Choosing the best graphics card: Buyer’s Guide review

Price and performance for 3D gaming and everyday work
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Buying a graphics card can be an important step in upgrading an old machine, or turning a bargain-basement purchase into a gaming powerhouse – but it’s a market that moves faster than any other, and yesterday’s dream product is today’s scrap metal. To avoid buying a card that’s not up to scratch – or investing a very expensive mistake – just follow ITReviews‘ simple, no-nonsense advice.

When purchasing an add-in graphics card, the most important step is to ensure that it’s compatible with your system. The vast majority of graphics cards on the market today use a type of connection slot called a 16x PCI-Express, (PCIe) which is almost universally supported by all recent motherboards.

PCIe 16x graphics slot

Most PC motherboards offer at least one PCIe 16x slot, shown here in black.

If you have an older system with an Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) or original PCI slot, however, you’ll find your choices sorely limited – and it might be time to think about upgrading your motherboard or PC, instead of just your graphics card.

It’s not just the electrical connectivity you should be worrying about, either: at the higher end of the market, you’ll start to find the physical size of the graphics card increases massively, both in width and length. Dual-slot cards, which block access to a nearby PCIe slot, are commonplace, and extra-long boards could block hard drive bays. If you’re unsure about your case, it’s time to break out the tape measure – most retailers include the size of the card in the product details.

Because the graphics card market moves so quickly, buying the latest cutting-edge hardware can be extremely costly. The flipside, however, is that last-generation products can be had at a substantial discount, and still offer plenty of bang for your buck.

If you’re going to play 3D games on your PC, make sure your graphics card has at least 512MB of DDR2 memory, and check that it’s compatible with Microsoft’s DirectX 11 graphics standard. Even if you’re running Windows XP, which only offers DirectX 9 hardware support, it’s worth investing in a card that you won’t need to replace if you make the move to Windows 7 as your primary operating system.

AMD vs Nvidia
There are two main camps in the dedicated graphics market: AMD, which got into the game by acquiring graphics specialist ATI and its popular line of Radeon GPUs, and Nvidia. Depending on the amount you want to spend and the features you need, you may find one or the other offering the most suitable card.

You’ll find when you’re shopping that there are multiple manufacturers to choose from, including Palit, Sapphire, MSI, and Zotac. These areknown as ‘board partners’, who buy the main chip or ‘graphics processing unit’ (GPU) and a reference design from Nvidia or AMD, and build their own graphics cards. The specifications are usually very similar, so unless you have very specific requirements – such as water-cooling, or designs that are compatible with small form factor PCs – pick whichever offers the best price and warranty.

As with any other purchase, the graphics card market can be split into three segments: budget, mainstream, and premium.

As a budget user, you’re not looking to spend a fortune – but you’ve discovered that the integrated graphics in your PC aren’t living up to their promises. You’re unlikely to be a heavy gamer, but might want the benefit of an add-in graphics card for, say, dual-monitor or TV output support.

The good news is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a card that offers a significant upgrade over integrated graphics technology. Buying a lower-end card from the previous generation will get you plenty of features without costing a fortune.

From AMD’s stable, it’s worth looking at the Radeon HD 5000 series. Unlike the Radeon HD 4000 series it replaced, the last generation AMD GPUs support all the major functionality of DirectX 11 – offering an important bit of future-proofing for a tiny additional outlay.

For as little as £20, something like the AMD Radeon HD5450 board with 512MB RAM will upgrade you system to DirectX 11 support, DVI and VGA outputs for dual-monitor use, and HDMI with integrated audio for connectivity to an HDTV. Better yet, many hardware partners offer low-profile versions with passive cooling – making it quiet in use and easy to fit into even the most cramped of cases.

With Nvidia’s offerings, things are slightly different. The last generation of Nvidia graphics chips, the original Fermi series, were notorious for being extremely hot and power-hungry. This meant that Nvidia was unable to produce cheaper versions, and leaves the buyer on a budget looking several generations back for an affordable card.

While the performance of AMD and Nvidia’s competing products at this level is more or less the same, offering acceptable general use performance and enough grunt to struggle through some older games, AMD’s inclusion of DirectX 11 support is something Nvidia just can’t match.

For a reasonable card with 512MB of DDR2 memory and one of AMD’s older GPUs at its heart, you can expect to spend around £30. If your system is RAM-rich, keep an eye out for models that offer ‘TurboMemory,’ an AMD technology that allows the graphics card to steal a portion of system memory when it needs extra space for textures.

