14 best graphics cards for every budget
11th Feb 2013 | 12:53
AMD or Nvidia? Choose the best DX11 graphics card for you
AMD or Nvidia? Which is right for you?
These things can take time, but at last this generation of graphics cards has been pretty much finalised. AMD did its part early on, having almost its entire lineup sorted before the summer, while Nvidia has been dragging its heels like a schoolboy who's forgotten his homework.
The release of the GTX 650 Ti, though, marks the completion of this generation of cards, and despite the fact it's taken nearly an entire year to get to this stage, things have never looked so good for the consumer.
It's somewhat inevitable that every generation offers more power for less cash than ever before, but it's still surprising that a card you can buy for less than £100 will be able to deliver more than 30fps on average at full HD resolutions in the latest DX11 titles.
It's strange, then, that people are calling these the end times for the discrete graphics card, what with all the advances in integrated CPU graphics performance. For the end user though, us PC gamers, our rigs have never looked so sprightly.
Being able to pick up mid-range cards with the sort of performance the high-end cards of the past few years could only wish for, is making our gaming experience the envy of the slavering console hordes.
Just look at the gaming shows of the past year, GamesCom and E3 especially. All the best-looking titles were being demoed on high-end PCs. Why? Because there's no way to get the games looking as good on the current generation of consoles.
With the next generation of those limited tech bricks not arriving until the tail-end of 2013, the PC has an entire year of even greater gaming dominance. And by then, chances are it's still going to hold the technological gaming advantage.
But what of right now? Who are the winners and losers in the great graphics arms race? We've lined up the full range of gaming-capable graphics cards of this generation and we'll tell you where the smart upgrade money should go.
2012 was a rather strange year in terms of graphics card releases. It all kicked off in a rather bizarre way just before Christmas 2011 when AMD 'launched' its HD 7970 - despite only actually having stock in January.
We could have understood AMD's desire to get the card in front of the tech press before Christmas if Nvidia was likely to have its brand new card out soon after, but the green team was a long way behind with its new GPUs - but we'll get back to that later.
Still, the new top-end card arrived and it was - somewhat inevitably given the lack of Nvidia competition - the fastest GPU around. But it was a brand new GPU architecture, in a year when AMD had also released a new CPU architecture with limited success.
That new architecture represented a strange flip in terms of the focus of each side's graphics card design. Rather than looking to continue with its standard, one-trick method of hitting gaming frame rates, AMD was now, with the Graphics Core Next chips, focusing on nailing compute performance. That had been Nvidia's route with the previous generation Fermi cards and now AMD was creating a very similar architecture to cope with the graphics engines of the day.
And then in March, Nvidia dropped the K bomb: Kepler hit the streets with the GTX 680. It's new 28nm architecture had almost switched sides with AMD - the Kepler GPUs focused more on raw graphics performance than the general compute-focused Fermi cards that came before it.
Where's my compute?
Nvidia has left a lot of the compute power out of the consumer-focused cards then, preferring instead to jam the extra silicon necessary for such general-purpose calculations into the Tesla series of professional cards.
That space-saving silicon design means the top consumer Kepler chip is an incredibly power-efficient graphics processor, with a TDP of just 195W compared to the 250W TDP of the competing Radeon HD 7970. Nvidia's Kepler GPU also introduced the Intel-aping GPU Boost, which dynamically ramps the GPU clock speed depending on the power usage and thermal envelope.
Now it was AMD's turn to play catch-up as it introduced the PowerTune Technology with Boost - which more or less did the same thing for its GPUs - later in the summer. In terms of raw graphics performance, the top two tiers of graphics cards - GTX 670/680 and HD 7950/HD 7970 - are much of a muchness, trading performance leads in different game benchmarks.
At the top, then, it pretty much comes down to which card's feature-set you prefer and which plays best with your favourite games. Things have become a lot less equitable in the lower echelons of the graphics card market. While AMD had released its full HD 7900, HD 7800 and HD 7700 series of cards into the wild by the end of March, Nvidia would take another seven months to actually flesh out its Kepler lineup.
