There are a lot of terms and acronyms that get bandied around when talking about graphics cards, and not a lot of explanation to go along with them.
Before we delve into the meat of the feature let’s take a minute to clear things up a little.
GPU – This is the graphics processing unit, the chip at the heart of the graphics card. Many cards use the same GPU but partner it with different components and at different clockspeeds to produce slower or faster graphics cards.
GDDR – Graphics Double Data Rate memory is the specific kind of memory that is used on graphics cards.
ROPs – The Render Output unit comes into play during the final stages in the rendering process, bringing together the data from each of the memory buffers in the graphics card’s local memory. The more of them you have, the better off you are.
CUDA – Compute Unified Device Architecture is a coding language Nvidia invented to allow parallel computing on its range of GPUs. From its 8 series upwards all its cards can use CUDA to speed up parallel processing applications, such as video encoding, faster than your computer’s CPU.
PhysX – Originally an accelerator chip and software layer from the small company Ageia, Nvidia bought up PhysX and has now applied it to its GPUs, again from the 8 series forward. It allows for more advanced physics simulations, such as liquid or cloth, in games that have been coded with the PhysX software included.
Crossfire and SLI – These are the relevant multi-GPU configurations from both AMD and Nvidia. Both allow multiple graphics cards to be connected together to increase the rendering performance. Historically this has been fraught with driver issues and diminishing returns for the extra cards, but as the latest cards have been released we are getting closer to doubling the performance by adding in a second card.
PCB – The Printed Circuit Board is the physical board that graphics cards (and all other micro-electronics) have their components attached to. The boards are printed with conductive pathways between the relevant components instead of using physical wires.
DirectX – Microsoft’s DirectX is a collection of its own proprietary APIs (application programming interfaces) for dealing with multimedia tasks on its own operating systems. The Direct3D part is specifically to do with 3D graphics and utilises hardware acceleration if there is a GPU in place to take advantage of it.
Tesselation – This is one of the key buzzwords to come from Microsoft’s latest graphical API, DirectX 11. It’s designed to add extra geometry to a simple polygon, using displacement maps to tell the GPU where to raise and lower parts of the polygon as the graphics card computes the data. The idea is to add geometry to objects in a game world without significantly impairing performance. It’s set to become a key battleground in the graphics war in the coming years.
The first generation of DirectX 11 graphics cards boasted some notable GPUs. Here’s our lowdown of the cards that still manage to be relevant even after the second slew of cards settles in:
15. Nvidia GeForce GTS 450 (£85)
If 1680 x 1050 is the mass-market gaming resolution of choice, then the GTS 450 is opium for the masses.
This tiny powerhouse (well, it’s still dual-width, but pleasingly short) is capable of feats beyond its £80-£90 price tag. What’s more, in SLI, you’ll see massive performance gains, making the dual-card upgrade path a realistic and impressive option for budget systems.
The basic GeForce GTS 450 is, architecturally, about half of a GeForce 460 with a higher clockspeed and a narrower memory bus.
However, the GTS 450 has the advantage over the GTX 460 of being smaller and requiring less power, which makes it a strong candidate for that SLI setup
It is, however, now directly up against the HD 5750, thanks to the ongoing Nvidia/AMD graphics card price wars. And that is a card the GTS 450 happily beats into submission in any benchmark test you throw at
14. AMD Radeon HD 5770 (£100)
For budget-conscious gamers, the HD 5770 should be a serious consideration. Have a scout around the online retailers, and you’ll see that examples can be had for less than £100 now.
Offering competent performance at the mainstream 22-inch resolution of 1680 x 1050, it also comes with the promise of cool-running, quiet operation – a trademark of AMD’s last-gen design philosophy.
However, try to crank the shinier graphical elements – such as Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering – too high, and the card starts to run out of grunt.
AMD’s EyeFinity technology, which enables multi-screen scaling, is a very real option with the 5770, although we wouldn’t recommend the 5770 for multi-screen gaming; it just doesn’t have the throughput for gaming at huge resolutions.
The really interesting thing about the HD 5770 is what its price represents. At these low prices, our thoughts turn to CrossFire setups. For under £200, you can net yourself a twin-card setup that offers kick-ass performance at mid-range resolutions.
If you’re content with that 22-inch monitor and want zingy performance on a budget, this CF setup is probably the cheapest way to achieve it… Oh, and did we mention the 5770 is DX11 capable? Yum.
