AMD Radeon HD 6950 versus NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950
I actually don't like the MOBA abbreviation because it describes too little of a class of overwhelmingly complex games. I have had a bit of a head start dealing with that complexity having played DotA longer than the MOBA abbreviation and even the company that forced that term into existence. Way back then, Defense of the Ancients was a custom game mode, a mod, for WarCraft III. The first match I ever played was in 2006 on DotA Allstars. I picked Nevermore the Shadow Fiend. It went very badly.
I continued to occasionally play DotA, though more frequently played tower defense games on WarCraft III Battle.net and a certain free-to-play 2D side-scrolling Korean MMORPG. It wasn't until I got into the Heroes of Newerth closed beta in March 2010 that I began to play MOBA games almost exclusively. HoN as it was frequently called was being developed as a standalone clone of DotA while improving upon the limitations of the WarCraft III engine. The game brought features now taken for granted for any other standalone MOBA title such as dedicated host servers, matchmaking, punishments for intentional disconnections, and modern graphics. For a while, it looked like Heroes of Newerth and its indie developer studio S2 Games had a future. Heroes of Newerth was officially launched in May 2010 for $30 and unsurprisingly, a substantial number of players left as the free beta period ended. What came next was even more unfortunate for S2 Games. Competition and bad decision making would only make the bleeding worse.
Back in April 2009, when Heroes of Newerth was first launched into beta, another indie game company also launched their own DotA-like game into beta. This studio called Riot Games, who introduced the MOBA acronym, didn't have the money or manpower to make a modern looking game. Their approach for their game called League of Legends was to focus less on technicals and more on gameplay, by improving on the elements that made DotA so hard to learn in the first place. The result was a watered down image of DotA that ran in a decrepit game engine and featured characters depicted in a laughably bad comical art style (see the comparison picture of Soraka before and after her visual update in 2012 below.) The hope League of Legends had for its survival was its more straightforward game design compared to its two competitors, DotA and HoN, and its grindwall free-to-play payment model.
Late in 2010, rumors and hints of an official DotA remake from Valve surfaced and S2 Games quickly abandoned porting DotA characters. In July 2011, HoN switched to the same free-to-play model used by League of Legends which by this time was well beyond critical mass and was a sensation around the world. Yet, S2 Game's subtle, but at the same time egregious freemium strategy – newly released characters were consistently overpowered, but locked behind paywalls – only worked against them. In August 2011, Heroes of Newerth's path to obscurity was inevitable when Valve's Dota 2 beta was officially announced and launched.
During those years, I still played HoN. The DotA roots still ran deep in HoN's game design and its standalone features made it more attractive than playing DotA with the unpredictable Battle.net community. My previous one day experience with League of Legends in December 2010 did not capture my commitment and I would not actually play that game again until 2013. It was the anticipation of the official DotA remake from the likes of Valve that had me excited. In November 2011, I got an XFX Radeon HD 6950 in anticipation of Dota 2. In December 2011, I opened an email containing my Dota 2 beta key.
I have been playing Dota 2 for nearly four years. I have largely had no need to upgrade my gaming desktop PC during that time because more than 95% of my gaming time is on Dota 2. It's an incredibly competitive and replayable game with lots of gameplay elements worth improving upon. The commitment players make to learn how to play MOBA games is why there is so little room for competing titles. EA canceled Dawngate for that reason.
Despite being one amongst the tens of millions of gamers worldwide who enjoys playing MOBA games, I'm the only Legit Reviews writer as far as we know who plays Dota 2 and League of Legends. When our Editor-in-Chief learned of the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950 was coming to market with MOBA optimizations, he thought it would be a great idea to get me involved despite my four year old PC hardware.
The Cayman Pro and the AMD Radeon HD 6950
made their first appearance in December 2010 nearly half a decade ago. The HD 6000 series were the last to use ATI's VLIW GPU architecture and was succeeded by GCN with the HD 7000 series in 2012. In retrospect, the AMD HD 6000 series GPUs didn't bring anything revolutionary to the table, but the VLIW design was so solid that it stood up very well to Nvidia's Fermi GPUs (sometimes jokingly called Thermi
) in the GeForce 400 and 500 families. It would be the Kepler GPU architecture and the GeForce 600 series where NVIDIA would finally score big on performance-per-watt. This particular Radeon HD 6950 that I have is the 1 GB VRAM variant featuring XFX's Double Dissipation custom cooler which costed $239 in November 2011. During those heydays, the HD 6950 was comparable to the GTX 560 Ti
Up against my trusty four-year-old HD 6950 1GB is NVIDIA's spanking brand-new GTX 950 2GB
. This is what happens when I ask the editor-in-chief to do an extensive MOBA game performance analysis and instead it comes around back to me years later. Whatever. I'm happy because not only do I have a new video card, I also get to do graphics performance tests on the games I play the most. We'll just have to deal with the awful fact that two vastly different video cards are being compared. It turned out okay though and the results are kind of surprising.
||XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB
||ASUS STRIX GTX 950 2GB
||1140 MHz / 1329 MHz Boost
|GDDR5 Memory Clock
|Memory Bus Width
|Typical Board Power (TDP)
|| 200 Watts
|| 90 Watts
|GPU Launch Date
|| Dec 15, 2010
|| Aug 20, 2015
|GPU Launch Price
|| $159 ($169 for ASUS STRIX)
GeForce Experience and MOBA Specific Optimizations
MOBA players hate lag of any sort and NVIDIA set out to make GeForce GTX 950 the best GPU for MOBA gamers by tackling latency. Their internal testing with the GTX 650 and Dota 2 showed that the amount of time it took for a mouse click to appear on the monitor as an on-screen action was 80ms. That's actually quite high as it's not uncommon for Dota 2 or League of Legends players to complain about 90ms network latency.
Improvements to GTX 950 response times come from a combination of Maxwell's faster graphics rendering and reducing the number of pre-rendered frames. The result is a 45ms response time between mouse click to the on-screen action outputted by GTX 950. That's a 35ms reduction from the 80ms experienced with the GTX 650. A video demonstration of that internal testing with a high-speed camera is shown below.
The faster Maxwell renderer normally sees its benefit with high refresh rate monitors, though the shorter time needed to pre-render a frame is being leveraged to reduce video output latency.
Normally, the driver buffers two pre-rendered frames which are represented in the illustration below as DX1 and DX2. Maxwell can reduce the number of pre-rendered frames waiting to be displayed on the screen to just one. The combination of Maxwell's faster renderer and reduced frame buffer reduces the graphics latency by nearly 50%.
The GeForce Experience team at NVIDIA made it easy to enable these optimizations at the press of a button.
New High FPS Low Latency presets for Dota 2, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm in GeForce Experience have become available. Pressing the Optimize button overwrites game and drivers settings so that the low latency optimization is fully applied by the next time the game is launched.
Before we take a look at the results, let's take a quick look at the system which was used for test the Radeon HD 6950 and GeForce GTX 950. The hardware remains largely unchanged from four years ago when it was assembled. It is built around a Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5-2400 processor, ASUS P8Z68-V LE motherboard, and 8GB G.Skill Sniper 1333MHz CAS 9 dual channel memory. An XFX 850 watt Black Edition power supply provides more than enough power for the system and the video cards. Testing was done on Windows 10 64-bit.
Graphic drivers used for testing:
- AMD CATALYST 15.7.1
- NVIDIA GeForce 355.65
Here are the exact hardware components that we are using on our test system:
XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB Card GPU-Z Info:
ASUS STRIX GTX 950 DirectCU II OC 2GB Card GPU-Z Info:
||Intel Core i5-2400
||ASUS P8Z69-V LE
||8GB G.Skill Sniper 1333MHz
||WD Black 750GB
||Creative Sound Blaster ZxR
||Cooler Master Hyper 212+
||XFX Black Edition 850W
||Windows 10 64-bit
||ASUS VH238H 23"
Here the Fire Strike synthetic test in 3DMark 2013 is being used to establish the raw performance discrepancy between the two cards being tested.
The ASUS STRIX GTX 950 video card with its overall score of 5,559 unsurprisingly smokes the XFX Radeon HD 6950 video card's score of 2,952 in the3DMark Fire Strike benchmark.
Dota 2 is an Action RTS game developed by Valve Corporation. After a lengthy two year beta period, the game was officially released in July 2013 as a free-to-play game supported by cosmetic microtransactions. Dota 2 is the standalone remake of Defense of the Ancients, a WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne custom game that continues to be developed by IceFrog. Though not the same original DotA that first appeared on WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos, IceFrog's version of DotA and consequently Dota 2 represent the archetypical MOBA game.
