Top graphics cards for 3D gaming: 8 reviewed
31st Jul 2011 | 09:00
The best 3D-capable cards for your gaming PC
Top graphics cards for 3D gaming: 8 reviewed
Stereoscopic 3D might seem straightforward, but you'll need a lot of boxes ticked if you want to enjoy it on your PC. As well as a 3D-capable monitor with a refresh rate of 120Hz, your computer needs a graphics card that's powerful enough to handle 3D content.
To generate 3D images, the graphics card has to produce the graphics twice, creating a slightly different image for each eye. This extra workload can put a lot of strain on the card.
Most modern cards include 3D capabilities - especially recent Nvidia cards, which support Nvidia 3D Vision - so finding one that can display 3D content isn't a problem. The trick is finding a graphics card that can display 3D without any noticeable drop in image quality.
You don't want to spend money on a card only to find that the frame rate plummets when you turn on 3D effects, leading to choppy, stuttering movies and unplayable games.
Upgrading from two dimensions isn't the only reason to buy a new graphics card. More powerful GPUs make for better graphics all round. While modern computer games benefit most from a powerful card, other applications will also show an improvement. Video editing in particular benefits from a muscular card, because many movie-making tools now take advantage of technology like Nvidia's CUDA, which hands more processing tasks to the graphics card, freeing up the PC's processor for other tasks.
Getting the right graphics card can make a huge impact on your computer, and we'll show you some of the best.
EVGA GTX 460 1GB - £139
MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti - £176
Zotac GeForce GTX 570 - £260
Zotac GeForce GTX 580 - £385
Asus GeForce GTX 590 - £580
Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 - £181
HIS Radeon HD 6970 - £265
Asus Radeon HD 6990 - £501
EVGA GTX 460 1GB
Nvidia has had a long history of creating superb mid-range cards, from the 6600 GT to the incredible 8800 GT, and the GTX 460 can sit happily among such illustrious forebears. Its launch price was £200, but you can now easily pick up an overclocked 1GB version for as little as £140.
If any graphics card can be described as a hero, surely this is it. It no longer leads the market in performance, but it's not as far off the pace as you might imagine from its age. It's the oldest and slowest model in this test, but its price keeps it competitive.
When you consider that it's nearly £50 less than the cheapest HD 6870, and with performance that is just shy of the AMD card, it's quite a bargain.
MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti
Just as the GTX 570 was beginning to replace the GTX 480, leaving the GTX 580 on its own at the head of the single-GPU pack, the GTX 560 Ti appeared to take over from the GTX 470. That's a lot of numbers, but it does make sense - especially when you look at the performance of those GTX 460s, even in today's highly competitive market.
It would make no sense for Nvidia to kill off one of its best cards, but it's not quite as simple as just another transistor-level tweak of the GTX 470's design. The GTX 560 Ti is more of a halfway house between the GTX 470 and GTX 460; it has 64 fewer CUDA cores and eight fewer ROPs than the former.
To make up for this shortfall in GPU spec, it comes out of the box with the fastest core clockspeed we've seen in an Nvidia GPU since the FX 5xxx series.
Zotac GeForce GTX 570
This card represents the second tier of Nvidia's Fermi lineup. It's an impressive performer, and a little cheaper than AMD's top single card, the HD 6970. It has more in common with the Nvidia GTX 480 though, with almost the same basic GPU layout.
The GTX 570 has the same 480 CUDA cores and 60 texture units, but has 40 ROPs compared to the GTX 480's 48. The 570 also has a smaller frame buffer, at 1,280MB compared to the previous generation's 1,536MB. It packs the same transistor-level re-engineering as the GTX 580, though.
As such, it's a much more efficient, cooler graphics card, and its performance metrics will be almost as good if you're running a sub-30-inch panel.
Zotac GeForce GTX 580
Let's not beat around the bush; Nvidia's GTX 580 is the best single-GPU card on the market. It held sway over all the others across every one of the benchmarks we ran.
This is due to the GF110 GPU at its heart. Fermi has proven to be the best GPU architecture Nvidia has ever manufactured, and with this second generation (the GTX 5xx series) it's gone from strength to strength.
The first Fermi, the GTX 480, was the top card of its day, but not without issues. These were the amount of power it needed and the amount of heat it generated. For the GTX 580, Nvidia's engineers went back to the drawing board and tweaked the design right down to the transistor level, tailoring the smallest parts to give the best performance where needed, and the best efficiency where speed wasn't the goal.
