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AMD vs Nvidia: Whose Driver Updates Improve Performance More?

Comparing GeForce GTX 1060 6GB And Radeon RX 480

Powerful graphics hardware gets all of the love from gamers and enthusiasts, so long as games run the way they’re supposed to. When they don’t, drivers take the blame. That’s why driver teams are the unsung heroes of the graphics card world. They swoop in and fix whatever needs fixing. Over the long run, that can lead to significantly improved performance in games that you may be playing for months or years to come.

We wanted to get a sense of how much updated drivers improve performance, so we zeroed in on a pair of popular mainstream cards: AMD’s Radeon RX 480 and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1060 6GB. We benchmarked each card in 11 different games, using three different driver builds that were released in a two-year time span. Nvidia's card improved the most, an average of 4.3 percent per game versus 2.3 percent for AMD. 

GameAMD ImprovementNvidia ImprovementWho Wins?
Battlefield 31.8%2.7%Nvidia ends up 12.1% faster than AMD
Battlefield 42.4%0.1%Nvidia ends up 26.6% faster than AMD
Metro: Last Light Redux1.1%0.7%Nvidia ends up 14.1% faster than AMD
Grand Theft Auto V4.0%1.4%Nvidia ends up 30.5% faster than AMD
The Witcher 33.2%0.1%AMD ends up 2.7% faster than Nvidia
Rise of the Tomb Raider13.5%3.8%Nvidia ends up 2.5% faster than AMD
Hitman0.3%15.3%AMD ends up 4.2% faster than Nvidia
Tom Clancy's The Division-2.3%6.5%AMD ends up 0.3% faster than Nvidia
Battlefield 1-4.7%3.6%Nvidia ends up 2.4% faster than AMD
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation-3.7%12.8%Nvidia ends up 8.5% faster than AMD
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands9.6%-0.2%Nvidia ends up 4.5% faster than AMD

However, driver performance improvement varies greatly by title. In certain cases, new drivers do deliver big speed-ups. AMD registers double-digit percentage gains in Rise of the Tomb Raider, while Nvidia registers massive speed-ups in Hitman and Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation. In other games, fresh drivers don’t make much of a difference at all. Then there are the games that actually slow down a bit in favor of a more fluid experience. It sounds counterintuitive, but our frame rate and frame time charts below will illustrate those changes.

Why’d we choose the cards we did for this experiment? As it happens, the Radeon RX 480 and GeForce GTX 1060 6GB were both introduced about two years ago (just 20 days apart, in fact). They both targeted the same gamers playing at 1920x1080, and they’re about as mature as graphics cards get while still being actively manufactured and sold.

We aren’t stopping with this performance comparison, either. AMD recently commissioned a study that showed its drivers are more stable than Nvidia’s. We’re working on a methodology for replicating those results, and plan to publish our own findings as a follow-up. If you have any ideas or suggestions of your own, feel free to share in the comments section!

How We Tested AMD and Nvidia Drivers

The hardware used to compare driver versions is consistent with our last several graphics card reviews--like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 3GB. We start with an MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon motherboard hosting a Core i7-7700K CPU. The platform is complemented by G.Skill’s F4-3200C14Q-32GTZ memory kit. Crucial’s MX200 SSD remains, as does a Corsair H110i cooler and be quiet! Dark Power Pro 10 850W power supply.

Upon this foundation we installed Windows 10 Pro version 1803, with all available patches applied. The operating system’s ability to download and update device drivers is explicitly disabled by opening up System Properties, tabbing over to Hardware, clicking the Device Installation Settings button, and choosing “No (your device might not work as expected).”

Next, we downloaded three driver versions for each of the cards we planned to test: the launch build, a driver from roughly one year ago, and the most recent update available from each vendor’s website. Nowadays, AMD and Nvidia do a good job of ensuring remnants from their drivers are completely removed when an uninstall routine is run. However, we followed each driver swap with a round of Wagnardsoft’s Display Driver Uninstaller to be sure.

Because the differences between driver builds can be tiny, we took care to maintain an ambient temperature close to 26°C and collect our benchmark results on warmed-up cards. Most of the games we tested were supported by the latest version of the open-source OCAT overlay tool. For those that weren’t, we gathered data with a custom front-end for PresentMon.

Here's the list of the games we'll be testing on the following pages, along with the relevant settings:

Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation1920x1080, DirectX 12, Extreme quality preset, built-in benchmark
Battlefield 31920x1080, DirectX 11, Ultra quality preset, custom Tom’s Hardware benchmark (Going Hunting intro), 90-second OCAT recording
Battlefield 11920x1080, DirectX 12, Ultra quality preset, custom Tom’s Hardware benchmark (O La Vittoria intro), 80-second OCAT recording
Battlefield 41920x1080, DirectX 11, Ultra quality preset, custom Tom’s Hardware benchmark (Tashgar jeep ride), 100-second OCAT recording
Grand Theft Auto V1920x1080, DirectX 11, Very High quality settings, 4x MSAA, built-in benchmark (test five), 110-second PresentMon recording
Hitman1920x1080, DirectX 12, Ultra level of detail, SMAA, High texture quality, built-in benchmark, 100-second OCAT recording
Metro Last Light Redux1920x1080, DirectX 11, Very High detail preset, SSAA off, 16x AF, Normal Motion Blur, Normal Tessellation, built-in benchmark, 145-second OCAT recording
Rise of the Tomb Raider1920x1080, DirectX 12, Very High quality settings, SMAA anti-aliasing, built-in benchmark, 80-second OCAT recording
Tom Clancy's The Division1920x1080, DirectX 12, Ultra quality settings, Supersampling temporal AA, built-in benchmark, 90-second OCAT recording
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands1920x1080, DirectX 11, Very High detail preset, built-in benchmark, 50-second PresentMon recording
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt1920x1080, DirectX 11, Highest quality settings, HairWorks disabled, custom Tom’s Hardware benchmark, 100-second OCAT recording

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Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.