A typical Dota 2 match is played 5v5 with each player selecting a hero character with unique traits and abilities. One team claims victory by destroying the opposing team's Ancient, a building located deep within enemy territory. At the start of each match, heroes start off fairly weak and must become more powerful by accumulating gold and experience. This can be achieved by defeating AI-controlled creeps and buildings, and occasionally opposing heroes.
Dota 2 is built in an extensively modified Source engine. As such, the game has very generous graphics hardware requirements. All in-game graphic options were set to their maximum settings while VSync was disabled. The console command "fps_max 1000" was used to virtually uncap the maximum framerate. Dota 2 has arguably the best replay system ever implemented in an RTS making it easy to benchmark the game. FRAPS was used to benchmark a particularly intense replay sequence popularly called the $6 Million Slam during Game 4 of the grand final set at The International 2015 tournament.
The ASUS STRIX GTX 950 DirectCU II OC 2GB video card and the XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB had nearly identical graphics performance replaying the intense $6 Million Slam in Dota 2. We see the GTX 950 averaging 85 FPS and the HD 6950 averaging 84 FPS. CPU bottlenecking is likely occurring.
Frame times for both the Radeon HD 6950 and GeForce GTX 950 follow the same pattern though there is slightly more variance from the GTX 950 which has a standard deviation of 2.80 compared to 2.63 from the HD 6950.
We opted not to use Dota 2 Reborn, a mostly functional port of Dota 2 in the Source 2 engine currently in beta testing. It's buggy and its spectator replay features don't always work nicely. Yet, we won't forget about it and it may be worth examining again in the future.
League of Legends
League of Legends is a 2009 multiplayer online battle arena game developed by Riot Games. Among all MOBA game titles, this one is the most popular. The game is heavily inspired by Defense of the Ancients and as such features the same overarching game design and primary objective. League of Legends is free-to-play with grindwall elements restricting champion character choice and rune customization to newer players. The game engine was developed by Riot Games and its relative simplicity and age make it very undemanding on computer hardware.
League of Legends does not officially have a replay feature though several third-party developers have created replay solutions that typically take advantage of the game's in-game spectator feature. We used Replay.gg which is not only convenient, but doesn't require software downloads that could impact performance. League of Legends has two popular gameplay modes and we recorded two replays for our testing – one on Summoner's Rift and another on Howling Abyss (ARAM.) The moment when the minimum FPS occurs is at the height of an intense teamfight.
The ASUS STRIX GTX 950 DirectCU II OC 2GB video card and the XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB had very close graphics performance replaying our Summoner's Rift replay in League of Legends. We see the GTX 950 averaging 87 FPS and the HD 6950 averaging 84 FPS. Framerates were above 60 FPS at all times. CPU bottlenecking is likely occurring.
Frame times for both the Radeon HD 6950 and GeForce GTX 950 were very close on Summoner's Rift with standard deviation values from the respective video cards coming in at 2.05 and 2.04. Frame times also never spike past 50ms which could be perceivable as stutter.
Howling Abyss a.k.a. ARAM
The ASUS STRIX GTX 950 DirectCU II OC 2GB video card and the XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB had close graphics performance replaying our Howling Abyss replay in League of Legends. We see the GTX 950 averaging 107 FPS and the HD 6950 averaging 103 FPS. The minimum recorded framerate is nearly the same respectively being 73 FPS and 72 FPS. CPU bottlenecking is likely occurring.
Frame times for both the Radeon HD 6950 and GeForce GTX 950 were close on Howling Abyss/ARAM with standard deviation values from the respective video cards coming in at 1.80 and 1.83. Frame times also never spike past 50ms which could be perceivable as stutter.
Heroes of the Storm
Heroes of the Storm is a team brawler game developed by Blizzard Entertainment and released earlier this year on June 2, 2015. Its genre is ascribed as such by its developer to reflect the radically different game design compared to other MOBA games. Heroes of the Storm retains the primary objective found in other MOBAs: destroy the Core building in the opposing team's base to claim victory. However, many game elements are simplified to appeal to new and casual players.
Heroes of the Storm is built from the same game engine used for StarCraft II which was released back in 2010. As a result, Heroes of the Storm doesn't have demanding system requirements. We used the game's built-in replay feature to benchmark an action packed sequence.
The ASUS STRIX GTX 950 DirectCU II OC 2GB video card and the XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB had very close graphics performance running our Heroes of the Storm replay. Framerates were above 70 FPS at all times. We see the GTX 950 averaging 69 FPS and the HD 6950 averaging 67 FPS. CPU bottlenecking is likely occurring.