13. Nvidia GeForce GTX 470 (£160)
Not so hot on the heels of Nvidia’s first DX11 graphics cards came the GeForce GTX 470, a cut-down version of the GF100 GPU that the green company is rightfully proud of.
Given the larger price tag of its big brother, the GTX 480, this represents the most affordable high-end Fermi card of the first generation.
Like the rest of the Fermi range, the 470 has seen some nifty price cuts, which means it can now be had for £160. This makes the cheapest 470s just £30 more expensive than the GTX 460 1GB, the new mid range king. That makes it a pretty compelling prospect right now.
At the native 22-inch resolution of 1680 x 1050, this card is a fair way ahead of the HD 5870. When things get cranked up, though, it starts to lose its competitive edge against AMD’s upper-mid range peer.
Indeed, in our World in Conflict benchmark it actually dropped behind. Still, thanks to its Fermi roots, the GTX 470 still has the tessellation goods and this promises some future-proofing.
This card has been superseded by the likes of the GTX 560 Ti, though, which means that it’s not going to get replaced once stock levels become exhausted. It’s worth considering while you can find it.
12. AMD Radeon HD 5850 (£140)
The Radeon HD 5850 came out shortly after AMD’s flagship DirectX 11 graphics card, the Radeon HD 5870.
As with many graphics families, this second-tier offering represented – and still represents – incredible value for money thanks to offering up the same feature set and only a slightly reduced specification from the top-of-the-range card, albeit at a much more attractive price point.
When this card cost £225, it offered great value for money. These days it’s considerably cheaper than that, and has had to weather competition from both AMD and Nvidia, but it still puts in a good show in the latest games.
There are also rumours that more affordable versions of the Radeon HD 5850 are in the works, so prepare to shop around to bag a bargain.
11. Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 1GB (£130)
The 1GB GTX 460 (there’s also a noticeably less powerful 768MB version) started at a price that undercut its immediate Radeon-shaped competition by a fair margin, and that’s only got better as the months have gone by.
The GTX 460’s rejigged GF100 GPU may sound like Nvidia has just chopped the GTX 480’s chip in half, with only seven streaming multiprocessors (SMs) against the older card’s 14, but inside, things have most definitely changed.
These SMs hold the myriad CUDA cores (previously known as shader processors), special function units (SFUs), texture mapping units (TMUs) and the polymorph engines that contain the all-important tessellation grunt.
The SMs of the GF100 chips contain a maximum of 32 shader cores, four SFUs and four TMUs. In the GTX 460 chip, though, Nvidia has squeezed another 16 CUDA cores into each SM and upped the SFU and TMU counts to eight per SM.
Each of these SMs has also had some CPU-like extra multithreading goodness injected, in the shape of an extra couple of dispatch units in each of them.
What this means is awesome mid-range performance, and respectable performance at resolutions higher than 1680 x 1050. Pair a couple up for SLI kicks, though, and you get a punchy setup that can rival Nvidia’s own GTX 580.
10. Nvidia GeForce GTX 550 Ti (£128)
Originally designed to replace the GTS 450, the GTX 550 Ti has recently found itself being pushed out of the frame by the Radeon HD 6790 (which we’re looking at next). Yes, it’s a next-generation graphics card, but is that alone enough to make it relevant? Not really.
As with the Radeon HD 6790, The Nvidia GeForce GTX 550 Ti suffers comparison with the slower, but more-affordable GTS 450 and the faster, and only a bit more pricey GeForce GTX 460. Indeed it’s testament to the GTX 460 that it still manages to define this end of the market.
If you’ve got a 20-inch or 22-inch screen, then the GTX 550 Ti is briefly worth considering, because it will produce playable frame rates at 1680 x 1050 at reasonable settings.
Unfortunately, unless there’s a bizarre disease that specifically targets the GTX 460 and removes it from the world, we’d recommend hunting down that older card every time.
9. AMD Radeon HD 6790 (£110)
The latest addition to the graphics card market comes hot on the heels of the fastest graphics cards ever released, namely the AMD Radeon HD 6990 and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 590.
However unlike those behemoths of modern unified shader engineering, this is a card aimed squarely at the affordable end of the market. And as such, it finds itself battling for relevance against the likes of the GTX 460, the GTX 550 and even AMD’s own Radeon HD 5770 at the more-affordable end of things.
Using the Barts LE core, this shares more of the inner workings of the Radeon HD 6850 and 6870 than it does the far more impressive Cayman-powered 6950.
