If I had to boil this 3,000 word review down to two words, they’d be “It depends.”
Does the GeForce GTX 1060 outperform the GTX 980? It depends. When Nvidia said the GTX 1070 beat the Titan X, it truly did so across the board. The picture’s more muddled with the GTX 1060. It’s more accurate to say it delivers performance roughly on par with the GTX 980, sometimes beating the latter.
Does the GeForce GTX 1060 outperform AMD’s Radeon RX 480? It depends. After a recent performance-boosting update, the RX 480 also delivers performance roughly on par with the GTX 980, sometimes beating the latter. The GTX 1060 manages to shrink the performance gap between AMD and Nvidia cards in Radeon-leaning games, and delivers a scant few more frames per second than the RX 480 in the other games we tested. The only game Nvidia’s card delivered a solid lead in is Rise of the Tomb Raider—but AMD matched that lead in Hitman. Really, performance is pretty much identical between the two cards and AMD’s RX 480 starts at US$200, or US$50 less than the GTX 1060.
Which brings us to another point: Does the RX 480 or GTX 1060 deliver better bang for your buck? Today, in the real world, it depends.
That’s because RX 480 stocks are depleted and the cards are selling for significantly more than their US$200 (4GB) and US$240 (8GB) MSRP. But Nvidia’s GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 are still suffering from low stocks and inflated prices of their own, more than a month after their respective launches. While the GTX 1060 uses a different GPU than those cards, this launch feels like a rushed response to the RX 480’s release, and it remains to be seen how availability—and thus pricing—shakes out.
Another factor is the introduction of Nvidia’s premium Founders Edition cards, which have helped push up prices across the board for GTX 10-series cards. The GTX 1080, 1070, and 1060 all sport higher RRPs than their predecessors, and third-party partners have tended to budget their cards closer to the even-higher sticker prices of the Founders Editions. Third-party RX 480s haven’t even appeared yet.
So real-world pricing is a major open question.
The graphics processors will flow in mass quantities eventually, though. When that happens, prices will cool off too. And once these cards inch down to MSRP, we’d recommend that many gamers opt for AMD’s Radeon RX 480 over the GTX 1060.
But only if you’re running Windows 10. You need it to activate key DirectX 12 performance boosts with AMD’s cards. If you’re standing firm with Windows 7 or 8, which don’t support DX12, you’ll probably want the GTX 1060, as Nvidia cards traditionally offer superior DirectX 11 performance.
Don’t get me wrong; the GTX 1060 is a damned fine graphics card no matter what OS powers your PC. You won’t be upset if you buy one.
Nvidia’s new card runs cool, sips power, and barely makes noise—making it an ideal option in a space-constrained build. I’m still flabbergasted that AMD and Nvidia were able to offer this much performance for prices so low. Nvidia’s software is second-to-none; Ansel and Fast Sync look amazing. And if you’re buying for a VR-capable PC, the GTX 1060’s higher SteamVR rating combined with the exciting promise of simultaneous multi-projection may sway you towards Nvidia’s offering.
Most gamers don’t build home theater PCs or dabble in VR, though. The vast majority of gamers play at 1080p or lower resolution, according to the Steam hardware survey. Both the Radeon RX 480 and the GeForce GTX 1060 deliver uncompromising 1080p gaming performance, and damned fine 1440p action if you tone the graphics settings down to “High” rather than “Ultra.”
With pure performance being so similar across the board, we lean towards saving you cash over more extreme efficiency (again, if you're running Windows 10) since the RX 480’s still fairly stingy on the power front. The US$200 4GB version of the Radeon RX 480 should be just fine for 1080p gaming; if you’re considering 1440p or VR, you’ll want more memory, but even the US$240 8GB variant of the RX 480 comes in at a lower price than Nvidia’s new 6GB card. And AMD FreeSync monitors—which eliminate tearing, smooth out stuttering, and make life better all around—don’t carry the extra price premium that just-as-stellar Nvidia G-Sync monitors demand.
The Radeon RX 480 also supports multi-card CrossFire setups, if that’s a concern for you. The GeForce GTX 1060 is limited to single-card setups due to its missing SLI connector.
Will my recommendation hold when custom variants of both cards roll out? It depends. Nvidia’s Pascal architecture has proven much more overclockable than AMD’s new Polaris GPU. But for now, AMD’s Radeon RX 480 comes out the victor in the first direct head-to-head battle of this astonishing new generation of graphics cards, vanquishing the GeForce GTX 1060—if only because of price. Nvidia’s superb software and top-notch power efficiency may be worth the extra premium for some people, but that’s purely a personal judgement call.
Really, though, you won’t be disappointed by either of these cards. I’d even say you’ll be downright amazed by them. Both the GTX 1060 and the RX 480 utterly blow away what US$200 to US$300 graphics cards have been capable of achieving. No compromises 1080p gaming and solid 1440p gaming at an affordable price point? Yes, please.