That meant AMD could keep its prices high while it was the only new kid on the block, and then take an axe to its GPUs' price tags when Nvidia's rival cards finally touched down. We will probably never know the real reason for Nvidia's tardiness on its lower-end cards, but rumour has it that low silicon yields on its 28nm process had something to do with it.
Nvidia just claimed to be waiting for the wealth of big games titles coming out at the end of the year. Whatever the truth of it, AMD is winning the price battle, and has better cards available at every price-point in the sub-£250 market.
One of the big problems, though, is the fact there are few games out there at the moment that will really tax a modern GPU. If you've bought a card in the past couple of years and are still sitting on a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, or lower, then there's really not a compelling reason to upgrade. Chances are you'll still be hitting reasonable frame rates in the latest games and that means the upgrade market is a little flat.
If you are looking for a new graphics card, though, there has never been a better time to make the move because you can pick up an inordinate amount of pixel-pushing power for very little cash these days. But are you still going to need a graphics card in your next PC?
Both AMD and Intel are making great strides in the integrated graphics market with future generations of chips. AMD, though, is segmenting things, leaving its top consumer chips, the FX range without any graphics on die. Intel, on the other hand, is resolutely sticking its iGPUs in every chip it throws out, bar the crazy £800+ Sandy Bridge E side.
Discrete days numbered
With the processor upgrade to Haswell next year, Intel is predicting a doubling of its graphics performance in Ivy Bridge. In terms of gaming on the desktop that still isn't going to give you the frames per second you'll need to get the most out of Star Citizen, but on the mobile side it's talking up the capabilities of the GT3E Haswell graphics.
Speaking to the graphics guys at IDF this year, Intel seems to think it will be making dedicated gaming laptops without dedicated graphics cards a reality in the next generation. With the next generation of AMD's APUs looking to include the proper Graphics Core Next architecture as the GPU component, its new lineup could also make things sticky for the dedicated graphics side.
With no concrete news yet of Nvidia's Project Denver - it's own ARM-based gaming CPU with a full-fat GeForce graphics part - the green side of the graphics war is looking a little ill-equipped for the coming battle - at least on the PC.
The next generation of both AMD and Nvidia graphics cards will simply be building on the advances of their respective first 28nm parts, so we don't expect a lot of particularly interesting new tech next year, just a little faster and a little more efficient. So that makes this generation even more interesting.
These cards will consistently drop in price up to the launch of the slight upgrades of the HD 8000 and GTX 700 series of cards, and with the next generation of consoles not arriving until the tail end of next year, right now this is all the card most of us need. But which one is best for you? Let me show you…
Graphics cards on test
1. EVGA GTX 680 Signature 2
The GTX 680 is still an impressive piece of technical engineering this far down the line. Released back in March, Nvidia's current flagship card is still at the top of the graphics tree, duking it out with AMD's HD 7970 for GPU supremacy. That's impressive given the fact that its GK104 is a far simpler bit of silicon compared to the Tahiti XT behemoth in the AMD card.
The GK104 is a 3.5bn transistor chip verses the 4.3bn transistor Tahiti XT core, and as such is smaller and more power efficient. That's quite a change compared to the Fermi generation where the top GTX 480 and GTX 580 housed massive, power-hungry GPUs chock-full of CUDA cores and SM units.
2. Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition Vapor-X
The HD 7970 GHz Edition is the fastest consumer graphics card, and the best news is it's not the most expensive. When Nvidia released the GTX 680, AMD was able to counter with the upgraded GHz Edition of its HD 7970, upping the clockspeed to cope with the new kid on the block and retain its top-GPU crown.
This is the card to get if you're powering a hi-res screen or three. It's got the graphics processing chops to run pretty much any game at 2,560 x 1,600, on the highest settings, without batting a silicon eyelid. It may only be a little faster than the GTX 680 in most tests, but in the compute-heavy titles, such as the lighting-intensive DiRT Showdown, it has a clear lead.
