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05-08-2012, 12:24 AM #1SOL BADGUY
Graphics Cards Compared : 11 of The Best On Test
The battle for the top graphics card of this generation started earlier than normal this year with AMD unleashing its top two graphics cards: the Radeon HD 7970 and Radeon HD 7950, right at the start of the year in January.
Typically Nvidia was late to the next-generation party, releasing its first Kepler GPU-based card: the GeForce GTX 680 in late March. It's a tradition that has worked in Nvidia's favour previously.
The last few generations of graphics cards have seen AMD come out first, allowing Nvidia to finalise its pricing and clock-speeds to a level where it knows it can comfortably sit above the competition. This does give AMD time to dominate at launch though, pricing its cards with impunity, and reaping the rewards that can come with being first.
But this generation is still a little different as both companies have taken different approaches to their latest GPUs. Both manufacturers have come up with different architectures, with AMD's Graphics Core Next definitely being the more radical chip redesign.
What both new chip architectures have in common, however, is the new 28nm production process. That means both the top-end Tahiti XT and the GK104 GPUs are smaller in both transistor size and in die size than their last generation equivalents. It also means that both GPUs are, in some cases significantly, lower-powered than their older siblings.
They are also rather expensive too. This generation has seen AMD try to go toe-to-toe again with Nvidia in the top-end graphics card bout, releasing the HD 7970 with a £400 price tag, which is Nvidia's top-end precedent.
But it's not all about the new generation of graphical greatness, oh no. Thanks to the stalled console technology holding back the current 3D games engines, there are still fantastic graphics cards lower down the stack, from the last generation, that are quite happy to spit out excellent gaming frame rates.
As much as we might like to moan that the unfeasibly long life of this generation of games consoles is bad for PC gaming technology, it's impossible to get away from the fact that a £100 graphics card will have you gaming at high definition resolutions, in most of the latest DX11 titles, and at over 30fps.
It's true this isn't great news for those at the top-end of the graphics market as there's a lot of wasted performance in the vast range of usage scenarios. A GTX 680 simply isn't going to be taxed enough to justify its price at 1,920 x 1,080 in any modern game. But for the average PC gamer those £400+ cards are beyond the realms of possibility anyway.
With most PC games coming from console origins, in terms of development at least, they are being designed to run comfortably on six-year-old hardware. That means they are being designed to run on the equivalent of the top-end graphics cards of around five years ago.
At the rapid iterative pace of the PC technology industry those top-end graphics cards were long ago superseded by speedier and speedier GPUs. Now a £100 PC graphics card is exponentially better than the weedy chip sitting inside the Xbox 360, for example.
That ought to mean that PC exclusive titles should be pushing things in terms of PC graphics. Well, yes they kind of are. Look at the beautiful, though faintly ridiculous in terms of functionality, Diablo III. It's a PC-only title and it's gorgeous, but comes with the minimum system specs of a computing geriatric.
We're getting all nostalgic and misty-eyed looking at the minimum graphics card of an ATI Radeon X1950 Pro. It was a beautiful card of its time; single-slot and it wore it well. But it has no place in a contemporary gaming system, with the Diablo III recommendation of an AMD HD 4870 or Nvidia GTX 260 being a far more reasonable option.
But you could never recommend anyone goes out to purchase either of those cards if they were looking to pick up a new GPU. For a start, because they are no longer being made, the few that are around seem to be nostalgically priced for the collector; although it will be a long time before these graphics cards take pride of place on Antiques Roadshow.
Instead we'd recommend you start looking for a recent graphics card at, and around, the £100 price point. That sort of card will happily power games on a 1080p HD monitor at native resolution and deliver decent frame rates and decent settings. It will also give you a few years more gaming down the line too.
Below that sort of price tag and you're going to have to be seriously cutting back on the graphical shinies in-game. Post-processing effects and texture quality will have to be compromised, but at around the £70 to £80 mark you can pick up an AMD HD 6770 that will still prop up your modern game engines.
From those humble beginnings though you can quickly shift through the gears and spend anything up to £880 on a single graphics card. That is a vast amount of money to spend on a graphics card, and you might ask why would anyone spend cash when the game engines aren't demanding that sort of graphical processing power?
But there are the elite of the landed-gentry, sorry, gaming community, that will spend that sort of cash in order to get the very best on offer to power their 30-inch monitors-of-awesomeness at breakneck frame rates. That will either buy you a pair of GTX 680s in SLI or a single GTX 690; a dual-GPU beast that offers a few advantages over the SLI solution.
At the 2,560 x 1,600 scale of resolutions and beyond, and with the likes of EyeFinity from AMD and Surround 3D from Nvidia, you do need serious graphics grunt to push frame rates in cutting-edge PC titles.
So at the very top of the graphics tree you're looking at multi-GPU technology pushing things, but in the middle there are a lot of fantastic options out there. And in these more mid-range graphics cards some can offer top-end performance with their own SLI and CrossFire pairings.
