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Video Cards: State of the GPU Nation

Video Cards: State of the GPU Nation

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Mal’s Computer Corner

by Malefico

The Basics

If you play PC games, or you are thinking about jumping in to this area of the hobby, you probably have heard quite a bit of debate about video cards, or GPU’s. I delve briefly into what a GPU is in my APU article, but there’s a more comprehensive article here. The purpose of this article is to explore the industry from the perspective of an average gamer, and make some recommendations based on price points as to what parts to buy.

Now, I’m going to make some blanket statements that will probably draw fire from PC gamers. In my experience, most (75%) of gamers will never take full advantage of their GPU’s capabilities, even folks who play FPS. Consequently, most people spend way too much on their video cards.

Currently, the emphasis from graphics elitists is to push resolutions past HD into the world of ridiculous… 2 X, 3 X and even 4 X HD. First, in order to display even the “lowest” of these absurd resolutions, you’re going to have to drop about $500 minimum on a monitor to display them. Second, subjectively the additional detail is not worth it, and at the extreme edge of display resolutions can’t even be discerned by the average eyes.

Does everybody remember when the TV manufacturing industry had this grand plan to “upgrade” everyone’s TV experience, and they rolled out the flat screens, and 95% of the population didn’t care to own them? The transition from analog to digital broadcasting was delayed about three years because most folks didn’t see the cost to benefit ratio of buying the new hardware. Just so is the average gamer’s need for a stupendously powerful video card.

Aspects of graphics performance like resolution and frame rate are important. Added resolution brings the fine details developers slave to create into focus, and high frame rates ensure a smooth, flowing environment. Ironically, FPS games, which place the most demands on video cards (there are a few titles in other genres that “require” good hardware) are the games where you’re least likely to be able to wander around appreciating the scenery.

If you don’t play FPS games, you can easily get by on a mid-range card and be happy with your graphics for years, probably the lifetime of the system. This brings me to my second point: really high-end cards (for me, with the prices on really good cards now), those costing $300-400 or more, are a waste of money. The only reason I’d ever tell someone to drop that kind of loot on one component is if they want to be able to take the video card and put it into the NEXT build, after the current one finally dies. While I’ll gladly put one in a system build if that’s what the customer wants, I never recommend spending more than about $200. If you really want to spend $600 on a video card, do this instead- buy a $200 card, then three years from now buy a $200 card, then three years after that buy a $200 card. Given the rate of advancement in the GPU industry, six years down the road I guarantee you’ll end up with performance equal or greater than the $600 bad boy, and you’ll have a brand-new part. Since swapping video cards should take you no more than 30 minutes including loading new drivers, the benefit of sticking with a humbler card is clear. In the meantime, you won’t have had to buy the level of cooling and power components that go along with the high-end card.

ATI Technologies, Inc. and Nvidia Corporation are the two major players in the desktop graphics card industry. Both companies have their diehard supporters. Generally speaking, what these two companies do is to research and improve the hardware necessary to render graphics, and then license out their designs to hardware manufacturing companies. There are numerous companies that make graphics cards based on these designs. ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, Powercolor, Sapphire, Sparkle and XFX are among the brands currently available. Since the cards are based on ATI or Nvidia specs, card performance is usually very similar among brands.

However, performance and longevity can definitely be affected by the quality of components used, especially cooling systems. CPU’s and GPU’s that are cleaned regularly and cooled properly will last longer than those that aren’t. Right now, video cards consume more power and generate more heat than any other part in a computer, so adequate cooling is one of the primary concerns when buying a video card. If you are looking to buy a higher-end video card, you not only have to consider the design of the card, but you’ll need to add extra case cooling capacity. In most cases, extra fans will do the trick. For really powerful cards or, more likely, multiple card setups (called Crossfire by ATI and SLI by Nvidia) liquid cooling may be required. But, just like high-end video cards, I see the liquid-cooling systems as gimmicky niche products, overkill in the vast majority of computer systems. Or maybe it’s my natural hesitation to run any sort of liquid through a delicate electronic device. In truth, the liquid cooling systems are usually well designed and won’t dump their fluids in your case, but my philosophy is anything built by man can fail catastrophically.

Memory type is also important in GPU’s. There are a number of card models that are offered in both DDR3 and DDR5 versions. Always go with the DDR5 card. This memory type excels in the kind of demands placed on video cards. A fair rule of thumb is that a given amount of DDR5 is worth more than twice that quantity in DDR3. So a 1GB DDR5 card has more than twice the memory bandwidth than the same card design with 2GB DDR3. Higher-end cards exclusively use DDR5.

Also, remember that you’ll have to figure in the possibility of additional case cooling and the need for a better power supply for your system if you are upgrading, or that you’ll have to take these things into account if you are building a tower from scratch.