Frame times for both the Radeon HD 6950 and GeForce GTX 950 were close with standard deviation values from the respective video cards coming in at 5.66 and 5.75. We do see spikes past 50ms fairly equally for both cards which could be perceivable as stutter.
What is going on? – Testing CPU scaling
These MOBA benchmarks results show virtually identical graphics performance between the GeForce GTX 950 and the nearly 5-year old Radeon HD 6950. While the GTX 950 does output higher maximum framerates, 320 FPS on League of Legends' Howling Abyss before minions spawn versus 250 FPS from the HD 6950, what's happening with these results is the CPU is the cause of the minimum framerate. We expected that benchmarking intense replay sequences would stress the video card and reveal the worse case performance scenario. It turns out that GPU-Z shows the GTX 950 GPU is around 60% loaded playing Dota 2 and 30% loaded playing League of Legends. At the same time, Task Manager shows the Intel Core i5-2400 processor with a 70-80% load.
We gave NVIDIA a peek at these results and they suggested that with so much of the GPU being left unused, we should try out DSR (dynamic super resolution.) We set the DSR factor in NVIDIA Control Center to 4 and cranked the resolution in Dota 2 to 4K. That got the GPU running to its maximum boost frequency while under a 99% load. Dota 2 saw a roughly 50% reduction in framerate output at that resolution - roughly 30 FPS minimum and 50 FPS average. The point is that the GTX 950 is capable of handling lots of extra eye candy and NVIDIA Maxwell has a couple of tricks to unleash idle video card resources.
Looking to gain some insight on what effect CPU scaling had on Dota 2, the i5-2400 was overclocked to test for processor bottlenecking. Unique to the Sandy Bridge generation is limited overclocking of any non-K desktop processors. Turbo Boost frequencies could be overclocked to up to 4 multiplier bins or 400 MHz. For these CPU scaling tests, the i5-2400's turbo multiplier was set at its lowest value and its highest value, setting the processor frequency during benchmarking respectively at 3.2 GHz and 3.7 GHz.
We see performance gains on Dota 2 and League of Legends when the processor is overclocked regardless of video card. However, the CPU is still restricting graphics performance.
What can be done to lessen CPU dependency in Dota 2 oddly enough is to disable the 'High quality water' graphic setting. Doing this increased our framerate by 20 FPS at the cost of making the river that runs through the center of the field looking like a pool of Listerine.
For testing power consumption, the system was plugged into a Kill-A-Watt power meter. For idle numbers, the system was allowed to idle on the desktop for 15 minutes before a reading was taken. The other readings are peak load numbers recorded on the Kill-A-Watt meter for each MOBA game.
Power Consumption Results:
Nothing too surprising seeing the modern midrange GeForce GTX 950 beat the 5-year old former high-end Radeon HD 6950 in every category on the power consumption. What may be of interest to League of Legends players using laptops are the power consumption differences between Summoner's Rift and Howling Abyss /ARAM in which we see the latter has higher power usage.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
MOBA games are very replayable and players can become very competitive and thus addicted to dominating other human players. It's not unusual for MOBA gamers to play nothing else. Like MMOs, these games are continuously updated and it wouldn't be an easy task to just remake them. Yet, that's exactly what is happening with Dota 2 being remade in Source 2. As of right now, all the major MOBA games including those not featured in this article use DirectX 9, but Dota 2 Reborn might end that. Many of us are excited about Source 2 from Valve. It means a sequel to Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is probably closer to reality than it has ever been. It also means the possibility that Dota 2 might someday use DirectX 12 and Vulkan. However, Dota 2 Reborn Beta is still riddled with bugs that are worth eliminating first. As of now, it doesn't launch in 64-bit mode by default and the DirectX 11 and OpenGL modes are hidden as well.
Regardless of what happens, it is unlikely that League of Legends and Dota 2 will lose their massive control over the MOBA scene. The players have invested so much time acquiring the knowledge, technique, and experience needed to play those games that they aren't easily going to recommit to a new up-and-coming MOBA. Since those games happen to not require a particularly powerful computer, exclusively MOBA gamers including myself won't find a compelling reason to upgrade their hardware for 2...4...maybe even 6 years down the line. Even the best of integrated graphics are creeping closer to playing League of Legends on its maximum graphic settings with acceptable results. As such, we appreciate NVIDIA working on finding new ways to improve the graphic experience in MOBA games besides just raw performance and efficiency.
