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Frame Rating: High End GPUs Benchmarked at 4K Resolutions

Author: Ryan Shrout
Manufacturer: Various

How the Current Cards Stack Up in 4K

Our experiment with early testing of high end graphics cards on a 4K display has definitely been interesting.  After using $3000 graphics card configurations on a 50-in 3840x2160 monitor it is going to be a struggle to go back to smaller display and single lowly graphics card.  But alas, that is part of the job!

 

Single GPU Performance

In our testing we looked at four different single GPU options including the GeForce GTX 680, the GTX Titan and AMD's Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition.  While the GTX 680 and the HD 7970 both cost around $450, the GTX Titan is more than twice that with a $999 price tag, realistically putting it in a different category all together.  That being said, the GeForce GTX Titan is the single best GPU for gaming at 4K resolutions.  It was faster than all of the other single GPU variants by a significant margin and was able to do so without introducing any kind of frame latency issues you might see with dual-GPU options. 

The Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition was the second best card and considering you can find it for less than half the price, it makes a compelling case at beating out the GTX Titan for 4K bragging rights.  It performed better than the GTX 680 2GB and GTX 680 4GB in our testing which follows the results we have seen at 2560x1440 previously.

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The GK110 GPU was seemingly built for 4K resolutions

Problems creep up for the Radeon HD 7970 if you consider going to the route of SLI or CrossFire.  While the GTX Titan and GTX 680 scale very well in most of our titles at 3840x2160, the Radeon HD 7970s in CrossFire suffer from runt frames and high frame time variance that result in either much lower than expected animation smoothness and/or stutter.  The GTX cards in SLI do not have this behavior resulting in a much better multi-card scaling proposition.  Yes, the prototype driver would help the HD 7970s out quite a bit, but that option is still weeks or months away.

 

Single Card Performance

If we limit our options to single cards, whether they be single GPU or dual-GPU, the battle is even more interesting.  Because AMD's new Radeon HD 7990 depends on CrossFire technology to perform, the 13.5 beta driver that still has the runt frame and frame time variance problems places it in a very bad light compared to NVIDIA options like the GeForce GTX Titan and the GeForce GTX 690. 

The GTX 690 is comprised of two NVIDIA GK104 GPUs that run in SLI, but NVIDIA's multi-GPU options do not demonstrate the same performance issues that CrossFire does thanks to hardware frame metering technology.  As it stands today, the GTX 690 is clearly the best card for 4K gaming under $1000.  Even better than the GK110 based Titan, the GTX 690 only suffers in a couple of cases with the 2GB frame buffer per GPU despite the 6GB that reside on Titan.  Most of the time the frame metering on the GTX 690 produces nearly as smooth animation with better frame rates.

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The GTX 690 sits as the best single card for 4K gaming today

If we take into account the prototype driver for the Radeon HD 7990, it makes a good case to take that spot away from the GTX 690.  With much more even frame distribution, the dual-Tahiti card looks like a better option in several games even though there is still much work to be had for the driver team to produce frame times as evenly as NVIDIA SLI does.  Long story short, even if the prototype driver were available today to consumers in its current form, I still think the GTX 690 would have the advantage.  But AMD is on the right track and with some more development they could make their card the better choice.

 

Final Thoughts

A single frame of a game at 1920x1080 produces 2.0 million pixels.  A single frame at 3840x2160 produces 8.3 million pixels.  The jump from a 1080p panel to something like the SEIKI 50-in 4K TV we got in last week greatly increases the computing power required for gaming.  Users that bought a single GTX 680 or single HD 7970 will find that newer games like Crysis 3 won't breach the 25 FPS level even with image quality settings dropped off the maximum levels a bit.  Even GTX Titan buyers will find that their card has a bit of a struggle to keep playable frame rates at this resolution.  Gamers that want the ultimate experience on a 4K display or TV will want to own a GTX 690 or better yet, a pair of GTX Titan cards running in SLI.  I guess if you are willing to invest in a 4K TV, you should be willing to invest in high performance graphics hardware as well.

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4K puppies!

For the hardware community, this is great news.  For years now we have lamented about the lack of expansion in the world of monitors; that we were seemingly stuck at 1080p as the game resolution going forward.  The advent of the Korean-made 27-in 2560x1440 monitors was one step in the right direction and 4K TVs breaking the $1500 level is yet another.  Despite the rivalry between them, both AMD and NVIDIA want these 3840x2160 displays to be cheaper and more widespread as it will push demand for higher performing graphics cards. 

