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. The graphics card is, simply, the most vital component of your gaming PC. And these are the ones worthy of your next PC, whether it's a savvy middle-of-the-road build, a budget rig or a 4K monster.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There's a reason why the memory issue didn't show up in positive initial reviews of the card like ours: you have to go far out of your way, and run the card at resolutions/settings it's not really capable of handling, to spot any issues with its memory management. If you're still suspicious/confused about the 970's performance, read Digital Foundry's excellent breakdown of the controversy. It's a great, informative read.
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. 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 recommend the MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G because it's a great card with near-unanimous positive reviews: quiet, very overclockable, and much cheaper than some other 970 options at $340 on Amazon.
We can also recommend the Gigabyte G1 Gaming. 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.
If you have enough money to build a rig for 4K gaming, the Titan X is the card you want. With an enormous 12GB of VRAM, it's got far more memory to play with than any other card on the market. More memory than today's games can even use, in fact. With a whopping 3072 CUDA cores, it's got the processing power to go beyond 1440p and handle full 4K gaming.
The Titan X is currently the fastest single-GPU card you can buy, but it's not the fastest period. A dual-GPU card like the AMD Radeon R9 295X2, or an SLI setup with multiple Nvidia GTX 980s, could deliver more GPU power. But we always recommend a single GPU setup when possible. Driver support for multiple cards often lags behind, and using multiple cards can introduce new issues like microstutter.
As we wrote in our Titan X review: "Average framerates are not the only metrics by which GPUs should be measured. The difference between the minimum and average framerates can be just as important in showing just how smooth an experience you’re going to get, and often the Nvidia GPU can boast significantly higher scores.
"Battlefield 4 is a prime example. At 4K Ultra the Radeon R9 295X2 is running with an average FPS of 60 while the GTX Titan X is sitting at around 48FPS. The difference in the minimum frame rate, however, is considerable, with the AMD card down at 13FPS and the Nvidia at a much smoother 31FPS.
"That’s also not taking into account the impact running a multi-GPU setup has on your gaming experience. In GPU intensive games like Shadow of Mordor the dual-GPU Radeon can suffer from quite severe frame time stuttering, while the GTX Titan X and its single GPU have showed no such issues in my testing."
4K requires so much graphics power, even a single GTX Titan X isn't going to play every demanding game out there at ultra settings, 60 frames per second. But it's going to do a much better, more consistent job than any single- or multi-GPU alternative.
The Titan X has a lot more going for it. It's overclockable, and stays cool and relatively quiet even under the heaviest load you can throw at it. Just like the GTX 970 and 980, it's also far more power efficient than AMD's competing cards.
If you have money to throw away on 4K gaming, you can probably afford a Titan X. But we'd advise you wait another year or so. 4K is still the bleeding edge when it comes to gaming, and the next two generations of graphics cards will be much better suited to delivering playable framerates at such a massive resolution. The Titan X, powerful as it is, likely won't be our 4K recommendation for long. AMD has new graphics cards coming this summer, and Nvidia will likely launch a more affordable version of the Titan X's GPU with a 980 Ti. If you're still on the fence about 4K, save your money. It's only going to get cheaper.
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 $150 with the Sapphire AMD R9 270X.
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.”
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.
The R9 270X is now easy to pick up for way 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. Sapphire's is much cheaper than the rest, on average, with a $150 price tag on Newegg and Amazon.
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.
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.
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.
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.