After half a year of discussing gaming performance, it's time for some specific video card recommendations. Almost everyone these days has access to a PC, but what if you'd like to turn that PC into a bona fide gaming rig? This is something I've often felt is a critical factor in the gaming consoles vs. gaming PCs debate: you can do much, much more with a PC than with a console. So take any moderate PC -- all you really need is 8GB RAM and a Core i3/Athlon X4 or higher to get started, though a Core i5 or AMD FX would have more legs -- and add in a video card and you now have the equivalent or in many cases a superior gaming system compared to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Wii U. But what sort of performance can you expect from the current generation of video cards, and which GPUs are the best buys right now? (Side note: I'll use the terms "video card" and "GPU" largely interchangeably, though technically the GPU refers more to the chip on the video card than the card itself.)
I've run plenty of performance tests on my collection of video cards, but I don't have access to everything under the sun, and frankly I'm not too interested in getting a great deal on a two year old GPU. So while there may be some good prices on slightly older video cards, I'm going to confine my list of recommendations to the current crop of AMD and NVIDIA offerings. What that means is I'll be looking at AMD's GCN 1.1/1.2 cards, but not GCN 1.0 and earlier; on the NVIDIA side, I'm sticking with Maxwell and Maxwell 2.0 GPUs. If you have a GCN 1.0 card like the HD 7950/7970 / R9 280/280X, you can probably stick with that for a while longer; similarly, any NVIDIA GTX Kepler card should still be fine, though not at maximum detail. Let's get straight to a list of options:
Video Card Pricing Summary, April 2015
I've selected twelve individual video cards for consideration, with five additional dual-GPU configurations at the very top of the pricing list. Just to be clear, even a single $300-$350 video card is going to offer a great gaming experience these days, so the only reason to even look at the higher priced configurations is if you have a high resolution display (2560x1440 or higher) or you're running multiple displays -- or maybe you just want the fastest possible gaming system. One approach would be to take the above list of video cards and decide how much you're willing to spend and then pick an appropriate GPU, but that doesn't always work out optimally.
To help clarify the relative performance, I've used my own benchmarks along with a bunch of research and analysis to give a good estimate of the approximate performance you'll get for the dollar. It sounds pretty simple but trust me: it took a lot of time to come up with comparisons between certain video cards. Everyone knows the GTX 960 is faster than the GTX 750 Ti... but just how much faster are we talking? And not on paper but rather in real-world gaming benchmarks! I'll discuss the relative performance expectations in a moment, but first let's start with a graph of FPS per Dollar.
Not surprisingly, the least expensive video cards tend to deliver more "bang for the buck" than the most expensive video cards -- this is a classic case of diminishing returns. Take the GTX 750 Ti as the baseline for a moment, and $140 will get you a moderately fast video card that will handle most games at 1080p and medium/high settings. Across a broad selection of games, you should expect an average of around 45 FPS, so if you're running a G-SYNC display you should be doing okay. But let's say you want to double that level of performance; to do that you would need at least the GTX 970/R9 290X, which costs $330/$350 -- 2.35X/2.5X as much as a GTX 750 Ti for about twice the performance. And if you wanted to triple the performance of the 750 Ti, you'd need GTX 970 SLI/R9 290X CrossFire, which would be 4.7X/5X the price of a single 750 Ti. Alternatively, the GTX Titan X will also deliver about that same level of performance, but it costs over 7X as much!
So why even worry about the more expensive video cards in the first place? Simple: there are plenty of gamers that want to be able to run at more than 1080p Medium/High settings. At 2560x1440 High/Ultra, on average the GTX 750 Ti won't even break 30 FPS, which means it would be unplayable. With the cost of higher quality displays having come down -- you can find many 27" 2560x1440 IPS displays for under $400, and some of those can be overclocked to 120Hz refresh rates -- you might want a video card that can actually drive that level of detail. And if you're even thinking about a 4Kp60 display, you'd better be ready to pony up for a couple of R9 290X or higher video cards, and even then you'll need to plan on dropping to Medium/High detail in some games.
Without getting too bogged down in the numbers (as that's what the other gaming articles are for), cards like the GTX 750 Ti/R7 260X will do around 40-50 FPS at 1080p with medium/high settings. Bump up to the GTX 960/R9 285 level and all you really gain is the option to run 1080p at very high/ultra settings and similar 40-50 FPS performance. If you want to run 2560x1440, realistically you'll need an R9 290 or GTX 970 or above, and there will still be games (e.g. Assassin's Creed: Unity) where you need to reduce the quality in order to high reasonable frame rates.
Final Recommendations By Price Range
I'll wrap things up with this final table, breaking down the recommendations based on pricing with a short note on what sort of settings the GPU(s) will handle well. There will be games that don't require as much GPU horsepower as well as titles that require more GPU, but in my book it doesn't hurt to spend a bit more if possible. Also note that while NVIDIA has pretty much revealed all their cards we're still waiting to see what AMD has in store. When AMD finally launches their next round of GPUs, we may finally see pricing on some of the faster NVIDIA parts come down. Right now the rumors point to a June time frame for AMD's R9 390/390X, while driver updates suggest most of the R9 370 and lower cards will simply be rebranded versions of the existing GPUs.
Video Card Recommendations, April 2015
|Entry Level||$100-$125||R7 260X||1920x1080 and Medium to High|
|Mainstream||$150-$200||GTX 960 or R9 285||1920x1080 and High to Ultra|
|High-End||$250-$350||GTX 970 or R9 290X||2560x1440 and High to Ultra|
|Enthusiast||$500+||GTX 970 SLI||2560x1440 Ultra or 4K Medium/High|
Just a few final notes about the recommendations. While AMD is quite competitive at lower price tiers, things get a bit more questionable at the enthusiast level. Technically R9 290X CrossFire is a reasonable alternative to GTX 970 SLI, but my personal experience is that the fan noise associated with running two 290X GPUs in CrossFire isn't worth the added cost. The exception to that rule is if you're really serious about 4K gaming. NVIDIA is competitive and often class leading in most other settings, but at 4K AMD's R9 290X can often spoil the party. I'd still hold off buying R9 290X until the next generation of AMD GPUs is revealed, but that probably won't happen until June or thereabouts.