That said, this is an affordable card, and as such AMD is forced to focus on budgets rather than capabilities. It shows as well, and ultimately comes up a little short in the comparisons – although it does a good job of sticking it to the GTX 550 Ti, and at a lower price.
In essence this isn’t a bad card, it merely lacks the oomph to make it stand out on one side, or a really low price tag to make it stand out on the other. It’s neither one nor the other. Given the spectre that is the GTX 460 still towers over it, to be had for only £20 or so more, you’re better off forgoing a few pints and grabbing one of those instead.
8. AMD Radeon HD 6850 (£135)
Launched at the same time as its slightly costlier sibling, the Radeon HD 6870, the Barts XT-powered Radeon HD 6850 graphics processor failed to impress at launch due almost entirely to its misguided pricing. For reference, the card originally shipped at £160, at a time when Nvidia was cutting the price of comparably-powerful GTX 460.
The Barts XT GPU was essentially a stop gap while AMD put the finishing touches to the Cayman GPU that can be found powering the incredible Radeon HD 6950 GPU. Beyond a more power-efficient core, and a slightly reworked tessellation engine, this card’s only real claim to fame is that it was the first of the second-generation of DX11 graphics cards.
The fact that it failed to comprehensively better the Radeon HD 5850 that its name would suggest it was meant to replace also grated. And even though it’s officially supposed to be heading for end of life status, you’d still rather pick up a 5850 to one of these.
Time has started to treat the Radeon HD 6850 a little fairer, though, and a good £20-30 has been shaved off the launch price to make for a slightly more appealing pixel-pusher.
Better value cards can still be had for less, while those looking for real power should set their sights on the Radeon HD 6950. Having said that, if you can pick up the 6850 at closer to £120, then it’ll give the budget-licious GTX 460 a run for its money, and is worth grabbing.
7. Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti (£200)
Given how the GTX 460 has come to define the budget end of the graphics card market, it was only a matter of time before Nvidia released its successor, the GTX 560 Ti. And while it would have been nice to see this card roll out £50 cheaper than this, given the technology throbbing away inside its black exterior, that would be a lot to ask for.
In fact this card is pitched more against the GTX 470, both in terms of pricing and performance. The re-engineered Fermi core has been refined and tweaked to produce an impressive graphics processor, packing 384 CUDA cores and 64 texture units into its monolithic design.
The GTX 560 Ti may lack the vapour chamber cooling of the top-end cores, but that doesn’t stop it being an incredible little overclocker. Anyone looking to get a bit more performance out of their quality graphics card has a decent amount to play with here too.
This is an impressive graphics card, and if you have a particularly unreasonable allegiance to Nvidia then you’re not completely off the money. The problem is, the AMD Radeon HD 6950 has a serious trick up its sleeve, performs where it needs, and can be had for only £10 more. And when you’re looking at this much cash, that’s money you really should spend.
6. AMD Radeon HD 6950 (£210)
Every few years a graphics card is released that sums up that generation better than any other. We’re talking about the likes of the 8800GT and the budget-focused Radeon X1950 Pro. Cards that transcend their immediate markets and time frames and stand up for years to come as being bang on the money.
The AMD Radeon HD 6950 defines the market. Cheaper cards look up to it for its raw power, while the top-end cards are mindful of the sheer value it offers and are rightly fearful of what can be achieved when two are cajoled together in CrossFire.
The Radeon HD 6950 isn’t a subtle reworking of the first generation of DX11 graphics in the same way that Barts is, but rather a complete reworking of the inner logic of AMD’s graphics chips. And it’s an incredible card for it.
The performance is incredible, at console-breaking 1080p resolutions, and in DX11 games it punches well above its weight. If you’re looking for a no-nonsense card that will last you until DX12 rolls out, and don’t plan on running insanely high resolutions, this is the card for you.
Those with the stomach for it will discover that they can turn their £200 Radeon HD 6950 into a fully fledged 6970 with a BIOS flash as well. Here’s a card that both AMD and Nvidia are going to be hard pushed to beat any time soon. It’s simply incredible.
5. AMD Radeon HD 6970 (£260)
Given that the AMD Radeon HD 6970 is simply a faster spin of the Radeon HD 6950 with more of everything that makes that card so great, surely this is a fine card worthy of the money? Not quite.