3. Asus GTX 670 Direct CU II
Featuring an only slightly cut-down GK104 GPU compared to the top-end GTX 680, we were big fans of the GTX 670 when it first tipped up. It was only a little slower than the top GeForce card and was much cheaper. It also had a performance lead on the HD 7950 and was on par with the original HD 7970.
Time hasn't been kind to the GTX 670 though and with prices staying relatively high since launch, its relevance has diminished. The new GHz Edition of the HD 7970 put it out in front of both top Kepler cards and the Catalyst driver optimisations, and more compute-oriented game engines have made the HD 7950 a rather tantalising prospect in comparison.
4. Asus HD 7950 Direct CU II
There's a tremendous sense of value when you get this Asus version of AMD's HD 7950 out of the box. It really is rather massive. The triple-slot cooling array, means that you're going to have to think long and hard about whether you've got enough space inside your PC chassis to house such a behemoth of a card. That said it's not a bad little performer, especially at this price point.
AMD has managed to be incredibly aggressive on pricing as new Nvidia-shaped competitors have hit the streets, and to have this sort of performance for much less than £300 is impressive.
This card swaps performance leads with the more expensive GTX 670 across our benchmarking suite, showing that it has the chops at both hi-res and in the more compute-oriented games/lighting engines we've started to come across.
5. EVGA GTX 660 Ti Superclocked
When we first saw the GTX 660 Ti from EVGA it was hovering around the £260 - £270 price mark and was then bumping heads with the HD 7950 and that was a battle it was never going to win. Unlike a lot of the other Nvidia cards, though, this has had a little price cut in recent times.
Now it's available for just under £230 and that makes it much more of an interesting proposition. At this price it's smack bang in the middle of the HD 7950 and HD 7870, and in performance terms too that's exactly where it ought to be.
Broadly speaking it's a quicker card than the HD 7870, even the overclocked Gigabyte version we're looking at in this test. There are a couple of instances where it suffers by comparison, but then only very slightly. Interestingly it's actually quicker than the HD 7870 in the traditionally AMD-centric DiRT Showdown.
6. Gigabyte Radeon HD 7870 OC Edition
When the HD 7870 first tipped up in March we weren't that fussed about it. Sure, it delivered decent numbers in the benchmarks, but at about £260 it was way overpriced and left us feeling rather cool towards this mid-range Radeon card.
Thanks to Nvidia finally getting its act together with its own mid-range cards, AMD has started aggressively pricing and now the HD 7870s, and even this overclocked edition, are sitting below the £200 mark. At this price there really isn't anything Nvidia can do to compete.
Now the GTX 660 Ti's prices have come down, though, it does represent a little more competition for AMD's mid-range master. Still, the Pitcairn XT is pretty much all the GPU you need for your 1080p screen - it will throw polygons around at impressive speeds in any game you care to throw at it.
7. EVGA GTX 660 Superclocked
When Nvidia finally got the GTX 660 out of the door it was all set to go head-to-head with AMD's HD 7850. And that would have been completely right - both offer similar performance figures. Among the Nvidia-favouring titles it does better, and vice versa with the AMD-centric games.
Had the situation stayed static then Nvidia's cards would've had their own place in the world. Yay. But AMD held its pricing at a level before Nvidia's mid-range hit the streets and thanks to its cards being out for a good while longer, AMD's been able to slash its price tags. That means the straight GTX 660 is now going up against the vanilla HD 7870.
Despite the overclocked nature of this EVGA card, it still can't beat the stock-clocked Radeon. Even on the Nvidia-sponsored games, like Max Payne 3, it's second best to the current mid-range king.
8. Sapphire Radeon HD 7850 2GB
The performance of the HD 7850 when it first came out, combined with its relatively low price tag, made for a very enticing mid-range card. That impressive start has only gotten better as time has moved on and the price has dropped ever lower. Once it dropped below £200 it was hard to really recommend anyone with a 1080p screen spending more.
