-end gaming almost seems like madness to the uninitiated. The top tier of cards runs from around £300 up to £1000 and they all have confusing names like 780, Titan, R9 295X and the R9 290. AMD’s R9 290 is by far the cheapest out of this tier, but it definitely belongs there, packing 4GB RAM and powerful enough to run 4K displays. AMD kindly provided us with a Powercolour R9 290 4GB TurboDuo so we’ve been taking it for a few tests, we’re impressed with what we’ve seen.

First off the bad news – this card is incredibly hot. We had problems with an R9 290 with a stock cooler getting up to 80 degrees, and this card goes beyond that, reaching 92 degrees celsius while running Star Citizen. Now this seems like the top end – we couldn’t get it to go any higher, but this is without overclocking and running in a well cooled case. Even with the fans at 100% the Powercolor cooling is surprisingly quiet, nothing like a dedicated aftermarket cooler, but tolerable even when the rest of your PC is silent. If you have headphones on you won’t even notice it at all. The stock cooler on the other hand sounds like a banshee so definitely have a look for something more customised by one of the big card manufacturers. So the card runs at near-boiling point, is this dangerous? Seems like the answer is no, that temperature is the central processor on the card and the fans do an excellent job of getting the heat away. The ambient temperature in our case wasn’t anywhere near that hot and as soon as the GPU gets a chance to slow down a little, the temperature drops down ten degrees almost instantly. This makes us confident that this is a chip designed to run at these temperatures and it’s not going to fry the rest of your PC.

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Our current gaming PC set up with the R9 290 in the middle. It’s a large card, make no mistake.

Now onto the good news. If you use a 1080p display or thereabouts, you’re easily going to be able to run current and upcoming games at maximum settings at 60fps. Crysis 3, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Hitman Absolution, they all run without a hitch. The only games we’ve been able to find that won’t run at 60fps are being held back by our CPU (a modest i5 2310). Anything beyond this card right now seems like overkill unless you’re going beyond 1080p, at which point you’re going to need to be investing in something substantial. Even then, in terms of cost-power we think the diminishing returns are too severe to make anything beyond the r9 290 worth it. £300 is a considerable amount of money, but it will give you a PC capable of playing games at settings well beyond the capabilities of the Xbox One and Ps4, and thanks to the ridiculous amount of VRAM, you’re going to be able to keep pace with this generation of consoles over the next few years.

Of course to keep this thing running you’re going to need a decent PC to begin with and on the box it recommends a 750W PSU plus you’ll also need a PCI 2.0 or 3.0 slot with space beneath it free. This is a large card (although nowhere near as large as our previous 290 with a custom cooler) so the case needs a decent amount of room, and just to make sure those temperatures don’t become a problem you’ll want to keep it well ventilated with some space and two or three fans to keep the air moving over it.

Installation is an absolute breeze as it is with most graphics cards nowadays. You simply slot it into the PCI slot, make sure the little latch on the edge has clicked, but your screws in to hold it to the back of the case, connect an 8 pin and 6 pin power connector to the side, connect your display(s) and then you’re good to go. Of course whenever you install any new component make sure you delete any previous drivers and install new ones. Even though we already had Catalyst installed, doing a fresh install provided us with more options and seemed to make things run a little smoother.

In terms of benchmarking we ran Futuremark’s 3dMark Firestrike test which is a standard test for high-performance PCs. The results churn out what seem like arbitrary numbers but when used in comparison they can be useful.

Firestrike result with same machine using overclocked MSI Twin Frozr Radeon 7870HD 2GB

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For reference, above is the result of running the test with our old card, the 7870HD. The 7870 is in no way a bad card, running at around £140 and capable of running most games at high settings at 40-60fps. You can see the graphics score is 6280 – this is the one that really matters, the physics score is artificially low due to our somewhat poor CPU. This card had been overclocked to its limits and this was the best score out of many attempts. Everything else in the machine at this point was the same: i5 2310, 750w PSU, 16GB 1666Mhz Kingston HyperX Ram, Samsung 250Gb SSD.

 

Firestrike result with Powercolor R9 290 4GB at stock settings (no overclock)

290 result no ocHere you can see the power increase that the r9 290 has given us. Again ignore the physics score as that is CPU dependent (and apparently our CPU has got worse somehow) but the graphics score has gone from 6280 to 10570 – that’s a 68% increase in performance. You can see from the framerates what that equates to in terms to what will matter to you – how games look. Running at the same settings we would have gone from 30fps to 50fps.

Firestrike result with Powercolor R9 290 4GB with overclock

r9290 ocThese are the results with the highest overclock we could get working on the card. We will test it further with some smaller adjustments but unfortunately our particular card could barely be pushed at all without showing graphical artifacts or outright failing. The Powercolor model is already overclocked a little and with the temperatures it runs at this is no great surprise. Still there were some gains in the graphics score and we could get an extra couple of fps with a tiny change to it. Overclocking is now simpler than ever with AMD’s own Catalyst suite providing some tools to do it, although we find the MSI Afterburner Suite (free to download) a little easier to use, giving you detailed logs of what the changes are doing to your system.

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The unoptimised still-in-alpha Star Citizen is the only game that really pushes the r9 290 to its limits, and it still sticks to 55-60fps

When deciding between AMD and NVidia both sides have gone beyond power and are offering new systems built into their cards to help you with gaming and general computing tasks. Some of AMD’s current flagships are Eyefinity and Mantle. Eyefinity allows you to very easily create a custom resolution that splits your display across as many monitors as you would like. This is particularly useful for three monitor setups where you can play games with actual peripheral vision or consign bits of the UI in MMOs to their own screens. This really is a game changer if you have the money to get it running and thankfully the r9 290 is powerful enough to run games at these crazy resolutions (three screens means three times the pixels).

We will be running a separate feature on Mantle in the near future but basically put it allows developers to interface with the processing on the card more directly, giving them greater access to optimisation. This means game that make use of it (games such as Battlefield 4, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, Hitman Absolution, Tomb Raider, Thief) will run better when you’re using one of the newer AMD cards and this seems to be more than just marketing speak, with Battlefield 4 in particular looking absolutely incredible on this card and running at a solid 60fps (it actually runs far beyond this but our displays only run at 60hz).

Overall we are impressed with the r9 290. It’s cheaper that other cards that have the same performance and it seems like manufacturers have been able to solve the problems that the original stock cooler faced. If you can get one for under £300 with a decent cooling set up you’re going to have one of the most powerful gaming rigs for a fraction of the cost of anything more powerful. As always in computing there are limits to what power games will actually use and at the moment the r9 290 is in the sweet spot of just surpassing it. We’re still not entirely happy with the ridiculous temperatures and we’ll keep you updated if this has any effect on the lifespan of the card, but for now this is easy to recommend.

Verdict 8

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