This month, we look at Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 680, the fastest single-GPU graphics card in the world. In addition, we talk about the arrival of the Radeon HD 7800 series, and the consequent price shifting of the entire £160+ graphics card market.
Detailed graphics card specifications and reviews are great—that is, if you have the time to do the research. But at the end of the day, what a gamer needs is the best graphics card within a certain budget.
So, if you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right card, then fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best gaming cards offered for the money.
After a flurry of AMD Radeon HD 7000-series launches, along with the Radeon HD 7870 and 7850 finally showing up at retail, Nvidia finally struck back. Before we talk about pricing and recommendations in general, let's consider this major redistribution of power at the high-end.
Nvidia's Kepler Arrives: GK104 and the GeForce GTX 680
Nvidia's next-generation architecture is called Kepler, and despite the fact that it landed later than originally expected, it's a very impressive product. The first Kepler-derived silicon available for purchase is GK104, the chip that powers the GeForce GTX 680. Although it's a 28 nm part, GK104 isn't a simple die shrink of what Nvidia had before. It's a fairly different architecture, which derives much from Fermi, but includes significant optimizations for power consumption. With 192 CUDA cores per streaming multiprocessor (SMX), and eight SMXs, this graphics processor sports 1536 shaders, 128 texture units, and 32 full color ROPs. The design is so different that its resources can't be compared 1:1, though the numbers add up to three times the CUDA cores and two times as many texture units as GeForce GTX 580, but only two-thirds of the ROPs.
Whereas Fermi's shader clocks ran at 2x core clock, Kepler runs at one frequency across the chip. For GeForce GTX 680, that means all resources run at a 1006 MHz base. The GDDR5 memory clock is a very fast 1502 MHz. But it's on a 256-bit aggregate interface, resulting in similar bandwidth compared to the GeForce GTX 580's 1002 MHz on its 384-bit bus. The new card's performance sets a new bar for single-GPU products, surpassing AMD's Radeon HD 7970 on average. But the impressive part is that GeForce GTX 680 manages to fit this performance within a conservative 195 W TDP, which is 55 W less than the Radeon. Fermi's power-hungry days are over.
Is there anything to complain about? Well, overclocking on the GeForce GTX 680 isn't as consistent as many enthusiasts would like. GPU Boost does much of this already, and we've seen situations where pushing too far without additional cooling starts pulling performance in the wrong direction. We were able to overclock our GeForce GTX 680 press sample by as much as 15%. However, our retail-purchased Radeon HD 7970s have even more headroom available, yielding a better overall response to tuning. With that said, when you overclock both cards, the GeForce maintains its lead. The margin between the boards simply gets a little smaller. And when you consider the lower price on GeForce GTX 680 cards, Nvidia's still has the upper hand.
Right now, our biggest issue with the GeForce GTX 680 is availability. Launch stock evaporated quickly, and although Nvidia claims that thousands of cards are finding their way to retailers every day, we've been on watch lists for several cards for a while now, and still haven't been notified of boards for sale yet. We're waiting to see how long it takes for the manufacturers to provide a steady stream of inventory. Read more about Nvidia's latest in our launch review, GeForce GTX 680 2 GB Review: Kepler Sends Tahiti On Vacation.
Major Price Shifting
With the introduction of new cards that shatter previous expectations of performance at established price points, it's no surprise that the +£160 graphics card market is in the middle of a shakedown. The £190 Radeon HD 7850, £275 Radeon HD 7870, and even the difficult-to-obtain £400 GeForce GTX 680 are influencing the market, and the market is beginning to adapt.
Let's start with the GeForces. The GTX 580 drops to £390 thanks to the introduction of AMD's £275 Radeon HD 7870. The GeForce GTX 570 falls £25 to £225 as a result of the £180 Radeon HD 7850. And Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448-core is down to £200. Unfortunately, all of those prices need to be lower before they represent good value compared to the Radeon HD 7800s. Nevertheless, the moves are positive.
With no £400 GeForce GTX 680s regularly in stock, AMD apparently doesn't feel pressure to drop the Radeon HD 7970 down where it belongs compared to Nvidia's card. Yes, we have seen certain models dip a little from. However, the £430 7970 should definitely cost less than the GTX 680's £400 to compete relatively. Then again, gamers interested in a £400+ graphics card in the near future may be pushed toward the somewhat-slower but more available Radeon HD 7970 unless they're willing to wait.
There are still a lot of Radeon HD 6800s in the channel, despite the presence of Radeon HD 7770s, which were supposed to replace them. We're actually pleased about this, since the 7770 isn't as fast as it needs to be to fill that role. Radeon HD 6790 availability continues to wane, unfortunately, as does the stock of 256-bit GeForce GTX 460s.
As for the near future, we can expect to see more Kepler-derived GeForce models over the next few months to fill in the product spaces currently held by GeForce GTX 500s. In addition, the rumors about dual-GPU-equipped cards continue to spread.
Some Notes About Our Recommendations
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:
- This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, then the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need. We've added a reference page at the end of the column covering integrated graphics processors, which is likely more apropos.
- The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance. We acknowledge that recommendations for multiple video cards, such as two Radeon cards in CrossFire mode or two GeForce cards in SLI, typically require a motherboard that supports CrossFire or SLI and a chassis with more space to install multiple graphics cards. They also require a beefier power supply compared to what a single card needs, and will almost certainly produce more heat than a single card. Keep these factors in mind when making your purchasing decision. In most cases, if we have recommended a multiple-card solution, we try to recommend a single-card honourable mention at a comparable price point for those who find multi-card setups undesirable.
- Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t base our decisions on always-changing pricing information, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest.
- The list is based on some of the best U.S./UK prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary.
- These are new card prices. No used or open-box cards are in the list; they might represent a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.