Best cheap DX11 graphics card: 10 tested
13th Feb 2011 | 08:00
Affordable DX11 cards reviewed and rated
Best cheap graphics DX11 card
Way back in summer 2008, AMD launched the Radeon HD 4870. At the time, it seemed like PC graphics would never be the same again. Here was a £200 3D card from AMD that gave Nvidia boards selling for £350 a serious scare. It was, at the time, astonishing value for money and an instant hit.
Even better, we were promised the 4870 wasn't just a one off. At the launch event, AMD said it had fundamentally reassessed the graphics market following the debacle of the oversized and underperforming Radeon HD 2900. No longer would AMD engage with Nvidia in a futile contest for ultimate performance bragging rights. Instead, AMD would aim to deliver maximum value around the £200 price point.
At any moment in the GPU product cycle, AMD probably wouldn't offer the fastest single GPU on the planet, but its top graphics chip wouldn't be far off the best and would be a damn sight cheaper. Put simply, the strategy worked.
The Radeon HD 4870 didn't pump out benchmark numbers quite as colossal as Nvidia's mighty GeForce GTX 280. But the actual in-game experience was very similar. And the 4870 was over £100 cheaper.
Fast forward to early 2011 and there's good news and bad news. The bad is that AMD hasn't quite stuck to its promise. With the launch of the Radeon HD 5870, AMD took a step back towards the traditional high-end graphics. The new GPU was big and it had a price to match north of £300.
Nvidia has since trumped the 5870, first with the ever so slightly underwhelming GeForce GTX 480 and then more comprehensively with the much improved GTX 580. Of course, the 580 is a £400 video card. In our book that makes it almost irrelevant.
But here's the good news. The spirit of the Radeon HD 4870 lives on. Expectations around the sub-£200 price point have been permanently lifted. The competition isn't just fierce, it's positively homicidal.
Both Nvidia and AMD offer a wide range of 3D chipsets highly optimised to deliver enormous bang for buck below £200. There may be faster cards. But none give you so much performance for each and every pound. The sub-£200 performance graphics card market isn't just the most competitive, it's also arguably the most intriguing.
The reason is that there's a fascinating contrast in styles with some boards based on cut-down versions of high-end chips and others being purpose-built for the job. A little further down the price range, cheaper boards based on smaller mid range graphics chips also offer spectacular value for gamers on a tighter budget.
Despite all this choice, there is one metric by which picking a £200 pixel pumper is pretty painless. Whichever 3D chipset you go for, from whatever graphics vendor or board maker, the race in terms of feature set is a dead heat.
All boards support the latest DirectX 11 multimedia API from Microsoft. You don't need to worry about game support for the foreseeable future. It also means, generally speaking, what matters is how fast these cards get stuff done, not the details of what they can do.
A choice of tessallator
While we're talking DX11, however, there are a few foibles worthy of further examination. Both tessellation and the Compute Shader are areas where AMD and Nvidia's graphics architectures diverge significantly.
The tessellator is a tough one to call simply because it's seen so little use in real games rather than tech demos and benchmarks. As for the Compute Shader, suffice to say if running non-graphics software, such as video encoding or image editing on your 3D card is likely to be a major factor for you, there are significant differences in GP-GPU support from the two main graphics vendors.
With all that stored in your data banks, it's time to weigh up the really important stuff. That'll be the price and performance.
This month, we've rounded up 10 bargainous boards all available for under £200. In fact, our ten pixel pumpers span a wide range from around £60 right up to the £200 cut off. Whatever your budget, there's something here to suit.
Pixel for under a ton
Our graphics grandstand begins with the cheapest chipset on test this month. On paper, Nvidia's GeForce GT 430 might seem rather feeble, after all, it only manages 96 of Nvidia's so-called CUDA cores (stream shaders to everyone else). The epic new GeForce GTX 580 has 512.
Predictably, the GT 430 looks puny by most other metrics, too. You only get 16 texture units compared with the 580's 64 units. Then there's 128-bit memory, which is traditionally a performance killer at high resolution and detail settings.
Possibly worst of all is the meagre total of four ROPs. These are the units that draw together all the work done by the entire graphics pipeline, give it all a final polish and spit the results out to your screen. The more ROPs you have, the more pixels your card can pump per cycle. A GeForce GTX 580 has 48 ROPs.
