GTX 1060 vs. RX 480 – An Updated Review
Date: December 5, 2016
Many of the old-timers in the Hardware Canucks community may have noticed something about me: I tend to pick the most horrible times for vacations. Somehow they always align with launches of key technology. That fact has quickly become a point of hand wringing for me and a standing joke among several companies we normally deal with. Intel’s Haswell-E launched while I was sitting in a restaurant in Italy’s stunning Cinque Terre. Broadwell-E? Yup, I was in California. The R9 Fury X? Check! That was the budding wine region of Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario. And the list goes on. The fact of the matter is that some of my fondest life memories align perfectly with the introduction of memorable hardware.
The reason I bring this up is because both the GTX 1060 and RX 480 -two of the best bang-for-buck graphics cards I’ve ever come across- were released during two of my vacations. Both outings weren’t extravagant but will likely end up being high water marks of my life and that aligns perfectly with the raison d’être of these two graphics cards: neither should be a stress on your bank account but they should stick with you for a long time.
While both of these GPUs factored heavily into the buying trends of PC gamers, due to me not being in the office, I simply wasn’t able to delve any deeper into the symbiotic performance relationship they share. Back in summer when both of these cards were launched, I used a slightly upgraded game lineup which ended up receiving some constructive criticism about its lack of DX12 titles. Since then we’ve also passed through one of the busiest times of the year for new games. Titles like Titanfall 2, Battlefield 1, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Call of Duty Infinite Warfare and Gears of War 4 have all been introduced while several slightly older titles like Doom, Hitman, The Division and Overwatch received key updates. Not only that but both AMD and NVIDIA have been furiously working on driver revisions to optimize the performance metrics of their respective architectures.
With all of this taken into account and countless numbers of gamers looking towards the RX 480 versus GTX 1060 debate as being central to their buying choices, I’ve decided to delve back into this battle. As such, this particular article will use many of today’s newest triple-A titles alongside some old faithful games to see how things stack up now that both these cards have had nearly four months to settle in their lineups. Has AMD been able to leverage their frequently-marketed DX12 superiority to good effect? Has NVIDIA’s supposed driver superiority been able to keep their card ahead? Before we find out, let’s talk about the competitors since they run the gamut from reference to pre-overclocked.
Starting off with the RX 480’s we’ve chosen, there’s of course the reference edition which still serves as the backbone of AMD’s current GPU lineup. Available with a blower-style cooler, many board partners are still using this design as their baseline $249 offering. While I did have some critique about it when first launched, AMD’s driver team has been fine-tuning this card on the software side so its performance is slightly more linear and power consumption remains within specifications. One interesting thing to note is that actually finding an RX 480 8GB at its original $240 launch price is quite challenging and most reference spec’d offerings hover around the $250 mark.
On the flip side of that coin is Sapphire’s awesome RX 480 8GB Nitro+, a card many people have pointed to as being the quintessential custom AMD product. Not only is its core supposed to hit a clock speed of up to 1342MHz (just under 100MHz faster than the reference version) but Sapphire has packed it with a ton of features like a heavily upgraded PWM, RGB LEDs that are fully controlled through the TRIXX software suite, quick connect fans that can easily be swapped out and a highly efficient cooling system.
Around back the Nitro+ has a perfectly integrated backplate that has a transformer-like color scheme. Personally, I love the look of this card; the cooling assemblies are perfectly integrated and a color scheme that is perfectly neutral. Some more budget-conscious buyers may have an issue stomaching this card’s $30 premium over AMD’s supposed MSRP of $240 but I think its money well spent.
In the last photo you may have noticed a small cutout in the backplate around a red button. This button acts as a hardware-based control for the LEDs and its bordered by a small vBIOS switch. Sapphire decided to equip their card with two BIOSes: one of which uses a more efficient and quieter preset while the other setting (the one closer to the I/O area) houses a high performance mode which insures that 1342MHz core frequency can be achieved more often.
