Mobile GPU Comparison: GeForce GTX 580M and Radeon HD 6990M
3DMark11, Quick Battery Life Test and Final Thoughts
Alienware M17x + AMD Radeon HD 6990M
Alienware M17x + NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M
Since so many people can compare their own systems directly using 3DMark11, I thought I should include it here. The top result is for the Radeon HD 6990M system and since the overall score includes the processor / physics tests as well, you may just want to focus on the Graphics Score of 3176. On the M17x with the GeForce GTX 580M, the same Graphics Score is 3288, a slight win of about 3.5% for the NVIDIA based rig. The physics score gave the advantage to the faster processor in the NVIDIA system with about a 9% gain.
Power Consumption and Switchable Graphics - It Matters on these GPUs
One of the things we have to take into consideration with a mobile GPU review that you don't really spend too much time focusing on (except in extreme cases) is the world of power consumption and, consequently, battery life. Since the two systems are based on the same M17x chassis and general platform, this is a great test to see how the two GPUs really stack up against each other. Both systems including Intel Core i7 processors that integrate HD Graphics in them courtesy of the Sandy Bridge architecture. What differs between them though is how NVIDIA and AMD implement switchable graphics - moving between the integrated Intel GPU and the discrete, high-performance GPU.
We have long known about NVIDIA Optimus, how it works, and the advantages it provides. On the Alienware M17x, the NVIDIA driver that integrates that technology automatically switches between the the Intel and NVIDIA graphics solutions depending on the task being worked on. If you are running a browser session or simply taking notes during class for example, then the NVIDIA GTX 580M will be completely disabled and the customer doesn't have to worry about which mode the system is in. When you start up your game of Battlefield 3, the discrete GPU is enabled and takes over processing for the best performance.
In fact, there is a button on the keyboard with the set function of switching between graphics modes. When you press it on the GTX 580M configured rig, this is what you see:
That is the best case for an end user - nothing to configure or worry about.
The AMD Radeon HD 6990M discrete option does have a switchable graphics solution as well though you have manually switch from discrete to integrated graphics. That same function key on the M17x keyboard I mentioned above is one of two ways the user can switch modes. When you initiate it, it takes a few seconds as the screen flashes once or twice and then you are brought back to the desktop. The downside with this method is that you don't know if you are then using the Intel or AMD graphics - there appears to be no on-screen indicator.
The second method requires right clicking on the desktop and selecting Switchable Graphics to get the following menu option:
The Catalyst Control Center allows the user to switch between the High Performacne GPU and the Power-saving GPU and will also tell which is currently enabled. While this is better and communicates more the the user, it is an extra step that NVIDIA GPU users with Optimus simply don't have to deal with.
The question is, does this matter? Both systems can be run only the Intel integrated graphics for the best battery life and both can run on the discrete GPU when situations warrant it. NVIDIA's solution is simply more elegant and more user friendly. If a user should turn on their M17x with the Radeon HD 6990M (or other AMD GPU solution) and not realize they were running with the discrete GPU enabled, even at the desktop or browsing the web, the battery life differences are pretty drastic.
This is of course a worst-case for AMD's GPU - more than likely a user would recognize the system was running hotter, the fans were spinning faster and the battery life was draining quicker but WHEN they notice it is the issue.
AMD is either not interested in creating a software solution like Optimus or they think it doesn't matter enough to the OEM to shift the purchasing decision. To be honest, making a simple desktop application or widget that constantly informs the user of which mode they are in would alleviate a lot of our concerns but until then, NVIDIA's Optimus is easily the best power management solution for mobile gamers.
After gaming on both of these systems for a solid 10 days or so, I have come to the conclusion that I really want an M17x around the office for mobile testing purposes. Yes, testing purposes...
But seriously, the M17x is a hell of a gaming machine. But since our focus today is looking at the GeForce GTX 580M and the Radeon HD 6990M, we'll stick to that discussion. Both mobile GPUs provide a gamer with enough horsepower to push the latest gaming titles at the native 1920x1080 resolution of the 17-in display, including Battlefield 3. Picking a performance leader is a tough call - the Radeon 6990M wins a few and the GTX 580M wins a few - neither really lives up to the claim of the "world's fastest" in any kind of definitive fashion.
I do think the GTX 580M provides the best overall user experience with support for Optimus switchable graphics as well the potential future-looking graphics performance seen in our Ultra quality settings test of Battlefield 3. The NVIDIA Verde driver program is also a benefit over what AMD has traditionally done in the mobile market. The NVIDIA driver team has been releasing mobile-compatible driver updates on a much more regular basis than AMD has been and in most cases are running version-for-version with the desktop parts. A quick check as of this writing shows the 285.64 driver that has been released for the desktop GPUs is also available for notebooks - if you are serious mobile gamer that cares about day-of releases (like getting BF3 running at its best as soon as its out) then this is a serious concern, right?
But issues arise when we look at the pricing:
NVIDIA is asking for $300 more for the GTX 580M than AMD is asking for the HD 6990M. That is a significant difference in a gaming notebook that you can get for a little as $1799. NVIDIA claims that features like Optimus, the improved driver support, 3D Vision (optional) and PhysX (returning to the scene with Batman: Arkham City) can justify that kind of price difference. I am not sure most of our readers would agree with that but if you are a high-end mobile gamer it is possible that those kinds of added benefits really do matter to you.
START MAJOR UPDATE (11/7/11): It looks like Alienware and NVIDIA have listened to our feedback and decided to drop the price on the GeForce GTX 580M on the M17x, M18x and others - and by quite a bit! As of this writing you can go to the Alienware.com website and now upgrade from the HD 6990M to the GTX 580M for only $75 - that is a $225 price drop compared to last week.
What does this do for our opinions and thoughts on the battle between the HD 6990M and the GTX 580M? I think it makes the added benefits of the NVIDIA ecosystem (Optimus, 3D, Verde driver updates, PhysX) much more attainable and in my book well worth the additional cost. With this price change, Alienware has really shifted my view on the mobile GPU of choice.
I am going to update my award from the Gold to the Editor's Choice for NVIDIA's GTX 580M for this specific reason. Happy gaming!
END MAJOR UPDATE (11/7/11)
When it really comes down to it,
I feel that most gamers will pick the Radeon HD 6990M that comes with similar performance levels at a much lower price (at least on the M17x). For all we know, AMD might be losing money on this part and undermining the market as a whole but most consumers don't really care about that kind of stuff. To them it is about performance and about value. For those gamers that are NVIDIA fans or really do put a lot of weight on the idea of Optimus technology, day-of-release driver updates and the specific hardcore features mentioned above, the GTX 580M will provide the best overall experience, but just be prepared to pay for it.
Gold Award - AMD Radeon HD 6990M - Gaming Performance Value
Editor's Choice Award - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M - Added/Hardcore Features