Both cards are similarly priced, around $320, making them the go-to options for powerful “sweet spot” gaming PCs. Let us compare.
Comparing the average performance in 22 games, both cards perform very similarly. The GTX 970 is 8% faster at 1600 x 900, and 4% faster at 1920 x 1080. The R9 390 is 1% faster at 2560 x 1440, and 6% faster at 4K. Most people require about a 10% difference to be noticeable.
Looking at performance in a small sample of games, we see that both cards can max out games at 1080p, and provide smooth frame rates in most games at 2560 x 1440. Both cards struggle at 4K in more demanding games.
Both cards use little power at idle with a single monitor. However, hook up a second monitor to the R9 390, and idle power use shoots up to 75W, while the GTX 970 only uses 11W. Similar power use is seen while using GPU acceleration to watch blu-ray movies. While gaming, the power difference is even bigger. That difference is like leaving 5 or 6 compact fluorescent light bulbs on.
Noise levels will vary a lot. They will depend on how warm your room is, how much airflow your case has, how hot your CPU is, and which brand and model of GTX 970 or R9 390 you get. However, no amount of clever fan design can cheat physics.
- More power-use produces more heat.
- More heat requires more air.
- More air means more noise.
Since the R9 390 uses so much more power, it almost always ends up being noisier. Any decent version of either card should be nearly silent at idle, but at high loads, most 390s have some fan noise, while most 970s can remain nearly silent. Thankfully, a good version of either card in a case with good airflow will be very quiet.
Does the GTX 970 really have 4GB of RAM, or 3.5GB?
The GTX 970 has 4 GB of RAM, but the last 0.5 GB is slower to access. This can hurt performance at high resolution like 4K, where the 390 performs an average of 8% better. But for 4K, neither the 970 nor the 390 is enough anyway. You need a more powerful GPU for 4K, such as the GTX 980 Ti or R9 Fury X.
As with any architectural quirk, one can find special situations where this slow last 0.5 GB matters, but in normal use it isn’t noticeable. The way the card performs is what ultimately matters, and the card performs very well for what it’s designed to do.
The R9 390 has 8GB of RAM — how much better is that?
It depends. Having more RAM only helps if it is needed. Performance is what ultimately matters. At super high resolution like 4K, the extra RAM and the extra memory bandwidth of the 390 are useful, and yield higher performance. At low resolution, it makes no difference. And if you’re planning to game at 4K resolution, you probably want a graphics card more powerful than the 390 or 970 anyway.
What about DirectX 12?
There has been considerable controversy over how well the current AMD and NVIDIA cards will handle DirectX 12 games. The truth is, different graphics cards have always supported different features, and these features can have large performance impacts in special circumstances. Game developers rarely rely heavily on these features, because they want as many people as possible to be able to play their games well. Both the GTX 970 and the R9 390 fully support DirectX 12, and I do not expect our recommendations to change when more DirectX 12 games come out.
NVIDIA has better support for Linux, and streaming gameplay to Twitch or YouTube. AMD’s hardware is better at bitcoin mining, although that’s not worth doing on a standard desktop computer anymore. The discontinued R9 290 uses the same chip as the R9 390, and performs almost identically. It can be an excellent deal if you find one.
At Logical Increments, we put both GTX 970s and R9 290s (the same GPU as the 390) into our personal computers. Both cards are powerful and good values, able to run the most demanding games at 2560 x 1440 with graphics close to maxed out. The GTX 970 has a slight edge in resolutions lower than 2560 x 1440. At 4K, the R9 390 has an edge, but most people would want more performance for 4K than either card can provide. For anyone that cares about power consumption or heat output, the 970 has a clear advantage. As a result, 970s are also quieter, although good 390s are also quiet.
Winner: GTX 970
The 970 has the edge thanks to slightly better performance at lower resolutions, along with lower power consumption, heat output, and noise. To see which specific GTX 970 and R9 390 we currently recommend, or to see what parts we recommend at higher and lower prices, go to our Build Recommendations.
Release the fanboys!