Now it's sub-£200 graphics card crown has slipped as its HD 7870 big brother has usurped the HD 7850's place by making itself a whole lot cheaper than it used to be. Still, at £150 you'd surely expect us to still be pretty taken with the HD 7850.
And while it's still a great mid-range card, there has been one other sibling to make us take a second look. And that's the 1GB version of this GPU. You might expect the extra gigabyte of graphics memory to push this graphics card significantly ahead in the high-res benchmarks - but you'd be wrong.
9. Zotac GTX 650 Ti AMP!
So, you thought things looked bad for the HD 7850 in standard 2GB trim when the 1GB version came out, but spare a thought for the poor ol' GTX 650 Ti. Bless its little silicon socks, it's really trying.
Throwing off the shackles of the GK107 GPU, Nvidia decided to lumber the standard GTX 650 with this Ti version, which is rocking the same pumped-up pixel-pusher as the GTX 660. That means it's actually much more of a reasonable gamer's graphics card than the standard version. Were it simply going head-to-head with an equivalently priced HD 7770 then it would have beaten the AMD card hands down.
Sadly it's all shifted around and this AMP! edition of the GTX 650 Ti sits in between the 1GB and 2GB versions of the HD 7850 - and suffers by comparison with each of them.
10. MSI HD 7850 1GB
We have to admit this was a bit of a surprise. We wanted to get the 1GB version of the HD 7850 to test it against the HD 7770 more than anything else - assuming this would be the card it'd be going up against. After all, the 2GB frame buffer of the stock HD 7850 must be partly responsible for its impressive showing at hi-res, right?
And that's putting post-processing such as anti-aliasing in the mix. How wrong we were. It seems that the bottleneck to the Pitcairn Pro's performance is not the memory at all - the GPU itself bottlenecks performance well before the memory gets anywhere near making things crawl.
What does that mean though? Well, it means the 1GB version of the HD 7850, especially the slightly overclocked version supplied by MSI, is more than able to keep pace with the stock 2GB version of the Pitcairn Pro card.
11. MSI HD 7770
This is as good as it gets if you're looking for a genuinely gaming-capable card at the sub-£100 level. Granted, it's only just under £100, but compared with the competing GTX 650, at this price point it's the gamer's only real option.
Heaven is a great metric for comparing GPU performance in isolation of any marketing nonsense, or any company specific extras, and the figures don't lie. The HD 7770 is considerably faster than the GTX 650 in Heaven 3.0 with only Batman: AC actually giving any parity of performance between the two cards. Across all the other benchmarks, whether at 1080p or 2,560 x 1,600, the AMD graphics card has a pretty significant advantage. When you look at the different GPU architecture it's easy to see why.
12. PNY GTX 650
What both iterations of the GTX 650, in either this or the speedier, pricier Ti-trim, have going for them is their diminutive size. They're both pleasingly small little graphics cards, ideal for the wee PC. Well, ideal for the wee PC that you don't really have any interest in getting decent gaming frame rates from in any case.
Okay, that's a little unfair - the traditionally Nvidia-lovin' Batman: AC will still let you top 40fps at 1080p at the top settings. Elsewhere, though, you're going to have to seriously tighten your graphical-pretties belt in order to make sure you're getting decent frame rates.
This is the same GK107 GPU that we've seen in a number of laptops recently - that twin SMX GPU being perfect for the power- conscious mobile crowd - and if you're running a 720p screen, at 1,366 x 768 or similar, then you're going to be able to get some decent gaming speeds.
13. Sapphire HD 7750
This far down the pecking order of graphics cards you will really struggle to get anything close to decent gaming frame rates out of a normal 1080p screen. With the Sapphire HD 7750 you're not going to be pushing much past 20 frames per second in most games without seriously knocking back the graphics settings or resolution.
This version of the HD 7750, with the 2GB of relatively slow DDR3 video RAM, is almost irrelevant in gaming terms. That said, though, you can pick up a low-profile version which could go into a small machine to stick under your TV.