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The Bottom Line

I’ll be exploring both ATI and Nvidia offerings in all the price points below. I’ll give recommendations based on performance vs. price at all levels. In some cases, a card that doesn’t perform quite as well will get the nod based on value instead of raw power. ATI recently unveiled a new line of cards (R7 and R9) based on existing architecture, with high end cards using new chipsets coming soon. Unless you are sprung on having the “latest” hardware, none of the current R7/R9 series are recommended, since their higher price isn’t mitigated by spectacular performance gains. As a result of the new introductions, “old” Radeon cards have substantially dropped in price, resulting in some lopsided contests. I can only guess that because Nvidia enjoys an almost fanatical customer base, they believe that their diehard groupies are willing to pay more for less at this point. More power to them if this works.

All comparisons are based on detailed benchmarks published by Anandtech

Level 1

For those folks who only game casually (either do most of their playing outside the realm of FPS or are more interested in recreating old console games via emulators), and don’t expect to get into video creation/editing, a low-end GPU is all you will ever need.

For these gamers, two cards to consider are the Radeon HD 6000 series and lower-priced Nvidia GT 600 cards. Of particular note is the Radeon HD 6570 2GB DDR3 GPU. A comparison between the very slightly better Radeon 6670 and GT 640 can be seen here.

Right now, the Radeon 6570 2GB and competing GT 630 from NVidia are going for about $60. Stepping up to the 6670 2GB card will set you back around $75 (although there are some attractive rebates on these cards that take them back down to $60), with Nvidia’s GT 640 going for around $90. Based on price/performance alone, Radeon comes out on top in this bracket. However, as the Anandtech comparison shows, the two brands are close and you should really look at the benchmarks, see what card does better in the kind of games you play, and consider that before buying.

Level 2

Gamers who play FPS and are willing to use low/medium video settings will need to pony up some more dough and start thinking about additional cooling. Moving up in price, the Radeon HD 7770 and Nvidia GTX 650 both come in around $110 for 1GB DDR5 versions, with 2GB cards priced as low as $120. Starting with these cards, you need a power supply with dedicated 6-pin PCI-E power connectors and a maximum power output in the 450-500Watt range minimum. As the Anandtech comparison shows, the Radeon card handily beats Nvidia at this price point. One notable exception is Starcraft II, but unless this is the only game you play the 7770 is the way to go. If you choose Nvidia in this arena, you’re really just buying a label.

Closer to the $150 mark, the Radeon HD 7850 becomes available. The MSI Twin Frozr card is a spectacular value at $140 (right now with a $30 rebate). For $10 more, Nvidia offers the GTX 650 Ti BOOST GPU. Again, these two cards are closely matched in performance, so go with the brand you like or find out more from Anandtech. These cards require two PCI-E power leads and power supplies in the 600-750 Watt range. Based on price alone, the Radeon comes out on top. But Nvidia may be changing their thinking about the price structure as their competing cards have been brought down closer to Radeon.

Level 3

At this price level, you’re starting to get into serious gaming hardware. FPS players can use high/ultra settings at acceptable frame rates. These cards take two or more 6 or 8-pin PCI-E leads and additional cooling is required. Power supplies have to be 750 Watts minimum and more is better. Starting at $170, Radeon offers the HD 7870 2GB DDR5. Nvidia counters with the GTX 660 at $190. These two cards are very close in performance, as shown here. With some companies offering excellent rebates, Radeon earns a higher performance/dollar rating and therefore the recommendation. If you’re willing to pay a bit more the GTX 660 is a very good card.

Level 4

Moving up over the $200 price point puts you into the realm of mid- to high-end cards. Some of the reasons I don’t recommend paying this for a GPU is the wide selection of great cards that are cheaper, the need for extreme power and cooling solutions, and the diminishing performance returns you get as prices increase. From here on out what you are really buying is various levels of extreme future-proofing. Unfortunately, because you also have to back up your graphics card with high-quality cooling and power parts, these solutions offer even less performance vs. the money you spend.

The Radeon 7950 starts showing up at $240, with its slightly bigger brother, the 7970, available at $260 and up. Nvidia’s excellent GTX 760 splits the difference at $250. You can verify my assessment on Anandtech by pitting the 7950 and 7970 against the GTX 760, but realistically the 760 is a bit better than the 7950 and slightly worse than the 7970. In this price range, there are no spectacular, no-brainer deals. You pay for each little bit of performance increase. Remember to add for a good power supply of at least 750 Watts and a beefy cooling system.

It’s also worth mentioning that with powerful lesser cards available, some might want to go with Crossfire/SLI, using two $100 plus cards in lieu of one $250 GPU. However, these setups require extensive planning, since the motherboard, case and other factors join power and cooling in adding expense. In most cases, extensive cooling mods are required to deal with two high-heat parts sitting close together in the case. These vary in price, type and expense. Overall, if you are considering dropping this kind of money on the graphics capacity of your system, you will end up spending about the same using a single powerful card vs. two lower-end cards once you factor in all the ancillaries.

