For those looking for a mid-range graphics card, this generation’s two leading choices are NVIDIA’s GTX 1060 and AMD’s RX 480. Both cards come with two models of varying video RAM capacities and price points:
- NVIDIA: GTX 1060 3 GB (~$200-210) and GTX 1060 6 GB (~$250-265)
- AMD: RX 480 4 GB (~$200-230) and RX 480 8 GB (~$240-250)
Clearly, these cards are direct competitors in performance and price. Let’s take a look at each head-to-head matchup to figure out which is the better purchase.
GTX 1060 3 GB vs RX 480 4 GB
In a case where your graphics card budget is closer to $200, the GTX 1060 3 GB and RX 480 4 GB come into play. The prices for these cards hover around that $200 range, going higher or lower depending on the quality of the cooler and extra features such as fancy lighting.
The 1060 3 GB was slightly faster than the RX 480 4 GB at launch, but after all the recent driver updates from AMD, the gap has narrowed. According to an extensive test at HardwareUnboxed, the RX 480 4 GB is now equal to — or marginally faster than — the GTX 1060 3 GB on average.
The graph compares the GTX 1060 3 GB vs the RX 480 4 GB. If the percentage is positive, it means that the GTX 1060 3 GB is faster (for instance, Quantum Break performance is 19% better on the GTX 1060 3 GB). If the percentage is negative, it means that the GTX 1060 3 GB is slower (for instance, DOOM performance is 25% worse on the GTX 1060 3 GB).
These two cards are extremely close in terms of performance, so the choice here will be much more dependent on the brand’s driver ecosystem and game preferences of the user. It is also important to note that the AMD card performs much better in vendor-agnostic DirectX 12 and Vulkan titles (for instance Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, The Division in DX12 mode), which gives it an edge in upcoming games that will be built on the newer DirectX 12 and Vulkan APIs. Nvidia on the other hand performs formidably in Nvidia-optimized titles (Watch Dogs 2, Dishonored 2) and Overwatch, one of the most popular games to date.
Deals are prominent on both of these cards, with the 1060 3 GB being on average a tiny bit more expensive than its AMD counterpart. As the GTX 1060 3 GB is a fairly power-efficient card, using about 120W under a typical gaming load, any decent two fan cooler with heatpipes should be sufficient, but the single-fan 1060s tend to stay around 70-75 degrees C under full load. The RX 480 4 GB is less power-efficient, using around 165W under typical gaming load, similar to a GTX 1080. Avoiding blower-style and cheap coolers without heatpipes is recommended.
To sum it up: the GTX 1060 3 GB and RX 480 4 GB are cards that you should look at when wanting to spend around $200 on your GPU. On average, the RX 480 4 GB is slightly faster than the GTX 1060 3 GB and has a higher VRAM buffer for the coming years. On the other hand, the 480 requires a beefier cooler to keep its temperatures in check, consumes more power, and generates more heat.
GTX 1060 6 GB vs RX 480 8 GB
The prices for the GTX 1060 6 GB and RX 480 8 GB hover around the $250 range, with higher quality cards reaching as high as $280.
Higher VRAM doesn’t necessarily translate into higher performance. Though both the GTX 1060 3 GB and RX 480 GB perform slightly worse than their higher VRAM counterparts, it’s mostly not because of the amount of VRAM. Having more VRAM does alleviate video memory bottlenecks when gaming at resolutions higher than 1080p, such as 1440p. Modded games with high-resolution texture packs may require upwards of 5 GB of VRAM.
There is no certain way to know how much video memory a game actually uses, as all currently available software methods show the amount of requested memory — not what is actually used. So, the application may in fact request 6 GB of VRAM, but in reality use only around 3.5 GB.
In the long run, the main performance difference between the 4 GB and the 8 GB RX 480 would be clockspeeds as both cards use the same graphics processing unit, the GPU on the card with 4 GB just has a lower core clock. The difference between the two cards will mostly be seen in VRAM-intensive titles, such as GTA V, or at higher resolutions (1440p, 4K). Otherwise the cards should perform identically at the same clockspeeds.
On the other hand, NVIDIA’s GTX 1060 3 GB and 6 GB do not use the same chip — the one on the 3 GB card has some parts of it disabled, making it all-around 10% slower than its bigger brother (read more on that here).
Concerning the performance of these cards, the RX 480 8 GB launched with a measurable disadvantage compared to the GTX 1060 6 GB, but AMD was able to reduce that difference with constant driver updates, as we can very well see in HardwareUnboxed’s recent performance overview of the two cards here.
The graph compares the GTX 1060 6 GB vs the RX 480 8 GB. If the percentage is positive, it means that the GTX 1060 6 GB is faster (for instance, Quantum Break performance is 25% better on the GTX 1060 6 GB). If the percentage is negative, it means that the GTX 1060 6 GB is slower (for instance, DOOM performance is 18% worse on the GTX 1060 6 GB).
As we can see from the graph, the performance is equally distributed between games, so the choice, again, comes down to what you play. It is important to keep in mind that the RX 480 uses DirectX 12 and Vulkan in a more efficient way, allowing for a higher performance boost in games based on these new APIs. Nvidia on the other hand, as the market leader, has the ability to get support for much more games, thus optimizing them better for their hardware.
The power use of the cards is similar to their smaller siblings. Again, the RX 480 uses about 50W more, so if power use or heat output are concerns, the 1060 is the better option. High quality heatsinks are recommended for both, but the RX 480 in particular.
Another important factor to consider when choosing between these cards is the monitor. If you’re planning to buy a new monitor, then getting a FreeSync+AMD GPU combo would be the best bet as it would be far cheaper than a G-Sync+Nvidia GPU combo in that performance range. Adaptive frame synchronization technology allows for tear- and latency-free gaming, which may in fact the deciding factor when choosing a graphics card in this price range.
The RX 480 is the more future-proof choice here, as it sees significant performance improvements in DirectX 12 gaming. Following recent driver updates, the 480 is also very slightly faster than the 1060 on average. But the GTX 1060 provides steadier framerates, consumes significantly less power, and generates less heat, making it an appealing alternative.