AMD and Nvidia are notorious for routinely trading off the trophy for the best video card on the planet. But judging from Nvidia's latest release, the GeForce GTX 690, we can't help but wonder if the company may hold onto it for slightly longer than usual this time. This isn't just because of its speed, which is considerable, but also because of how well it holds up against two GeForce GTX 680 cards united in Scalable Link Interface (SLI) mode, and because of its power usage?which may just be its most attractive feature. Alas, there's always a "but," and the GTX 690's is its price: a whopping $999 (list), upping the bar that other dual-GPU cards have set around $700-$800. But if you crave the speediest and most power-efficient card you can get, don't let price stand in your way of this one.
Given that it's based on two GK104 GPUs (the same used in the GTX 680), there's not a lot to say about the GTX 690 from a chip-level standpoint that we haven't already said; there's mainly just a lot of multiplying by two to be done. Eight Graphics Processing Clusters (GPCs) mean 16 advanced Streaming Multiprocessor (SMX) units, 3,072 CUDA parallel processing cores, 256 texture units, and 64 ROP units. There's a total of 4GB of GDDR5 video memory, running at 6.008GHz over two 256-bit memory interfaces.
But the clock speeds are the same: 915MHz at the default level, but capable of accelerating to 1,019MHz on average when GPU Boost, Nvidia's new system for dynamic overclocking when the headroom exists for it, activates. And like a single GTX 680, there are four display outputs (three dual-link DVI and one Mini DisplayPort) that let you connect up to the four monitors to the card at once. The card has a TDP of 300 watts, and Nvidia recommends a power supply of no less than 650 watts if you want to install the GTX 690.
Where the GTX 690 differs from the GTX 680 is in its design. Whereas dual-GPU cards traditionally just extend the design elements of the series they lead, the GTX 690 abandons the GTX 680's (tried-and-true) black plastic style in favor of an entirely new and fresh approach. Nvidia claims that these innovations have practical applications, and in case of the cast aluminum frame with trivalent chromium plating, fan housing made from an injection-molded magnesium alloy, dual?vapor chamber cooling system (with dual-slot heat sink and an aluminum base plate) that expels heat via a center-mounted axial fan, and ten-phase power supply with a ten-layer two-ounce copper PCB that's undoubtedly true. But the polycarbonate windows on the card's front and the GeForce logo on the side that glows when the system is powered on suggest that Nvidia was just as concerned with delivering a prestige object to those willing to shell out a cool grand to be able to better play games. (And, if you ask us, that's actually not a terrible reason in this case.)
In any event, the usual caveats with big video cards apply. The GTX 690 blocks a second expansion slot, requires two PCIe power connectors (both eight-pin, a diversion from the two six-pin plugs used on the GTX 680, though understandable given the card's beefy stature), and may be too long to fit into smaller cases. (But like its immediate predecessor it's shorter than we're used to, so you'll have a better chance of it working in your system.)
Performance on the GTX 690 is, of course, excellent?which makes sense for a fusion of two units of the fastest single-GPU card out there. It dominated AMD's last-generation dual-GPU behemoth, the Radeon HD 6990 , in practically every gaming test we threw at it, which is to be expected. Sample scores: 59.8 frames per second (fps) versus 53.6fps in Aliens vs. Predator, 74fps versus 57fps in Batman: Arkham City, and 84fps versus 45.9fps in Lost Planet 2?in each case running at 2,560-by-1,600 resolution, with maximum details enabled. The one test where the GTX 690 didn't triumph? Total War: Shogun 2, where the 6990 came out ahead with 27fps versus the GTX 690's 23.3fps?but more on this in the next paragraph.
It's worth noting, however, that the GTX 690 is rarely faster than two SLI-connected GTX 680s. It keeps up incredibly nicely with the pair of cards; it just doesn't surpass them in terms of speed in most cases. Granted, because the frame rates we're talking about here are so high, this isn't a big deal?can you tell the difference, for example, between Batman: Arkham City running at 76fps and 74fps, and Lost Planet 2 running at 86.4fps and 84fps??but those who've already splurged on two GTX 680s can still feel satisfied with their purchase. (One note about performance here: There was functionally no discernible difference between the two GTX 680s and the single GTX 690 running Total War: Shogun 2. We asked Nvidia about this, and were told that a recent patch to the game has hindered multi-GPU performance somewhat?this also likely explains at least some of why the 6990 looked faster on the same game. We can't guarantee that you'll be hampered by this problem, or that a future patch won't fix it, but it's something to keep an eye on for now if you play that game.)
As was the case with the GTX 680, the defining characteristic of the GTX 690 is its power efficiency. Our full Intel X79 Express?based test system drew (as measured by way of an Extech Datalogger) 110 watts when idle, and 413.7 watts under the full load of a maxed-out Metro 2033 benchmark run. That's impressive as it is, but it looks even better compared with the GTX 680 SLI setup, which drew 116.7 while idling and 469.6 watts under load: Maybe the two cards have the tiniest of performance edges, but the power savings will unquestionably prove much more significant over the long run. An interesting side note: The GTX 690 also drew less power than either the 6990 (125 watts while idling, 424.9 watts under load) or two Radeon HD 7950 ?cards in a CrossFireX configuration (110 watts while idle, 415.3 watts under load).
Nvidia has done a remarkable job with the GeForce GTX 690, turning out a card that's worth bragging about?and bestowing our Editors' Choice award upon?for reasons that go well beyond merely its speed. We have no doubt that AMD is working on its own dual-GPU card at this very moment (we'll even venture a guess at its name: the Radeon HD 7990?), but unless the company effects a substantial revamp of its current generation's architecture, that card is going to have a hard time competing with Nvidia's. In performance, power usage, and appearance alike, it's not just the card to beat?it's the card to cherish.
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