The best graphics cards

Wes Fenlon

Msi Gtx 980

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— Best gaming CPUs— Best graphics cards
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New to PC Gaming? Here are 10 things every PC gamer should own.

Updated 1/29/2015: We've updated this guide to address the memory issues with the GTX 970, which you can read more about on the next page or in this article. We're still evaluating how this change will affect the card's value long-term, but for now, it's still our recommended graphics card for most gamers.

The CPU may be the brain of your PC, but when it comes to gaming, the graphics card is the beating heart that pumps pixels out of your obelisk of a tower and into your monitor. A graphics card consists of dedicated video memory and a graphics processing unit that handles all sorts of calculations, like mapping textures and rendering millions of polygons. Today's GPUs are so fast, they can even take on calculations like physics processing that would normally be handled by the CPU. The graphics card is, simply, the most vital component of your gaming PC.

Games are rarely bottlenecked by your CPU, but dozens of games every year will push your graphics card to its limits. It's the component you'll want to upgrade most frequently (though if you buy the right card, it should last you at least two years), and likely the part you'll spend the most money on. On a practical budget, it's critical to find the graphics card with the best ratio of price to performance. That's why our recommendation for the best graphics card is the Nvidia GeForce GTX 970.

At $330 (~£215), Nvidia's GTX 970 is a killer card, outperforming cards released in 2013 that cost $100-$200 more. It's overclockable, quiet, and efficient in its power usage. Most importantly, it's able to run most of 2014's most demanding games at 60 frames per second, 1080p, and ultra settings. It's the best card for the price.

The GTX 970 is the card we'd recommend to most—but not all—PC gamers. Maybe you've got cash to burn, and need a card that can run games at 4K resolution. Or maybe you're trying to build a dirt-cheap gaming PC with an even cheaper graphics card. Our graphics card guide includes three picks for budget, mid-range, and crazy-high-end gaming PCs.

By the way, the card pictured above is actually an MSI GTX 980. The GTX 970 looks the same, plus one DVI port. It's just such a pretty photo.

Testing graphics cards

Our graphics card recommendations are based on our own benchmarks and testing, as well as research into the reviews and testing done by other sites. Along with Maximum PC, we have benchmark data for a range of Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, including the GTX 980, Nvidia 700 series, AMD R9 290X, and more.

What makes the best graphics card? For PC gamers, it's a balance of price and performance. The graphics card must be able to run demanding games at high framerates and settings at 1080p, the resolution most gamers still use. It shouldn't cost more than other cards with comparable performance. The card should be fast enough to still perform respectably two years later, even if it can't run everything at max settings.

Graphics performance isn't the only consideration. The quality of game drivers and other software features supported by the card are important. The card's noise level, power draw and temperature matter, too.

On the next page: the best graphics card for most gamers.

Page 1: Introduction to graphics cards
Page 2: The best graphics card
Page 3: The best graphics card for 4k gaming
Page 4: The best budget graphics card
Page 5: Wrapping up, competitors, and future testing

Msi Geforce Gtx 970

The best graphics card: Nvidia GTX 970

Nvidia introduced both the GTX 980 and the GTX 970 in early September 2014, primarily focusing on the 980’s killer performance and impressively low power consumption. But the Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 is the more important card: it’s priced closer to Nvidia’s typical mid-range graphics, while nipping the 980’s heels when it comes to performance. Eurogamer calls it “that rarest of things in the graphics card market—a genuine game-changer...its performance per pound ratio is so strong that some might say there's little point considering any other high-end GPU currently available—and that includes Nvidia's own flagship GTX 980.”

At a starting price of $330 (~£215), the GTX 970 offers 4GB of GDDR5 VRAM, 1664 CUDA cores, and a base clock of 1050 MHz. That may not sound incredibly fast, but the GTX 970’s base clock leaves tons of room for overclocking, and its boost clock can pass the 1500 MHz mark. Also, keep in mind the full specs to the right are only the base numbers from Nvidia. The card you'll buy from EVGA, Gigabyte, etc. will almost certainly be clocked higher.

