How Much Video Memory?

2016-06-21 eVGA GTX 1070 SC 04I’ve been running a ton of benchmarks, as well as playing a lot of games while testing the new generation of GPUs. I’ve also looked at a lot of other reviews, and the general consensus seems to be that the era of 4GB being enough has come to a close.

That seems a little presumptuous to me. You only have to look at the Steam Hardware Survey to realize that 4GB cards should be more than adequate for a little while longer. The primary display resolution, accounting for about 37% of all displays is 1920 x 1080. This is actually up from 1366 x 768, but that lower resolution still accounts for another 26% of display resolutions. That means two-thirds of the gaming systems surveyed via Steam run at 1080p or lower. The much-vaunted 1440p (2560 x 1440 pixels) currently only accounts for 1.5%. My favorite resolution, 3440 x 1440, doesn’t even make it out of the “others” category. Then again, neither does the much-ballyhooed 4K monitors.

To be fair, the Steam Hardware Survey is somewhat backward looking, since it’s all about the installed base. Looking forward, higher resolution displays keep dropping in price, with some pretty good bargains on 25-inch 1440p displays.

However, resolution isn’t the only driver for bigger frame buffers.

Monitor resolution isn’t the sole determiner of how much graphics memory you need. You only need to run the Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmark with every setting maxed out to discover that 4GB doesn’t cut it. Modern game engines use a combination of larger textures, sophisticated shaders, postprocessing, and deferred rendering, all of which consume memory. The reason we’re seeing even mainstream GPUs such as AMD’s Radeon RX480 ship with an 8GB option is because more games will need more memory going forward.

Another data point from the Steam survey is that Windows 10 now accounts for over 40% of all installed operating systems. That gives  a big impetus to DirectX 12, which should in turn drive interest in newer graphics cards.

Rise of the Tomb Raider looks like a precursor to future PC games. While it’s unlikely we’ll see games that require more than 4GB of video RAM, more and more games will ship with options which allow you to take advantage of the newer, faster GPUs with their bigger, faster memory pools. Higher memory bandwidth, like the 4GB of HBM (high-bandwidth memory) used in the Radeon Fury series only partially offsets the lack of RAM.

The bottom line: if you’re shopping for a new GPU, it will be worth a few bucks to buy into more than 4GB on the your graphics card. Otherwise, you may find your shiny new GPU hobbled by insufficient memory, and won’t see the best that modern games can offer visually.

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