As a mainstream buyer, you’re looking for good gaming performance without having to take out a second mortgage. Unlike the budget buyer, you’re likely to spend a lot of your time looking at games – and, sad to say, you’ll have to pay for the privilege of good performance.

That’s not to say that you’ll be sent bankrupt, however. As with the budget buyer, your best bet is to look at the previous generation of cards rather than paying the ‘early adopter’ premium at the cutting edge.

The market opens up somewhat at the mid-range, and you’ll find cards from both AMD and Nvidia to suit your budget. Which you pick is really a case of personal preference – the performance and cost of the two is roughly similar, and both will include the all-important DirectX 11 support.

Nvidia’s best offering at the mid-range is from the last-generation 400-series of cards. While they run hotter than the equivalent AMD card, they offer excellent performance for a reasonable price.

While the Nvidia GeForce GTS 450 might seem like a bargain, a few pounds more will get you a cheaper example of the Nvidia GTX 460 768MB – and it’s an investment well worth making, if performance is important. Unlike lower models, it comes with high-performance GDDR5 memory and a powerful GPU capable of running most games at an acceptable level.

AMD’s offering in the mainstream market is the Radeon HD5770 1GB, a previous-generation card that can still offer impressive performance. While it includes more RAM than the competing Nvidia offering, performance is slightly slower – and to get a lower model from the company’s higher performance range will come with a £30-£40 premium over Nvidia’s equivalent. An example is the Radeon HD 6850 1GB, which offers enhanced performance and new features from AMD’s current mainstream GPU range, but which comes at a cost.

Radeon HD5770 Vapour-X

An AMD HD5770-based card from Vapor-X.

Both AMD and Nvidia cards in the mainstream range come with the features you might expect: multi-monitor support, HDMI-out for HDTV connections, and built-in HD audio decoding. Many include support for multiple graphics cards in a single system via Nvidia’s SLI or AMD’s CrossFireX technology – and if your motherboard supports it, it can offer a quick future upgrade path.

Whether you choose an AMD card or an Nvidia card, expect to spend around £100 to £120. Higher-end models can be had for £140 to £160, but if you’re spending more than that you’re likely to enter the premium market – which brings with it high cost and rapid depreciation, in exchange for cutting-edge performance.

You’re a power gamer. You’ve got a monitor the size of most people’s TV, and you need a card that can drive the sheer volume of pixels you require to make the most of it. The rest of your system is fine, but your graphics card is getting a little long in the tooth – and you don’t mind spending to improve your frame rates.

This is the area in which graphics card companies make their most money. Cutting-edge hardware offers amazing performance and next-generation visuals, but you can expect to pay through the nose for it – with many cards costing the same as an entire low-end PC system.

The premium market is also where you need to be the most careful: high-end graphics cards are often bulky and come with high power consumption components. You’ll want to measure twice before buying to make sure it can fit in your case, and you’ll need a beefy power supply to cope with your new card’s power demands.

If you’re sure that it’s a premium card you want, however, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Both AMD and Nvidia have recently released next-generation GPUs that offer performance eclipsing anything that has gone before – but, as mentioned, they fetch a high price.

AMD’s most recently launched premium graphics card is the Radeon HD 6970 2GB. As the name suggests, it comes with a massive 2GB of GDDR5 memory clocked at insane speeds, along with a next-generation GPU that can offload tasks from the CPU to speed up physics simulation and other common in-game requirements.

As with the company’s lower-end cards, it also includes support for CrossFireX – meaning, for those who are building the ultimate rig, it’s possible to buy more than one and chain them together for extreme performance gains.

Nvidia’s top-end offering, the GeForce GTX 580, offers less RAM – 1.5GB to AMD’s 2GB – and lower clock speeds, but a more efficient chipset that means an overall increase in performance over the competitor’s product. As with AMD’s offering, you get SLI support for chaining multiple cards together – if your motherboard supports the technology.

However, Nvidia’s board is newer than AMD’s – and, as a result, comes with a significant premium, costing up to £100 more than the equivalent AMD product for a definite but modest improvement in performance. Nvidia GTX 590 cards boast not one but two processors identical in design to the 580 and offer blistering performance – but, unsurprisingly, come at a very hefty premium.

GTX 590 (ENGTX590) Video Card Review

A card based on the money-no-object Nvidia GTX 590 – a snip at £600.

If you’re willing to settle for a slightly older product, AMD’s latest generation of cards is a great choice and will set you back around £300 to £350. Nvidia’s latest GeForce models offer better performance, but you can expect to pay at least £400 for the privilege.