GTX 970 specs

CUDA cores: 1664
Base clock: 1050 MHz
Boost clock: 1178 MHz
Single precision: 4 teraflops
Memory config: 4GB 256-bit GDDR5
Memory speed: 7.0 Gbps
Outputs: 3xDisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 2.0, dual-link DVI

A direct spec comparison between the GTX 970 and older Nvidia hardware isn’t going to show you exactly how fast this card is. Because of improvements in Nvidia’s new Maxwell architecture used in the 980 and 970, the card is nearly as fast as the 780 Ti, which launched at $700. Nvidia has made architectural improvements with Maxwell that make its graphics processing more efficient, especially at higher resolutions like 1440p and 4K.

According to Nvidia, each CUDA core in the 900 series is 40% more efficient, which explains why the 970 can go toe-to-toe with the 780 Ti, which has 2880 CUDA cores to the 970’s 1664. Improved color compression helps performance at high resolutions. And the 970’s performance-per-watt is dramatically better than 700 series cards. While gaming, benchmarks show the GTX 970 drawing less than 200 watts of power, while competitors like the AMD R9 290X and the 780 Ti draw closer to 250 watts.

Let’s look at some actual performance numbers for the GTX 970.

GTX 970 Battlefield4

GTX 970 BioshockInfinite

GTX 970 Heaven

GTX 970 Thermal

The GTX 970 is currently the price/performance champion. It regularly outperforms or matches the R9 290X, an older card that currently costs $100 to $200 more. And there’s more goodness on top of that. 

Nvidia’s GeForce Experience is a fantastic, regularly updated driver suite that includes Shadowplay for recording game footage with minimal performance hit. On Maxwell GPUs, Shadowplay can record 4K 60fps video (although with the 970, capturing at 1080p is more practical). It can stream straight to Twitch. Nvidia’s optimization tool can tweak your game settings automatically, if you don’t like making manual adjustments. Some new APIs and technologies from Nvidia GameWorks, which I wrote about here, are also exclusive to Maxwell.

Update, 1/29/2015: Testing has brought to light the fact that the GTX 970 encounters performance issues when using all 4GB of its VRAM, due to the card's memory architecture. This problem wasn't obvious in regular usage and the review process because the 970 typically performed extremely well running games at reasonable settings (primarily gaming at 1080p and 1440p). Pushing the card to use all 4GB VRAM, by running games at 4K or with maximum anti-aliasing, can cause some serious framerate spikes. You can read more about these problems here.

The fact remains that the GTX 970's overall performance is fantastic for the price. It's not the card we recommend for 4K gaming or extreme performance. That's on the next page. For most gamers, we still think this is the best value available.

If you’re convinced, there’s only one question left: which GTX 970 do you buy? Nvidia ships its cards to companies like ASUS, EVGA and Gigabyte, which install their own coolers on the cards and sometimes overclock them before selling them to consumers. The good news is that all these companies get the same parts, so performance won’t vary wildly from one to another. The bad news is that makes it a bit hard to choose one.

We haven’t tested each version of the GTX 970 yet, but we have reviewed the $370 (£300) Gigabyte G1 Gaming, which is a fantastic card, capable of overclocking up to 1500 MHz while staying as cool as 64 C. We can recommend the Gigabyte G1 Gaming, but if it's out of stock, these other versions of the GTX 970 should offer similar performance; the more expensive cards are often overclocked out of the box or come with more robust coolers.

GTX 970 G1 Gaming

For UK readers

The best prices we've seen on the GTX 970 in the UK are on Newegg, but most GTX 970 cards are currently unavailable there and on Amazon. We'll update this list when they're in supply.

On the next page: the best graphics card for 4K gaming.

Page 1: Introduction to graphics cards
Page 2: The best graphics card
Page 3: The best graphics card for 4k gaming
Page 4: The best budget graphics card
Page 5: Wrapping up, competitors, and future testing

Nvidia Gtx980 Sli

The best graphics card for 4K gaming: Nvidia GTX 970 SLI

If you’re gaming at 1080p, a single 970 is a great card. You’ll be able to run games at high and ultra settings and 60 fps. 1440p and 1600p gaming, though, is a different story. To keep a consistent 60 fps at ultra settings in most games, not even a GTX 980 will be enough. For high settings at those resolutions, or even at 4K, the best graphics card is actually another GTX 970.

