Best graphics card under £150: 8 reviewed

27th Oct 2011 | 10:55

Best graphics card under £150: 8 reviewed

AMD and Nvidia cards for less than £150

Best graphics card under £150: 8 reviewed

Graphics cards are so important - theyproducing the biggest performance variable in a desktop PC.

We've capped the pricing at £150.If you only upgrade one component in your PC, make it your graphics card. It's going to have the most dramatic effect to your video playback, gaming frame rates and graphical quality.

Before we delve into the group test, there are a few things to mention. If you're sitting on a powerful last-gen GPU, you're faced with quandary: buy another of my existing card for a cheap SLI/CrossFire setup, or start again with a new single GPU.

In general, we'd recommend the newer single card, but it does depend on what you've got to work with in your existing rig.

Grpahics cards

Nvidia's GTX 280s have retained their value sickeningly well, yet can't hack DirectX 11 tech like tessellation, which makes them a horrible choice for SLI. More recent AMD Radeon HD 5 series cards might be a more viable option, though.

There's another reason to drop a little extra dollar on graphics: integrated graphics solutions are getting better. Intel's HD Graphics 3000 engine is pretty good, and AMD's Llano APUs are fantastic. If you buy a low-end card like an HD 4 series card, you're not really getting anything better than integrated graphics than may already be at your fingertips. So which card should you back? Read on…

Cards on test

Sapphire HD 5670 Ultimate - £75
Sapphire HD 6670 Ultimate - £80
Palit GTS 450 - £81
XFX HD 5770 - £81
Sapphire HD 6770 VaporX - £82
EVGA GTX 550 Ti - £98
XFX HD 6850 - £118
Gigabyte GTX 560 - £148

Best graphics card under £150: the test

Sapphire HD 5670 Ultimate - £75

Sapphire hd 5670 ultimate

When you're talking about budget gaming graphics cards then you really can't spend less than £75 if you want to get anywhere near playable frame rates. At the bottom of this particular pile then is AMD's Radeon HD 5670, here represented by Sapphire's passively-cooled Ultimate edition.

The Radeon HD 5xxx series of cards are getting a bit long in the tooth these days; this particular GPU was introduced way back in the small hours of January 2010. It's still almost a relevant card these days though, offering close to playable gaming speeds in a tiny, no nonsense package.

The passive cooler sitting atop this Ultimate edition of the HD 5670 makes it a perfect match for the living room machine where silence is more preferable to out and out performance.

This is a good thing as the straight line performance of the HD 5670 is looking a little out of date now, but we'll come to that in a second.

Read the Sapphire HD 5670 Ultimate review

Sapphire HD 6670 Ultimate - £80

Sapphire hd 6670 ultimate

As the naming might suggest this HD 6670 is the direct replacement for the HD 5670 we've just seen. The Sapphire Ultimate version again comes passively-cooled and is only a little more expensive than its older brother. So it's essentially more of the same then? Almost.

This updated GPU comes with an extra 80 shaders, a smattering of extra texture units and a small hike in core clock speeds. Other than that it really is pretty much business as usual between the HD 5670 and the HD 6670.

All that GPU tweakery means you do get some extra performance out of this newer card, though admittedly not much. At most you're looking at 3fps faster across our benchmarking suite, though that can sometimes make the difference between choppy and playable gaming.

That will ring especially true once you knock some of the advanced graphics settings down a notch or two, especially the resource hog that is anti-aliasing. Again you're looking at fairly playable frame rates in modern games at lower settings, and good performance in older titles like Far Cry 2 on Max settings.

Read the Sapphire HD 6670 Ultimate review

GeForce GTS 450 - £81

GeForce gts 450

Now we're getting into the serious gamer's graphics card territory, though we're still not hitting the big numbers when it comes to pricing. Nvidia doesn't have a great line-up in the budget segment of cards and anything lower than this here GTS 450 is not really worth a look for those with any passing interest in frame rates.

This venerable card does have itself some gaming chops to offer, mind, and for the sum of £81 it's a tough card to argue against. The version we have benchmarked in this test is the vanilla reference version directly from Nvidia itself. That means it has no extras, no funky third-party cooling solution and definitely no factory-overclock.

We've taken the price from the cheapest GTS 450 we've found available and that's the version from Palit. It does come with a slightly different cooler, but the GPU itself is in reference trim.