I know many users will want my opinion on buying this specific TV for gaming at 4K, but I am hesitant to offer up a full recommendation.  I have definitely liked my time with it and found gaming on it be a solid experience, despite the 30 Hz refresh level of the panel itself.  You'll more than likely want to play games with Vsync on to avoid the doubled-up instances of visual tearing and if you do that, I think the quad-HD resolution of 4K is a sight to behold.

 

April 30, 2013 | 03:56 PM - Posted by ervinshiznit (not verified)

How come you're running these tests with AA enabled? We use AA at standard resolutions because the pixels are "too big" and makes edges look jagged. At 4k I don't think it's necessary. Yes, a 55" screen at 4k has a lower ppi than 2560x1440 at 27". But you're going to be sitting much further back from the TV so you can actually see enough of the screen, making the pixels take up less radians of what you see, reducing the perceived pixel size. If we get a 4k monitor at 27" then I don't see AA being of any use at all.

April 30, 2013 | 03:59 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I could still tell a difference between AA enabled and disabled in terms of quality.

April 30, 2013 | 04:53 PM - Posted by Randomoneh

Anti-aliasing will never become obsolete, no matter how high the [angular] resolution is, because Moiré patterns will appear otherwise.

May 4, 2013 | 09:53 AM - Posted by Wendigo (not verified)

Yes, but only SSAA was capable with this defect (moire pattern), the MSAA doesn´t work with the internal areas of the triangles.

April 30, 2013 | 04:22 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Aliasing(in whatever form it comes, e.g. shader aliasing) is still an issue on any resolution, no matter how high it gets.

Playing without AA is a no-go for me.
First I try if I can enable 4x or 8x SGSSAA and if performance is okay. Works great if you find the right compatibility bits to force it(DX9 games) or if the game offers ingame-MSAA to enhance via driver(mostly DX10 and 11 games).

If that fails, I try to downsample it via custom resolution in the NVControlPanel (3840x2160 or 2880x1620 to 1080p, which is essentially OGSSAA), maybe add post processing-AA too if it doesn't blur the textures too much.

Using post processing-AA(FXAA, MLAA, SMAA, TXAA) alone is the last resort.
Though recently some games (for example Max Payne 3's FXAA, Crysis 3's 4x SMAA mode which includes an MSAA-part) had some good implementations where not much sharpness was lost due to blur.

April 30, 2013 | 04:35 PM - Posted by DeadOfKnight

These "you can't tell the difference" comments gotta go. If you can't tell the difference then just say "I can't tell the difference" so we can all point at you and laugh, and then frown at our empty wallets.

April 30, 2013 | 04:10 PM - Posted by RuffeDK

Great article! I'm excited about the upcoming 4K displays :)

April 30, 2013 | 04:29 PM - Posted by rpdmatt (not verified)

Very awesome. I'm looking forward to seeing results from newer cards based on these resolutions. Are you guys ever going to do a less impromptu review of that TV or is the un-boxing all we get?

April 30, 2013 | 05:08 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Honestly, that's probably going to be it for us.  We are not TV reviewers and I'll leave that to those that can do much better.  Check out HD Nation's information: http://revision3.com/hdnation/seiki-cheap-4k-tv

April 30, 2013 | 05:00 PM - Posted by w_km (not verified)

Can the current non-$999 GPUs run windows or surf the web smoothly (i.e. upscale 720p or 1080p, display website text smooth while scrolling, etc...)??? If not at 30 or 60fps, when would you expect to see sub-$500 cards capable of running office/non-gaming tasks at 4K?

May 1, 2013 | 08:35 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Office apps etc and other 2D graphics take practically no effort at all for a graphics card. Thats already been true for years. Even a basic graphics card can already do it easily. Maybe movies in full-screen might be a load, but if you're not gaming, thats about the only thing that would be.

April 30, 2013 | 06:42 PM - Posted by SetiroN

Sorry to be that guy, but 3840x2160 is not 4K. Having pointed out both 1080p and 2K in the diagram, you should know the difference; this standards confusion is going to be problematic for the customer and the press isn't helping.

Anyway, 30Hz is absolutely a no-no. Too bad Display Port isn't common on TVs. Or in general.

April 30, 2013 | 07:30 PM - Posted by Randomoneh

If I remember correctly, a number of TV manufacturers changed "4K" to QFHD (Quad Full HD) in fear of possible lawsuits because similar thing happened before: manufacturers were sued for false advertising for size (example: 26.7 in as "27 in and similar).

Anyway, I prefer "2160p".

May 2, 2013 | 06:42 AM - Posted by Ryrynz (not verified)

LOL. SetiroN Why did you say that? If you're not 100% sure don't say anything.. You sir got OWNED.
WIKIPEDIA
BOOM!