Four more graphics cards to choose from
Asus GeForce GTX 590
Nvidia has been the market leader in graphic card technology for so long, when it says it's reached the pinnacle of engineering with the fastest single-PCB (printed circuit board) graphics card it's ever made, you sit up and take notice. It's quite a boast, and it sounds amazing on paper - one board with two of the most powerful GPUs Nvidia has ever made combined on it.
However, compromises have had to be made to get the chips to run happily on a single card, and to stay within the 375W limit imposed by a pair of eight-pin PCI-e connectors and the motherboard PCI-e bus. That means we don't quite have a pair of the GPUs ripped straight out of Nvidia's flagship single-GPU card, the GTX 580.
Instead of the core clock of 772MHz and a shader clock of 1,544MHz, the GTX 590 houses a pair of chips running at a seriously toned-down 607MHz core clock and 1,215MHz shader clock. The memory clock has been dropped from 2,004MHz to 1,707MHz.
Sapphire Radeon HD 6950
The Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 appears to be the finest graphics card AMD has produced in a long time. In the sub-£200 market, it's as good as you're going to get, and it's a graphics card that offers much more than any of the opposition in its price bracket. The HD 6950 comes close to the HD 6970 and the GTX 570 in its plain state.
The 2GB GDDR5 frame buffer means it can more or less keep pace with Nvidia's secondtier Fermi card, although it lags behind slightly for the most part. It does the same with the HD 6970, but that's to be expected from a card that's so much cheaper.
The sub-£200 price tag is a fantastic psychological coup, making this an affordable yet powerful option. That impressive performance is all down to the Cayman GPU. As we've already mentioned, the Cayman contains the same core as the GPU powering the more expensive HD 6970, though with a lower clockspeed and a few other components switched off at a software level. This leads to a problem...
HIS Radeon HD 6970
AMD's fastest single-GPU model is a tough one to recommend. It's certainly the quickest AMD has released - the big problem is the second-tier card the came out alongside it - the HD 6950.
The Cayman XT at the heart of the HD 6970 is essentially the same GPU you'll find paired in the Antilles chip of the dual-GPU HD 6990. It's clocked faster than the stock specs of the Antilles, but thanks to the Antilles Unlocking Switch (also known as the Screw Your Warranty Switch by those who choose to use it), the HD 6990 can run with its GPUs at the same speed as the HD 6970.
You can get two HD 6970s for about the same as one HD 6990. So far, so good, but what of the HD 6950 we mentioned?
Asus Radeon HD 6990
AMD pipped Nvidia to the post, releasing its dual-GPU, top-end graphics card a few weeks before the GeForce GTX 590. The HD 6990 is the fastest single-PCB graphics card the Texan brand has ever made, and houses two of the cores from its current fastest single-GPU card - the HD 6970.
The Cayman XT from that card has been doubled up and redubbed 'Antilles', and comes with slower clock, shader and memory speeds out of the box. You're not taking as much of a hit in clockspeed as with the GTX 590's GPUs, but that's because the Cayman XTs run a little slower than the GF110 GPUs in the GTX 580s in the first place.
There is a key difference here, and that comes from the little Antilles Unlocking Switch. Like the Cayman-powered cards that came before it (the HD 6950 and HD 6970), the HD 6990 comes with a dual-BIOS switch hardwired into the PCB. This comes with an attractive yellow warning sticker covering it, which warns you that as soon as you flick the switch, you effectively invalidate your warranty.
The award winners
Most of the cards we tested here do the job well, and upgrading your PC with any of them will give a serious performance boost. However, there are a couple that you should avoid to get the best possible 3D graphics on your PC, and there are others like the Zotac GeForce GTX 580 that stand out from the crowd.
Things become a little more confusing when you consider using multiple graphics cards in SLI or CrossFire mode. This allows two or more cards to work together to boost performance. Although it might seem slightly unintuitive, it can be cheaper to buy two graphics cards to get the same performance as one expensive card.
If you're really after the best graphics and your computer can handle it, then this is the way to go.
Zotac GeForce GTX 580
The GeForce GTX 580 is Nvidia's flagship card for a reason - its performance in our tests was extremely impressive, and it can handle the latest games and 3D content with remarkable ease. It might be a bit on the expensive side for a graphics card, but it's money well spent. If you have the budget and the space to spare on your motherboard, then a pair of GeForce GTX 580s will serve you well and effectively future-proof your PC for many years to come.
Sapphire Radeon HD 6950
While the GeForce GTX 580 has the best performance for a single card, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 easily wins the best value award. On its own it's a great performance card, but when you also take into account the overclocking potential of this graphics card, you have a fantastic product for under £200. Upgrading to 3D is expensive enough, so it's heartening to see such good value for money.
First published in PC Plus Issue 305
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