Read the Nvidia GTS 450 review

XFX HD 5770 - £81

XFX hd 5770

We love this little card. Here at PC Format we've been big fans of the HD 5770 since we first clapped eyes on it way back in the mists of time, circa November 2009. That opinion has only improved with age, like that of a fine rum-cask whisky.

Thanks to AMD's habit of monthly driver releases we've seen the out-right performance of the HD 5770 improve hugely and at the same time we've seen the price going in completely the opposite direction.

For example, at launch the card was £130 and ran Far Cry 2 at 33fps at 1,680 x 1,050. Now you can pick up this special version of the happy little GPU for £81 and it'll run Far Cry 2 at 53fps. That's a 61 per cent increase in performance in the same game, and at the same time the HD 5770 has seen a 38 per cent decrease in price. That's the sort of maths that we like here at PC Format.

Compared with the GTS 450, which has itself dropped 33 per cent in price but has gained little in subsequent driver releases, the HD 5770 comes out tops. In performance terms there's not a great deal in it, but the AMD card does edge it, and has a few other pleasing tricks up its sleeve too.

Read the full XFX HD 5770 review

Sapphire HD 6770 VaporX - £82

Sapphire hd 6770 vaporx

We opted to include the recent 6-series update to the HD 5770 simply to highlight a few things. As much as we've railed against Nvidia in recent times for confusingly rebranding graphics cards and GPUs with newer series numbers without changing silicon, AMD is not averse to the practice either.

The simple fact is there is almost no difference between the HD 6770 and the old school HD 5770. Nvidia has done this before, re-badging the excellent 8800GTX multiple times, each vaguely dulling that excellence as it emerged. First it became the 9800GTX and then later the GTS 250, with very little modification.

Almost the same has happened here with the HD 6770 coming out with the exact same silicon onboard, in fact AMD almost seemed a little sheepish about the launch of this card and didn't really seem to make any noise about it at all.

Despite the 6-series naming update for the card though vendors don't seem to be asking for any more than the standard new HD 5770s still in the marketplace.

Read the Sapphire HD 6770 VaporX review

EVGA GTX 550 Ti SC - £98

EVGA gtx 550 ti sc

Now we're starting to hit the real price jump, the GTX 550 Ti is nearly £20 more than the last GPU. By rights in the graphics world that should actually mean quite a lot with cards packed together like yellowfin tuna in Japanese killing farms. Tip out your wallet right now and you can almost guarantee there's a graphics card available for that exact amount of cash. To the penny.

The step up from the AMD HD 5770/6770 though doesn't yield the sort of performance returns you might, quite reasonably, expect from the facts and figures on the specs sheet. This here is the generational refresh of the ageing GTS 450, as noted by the GF 116 GPU as opposed to the GF 106 chip.

Compared with its older brother the GTX 550 Ti does represent progress, with performance improving fairly significantly along with the improvements in silicon, especially in this EVGA Superclocked version with its much higher clock speed.

Read the EVGA GTX 550 Ti SC review

XFX HD 6850 - £118

XFX hd 6850

To be honest we were rather unforgiving of the HD 6850, at launch it was pricing itself almost out of the market. It was going toe-to-toe with Nvidia's 1GB GTX 460 which, at the time, just about had it pipped in performance terms. It was also a little pricier than the GTX 460, coming in around the £160 mark.

Again though time has been kind to the HD 6850. The price has dropped a huge amount, indeed AMD recently announced a further price-drop bringing the card down to less than £120, which for a spec like this is a serious bargain. AMD's constant driver updates too have meant that performance has increased over time as well.

The Barts Pro GPU core at the heart of the HD 6850 is a reworking of the Cypress Pro that made the HD 5850 such an impressive card back in the day. It doesn't have the huge number of Radeon Cores the HD 5850 had, but still maintains the ROPs count of 32.

It's not, however, quite the performance powerhouse the older card still is, but then you won't find that GPU for the same price as the HD 6850.

Read the XFX HD 6850 review

Gigabyte GTX 560 OC Edition - £148

Gigabyte gtx 560 oc edition

When the GTX 560 Ti first arrived Nvidia was quick to point out it wasn't a like-for-like replacement of the GTX 460, as the GTX 550 and GTX 570 had been for their respective brethren. The GTX 460 then still had life left in it.