League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm run on game engines launched roughly five years ago, Dota 2 runs on an engine that debuted in 2004 with Half-Life 2. Yet, the explosive growth of the competitive MOBA scene has driven millions of gamers to gear themselves for that competitive edge. Ideas were pitched toward and within NVIDIA to address the demands of this rising market. Yes these MOBA games running on old game engines aren't graphically demanding, but they have their moments. Even we saw framerates nosediving during intense game action. It was the expectation that an affordable, but still powerful card would be able to handle the worst on-screen scenarios. From that, NVIDIA targeted the GeForce GTX 950 2GB video card at MOBA gamers and the fairly undemanding games they enjoy playing.
The results we saw in our MOBA benchmark tests was not what we expected. The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950 is fairly powerful which you can learn more about in our proper GTX 950 review
, but it's overkill for Dota 2, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm at 1920x1080. Those moments when the framerates took the nosedive were being caused by the limitations of the CPU and not the video card. We realized this when the 5-year old AMD Radeon HD 6950 1GB was performing as well or very nearly as well as a new GeForce GTX 950 2GB and when overclocking the CPU resulted in even performance gains on MOBA games with either video card. The GeForce GTX 950 should have run circles around the Radeon HD 6950 and it only did that in the synthetic 3DMark benchmark and during power efficiency testing.
What this means to those who enjoy MOBA games while caring about graphics performance is that we might not need a video card with a GPU as powerful as the GTX 950. Yes, you might want a better processor if the minimum framerate concerns you, but the occasional dip into 50 FPS territory is still very playable. In any case, I am unable to determine how powerful of a processor is needed to get perfect 60+ FPS playback given the limited hardware I have on hand. Getting back to graphics, NVIDIA previously presented the GeForce GTX 960 as not only "The Sweet Spot GPU" at $199, but also the "#1 GeForce GPU For MOBA Gamers." They can still lower the bar after the GeForce GTX 950 and it'll still be overkill for MOBA gamers.
Despite all that, I'm not advocating sticking with older graphics hardware for playing Dota 2, League of Legends, or Heroes of the Storm even if the raw performance is acceptable. GTX 950 and Maxwell gave a huge benefit I hadn't been able to experience for years and it's something that can't be demonstrated with a chart or table. It does look like GTX 950 was optimized for MOBA games. I can see the lack of screen tearing or microstutter with my own eyes. I was actually taken aback when I saw League of Legends for the first time running as one fluid moving picture on my monitor connected to the GTX 950. It was like seeing GSync again without actually having GSync. Those optimizations on the GTX 950 seem limited to those games for now because playing a game that isn't Dota 2, League of Legends, or Heroes of the Storm will produce stutter and tearing that looks the same from even a 5-year old Radeon HD 6950. The frame time data doesn't mean a whole lot when that's happening.
The other neat trick Maxwell offers is faster response time. Faster renderers and a reduction of number of buffer frames waiting to display on-screen results in a not so insignificant reduction of latency. This is cool to see in new technology that gives gamers that advantage. NVIDIA makes it easy for almost anyone to speed up the time it takes for actions to appear on-screen. We're talking at the press of a button easy. GeForce Experience has presets for Dota 2, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm that allow users to switch on optimized game and driver settings including new high framerate, low latency presets. That's almost for everyone. Those low latency presets are primarily intended for those with high refresh rate monitors. For those of us with 60Hz monitors, which is a realistic expectation of those buying a midrange video card, a few more steps will have to be taken to get personalized low latency optimizations.
Maxwell introduced the ability to control the number of pre-rendered frames that could be cached. Knowing where this setting is within the NVIDIA Control Panel allows one to set up personalized low-latency optimizations.
Looking back to our data, we were surprised to see the results we got – two video cards that almost couldn't be more vastly different outputting the same framerate performance for the narrow set of games tested. However, we can say for sure say that MOBA optimizations from GeForce GTX 950 make a drastic difference. They are just better experienced in-person. It's obviously too early to tell if NVIDIA will continue to lower the bar when it comes to releasing another weaker GPU for MOBA gamers, but if anything, doing so would bring the benefit of Maxwell to a greater number of players.
Legit Bottom Line:
When pushed to the limit, it's the CPU that's the limiting factor for MOBA game performance regardless if the video card is a GeForce GTX 950 or Radeon HD 6950. Yet, Maxwell brings a number of attractive features and the GTX 950's MOBA specific optimizations look better in-person than charts can show.