July 25, 2013 | 11:08 AM - Posted by Dan (not verified)

Your Wikipedia link refers to the 4K UHD marketing term not the display standard. The corresponding standard for that resolution (3840×2160) is QFHD. The 4K standard is (4096×2160).

April 30, 2013 | 07:35 PM - Posted by Nick Ben (not verified)

Excellent article Ryan!

Have you had any success using a "dual mode" displayport to HDMI adaptor to get 4K?

I know there's a new connector type 2 that will allow it in the future, wasn't sure if you had any success with any of these cards getting 4K by conversion from displayport to HDMI?

April 30, 2013 | 08:54 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I have only tried direct HDMI connection right now.  Why would you want a DP connection exactly for this implementation of 4K?  You won't be able to drive more than 30 Hz to any way.

April 30, 2013 | 09:09 PM - Posted by Nick Ben (not verified)

all recent nvidia Kepler Quadro cards and laptops only have displayport on them, so while not for gaming, they would make sense for 4K content creation

April 30, 2013 | 09:12 PM - Posted by Nick Ben (not verified)

the whole reason for displayport was supporting 10 bit color for color grading at 1 billion colors, but HDMI supports it now anyway, so that's why it's useful to convert from type 2 dual mode Displayport to HDMI at 1 billion colors for content creation

April 30, 2013 | 09:00 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

How do crossfire setup perform at 4k resolutions? I have also seen that running at higher resolutions with some configuration can alleviate micro-stuttering, can you test this?

Also why no crossfire tests in Far Cry 3 when you use 3/2-way sli?

April 30, 2013 | 10:48 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

We have HD 7970 CrossFire results for each game...

April 30, 2013 | 09:16 PM - Posted by traumadisaster

"I think the quad-HD resolution of 4K is a sight to behold." This is your last comment, I take that as you LOVE 4k gaming? My friend watched the preview and said he didn't see anybody jumping up and down. The first HD broadcast nfl game I saw, I was shocked. The first time in crisis seeing the jungle, my jaw dropped. The first 1440p game I was like I love this. My first dvd, then Blu-ray, etc.

I interpreted your non-verbal behavior as this was a jaw dropping experience for you guys, but since there was little verbal praise I'm wondering is this awesome. I explained to him that old, crusty, grizzled, seen it all, never give praise vets do love it.

April 30, 2013 | 10:49 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

The first impressions weren't as good as the extended impressions, because the TV had to be tuned a bit.  Turned down sharpness, turned off de-noise, etc.

April 30, 2013 | 09:25 PM - Posted by misschief (not verified)

Now call me daft (or stupid) but if the settings in the game are only showing 1080p (or 1200p) surely that means the game itself is being rendered by the PC at that resolution and the game is then being upscaled by the display? I'm probably missing something by only looking at the pretty pictures but until I see the actual resolution being played as a 1:1 ratio then I won't fully believe that the game is being 'played' at 4K, it's only being displayed at 4k. I'm happy to be corrected though!

April 30, 2013 | 09:32 PM - Posted by traumadisaster

Good question. I also wonder if the tv does automatic upscalling or is there options to pick 1440p or others. I wouldn't mind just using it as a big 1440p monitor since my 580 won't be able to keep up anyway.

April 30, 2013 | 10:47 PM - Posted by Randomoneh

I believe it really is 3840x2160. I've downloaded the video (horribly compressed though)and captured frames for close inspection. You can also take a look at the full-sized images that come with the article. There is AA so I can't be 100% sure but I think it's rendered at 2160p.

April 30, 2013 | 10:50 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

The settings screenshots are just there to show you the image quality settings, not the resolution.  All tests were run at 3840x2160.

April 30, 2013 | 11:16 PM - Posted by Mangix

You guys should try bumping up the refresh rate to something like 48Hz. 60Hz is most likely out of the question but with driver patching, going above 400Hz pixel clock should be possible. See:

http://www.monitortests.com/forum/Thread-NVIDIA-Pixel-Clock-Patcher
http://www.monitortests.com/forum/Thread-AMD-ATI-Pixel-Clock-Patcher

I believe EVGA Precision also allows bumping up the pixel clock to get higher refresh rates. Otherwise, using something like CRU(found in the links above) will help with making custom timing parameters which will lower the pixel clock further.

May 1, 2013 | 12:47 AM - Posted by Tom-Seiki (not verified)

Without using the pixel clock patcher, I made a custom resolution for 3840x2160 @ 31Hz and it worked. When I tried 32 Hz, TV either showed a blue screen with message "Not support" or it would skip every other column when drawing pixels, causing the resulting image to be blurry.

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