The GTX 980 costs $550 (£429), though as of this writing the cards are out of stock and prices are far higher. But you can get two GTX 970s for $660, and the extra graphics power is essential for max settings at an average 60 fps when it comes to resolutions above 1080p. Our tests have shown that two GTX 970s significantly outperform a single GTX 980, and can even handle most games at 4K 60fps.

If you want to play games at those settings and resolutions right now, a pair of GTX 970 cards in SLI is the way to go. You’re getting far more for your money than you are with a single 980.

Over at Anandtech, the EVGA GTX 970 manages to beat out the R9 290X and nearly match the GTX 980 in a number of 4K benchmarks. And on high settings, it's actually able to hit framerates of around 50 fps in Bioshock Infinite and Metro: Last Light!

Ultra settings are far more demanding, of course, but there a pair of GTX 970s running in SLI really shine. On Ultra at 4K resolution, Techpowerup found that two GTX 970s often matched or outperformed the dual-GPU AMD Radeon R9290X2, and was able to deliver playable-to-great framerates in most games: 75 fps in Bioshock Infinite, 46 fps in Battlefield 4, 45 fps in Metro: Last Light, 67.5 fps in Tomb Raider. Other sites that performed SLI benchmarks returned similar results. Considering that two GTX 970s cost about $700, compared to the $1000 R9295X2, the GTX 970 is still the best bargain around.

If you have tons of money to spend on cards, though, two GTX 980s are the best bet for gaming at 4K. In our testing, a pair of GTX 980s in SLI dramatically outperformed AMD’s dual-GPU R9 295X in most games, and they cost only $100 more--$1100 versus $1000. The 980 also outperforms Nvidia’s older cards, including the 780 Ti and the Titan Black.

GTX 980 Batman

Two GTX 980s is absolutely overkill for 1600p gaming, which is why we’d recommend a pair of 970s for any PC gamer with a large (but not insane) budget. There is one other alternative: buy a single GTX 980 now, with plans to pick up another GTX 980 later, for SLI. When Nvidia rolls out a new wave of cards in 2015, the 980 will drop in price.

But we don’t like this approach. Next year’s graphics cards will only be more efficient when it comes to 4K gaming, and staggering your card purchases for SLI will just put you behind the curve. It’s better to buy once and keep the same cards for as long as you’re happy with their performance.

Some gamers prefer to go for a fast single card over two cards in SLI, and we understand why. Running two GPUs can sometimes introduce issues in games like microstutter, or offer less efficient performance than each of the cards would deal individually. But as we've pointed out in the past, sometimes two well-priced cards can greatly exceed the performance of one high-end single-GPU card. That's exactly the case here with the GTX 970—two 970s costs $100-$150 more than a GTX 980, yet deliver far greater performance.

Best strategy: buy two GTX 970s now for 60fps, ultra settings at 1440p and above. Only buy two GTX 980s if you have tons of cash to burn and already own a 4K monitor.

Gtx 980 Gtx 970For UK readers

The best prices we've seen on the GTX 970 in the UK are on Newegg, but most GTX 970 cards are currently unavailable there and on Amazon. We'll update this list when they're in supply.

On the next page: the best budget graphics card.

Page 1: Introduction to graphics cards
Page 2: The best graphics card
Page 3: The best graphics card for 4k gaming
Page 4: The best budget graphics card
Page 5: Wrapping up, competitors, and future testing

Sapphire 270x

The best budget graphics card: AMD Radeon R9 270X

Nvidia’s GTX 970 is such a good deal around the $330 range, it’s hard to recommend a budget graphics card in remotely the same price range. Why spend $250 or $300 on a decent mainstream card when you can spend just a bit more on an incredible price/performance value? That’s why, for the budget card, we’re dipping all the way down to $190 with the AMD R9 270X.