Still, even though the GT 430 inevitably seems anaemic next to the mighty 580, remember that not so long ago the best graphics cards you could buy were based on Nvidia's preposterously successful G92 GPU. The G92 chip sired several boards, including the GeForce 8800 GT and 9800 GTX. It was a DirectX 10 chip with just 128 shaders.
What's more, the GT 430 is a pukka DirectX 11 GPU complete with tessellation support. It also boasts an excellent 2D video feature set, including hardware acceleration for all the important video codecs as well as Flash 10 acceleration. It's a great little home theatre chipset in other words and offers tolerable performance for £50 and upwards, depending on memory configuration.
But it isn't a good option for a GP-GPU on the cheap. When the GT 430's stream shaders are operating in double precision FP64 mode, they only manage 1/12th the throughput compared to FP32. That's not a major issue for graphics or gaming. But it's a bit of a downer for GP-GPU.
Factor in the modest shader count and you have a 3D chipset that's best reserved for gaming and video playback.
Heading towards £100
Slightly higher up the price scale is AMD's Radeon HD 5750 chipset. Yours from around £75, this is where the serious 3D fun kicks in.
The 5750 is based on AMD's Juniper GPU. In this format, Juniper offers 720 of AMD's stream shaders, 36 texture units and 16 ROPs. That's not a bad spec sheet compared to the quickest single-GPU Radeon HD 5000 card, the 1,600-shader, 80-texture and 32-ROP HD 5870.
In our view, then, the 5750's only major weakness is its 128-bit memory bus. Admittedly, AMD specified some nippy memory: 4.6GHz GDDR5 chips. But in the end, there's no substitute for bus width.
Similarly, when it comes to stream shaders, AMD and Nvidia's architectures are not comparable. As a very rough rule of thumb, consider one of Nvidia's shaders as worth four of AMD's. That comparison is becoming a little more complicated with the arrival of AMD's new Radeon HD 6000 series. But we'll come to those chips later.
Next up is the Radeon HD 5770. Starting from a whisker over £100, the 5770 takes the Juniper GPU from the 5750 and unleashes its full potential. The shader count swells from 720 to 800 and you get another four texture units for a total of 40.
AMD has given the core clockspeed a healthy bump from 700MHz to 850MHz. On paper, the 5770 looks impressive. In many regards it matches the fastest chip from AMD's Radeon HD 4000 series and adds full DirectX 11.
As with the 5750, however, our main concern is the narrow 128-bit memory bus. Until recently, Nvidia had no answer to the Radeon HD 5700 series. At least, it didn't have a chip that could compete on price and performance while matching the 5700's DX11 feature set.
That changed with the arrival of the GeForce GTS 450 in September 2010. Based on Nvidia's GF106 GPU, itself a smaller derivative of the awesome chip that powers the GTX 580, it packs 192 shaders, 32 textures and 16 ROPs.
Like the 5700, its main weakness is a 128-bit memory bus, a feature made even more critical by Nvidia's choice of relatively slow 3.6GHz GDDR3 memory. If the Radeon HD 5700 and GeForce GTS 450 are where real graphics performance begins, the competition gets very serious indeed when you step up to the next rung of 3D boards.
Nvidia's GeForce GTX 460 was a little late to the DX11 party. But it made a major impact all the same. The headline figures are pretty impressive for an Nvidia board that can be had for as little as £125. Its 336 CUDA cores are joined by 56 texture units, a massive 32 ROPs and a healthy 256-bit bus.
Granted, the core and shader clocks of 675MHz and 1,350MHz are a little conservative. But the 460 has an awful lot of muscle for such an affordable board. It's all possible because Nvidia chose to dispose of some of the transistor-hungry GP-GPU optimisations for the GF104 chip that underpins the GTX 460. Like the GT 430 and GTS 450, FP64 operations also run at 1/12th FP32 speed.
The GTX 460's final foible involves its memory buffer. It's available in both 768MB and 1GB trim. In general, we wouldn't recommend any graphics card with less than 1GB. It's well worth stretching the extra £15 or so for the fatter 1GB board.
Entering second gen
Next up is the first of AMD's second generation DX11 cards from the new Radeon HD 6000 series. Or perhaps that should be AMD's DX11 generation 1.5.