Recent Nvidia history has shown the GTX 670, a £320 card, can trade blows with both the top AMD and Nvidia GPUs. Not only that but with two of them costing £640, you can get near-GTX 690 performance for £240 less. Though we'd always recommend buying the best single-GPU card you can afford at the time over buying a mid-range multi-GPU pair in one go, it does offer a great way of future-proofing your machine or spreading the cost of top-end graphics performance.
You can pick up a decent mid-range card now and then a few months down the line pick up a second for close to double the performance. And as newer cards come out pricing for the existing stock of older cards can come down significantly.
For example, anyone sitting with a GTX 570 in their machine can hit GTX 670 performance by adding a second card to their system. Multi-GPU tech can still be a mite flaky in terms of needing patching for newer releases, but with modern cards and drivers we are getting very close to the 2x performance boost you'd hope for with an additional GPU.
But who is the winner in the graphics war? Well, the cheesy answer is that we are. Prices of seriously high-performance components are dropping all the time, to the point where £100 will buy you an excellent pixel-pusher capable of flinging polygons around your full HD screen at a serious rate of knots.
In terms of who is the winner out of the top two graphics card manufacturers around today, that's a much trickier question to answer. If it was purely a question of who has the fastest graphics chip on the market then the answer would be Nvidia.
The Kepler GPU is a winner in terms of both raw frame rate performance and in efficiency. Nvidia has crafted a GPU that's the fastest currently available, but also has lower power requirements than the second-tier chips of the last generation.
AMD, though, has the edge in terms of mainstream GPUs and in terms of product availability. It's got the sub-£200 market sewn up with the tag-team pairing of HD 7850 and HD 6850 beating down the GTX 560 Ti and 550 Ti. That's the price band where the most cards are sold, so things don't look too bad for AMD right now.
1. Nvidia GeForce GTX 690
The Nvidia GeForce GTX 690 has been hailed by the green graphics giant as "the best graphics card that's ever been made."
That's quite a monumental claim, but bandying around phrases such as "trivalent chromium plating" and "injection moulded magnesium alloy" in relation to its design means this expensive ol' graphics card bears serious inspection.
So yeah, before we get into all the tech pornography that is the Nvidia GTX 690 and it's technological make up, we don't have much of choice but to discuss that staggering £830 price tag.
2. Nvidia GeForce GTX 680
This could easily have been one of those simple one sentence reviews; the GTX 680 is Nvidia's latest £400-odd, top-of-the-line card and is now the fastest gaming card in the world. That's it folks. Shut off the PSU, turn off the monitors and sit back with your pipe and slippers knowing that it was an easy job, done adequately.
We all knew that was likely to be the case, after all Nvidia has played the waiting game with AMD, letting its competition draw first and release its entire slew of HD 7000 graphics cards. That meant Nvidia could see clearly how the competition was performing and ensure its engineers finalised the specifications and set the clocks to ensure the requisite 10 per cent performance improvement to win.
3. AMD Radeon HD 79703. AMD Radeon HD 7970
AMD blinked first and opted to release its brand new graphics card architecture well before Nvidia. This is the fruits of its labour, the Southern Island Radeon HD 7970 and, for a short time, it was the fastest graphics card around.
It was a brave move by AMD though, bringing out a radically different graphics design specification, compared with its previous vector processors, just after it brought us a brand new processor architecture. Especially given the depressing failure of those promising AMD FX CPUs.
4. Nvidia GeForce GTX 670
Since we saw the first Kepler card: the GTX 680, in a cool, crisp sunny San Francisco, we've been itching to get our mitts on the more sensibly priced versions of the new architecture.
The GTX 680 is still sitting over the £400 price mark a few months after release and, given the GTX 580 didn't have to drop its price throughout its lifespan, we doubt it will change much.
So a cut-down version of the GTX 680 is what we've been after, and what we've known was coming, since Kepler was first fired up in our test bench. With the GTX 670 that's exactly what we've found ourselves facing.
5. AMD Radeon HD 7950
The HD 7950 is still based on exactly the same Graphics Core Next/Southern Islands architecture that is used in its only other AMD HD 7000 sibling, the HD 7970.
This means it's a graphics card still nailing the very latest of technologies in its rather sizeable package. This also means it's a fully-fledged DirectX 11.1 graphics card (though that's not going to be around soon, or even that big of a deal), more of interest though is the production process, shrinking down from the 40nm of the Cayman GPU to 28nm.
6. AMD Radeon HD 7870
The Pitcairn-powered HD 7870 and HD 7850 pretty much completed AMD's current Graphics Core Next Southern Island card lineup. All we're waiting on now is the high-end competitor for Nvidia's GTX 690, the HD 7990, codenamed New Zealand.
But that ridiculous end of the graphics market is not what we're looking at with the AMD Radeon HD 7870. This here represents the start of its enthusiast range of cards; serious gaming starts here, according to AMD.
7. AMD Radeon HD 7850
Poor HD 7850. Things looked rather better for the little brother of the top mid-range card, the HD 7870 just a couple of months ago. It's sub-£200 price tag made it look more attractive than the £260 that the HD 7870 was retailing for at launch, and it had some serious overclocking performance too.
