GTX 680M vs. HD 7970M – the Big Picture

Our 2012 gaming suite currently ranges in age from over two years old (Civ5) to as recent as 11 months old (Batman), with an average age of around 16 months. Hardware and games have both changed during that time, so we dug through our games folder and added a few other titles to the mix. Okay, truth be told, we actually have quite a few gaming codes from AMD and NVIDIA (as well as Guild Wars 2 from ArenaNet), and we figured a selection of games from both sides should be more or less “fair”. To that end, we’ve benchmarked eight additional games: Borderlands 2 (NVIDIA), Diablo 3 (“agnostic”), DiRT Showdown (AMD), Guild Wars 2 (“agnostic”), Max Payne 3 (NVIDIA), Sleeping Dogs (AMD), Sniper Elite V2 (AMD), and The Witcher 2 (NVIDIA). That’s three NVIDIA “TWIMTBP” (The Way It’s Meant To Be Played) games and three AMD “Gaming Evolved” titles, so overall things should be relatively even. Here’s how the two mobile GPUs stack up using the latest available drivers (NVIDIA 306.97 and an as-yet-unreleased 12.9 Hotfix from AMD), at all three of our target settings.

Value Gaming Performance

Not surprisingly, the two GPUs are closest in performance at our Value settings—the CPU becomes more of a bottleneck as we reduce the resolution and details. NVIDIA nearly sweeps the list of games, with Sniper Elite V2 being the sole game where AMD comes out ahead (by a relatively large 22% margin). By the numbers, NVIDIA has a 10% lead in Diablo 3 and Guild Wars 2; a 20% lead in Battlefield 3, Borderlands 2, and DiRT 3; a 50% lead in Sleeping Dogs; and an 80% lead in Civilization V. The remaining seven titles are around 5% or less margin of victory, so they’re basically tied. Overall, NVIDIA ends up with a 10% average performance lead over AMD.

Mainstream Gaming Performance

When we move up to our Mainstream settings, the above pattern basically continues. NVIDIA’s overall advantage grows to 14%, with significant leads of 15% or more in Batman: Arkham City, Battlefield 3, Borderlands 2, Civilization V, Diablo 3, DiRT 3, and Guild Wars 2. AMD’s sole major lead continues to be Sniper Elite V2, though they also take a very slight lead in Skyrim and The Witcher 2. If we set the margin to beat at 15%, NVIDIA has seven wins, AMD gets one, and the remaining seven titles are “tied” (within 10%).

Enthusiast Gaming Performance

At our maximum detail settings, NVIDIA’s average margin of victory increases yet again, this time to 22%. Considering these are the settings most likely to be used with high-end gaming notebooks, the win here is the most meaningful. In terms of ties, there are seven games that are under the 15% margin (Battlefield 3, DiRT 3, Skyrim, Guild Wars 2, Max Payne 3, Sleeping Dogs, and The Witcher 2). Somewhat interesting however is that AMD now manages to come away with four moderate to major wins: DiRT Showdown is a 39% lead and Sniper Elite V2 is a 22% lead for AMD while Sleeping Dogs is a small 5% lead and The Witcher 2 is a 9% lead. The bad news for AMD is that of the remaining titles, NVIDIA comes away with resounding victories in many of them: 38% in Batman, 50% in Borderlands 2 (with the option to enable PhysX still available), 33% in Civilization V, 30% in Portal 2, 48% in Shogun 2, and a resounding 100% lead in Diablo 3.

At the end of the day, however, it’s not just about performance. In the desktop world of gaming PCs, we generally aim for 60FPS or higher as the level we want to reach in order for a game to run “smoothly”. On notebooks, we can’t be quite so demanding, so we have to settle for 30FPS in many cases. Out of our 15 games, at our Enthusiast settings we end up with several that don’t make it into the “playable” range: DiRT Showdown tanks when Global Lighting is enabled, but more so on NVIDIA than on AMD—the 7970M squeaks by with 32FPS while the 680M falls to an unplayable 23FPS. That’s the only title where we’d give one card a pass while the other falls short, but Max Payne 3, Sleeping Dogs, and The Witcher 2 are all too demanding to break 30FPS averages on either GPU. In most cases, dropping the detail settings down a notch (and/or disabling 4xAA—which basically cuts Max Payne 3 performance in half) will fix the problem, but if you were hoping a $2000 gaming notebook would simply take on all contenders without batting a shader core you’re going to be disappointed.