The one downfall of the RX 480 Nitro+ is the location of its power input connector. Instead of being on the card’s side, Sapphire decided to position it on the rear edge which effectively increases the compact 9.5” length to 10.5” once its plugged in. While that won’t be a challenge in most mid-tower cases, it can limit the Nitro+’s compatibility with smaller, more compact chassis.
Moving on to the GTX 1060 6GB cards and my intent here was to effectively set the record straight after the original GTX 1060 review. Back then I mentioned time and again that NVIDIA’s affordable darling was severely handicapped by the fact we were only able to evaluate the overly-expensive $299 (!!!) Founders Edition. As a result, what could have been a glowing conclusion focused on value and great performance instead gravitated towards a simple metric: at $260 it was an awesome contender but the $299 Founders Edition highlighted everything that was wrong with NVIDIA’s self-branded premium products.
The first card being highlighted here is the EVGA GTX 1060 6GB Gaming which, unlike the Founders Edition, demonstrates the absolute strengths of NVIDIA’s GP106 core. It is compact at just 6.8” long, features a single large fan and retails for just $250 or $10 less than the GTX 1060’s MSRP of $260USD . Now to be completely honest with you, this is an extremely basic GTX 1060 without any of the upgrades seen on more expensive cards. It does however represent the vanguard of NVIDIA’s push into mid-range gaming systems and something I couldn’t test at launch.
Gaming above / Superclocked below
Since I’ve already included a pre-overclocked RX 480 8GB, I decided to take a swing at a basic yet well-regarded overclocked GTX 1060 as well in the form of EVGA’s Superclocked version. While this card with its silver accents doesn’t look all that much different from the basic Gaming edition and commands an extremely fair $10 premium, going for $260 at most retailers (before rebates of course).
What you get for this is pretty straightforward: a core clock increase of 100MHz and a heavily upgraded heatsink design. While this version of EVGA’s GTX 1060 SC utilizes the same 3+1 phase PWM and PCB as its reference-clocked sibling, that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The Superclocked makes use of a more extensive heatsink design with a copper core, integrated heatpipes and an extensive fin array whereas the standard model has a very simple anodized aluminum setup.
Now I have to mention pricing right now because it will be a hotly contested point, particularly when we reach the end of this article (yes, I know many of you skip to the conclusion but I’m hoping you read this first!). As I alluded to above, the RX 480 8GB really can’t be considered a $240 graphics card. After polling five different retailers, at the time I write this the average price for a reference-clocked example was $251.25 USD before rebates with only a single card (Gigabyte’s RX 480 8GB Windforce) going for $241. Meanwhile on the GTX 1060 6GB side of that coin things are quite a bit different with PNY’s Dual Custom, the EVGA Gaming ACX 2.0 (the card featured here), ASUS’s Turbo, Gigabyte’s Mini ITX and Zotac’s Mini retailing for exactly $250 USD at several sellers. That’s actually $10 less than NVIDIA’s stated MSRP of $260.
The reason behind this situation is likely multi faceted. First and foremost –as you will see a bit later- AMD’s RX 480 is an insanely competitive card, their board partners likely see that and have adapted their pricing structures accordingly. NVIDIA on the other hand knows this as well and has pushed their own partners to offer lower cost GTX 1060 6GB solutions. Now is this pricing structure I mention above the end all, be all of statements? Of course not since the GPU market is a volatile place where pricing fluctuations are the norm. However, I’m convinced this article’s snapshot of $250 for both reference-clocked GPU’s will remain valid until the New Year.
The entire focus of this “re-review” is to figure out where the GTX 1060 6GB and RX 480 8GB stand after more than 120 days on the market. Out of box performance in the newest games is the aim here and I won’t even touch upon overclocking since that’s a slippery slope where one sample may benefit over the other. The goal here is to see which card offers the most bang for your buck and now than both AMD and NVIDIA have settled things with drivers and new games have launched before Christmas, this should be a perfect time for an update to our original reviews.