The Radeon HD 6850 is very much a genuine member of AMD's new Northern Islands GPU family. However, despite its seemingly high-end branding it's not the Radeon HD 5800-killer we were expecting nor does it debut the new graphics architecture with symmetrical quad-ALU shaders we had been hoping for.
That only arrives with the upcoming Radeon HD 6900 and its more widely overhauled architecture.
Instead, it's best to think of the 6850 as being a very minor tweak of the Radeon HD 5000's existing shader architecture, also known as VLIW5. By some measures, the 6850 doesn't look terribly exciting. With just 960 stream processors and 48 texture units, its raw rendering power is only slightly up on the Radeon HD 5770.
However, it does have a couple of secret weapons. For starters it has a high-res friendly 256-bit memory bus feed by 4GHz GDDR5 memory. It also has improved tessellation performance.
The details are complex but mainly involve improved buffering and revamped tessellation shaders. The upshot is a doubling of tessellation performance at medium tessellation factors compared to the Radeon HD 5800 family. Wind the tessellation up to crazy levels, however, and the 6850's engine performs little better than the 5800s.
One other significant new feature that arrives with the Radeon HD 6800 series is an HDMI 1.4a port. Okay, that's hardly super exciting in itself. But it is part of a broader package that introduces stereoscopic 3D.
With the 6800, AMD is launching its take on stereoscopic 3D in the form of HD3D. The HDMI 1.4a interface is necessary for Blu-ray 3D support. Unlike Nvidia's 3D Vision, HD3D uses passive polarised glasses rather than active shutter lenses. That should make for a cheaper overall setup. Look out for PCF's take on HD3D later this year.
Cut-price GPU winners
Cutting a slightly odd figure in AMD's ever-expanding GPU range is the Radeon HD 5850. Based on the older Radeon HD 5800 series it lacks a few features compared to the shiny new 6800 series. It's also coming towards the end of its useful life, especially now the new Radeon HD 6900s make it look even more redundant.
But don't go thinking the 5850 has nothing to offer. Chips often deliver better value for money at the end of their innings. That definitely applies to the 5850 now that it can be had for £165.
With 1,440 AMD-style shaders, 72 texture units and 32 ROPs, it's still beefy even if its 725MHz core clock is a little slovenly. Thanks to its status as an outgoing flagship GPU, it also benefits from a full-width 256-bit memory bus.
The starting price of our final two contenders is pretty much on a par: around £185. Like the Radeon HD 5850, Nvidia's GTX 470 is in the process of being usurped by the GTX 570. And that means the 470 is much more affordable now than at launch last summer when it cost over £300.
Remember, this card sports Nvidia's monstrous Fermi GPU. Even with a few bits and pieces disabled, it still manages 448 shaders, 56 textures, 40 ROPs and a 320-bit memory bus. Make no mistake, despite modest core and shader clocks of 607MHz and 1,215MHz respectively, this is one serious pixel pumper.
However, the 470 looks like a blunt instrument, compared to AMD's new Radeon HD 6870. The 6870 is derived from the same Barts GPU found in the lesser 6850. For the 6870, Barts is unlocked: All 1,120 shaders are enabled and running at 900MHz, a hefty boost over the 6850's 775MHz core clock.
The 6870 also ups the texture count to 56 and has faster 4.2GHz GDDR3 memory on a 256-bit bus. It's a lean, mean DX11 machine. In fact, the 6870 represents an opposite approach to the heavy-hitting GTX 470.
It's just one fascinating battle in the wider war between AMD and Nvidia in the sub-£200 graphics market. It's a war in which there can be only one winner – that'll be lucky little ol' you.
Budget DX11 cards reviewed
EVGA GeForce GTX 460 768MB - £130
The GTX 460 comes with either 768MB or 1GB of GDDR5 onboard, and it's an interesting choice to make. There's very little price differential, but then, there's very little performance differential... until it comes to DX11 gaming.
With double the memory bandwidth and way more CUDA cores, it's quite some way ahead of its smaller brother, the GTS 450. It's capable of much greater throughput, and you feel the difference immediately.
You can happily expect around 25-30 per cent more pixel-shovelling right across the board, which is pretty impressive, and makes the GTS 450 hard to view with serious buyer's intent.