The problem is, while Radeon HD 6950 is slower than this, it’s only just slower. At the higher resolutions, which is all that really matters for these high-end cards, we’re talking a few frames per second different at most.
In real terms you’d be hard pushed to spot such differences, which means that the extra £50 you pay for this over the cheaper card doesn’t really pay off. That and the fact that the first slew of Radeon HD 6950s can be flashed to essentially turn them into 6970s conspire to make this a card that doesn’t quite add up.
The fact of the matter is: if you want the kind of performance that will drive a bigger display, you’re going to need to spend more than this.
4. Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 (£584)
The Nvidia GeForce GTX 590 is a dual-GPU graphics card, similar in performance and guise to the Radeon HD 6990 that proceeded it into the market by roughly a month.
This means that inside that huge cooler you’ll find a pair of GTX 580 cores humming away at not-quite GTX 580 speeds. In real terms that equates to a whopping 1024 CUDA cores, 96 ROPs and access to a healthy 3GB of GDDR5.
In order to fit a pair of GPUs inside a single card, though, speed sacrifices have had to be made.
In the case of the GeForce GTX 590, that means dropping the core clock from the GTX 580’s 772MHz down to 607MHz. The memory speed has been slashed too, from 1.02GHz down to 853MHz.
As with the Radeon HD 6990, anyone looking for the ultimate in performance should really look at pairing up two GTX 580s, although that will cost you considerably more.
We’ve given the Radeon HD 6990 the slight nod over the GTX 590 simply because it has the lead in the titles that matter, however slight that may be.
3. AMD Radeon HD 6990 (£550)
The Radeon HD 6990 is the second of two cards to utilise a pair of graphics processors to produce out of this world frame rates. Although as you can see, this come with an obvious downside – the price.
The Radeon HD 6990 utilises a new graphics processor, named Antilles, which is a slightly tweaked take on the Cayman core that can be found in the Radeon HD 6870, albeit not at the full speed of that GPU. This means you get the full 4GB of GDDR5 memory, strong tessellation performance and a stunning 3,072 streaming processors for handling your games.
Unfortunately, in order to cram two GPUs into the power footprint of a single graphics card, the core clock speed has had to be reduced from 880MHz to 830MHz. Similarly, the memory is running at 1.25GHz as opposed to the 1.375GHz of the 6970.
In truth there really isn’t a lot between this and the previous card, the GTX 590 – they offer roughly the same performance and cost about the same.
If you’re in the market for a dual-GPU graphics card, then your preference comes down to whether you prefer AMD’s drivers and support, or Nvidia’s.
2. Nvidia GeForce GTX 570 (£280)
Value for money may seem like a strange metric to pull out of the hat at this end of the graphics market, but the GTX 570 does a decent turn at making your investment feel prudent rather than simply excessive.
Essentially a replacement for the soon to be retired GTX 480, here’s a card that does everything that Nvidia’s last-generation top dog did, but without the problems that card suffered from when it shipped.
The cooler is quiet and more efficient, and the raw power on offer from this sub-£300 card is stunning. This is a slightly cut down version of the GTX 580, losing one Streaming Multiprocessor (or 32 CUDA cores, to put it another way) and 8 ROPs.
The GTX 570’s core operates at 732MHz as opposed to the GTX 580’s 772MHz, while the 1,280MB of GGDR5 memory speeds along at 950MHz, as opposed to the GTX 580’s 1,002MHz.
For the money, there isn’t a lot out there that can touch the GTX 570 in terms of pure performance, apart from possibly a pair of GTX 460s in SLI – but such a configuration requires an SLI motherboard.
1. Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 (£395)
The GeForce GTX 580 is the fastest single-GPU graphics card currently available, and probably will be the only option for some time to come yet.
Created as the spiritual successor to the much-maligned GTX 480, Nvidia took the problems it had with its first DX11 graphics card and corrected them.
This means you get a full-fat core boasting 512 CUDA cores and 48 ROPS, not one that has been cut down to achieve better yields. And all running at a healthy 772MHz with a 1,002MHz memory bus for the 1,384MB of GDDR5 memory.
Not everyone needs the power of a GTX 580 – only those with serious screens to power. This is a market targeted by the twin-GPU Goliaths that are the AMD Radeon HD 6990 and Nvidia’s own GeForce GTX 590.
The GTX 580 still has the nod, however, because those cards have had to be throttled back to fit on a single card, while here you know nothing is being constrained. This is still the most sensible option for anyone looking for unfettered speed from a single GPU