Radeon R9 270X Specs

Stream processors: 1280
Core clock: 1000 MHz
Boost clock: 1050 MHz
Memory clock: 2GB 256-bit 5.6GHz GDDR5
Memory speed: 5.6 Gbps
Outputs: DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 1.4a, 2x dual-link DVI.

In a recent round-up of mainstream graphics cards for the magazine, PC Gamer’s resident GPU master Dave James scored the Sapphire R9 270X Toxic a 91 and an editor’s choice award. He wrote “it’s not the fastest of the seven I tested, but it is my pick for the best balance between price and speed...It’s $90 cheaper than MSI’s GTX 760 Nvidia card and while it does take a bit of a beating in the Heaven and Bioshock Infinite tests, it’s almost level in Battlefield 4, Grid 2, and Total War: Rome 2...when you can hit a smooth 50 fps in BF4, at full HD Ultra settings, you can’t ask for more from a sub-$300 graphics card.”

The R9 270X is now easy to pick up for under its $220 street price. This is a card that will be able to handle most games at 1080p and high settings, but don’t expect to get 60 fps in demanding games, or to be able to crank up AA and everything to Ultra. This won’t be as future proof as an Nvidia GTX 970, but it will run all but the most demanding games well at 1080. It’s Tom’s Hardware’s pick for “serious upper mainstream performance.”

AMD’s drivers and software aren’t as robust or up-to-date as Nvidia’s, but the AMD control center does, at least, make it very easy to overclock their cards. You’ll be able to eke a bit more speed out of the 270X with some modest overclocking.

So which R9 270X should you buy? Our advice: the cheapest one you can find. Most of them float around $170-$190, usually with a small rebate.

R9 270X Sapphire Toxic 2

For UK readers

On the next page: competitors, wrapping up, and future testing.

Page 1: Introduction to graphics cards
Page 2: The best graphics card
Page 3: The best graphics card for 4k gaming
Page 4: The best budget graphics card
Page 5: Wrapping up, competitors, and future testing

Msi Gtx 980

Wrapping up: competitors and future testing

We decided the Nvidia GTX 970 was the best graphics card for most gamers after benchmarking the newest GTX 970 and 980 and comparing those numbers to other cards we’ve benchmarked, including their closest competitors: the AMD R9 290X, R9295X2, Nvidia GTX 780 and 780 Ti. And those are hardly the only cards we considered. We looked at past testing data, comparing numbers from our own testing, Maximum PC’s benchmarking, and data from Tom’s Hardware, Anandtech, and elsewhere.

AMD’s R9 290X outperforms the GTX 970 at 4K, but it’s $150 to $200 more expensive. Amazingly, the GTX 970 turns in better scores at 1600p despite its much lower price.

AMD’s R9295X and the Titan-Z are definitely more powerful cards, but they’re also incredibly expensive--$1000 and $3000, respectively, for dual-GPU single cards. The 970 is absolutely a more efficent card, and a much better price/performance pick for 1080p or even 1600p gaming.

Nvidia knows the 900 series is a game-changer, which is why they’ve discontinued the GTX 770, 780 and 780 Ti. The new cards deliver better performance at a lower price.

The GTX 980 is the only card we’d currently consider recommending over the 970, but you don’t get nearly as much for the price as you do with the 970.

Future testing

The Nvidia GTX 970 is the best graphics card for gaming for the forseeable future, but this is a fast-changing field. Dramatic price cuts often happen every few months, and Nvidia and AMD are always out to one-up each other. AMD will soon have new cards, or price cuts that make its cards more competitive against the GTX 970. We’ll be updating this guide in the future as new cards are released and the graphics field continues to change.

A note on affiliates: some of our stories, like this one, include affiliate links to stores like Amazon. These online stores share a small amount of revenue with us if you buy something through one of these links, which helps support our work evaluating PC components.

Page 1: Introduction to graphics cards
Page 2: The best graphics card
Page 3: The best graphics card for 4k gaming
Page 4: The best budget graphics card
Page 5: Wrapping up, competitors, and future testing

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