There are also a couple of issues with drivers to report, which we’ve marked with asterisks in the Enthusiast chart. DiRT Showdown refuses to run at 1920x1080 on the 7970M (with the Hotfix drivers), but it works in windowed mode—we tested the 680M in windowed mode as well and found that performance was about 15% lower than in full screen mode, but since this is a driver failure on AMD’s part what we used the higher result for the GTX 680M. (A quick test at 1680x1050 Ultra settings corroborates the margin of victory, regardless.) Second, Shogun 2 as noted earlier refuses to allow the Very High setting on the 7970M, so we tested both GPUs with identical “nearly maxed out” settings, where we used the “High” preset but then enabled all of the extras like Ambient Occlusion, Soft Shadows, etc. And a final note is that both DiRT Showdown and Sniper Elite V2 would crash to the desktop any time we tried to change the resolution within the game on the 7970M; we had to resort to modifying the configuration files directly to set the appropriate resolution.

Overall, NVIDIA clearly wins the performance crown, but we have to wonder how much of this is due to the hardware and how much might be coming from the drivers and developer relations. It’s not too surprising that AMD’s best results are in titles where they’ve apparently lent a hand (DiRT Showdown, Sniper Elite V2, and to a lesser degree Sleeping Dogs), and likewise NVIDIA gets some staggering leads in some of “their” titles. Also of note is that certain older games that were once AMD titles (e.g. Civilization V) now end up running better on NVIDIA GPUs. Is NVIDIA working with the developers after the fact, or optimizing their drivers, or perhaps a little of both? We can’t say for certain, but I do know that I’ve played a lot more games with NVIDIA logos during the boot sequence than games with AMD logos. Developer relations really are key, and titles like Borderlands 2 and Batman are popular offerings that shipped with PhysX support—yet another card in NVIDIA’s hand.

Clevo P170EM GTX 680M Gaming Performance GPU Utilization Investigations
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  • Zodiark1593 - Monday, October 15, 2012 - link

    Think we can get a comparison of the GTX 680M SLI vs the Radeon 7970M Crossfire?

    Also, do Clevo laptops that come equipped with dual GPUs also rely on a muxless design?
  • sabot00 - Monday, October 15, 2012 - link

    "That’s a cost increase of 15% for a typical gaming performance increase of around 20% at high quality settings"

    I disagree with this reasoning, as a laptop also does many other things, many of which (CPU, HDD, RAM, internet performance) don't increase with the price.

    This is analogous to saying that one can purchase a 256GB 830 SSD for $160, which is only around a $40 premium over a 1TB laptop HDD. Then claiming that this new laptop has 600% more performance in random 4K reads for only a $40 (2% increase for a $2000 laptop) premium.

    While important to many people, especially buyers of these laptops, it's ultimately up to the buyer to decide, and as such, the premium for a purely graphical upgrade should not be weighed against the total cost of the laptop.

    The 7970M is ~$450, in terms of OEM price, the GTX 680M is $650, truly, it is a 44% percent increase in price of the graphics subsystem for a 20% increase in graphics performance.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 15, 2012 - link

    I'm speaking to people shopping for a gaming notebook. Since you generally can't purchase just a GPU upgrade (you can try, and in some cases it might even work -- some older Clevo units at least have managed to run multiple generations of GPU hardware), you have to buy the whole package. Yes, it's 40% more for 20% more performance when just looking at the GPU, but unlike desktops you can't just look at the GPU upgrade cost. Also, anyone buying HDDs without an SSD for the OS/apps just doesn't know what it's like to have a system boot and load apps quickly. Once you go SSD, you'd definitely pay double the price for one fourth the capacity and count yourself lucky.
  • krumme - Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - link

    Going by your logic, every gamer should buy a faster gfx for their rig. As total cost always will make the faster gfx a better choice. When does it end?