HIS Radeon HD 6870 - £210
AMD's 6870 was always going to be something of a stop-gap between the 5-series and the new top-end 6-series. But it does bring some new functionality to the party, in the name of HD3D.
Yes, this is AMD's passive 3D technology, ladies and gentlemen. It's largely nascent at present, of course, but the card also supports HDMI 1.4a for 3D Blu-Ray displays.
Architecturally, this mainstream card is a cross between the 5830 and 5850. You get the full-fat 32 ROPs as found on the 5850, but with a core configuration of 1,120 stream processor, as found inside the 5830, and the card's smaller brother, the HD 6850.
HIS Radeon HD 5850 - £200
Have a scoot around the online retailers for the Radeon HD 5850, and you're not so much opening a can of worms as stripping naked, upending the can on your head, and running off down the streets with a hoot and a gibber, twig and berries flapping in the breeze.
Ranging from £150 to £250 for identical cards, the pricing is nothing short of crackers. Which speaks volumes about the unfortunate state of affairs for AMD's first-gen DX11 mid ranger. Nobody knows what it's really worth any more, and to be quite frank, that's nobody's fault but AMD's.
MSI GeForce GTX 470 Twin Frozr II - £205
As with every generation of cards, the flagship sets sail before the hanky-waving crowds, and the slimmed down versions with slightly less capable GPUs follow in their wake.
The GTX 470 came hot on the heels of the GTX 480, and with only marginally reduced architecture. It first launched at £290, in what seemed like a direct attack on AMD's excellent HD 5870. That's proper, high-end, enthusiast pricing, and you'd expect pretty hefty performance for that kind of outlay.
But price cuts happen, and never more explosively than with the GTX 470. While you can plump for enhanced, 1.5GB versions with higher clockspeeds, this overclocked model from MSI offers sterling performance for just a shade over £200. Incredible!
PNY GeForce GTS 450 1GB - £100
The GTS 450 offers mainstream gaming at an affordable pricepoint. This tiny powerhouse (well, it's still dual-width, but pleasingly short) is capable of feats beyond its £100 price tag.
What's more, in SLI, you'll see massive performance gains of 80 to 90 per cent, making the dual-card upgrade path a realistic and rewarding option for budget systems.
It bears architectural similarities to its bigger brother, the GTS 460, but with half the memory bandwidth and half the CUDA cores. What's impressive is that it doesn't offer half the performance in DX10 games, which it's perfectly happy with. Start throwing DX11 at it though, and it begins to run out of puff in fairly short order.
HIS Radeon HD 6850 - £140
Take any card by either manufacturer and benchmark it next to its direct competitor from the other camp and there's at least one very clear conclusion to draw. Nvidia has the grunt, while AMD has the elegance.
But another factor soon becomes apparent. When DX11 is added to the mix, AMD's performance doesn't tail off quite so quickly at the higher resolutions, and it's a point the HD 6850 makes very well indeed.
This card represents a bit of an odd mixture. It seems to be built specifically to tackle DX11, and yet it still lacks the raw power to contend with its closest competitor in the price-range, the GTX 460 1GB, in DX10 applications. And of course, in DX11 games it outperforms the card it was designed to replace: AMD's own HD 5850.
Sapphire Radeon HD 5750 - £85
The HD 5750 is no a rampaging powerhouse. It can run games at 1,680 x1,050, but don't expect searing frame rates, especially when anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are on the cards.
Moreover, DX11 effects, such as Tessellation and Multi-thread Rendering, require the kind of resource budgets the 5750 simply can't raise. With its narrow memory bus and a GPU that pales in comparison to AMD's other offerings, it struggles in these tests.
Market changes mean that things have got a little better for the HD 5750, however. Just a month or so back, it was priced similarly to Nvidia's GTS 450, the raw grunt of which it simply can't match. It's come down a bit in price now though, and can be found for around £15 cheaper than the GTS 450, and its bigger brother, the HD 5770.
But still that £15 makes the difference between decent and average gaming at 1,680 x 1,050.
XFX Radeon HD 5770 - £100
AMD's pokey little mid ranger, the HD 5770, has been around for some time now. AMD is in the process of refreshing its range with the new 6-series cards, so we have to ask: is there still a place in the world for this little fellow?