With Steam's TV mode, and a drop in resolution, you'll be able to get almost gaming-capable speeds at 720p on your telly. For another £20, though, you can get double the gaming performance with an HD 7770, and £50 extra will get you the awesome HD 7850 1GB.
14. Zotac GT 640 ZONE
The main, indeed probably only, selling point of the GT 640 Zone is the fact that it's completely silent. With a chunky passive cooler sitting atop the GPU and memory chips, there are no spinning fans whirring away like a mini-turbine inside your PC. That means that despite its standard card height it would make a pretty decent media centre GPU.
Like the HD 7750, you'll struggle to get any decent gaming frame rates out of the card at standard 1080p resolutions and top settings, but lower your expectations and you'll be able to hit reasonable gaming speeds.
Nowadays, lower settings in current games don't make them look much worse than their console counterparts but, still, for an extra £20 you can pick up much more bona fide gaming cards.
Benchmark analysis and winner
Given our penchant for high-performance components it might seem strange that we've gone all gooey over a £120 graphics card which is easily outperformed by a good chunk of the cards on test. But a quick scan of the benchmarks on these 'ere pages should show you why we're so taken by the HD 7850 1GB.
It beats the other cards in its class in pretty much every test and gives much more expensive cards a run for their money. In fact, as the two value tests prove, it offers the most performance for your dosh of the lot - and you can't ask for much more than that.
At the top of the tech tree, the HD 7970 and GTX 680 inevitably fight it out, each taking it in turn to top the test. Except when it comes to price performance - in both tests the Sapphire offers far better value than the EVGA.
And the winner is… MSI HD 7850 1GB
We've been accused in recent times of being AMD fan boys here at PCFormat. That's a rather ridiculous accusation considering that we get to test every single card on the market and we don't have to make decisions on what graphics cards to jam in our machines based on tribal loyalties.
What we do base our decisions on is a combination of gaming performance and the cost to you, our beloved readers. In this generation it's been an almost complete whitewash for AMD in terms of performance per pound, and actually in outright straight-line gaming speed too.
Most of this is down to Nvidia's tardiness in releasing the new Kepler architecture into the wild, giving AMD the time to harvest its cards at the high initial price tags and then the option to slash prices when the competition finally comes around.
At every pairing AMD comes out on top. At the top-end, the HD 7970 has held on to the performance crown thanks to the release of the GHz Edition, even the pricey, overclocked EVGA GTX 680 Signature 2 can't maintain a consistent performance lead over the AMD card. The price cuts have also allowed the HD 7950 to carve out an excellent little niche for itself, sitting between the GTX 660 Ti and GTX 670.
The GTX 660 Ti has become a little more relevant thanks to some price chopping on the part of Nvidia for a change. It's got enough about it to take on the HD 7870 and make a real fist of it.
The truth of it, though, is that Nvidia actually hasn't had to make a fight on the pricing front. It has been happily selling its Kepler cards thanks to existing goodwill among its user base, and that tribal loyalty sometimes outweighs the actual performance. If Nvidia is still selling at its current pricing then there's really no reason to get any more competitive on cost.
That's where AMD really has to fight its corner, after all, a quick check of the Steam hardware survey shows that Nvidia still has the advantage in numbers out in the real world.
The real star of the show, though, has to be the incredible HD 7850 in lightweight 1GB trim. We really didn't expect this MSI card to be quite as impressive as it is. We ostensibly got the card in to go up against the HD 7770, but as it turned out it made things uncomfortable for the 2GB version, and for both the GTX 650 Ti and the GTX 660.
In fact, for the gamer on a budget, the HD 7850 1GB is the perfect 1080p graphics card - it's got some impressive performance chops in high-resolution trim too. We've had a play with a pair of these in CrossFire too, and at £240 you're getting performance that is right up there with the GTX 680 and HD 7970.
The vagaries of multi-GPU systems in terms of playing nice with modern games mean it's still not an absolute must-buy pairing, but it's getting pretty darned close.