Level 5

These are the cohibas, baby, the monte cristos. The crème de la crème of gaming graphics goodness. Power supplies of at least 800-1000 or more Watts are mandatory, and are usually accompanied by high-quality air-cooling or basic liquid-cooling systems. In much of this realm, at least until specs are available for the next-gen Radeon R9 cards become available, Nvidia pretty much rules unopposed if only because so many of their cards are so expensive.

The Nvidia GTX 770 cards use at least 3GB DDR5 (more commonly 4GB) and start just north of $400. Their stronger sibling, the GTX 780 runs closer to $500 and is considered by a lot of graphics disciples to be the “best value” card among the heavy hitters. However, if you have half a grand to drop on a video card, you can probably stretch to $600 and pick up a Radeon HD 7990 which backhands either of the GTX 700 series cards and stacks up very favorably to Nvidia’s GTX Titan or GTX 690, cards which cost around $1000.

The Verdict

Above $1000, you start getting into the realm of low-end workstation GPU’s designed for professional artists and engineers who need more grunt than even the best consumer cards can provide.

This very short list of cards is meant to provide a basic measuring stick depending on how much you want to spend. There are numerous cards that occupy niches between the stated price points- cards with extra memory or special variants that include factory-overclocked GPU’s are common in the market. If you do the research, you can find the perfect card that will meet your needs now and in the future. To help you, I’ve included an excellent hierarchical chart generated and maintained by Tom’s Hardware, found here. The article of which the chart is a part is also very informative. Take particular note as to how far up the scale inexpensive cards are compared to the flagships.

Brand fans will stick to their chosen moniker, often when it makes no sense to do so, but most gamers entering the world of PC gaming want as much bang for their buck as they can get. These individuals should take a bit of time to consider how much they want to spend vs. the limit of how much they can spend. With smart shopping, the majority of us can put together systems for as little as $500 and no more than $800, depending on their budget and expectations, what parts they can transplant from an existing tower, etc.

In the world of GPU’s there’s definitely a sweet spot that combines performance and price. For me, that area falls between $100-200. If you look at a comparison of the Radeon 7870 and the GTX 690, shown here, you can see the flagship Nvidia card outperforms the little Radeon by 50-60%, but it costs over 500% more. To me, the diminishing returns you get when forking out big bucks for a GPU make no sense. Many gamers won’t ever use the full capability of a $1000 card, or a $500 card for that matter. The only coherent reason for spending that kind of money is either to impress your friends by name-dropping expensive hardware items, or if you are one of the very few that actually earns a living playing games professionally.

In the end, like any other PC component, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get excellent performance. Don’t be tempted to buy something you don’t expect to need for several years. At that point, there will be something better available for a moderate price.

Written by Nerd Bacon

Nerd Bacon

 
 

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3 Comments

  1. I’m basing my opinion on Nvidia being better than AMD when it comes to GPUs on proof that is too old to be legit anymore. When I had my first computer (some old ass Dell with a 500Mhz Pentium III that my dad got for free from a guy who knew a guy kinda deal), I went to my local Micro Center and picked up a 64MB AMD GPU. I had just gotten GTA III and needed more dedicated video memory than the integrated 8MB (wow) AMD video card had. I installed it, and GTA III would now install and allow me to play it. However, the performance was so bad it was unplayable. I brought it back and switched it out for the equivalent 64MB Nvidia GPU at no charge and holy hell, what a performance boost. I could actually play the game. Now I know there are many reasons why this is moot, but I was a teenager and this stuck with me. I haven’t had the chance to really give AMD a shot because I stuck with Nvidia ever since. Matter of fact, I’ve only purchased 2 GPUs since then, and my last one has been more than enough since I purchased it in 2009. The last game I played with all of the settings on ultra, including antialiasing & anisotropic filtering, was Ghost Recon Online. While I never recorded the actual FPS I was achieving, it was perfectly smooth, but I can’t say for sure if it could handle the likes of Crysis and whatnot. I’m basically throwing my opinion out here with no current evidence to back it up. I’m trying to make 2 points, Nvidia was better to me in my one case from far back which is the reason I stick with them, and the fact that I purchased my 9800 GTX+ for $135 back in ’09 and it is still a beast. AMD very well may create very good GPUs, but Nvidia has my heart, and most likely always will. I’m NOT bashing AMD, just praising Nvidia, but I am NOT an Nvidia fanboy.

    Also, nice article.

     
  2. Wow Malefico, your articles like these are slowly making me wish I’d stayed interested in computers…

    Back in 1998 when I was like 13 I managed to work my way through the process of installing an internal CD burner into my parents’ old 2GB Gateway.

     

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