Earlier this month, AMD established the Radeon HD 6990 as the fastest card on the planet, unseating its own Radeon HD 5970, the previous title-holder. Today, Nvidia challenges that crown, but ultimately fails to win consistently enough to unseat AMD’s flagship board in a meaningful way. The GeForce GTX 590 simply sacrifices too much in the way of clock rate for its 1024 CUDA cores to definitively overwhelm two Cayman GPUs operating in tandem. This was, of course, a necessary evil in order to fit a pair of unshorn GF110s into a reasonable thermal envelope. In contrast, AMD’s less power-hungry processors didn’t have to be as hamstrung.
Nevertheless, in a comparison between GeForce GTX 590 versus Radeon HD 6990, Nvidia wins.
And it wins because I can put a GeForce GTX 590 in my workstation, which doubles as my gaming machine, and not hear it. It’s quiet enough to use. And that’s a requisite.
“But wait Chris,” the fan boys cry out, using more vulgarity and fewer conventions of the English language. “Anyone with the money to buy a $710 Radeon HD 6990 will assuredly buy a water block. Does that not shift the win back in AMD’s favor?”
Well, there aren’t any water blocks available for the 6990 yet, but Jeremy at Danger Den was kind enough to let me know that he’ll have a solution available soon, priced around $120. So, add that to the price of the 6990 to solve its acoustic issues. Then factor in the cost of the rest of a water cooling circuit. Might as well buy a pair of GTX 580s at that point—they’re faster, after all.
The only way to really pit the newest dual-GPU cards against each other is in an arrangement that no single-GPU board can match, and that’s a quad-processor config. Water cooling really is the best way to go in that case, given intense thermal demands. However, Maingear showed us that you don't need water cooling to get the job done. Both the GeForce GTX 590 and Radeon HD 6990, in quad-GPU setups, are incredibly fast. Enthusiasts with generous credit limits and the desire for unprecedented performance can make a case to go with either $1400 setup. AMD doesn't shed performance as fast at 2560x1600 with details maxed out, but its drivers appear to be much less mature. Nvidia enjoys a higher degree of consistency, but again, that includes performance consistently falling off once the 1.5 GB per GPU gets overwhelmed.
If you’re only concerned with the performance of an individual dual-GPU card, then I happily repeat the recommendation I made in the 6990 review: buy two Radeon HD 6970s or two GeForce GTX 570s and enjoy all of the performance without having to balance thermals and acoustics. Unless you’re 1) worried about plugging up four expansion slots, 2) you really need the 6990’s fifth display output, or 3) the GTX 590’s sweet light-up logo won you over, don’t worry about which company is selling the “fastest graphics card in the world.” Rather, take advantage of the fantastic CrossFire and SLI scaling we now see from AMD and Nvidia (respectively), and save yourself a few bucks in the process.