The answer is a resounding yes. At £100, the 5770 offers pretty decent value for money. And while this example from XFX trades HDMI for DisplayPort and a single DVI-D connection to keep the costs down, it's also a more elegant solution than most 5770s due to its single-slot nature and compact heatsink.
The 5770 always did run cool and quiet – so who needs a chunky lump of copper on there taking up space and weight? When a card is this cheap, the upgrade path that Crossfire represents is an option too. Priced to compete with Nvidia's GTS 450, can it match it in the performance stakes?
Zotac GeForce GTX 460 1GB - £140
For just a few bob more than the vanilla GTX 460, you're 256MB of GDDR5 richer. The full 1GB version of the GTX 460 launched at a price-point which undercut its immediate Radeon-flavoured competition by a fair margin, and that situation has only got better for the card as the months have gone by.
It's a small dual-width beast that packs a hefty punch. Compared to the wheezing, overheating behemoths of yesteryear, such as ATI's infamously noisy 4870, it's positively gentlemanly.
It can get warm, but while the fan does scale up, the noise levels are quite acceptable. What's more, SLI (and the same is true of CrossFire) has come of age.
Two cards in tandem really do offer major performance gains. So much so that a pair of these will comfortably outperform Nvidia's own GTX 480 – and with a saving of £50 to £60. If you're looking for power now, and more power later, it should be a serious consideration.
Zotac GeForce GT 430 Zone ED - £65
As timing goes, the GT 430's kind of sucked. While AMD had its low-end DX11 cards in the marketplace by February, it's taken Nvidia far longer to trim down its Fermi line of GPUs to pint-sized pricing, and performance to match.
The result is that this little fellow landed in October 2010, to very little fanfare. Understandably so, as this is no gamer's card. Its tiny stature tells most of the story. More at home in a media centre PC than a games rig, it boasts half the CUDA cores of its bigger brother the GTS 450, and a quarter of the ROPs.
Factor in a gigabyte of GDDR3 memory rather than the gaming standard GDDR5, and you've a recipe for low frame rates in today's high-end games –especially under the heavy demands of DX11.
A quick scan through the benchmark tables on this page and it's fairly clear that this side of £200 that it's Nvidia that's literally holding all the cards. The Radeon HD 6870 makes a good fist of it, but is too close to the GTX 470 in price and not consistently in performance terms.
For the money the superlative GeForce GTX 460 1GB is quite simply unbeatable at the moment. The heavy tessellation benchmark in Heaven shows just how far ahead Nvidia's architecture is compared to the older single graphics engine and single tessellation unit that exists in the last generation of AMD's DirectX 11 GPUs.
The update in the new Cayman GPUs makes them far more competitive in DX11 terms, but for now they're still way above £200.
And the best budget DX11 card is...
There's a pitched battle going on in the mid-range cards at the moment, and a more confusing amount of cards than ever to choose from.
Two things have caused this: the switch to DirectX 11, and the rapid series of range refreshes from each manufacturer. What's important to note is that there are a few stand-out card examples at various price ranges which are head-and-shoulders above their peers.
So let's break it down into brackets. Which graphics card should you buy on specific budgets?
If you've £100 to spend on a card, there are two clear choices open to you: AMD's HD 5770 and Nvidia's GTS 450. They're both decent budget cards, and will serve you well at lower resolutions - from 1,280 x 1,024 to 1,680 x 1,050.
If you've up to £150 burning a hole in your pocket, then the two stand-out cards are Nvidia's GTX 460 1GB and AMD's HD 6850. The HD 6850 just edges it in DX11 games, but for considerably performance in DX10 and competitive performance in DX11, it simply has to be the GTX 460 1GB. It rocks the midrange at 1,680 x 1,050, and remains capable at 1,920 x 1,080.
And if you're prepared to spend up to £200, there really is only one choice: Nvidia's GTX 470. Originally a £290 high-end card, it's been subjected to an astounding series of price-cuts, and at just £205, the MSI model we tested offers incredible value for money. It offers blistering DX10 performance up to 1,920 x 1,080, and holds its own in DX11 games too. If you can muster the funds we absolutely recommend it.
First published in PC Format Issue 249
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