Realistically though that life was snuffed out with the non-Ti version of the GTX 560. With the same core configuration as the out-going 1GB GTX 460: 336 CUDA Cores, 56 texture units and 32 ROPs - and the GTX 5-series' transistor-level enhancements over the GTX 4-series GPUs, this was always going to be putting the old classic out to pasture.

Indeed where once the 1GB version of the GTX 460 cold be picked up for around £120, now you're lucky to be able to find it for the £150-odd you can pick up this overclocked version of the GTX 560 for. And with a decent overclock this card can perform graphical wonders.

Sadly Gigabyte has only seen fit to provide 20MHz on top of the 810MHz core clock of the standard GTX 560, but with the impressive Windforce cooling array sitting atop it we managed to hit well over 900MHz without the card breaking a sweat.

Read the Gigabyte GTX 560 OC Edition review

Best graphics card under £150: Performance

TechRadar Labs

tech labs

The XFX Radeon HD 6850 is not the absolute fastest card in our test, but it delivers the best all-round package of graphical grunt, value and efficiency.

For the money the sort of gaming performance you can squeeze out of the card is downright impressive. Any card that can offer double figure frame rates in Heaven 2.5 at 2,560 x 1,600 has to be taken seriously.

Below that the other XFX card, the Radeon HD 5770, is another excellent budget offering. At just over £80 for this single-slot version you can hit very playable figures in just about all the games in our benchmarking suite at the standard resolution of 1,680 x 1,050. Indeed the 1080p benchmark of Shogun 2 shows that it will even give that resolution a good go too.

On the Nvidia front though things don't look so good in the budget segment. With the GTX 460 starting to disappear, and not at a good price, the next generation cannot take up the slack.

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Best graphics card under £150: The winner is...

XFX hd 6850

When you're talking about budget gaming graphics cards you really can't be looking any lower than £75 for performance in-game that isn't going to make you wince every time you boot up a title and have to play it in retro 680 x 480 vision to get a decent frame rate. That may sound a trifle snobby, but if you just want a graphics card that will let you watch HD movies and play Half-Life then you're not talking about a gaming card.

Frame rate is king and these days the 20/22-inch native resolution of 1,680 x 1,050 is what you ought to be aiming to hit with a good budget graphics card. And you want to be able to get somewhere near the 30fps mark in your favourite titles to give you a decent gaming experience.

Bargain performer

At the low-end then you really cannot look past the increasingly brilliant XFX HD 5770. Every time we come to check out this venerable card it seems to just get better and better.

At launch the HD 5770 was a decent card, giving acceptable frame rates for the cash. Now, thanks to huge price cuts and performance driver updates it's a quite incredible value GPU. At just £81 (we have seen it for as low as £75, but it's currently out of stock at Scan) it's the same price as the HD 6670 and frankly blows it out of the water in performance terms.

It's not just the straight-line performance of the XFX HD 5770 that impresses us either. The fact it has been condensed down into a single-slot form factor is doubly impressive, despite the fact it does mean it gets a little hot under load. We haven't seen a decent single-slot card for a long time before and not since. There has been rumours of HD 6850s appearing in Hong Kong in this form factor but there's been nothing on these shores.

The lower-end Nvidia cards though haven't performed so well. Since owning the budget market with the GTX 460 for so long AMD has really clawed back ground with its line-up and price cuts. The old GTS 450 is a power hungry, under-performing card these days and the same can be said for its generational update, the GTX 550 Ti.

That card though has the added problem of being around £100, which just prices itself out of the market entirely.

Budget gamer

For just another £20 on top of that you can now pick up the suddenly bargainous HD 6850. The card we tested, again from XFX puts the slight overheating issues into the past.

The HD 6850 then is simply a quite sterling gaming card for less than £120. It's a card that wont disappoint at the standard 1,680 x 1,050 resolutions these budget cards are realistically going to be pointed at.

The HD 6850 is the winner then, but it was definitely a close run thing as it was up against the Gigabyte GTX 560 OC Edition. The £150 Gigabyte Nvidia card is a factory overclocked beast that will clock up further than its conservative out-of-the-box speed might suggest.

Already faster than the rest of the cards, hitting 900MHz will push this card even further ahead, and if you're sitting on a full HD, 1,920 x 1,080 monitor and only have a limited graphics budget, this is a steal at £150. But in the value stakes the XFX HD 6850 still holds sway at £120, if only by the hair on a gnats chin.


First published in PC Format Issue 257

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