    You can explain all you want, but your reasoning stands as one of they most idiotic this year, and makes this look like a commercial.

    Man even Nvidia nor AMD would ever come up with such an argument.

    Think about applying this logic to rest of your purchases. Damn.
  • cjb110 - Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - link

    I think if your looking at laptop gaming then yes the logic of buying the fastest gfx is sound. Laptops still have more of a mismatch between the capability of the cpu and the gpu. i.e. the CPU isn't the bottleneck.

    I don't think any one at AnandTech would apply the same logic to desktop gaming. In desktops its more even, so making sure the two are matched will save you money.
  • krumme - Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - link

    No ssd, 768 15 pathetic screen, lousy build quality?

    274 usd brings you a long way of improving your rig.

    Its the first time i hear the argument in 20 years on the www, and for a good reason.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - link

    No, it's not the first time the argument has been made. We frequently discuss the value of upgrading to a faster GPU in our desktop GPU reviews. If you look at an HD 7770 GPU that costs $125 and compare that to a 7870 at $240, is there value in the upgrade? Yes: it's substantially faster (nearly twice as fast), which opens up the possibility for 1080p gaming in most titles. Then we look at the HD 7970 and it's $410 but is only 20-30% faster. It's no longer a stellar upgrade.

    Here, we're looking at the total cost with gaming as the main purpose for buying a gaming laptop. It's okay to think people buying gaming laptops have more dollars than sense, but assuming someone wants a high performance gaming laptop, they're going to be shelling out minimum $1800 for something with HD 7970M or GTX 680M. So, if you have to pay $200 more to swap out AMD for NVIDIA hardware, is there value there?

    The answer is a resounding yes. Sure, the 20% performance increase is nice, but it's about more than the performance. I specifically note the driver situation (twice in the conclusion alone). Given the option between Enduro and Optimus, right now you're shooting your gaming laptop in the foot if you go with Enduro. AMD has to fix this, and I think they will fix things, but that doesn't change the fact that they've been selling 7970M for four or five months with a major lack of driver support. Talk to me in another month, and hopefully I can say that it's no longer a major sticking point, but today? Nope, AMD's solution is hamstrung.
  • krumme - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    The argument about driver and the quality of optimus is completely valid in my world. I have good experience with the optimus gaming laptop i have, and would always favor stability. Enduro is not working yet. Its very simple for my personal preference.

    But when buying a rig, you are always torn between where to put your money.

    Do you prefer a gaming rig with an ssd and better screen to a faster gfx? - its not up to the reviewer to be the judge here. And present it as the truth. The reviewer can present the facts, and then the consumer, can make the right choises based on his own needs. The reviewer should be the guide.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    You're reading a review, which inherently has subjective opinion -- a full page of it earlier, obviously, but the conclusion has a lot of subjective stuff as well. It actually *is* a reviewers job to be a judge; otherwise I should just run the benchmarks and post graphs and I could be done with a review in a day or two rather than spending a couple weeks running and evaluating. It's not a laptop review if all you're doing is showing performance and the price. You need to evaluate how the whole package comes together.

    People can certainly disagree with me and say, "I don't personally need or want to spend the money for an SSD." Or, "I think the 7970M is the better graphics card [because...]" That's fine. But my opinion is that when looking at the cost to buy a well equipped P170EM for gaming purposes, the additional money required to go from 7970M to 680M is definitely the way to go. If the extra $275 at AVADirect for that particular upgrade is "too much", you should NOT be buying a gaming notebook that costs $1500+ in the first place.
  • krumme - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    The recommendation of the more expensive alternative is wrapped in numbers, presenting it as objective fact.

    When what happens is comparing total cost to a single benefit, albeit the most important one. Its inconsistent, and presented the wrong way imho. Its very simple just to say its say 15-20% faster, then the buyers can make up for themselves.

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