But it was always going to face serious competition in this price range and with the massive price drop that Nvidia's GTX 570 has gone through recently - to the point where it is now actually cheaper than the HD 7850 - things don't look particularly rosy for this little card.
8. Nvidia GeForce GTX 570
As Nvidia still hasn't sprinkled us with its mid-range Kepler graphics cards, we have to look back to the previous generation of Fermi cards for our sub-£200 GPU fix. But to be fair seeing a GTX 570 at less than £180 you can't be too upset about that.
The GeForce GTX 570 followed on from the GTX 580 much in the same way as the GTX 470 followed the inaugural Fermi, the GTX 480. The difference here is that the GTX 580 was a much higher specified graphics card than the GTX 480 was at the time, and because of the trickle down effect this new card actually has more in common with that first Fermi card than the GTX 470.
9. Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti
While the price drop of the GTX 570 has killed the competition from AMD's HD 7850, it's also not going to do great things for the GTX 560 Ti's prospects.
At birth the GTX 560 Ti was a decent little £200 card, ably backing up the £100 more expensive GTX 570 with a slightly cut-down GPU and some respectable performance numbers. Now, though, that price difference is barely more than a tenner with the performance difference in turn seemingly massive by contrast.
10. AMD Radeon HD 6850
To be honest we were rather unforgiving of the HD 6850 when it was released - at launch it was pricing itself almost out of the market. It was going toe-to-toe with the 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, which came in around the £160 mark.
Time has been kind to the HD 6850 - the price, in particular, has dropped significantly, indeed AMD recently announced a further price drop bringing the graphics card down to less than £100, which for a specification like this is a serious bargain. AMD's constant driver updates too have meant that performance has increased over time too.
11. Nvidia GeForce GTX 550 Ti
There is less than a tenner separating the two sub-£100 budget graphics cards in our test this month. In the graphics world that's not a lot with cards packed together like yellow fin 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.
This then is the generational refresh of the aging GTS 450, as noted by the GF 116 GPU as opposed to the GTS 450's GF 106 chip. Compared with its older brother the GTX 550 Ti does represent progress, with performance scaling fairly significantly along with the improvements in silicon, especially in this EVGA Superclocked version with its much higher clock speed.
Making sense of an awful lot of numbers for you fine people
There are a couple of interesting things to have come out of our benchmarks this month; most of all just how good the GTX 570 is with it's new, low price tag. It's simply the best sub-£200 card around and will happily cope with even the highest resolutions.
The HD 6850 is still the undisputed king of the budget cards though, with the lowest price and frame rate of the lot. Meanwhile the GTX 670 manages to reign supreme as the performance card, being so close in gaming terms with the HD 7970 and GTX 680 but cheaper than both.
Graphics cards compared: 11 of the best on test: And the winner is...
Nvidia GTX 670
The fluid nature of the graphics card industry means that today's top cards may not be the same top graphics card this time next month. And that's not because of new releases superseding the old, it's simply because prices change on an almost daily basis.
With so many cards filling every single price crevice, cost is as much of an important metric for this component as straight gaming performance. With the recent price changes the stand-out card in the test is the £178 GTX 570. It's a bona fide top-end graphics card of the last generation and produces the sort of performance you would expect from such a beast.
The GTX 570 is more than capable of hitting decent frame rate numbers at the top 2,560 x 1,600 resolution, even with system-staggering extras, such as anti-aliasing running. The GTX 570 sits under both the Pitcairn-powered AMD graphics cards in terms of pricing and is more than a match for both of them in regard to gaming performance.
In the mid-range price point it's tough to look past that Nvidia card. Things aren't too bleak for AMD though, as it absolutely owns the budget segment with the HD 6850, which is another last-generation beauty which has had some serious price cuts.
Now it's less than £100 it's even more of a bargain, and in terms of bang for buck it's the best value card on our test. At full HD resolutions it's pretty much all the card you need to top 30fps in pretty much any contemporary game you care to throw at it - without compromising on graphical quality either.
It's telling though that both of these recommendations come from the last generation of graphics cards. With the stagnation of games engines they're still more than capable of giving you the frame rate numbers you crave in today's games. If you want a little future proofing in terms of yet-to-be-released game engines, then you're going to have to look further up the price list.
The real performance cards start at the £300 mark with the HD 7950, but recent price drops and the emergence of the excellent GTX 670 makes it less relevant now. But that GTX 670 is a winner. It's got the performance chops to give both the HD 7970 and the GTX 680 a run for their money, and it's cheaper than either too.
Give it a little light overclocking love and you'll be hitting GTX 680 performance in a trice. That then makes both AMD and Nvidia's top single-GPU cards pretty much as irrelevant to the end user as the HD 7950 has now become.
That said though, through our tests it's interesting just how crazily priced the GTX 690 isn't. Sure it is the most expensive graphics card on the test, but the average cost per frame per second isn't insane. It's close to twice the performance of the GTX 680 and with lower power requirements than a twin card setup.
Still if you want that sort of performance, an SLI rig with twin GTX 670s is the only way to roll.
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