How We Test Graphics Cards

Video cards. Graphics cards. GPUs. Whatever you call them, there’s no denying the important role these components play for gamers, not to mention workstation users and productivity-focused folks with multiple displays. Whenever you’re operating a PC to render real-time graphics, a dedicated graphics card will prove itself useful. But as you’re shopping around for video cards, it is crucial to consider the performance you get for the amount of money you’re shelling out. That’s where our testing comes in.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Box ShotOur 2020 Graphics Card Testbed

All graphics cards that come through the PCMag offices are tested on a custom Windows 10 desktop PC we built expressly for the purpose of putting GPUs through their paces. The 2020 version of this machine is equipped with an Asus ROG Maximus XII Hero Wi-Fi motherboard, an Intel Core i9-10900K CPU, 16GB of G.Skill TridentZ RAM, a 2TB Samsung SSD 870 QVO SSD, and a Thermaltake Toughpower Grand 1,050-watt power supply (PSU).

We use this testbed to run a variety of synthetic tests (which simulate graphical stresses or game processes), as well as actual in-game benchmarks that report results in frame rates or game-specific scores. Windows 10 is always patched to the most recent version, and we use the latest compatible version of the graphics driver recommended by the card maker for the card being tested.

Synthetic Benchmarks

UL 3DMark

Our core selection of synthetic benchmarking tools is headlined by the seminal 3DMark, branded by its developer as “The Gamer’s Benchmark.” Developed by Underwriters’ Labs (UL), 3DMark is host to a suite of graphics subtests designed for different classes of graphics cards.

The 3DMark Fire Strike Ultra subtest is the first test we run when testing graphics cards at PCMag, and it’s meant for stressing graphics muscle at a simulated resolution of 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels). Fire Strike Ultra doesn’t require a 4K monitor to run, but it does call for a graphics card with at least 3GB of video memory (VRAM).

3DMark BenchmarksUnigine Superposition, which uses Unigine’s own graphics engine. It is a demanding stability test complete with its own backstory. It takes place in a deserted classroom; we see renderings of a professor’s scientific instruments and inventions, leading into an animated segment where the room’s contents begin floating in the air, magnetized to a mysterious machine.

Unigine SuperpositionAAA Games

All of our AAA game tests are reported in average frames per second, except where indicated. Most employ a built-in benchmark sequence provided by the game developer, but in a few cases where indicated, we have developed a custom run.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Though the game released to mixed reception when it came out in September 2018, critics all agreed that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a visual stunner. On PC, it’s pretty demanding, too, with publisher Square Enix recommending at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 to achieve playable frame rates at the highest settings. And when we say “highest,” we mean it, because instead of calling it Very High or Ultra, the highest preset graphics setting in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is literally called “Highest.”

SOTR Test Far Cry 5. An open-world first-person shooter from Ubisoft, Far Cry 5 uses DirectX 11 (DX11) for its Dunia Engine. It has a built-in benchmarking utility that shows a brief battle scene in an idyllic Montana lakefront landscape, representative of those in the game.

Far Cry 5 Menu Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 in Far Cry 5.

We use the top (Ultra) graphical preset and run this benchmark at 1,920 by 1,080, 2,560 by 1,440, and 3,840 by 2,160.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

Once we’ve recorded scores from Far Cry 5, we move along to the Final Fantasy XIV standalone benchmark. In this test, we run a benchmark for what is one of the most popular MMORPGs played online today. The game isn’t incredibly demanding, but it is a good indicator of what kind of performance MMORPG players as a whole can expect, given that this is one of the most graphically rich of the genre.

FF14 MenuF1 2020 represents a highly-tuned, modern game engine (no pun intended) that showcases one full three-lap F1 race, featuring dozens of high-fidelity cars and tracks being rendered in high detail. We run the test at the Ultra High detail setting using the game’s Australia racetrack, with weather and environmental settings at their defaults.

F1 2020 Main MenuGeForce RTX 2070 Super Founders Edition managing to keep the benchmark above 60fps at 4K with all settings maxed out.

Red Dead Redemption II

Welcome to the system killer of 2020. Though it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily, “Can it run Red Dead Redemption II?” is the new “Can it run Crysis?” of modern AAA gaming. The game sports some of the most graphically demanding visuals ever attempted in the medium. 

Read Dead Redemption II MenuGeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition, only manages to get just above 65fps in 4K on this title at Ultra, which means it’ll be stressing out cards at (or below) the enthusiast tier for years to come.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

The Assassin’s Creed franchise is a long-standing pillar of the gaming community at this point, and though opinions may differ on the Odyssey entry in the series as an open-world title, its visual splendor is hard to deny. 

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey MenuDeath Stranding is one of just a few games that are currently running with the newest version of DLSS activated, and one of of even fewer still that is running it without any kind of ray-tracing tech applied underneath. Death Stranding is one of the best games to benchmark in 2020 because like F1 2020 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it has the option for both DLSS and AMD’s competing tech, FidelityFX with CAS, to be activated directly from the menu.

Death Stranding TestingTotal War II: Warhammer is a good example of how a card will handle games that have hundreds, even thousands, of individual elements onscreen at once.

Total War II: Warhammer MenuMetro: Exodus was one of the first games to feature DLSS 1.0, and like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it remains a good example of how early iterations of that and ray-tracing tech will work on newer and older GeForce RTX cards alike. The benchmark is run at the RTX preset with RTX and DLSS turned on if we’re testing an RTX card, as well as at the Extreme preset if we’re testing either a GeForce GTX card or a Radeon card from AMD. (RTX cards get a test run at Extreme, too.) The six runs are done at the usual 1080p, 1440p, and 2160p.

Metro: Exodus Benchmark MenuMultiplayer Titles

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive & Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege

To test how well a video card will hold up in popular multiplayer arenas, we test two hyper-popular games: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (aka, CS:GO) and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege

Counter Strike GameplayLegacy Titles

We use a custom script in the now-deprecated (but still very useful!) Adrenaline Action Benchmarking Tool to run the in-game benchmarks in four legacy PC games: Tomb Raider (2013), Sleeping Dogs, BioShock: Infinite, and Hitman: Absolution. All are tested at resolutions of 1080p, 1440p, and 2160p.

Adrenaline Run MenuTesting Ray Tracing, DLSS, and CAS

We’ve mentioned ray-tracing, DLSS, and CAS above several times already, so a bit more on these technologies.

To test the capabilities of ray tracing and DLSS (“deep learning super sampling,” a sort of AI-assisted method of anti-aliasing) in concert, we use 3DMark’s Port Royal subtest, as well as running the game Shadow of the Tomb Raider with RTX and DLSS turned on, Metro: Exodus with RTX and DLSS turned on, and Death Stranding with just DLSS turned on.

RTX and DLSS Shadow of the Tomb RaiderOverclocking and Thermals

Finally, once all the standard tests have been run and we’ve gotten the numbers we need, we void the warranty and start overclocking.

PC Labs’ preferred overclocking software these days is EVGA’s Precision X1 utility, and the procedure is about as standard as it comes: Max out what we think is possible on the power limits, voltages, GPU clocks, and memory clocks, and then steadily step things down from there until the card hits a point of 100 percent stability across at least three full runs of Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s benchmark sequence.

FLIR One Pro ImageFLIR One Pro thermal camera to track the waste-heat signature of the card and to see where it’s dumping the most hot air in our testbed’s case.

Further Reading

Graphics Card Reviews

Graphics Card Best Picks

September 19, 2020
To Top