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Hard choices: Graphics Card Update

Which Graphics Card Should I Buy?

Knocking out hardware guides for RPS has been heap good fun, thanks in no small part to the enthusiastic après-post banter. But it's also created a bit of a monster. Problem is, things move fast in ye olde world of tech and especially in graphics. It's been getting on for four months since our first perusal of the world's finest pixel pumpers.

That's long enough for AMD and NVIDIA to roll out a small army of new graphics chips. The good news is that the four 3D boards I recommended back in Feb still look pretty sharp, partly because the arrival of new chips has pushed prices down. But there are also some new GPUs I reckon you need to know about and some broader trends to think about. So here goes.

NVIDIA's GTX 680 is awesome, and yet...

The biggest news has been the arrival of a new high end GPU – well, high end of sorts - from NVIDIA. Variously known as GK104, Kepler (which is actually a whole family of new GPUs) or the GeForce GTX 680, it might just be the best graphics chip NVIDIA has ever made. And I kind of hate it.

On the one hand, it's a preposterously impressive technical achievement from NVIDIA. It's clearly the fastest graphics chip on the planet. In efficiency terms, otherwise known as performance-per-watt in industry parlance, it's completely off the map.

Overall, the GTX 680 is so good it makes AMD's Radeon HD 7970 look fat and wheezy and past it. And that's a chip that only appeared at the end of last year. It's ridiculous. But for upwards of £400, it's also extraordinarily pricey when you consider that it's physically a very small chip by high end GPU standards.

Remarkably, the GK104 GPU that powers GTX 680 boards is actually smaller than the chip inside the GeForce GTX 560Ti, and you can buy one of those for £150. The explanation is a die shrink from 40nm to 28nm transistors, allowing the 680 to squeeze 3.5 billions transistors into less space than the 560 manages to fit 2 billion of the little binary blighters. Ultimately, it's chip size that most determines manufacturing cost.

AMD's once majestic 7970 is now the fat, wheezy kid

Meanwhile, NVIDIA has just announced a much larger Kepler-based GPU that looks much more like a traditional high-end part, the chip known as GK110. It's absolutely massive. It packs 7.5 billion transistors. It's about as sexy as silicon gets. But it may never make it into PCs.

That's a story for another day, since GK110 isn't appearing in any form until the end of the year and has so far only been announced as part of NVIDIA's Tesla product family targeted at industrial number crunching.

Anyway, you could argue the size of a graphics chip is utterly irrelevant to gamers. If it's fast and efficient, if it's cool and quiet, it's worth the money. But the GTX 680 still looks suspiciously like a mid-range chip that just happened to end up insanely fast. And I'd like to see NVIDIA cashing in a little less.

The GTX 670 is a more pleasantly-priced Kepler card

Mercifully, there is now a cheaper version of GK104, the recently released GeForce GTX 670. It's essentially 7/8ths of a GTX 680, which means it's still a monster performer. You can pick up cards for a little over £300. And it's my first recommended buy this time around.

It's a bit of a grudging recommendation since I think it should be about £100 cheaper and I'm generally loathe to recommend cards for more than £200. But when you compare it to AMD's Radeon HD 7900 series, it's hard to conclude that it's not good value of a sort.

There's a little bit of give and take in the benchmarks, admittedly. So, the 7970 takes the spoils in Crysis: Warhead, for instance (does anyone actually play Crysis?), while the 670 hammers AMD in games that actually matter like Battlefield 3 and Skyrim. And when the 670 wins, it tends to wins bigger.

Like I said, the 670 is a great card. I just resent the pricing. As for AMD, since last we spoke it's thoroughly fleshed out the Radeon HD 7000 series. But the only two new chipsets you need to worry about are the Radeons HD 7850 and 7870.

Mid-range machine: AMD's 7800 series is still a bit pricey

These are classic mid-rangers that ought to be right up RPS's alley. They've got proper 256-bit memory buses and healthy clock speeds. But like the GTX 670, I'm not really feeling the pricing. You're looking at £180 and up for the 7850 and £250 for the 7870.

That more or less makes sense when you factor in the stream shader counts. The 7850 gives you 1,024, the 7870 1,280, while the full-on 7970 is a 2,048 shader beast. The problem for me is that the old Radeon HD 6970 can now be had for £200 with the 6950 sitting at around £160, down from roughly £250 and £200 since February – and the latter was for a 1GB card. So, it's far from clear that the new cards are the better buy at current pricing.

The solution could be NVIDIA's upcoming GeForce GTX 660, which should appear this summer and slots in below the 670. If it's any good, it will push the 7800 series down to nearer the sweetspot.

Cheap chip: XFX's Radeon HD 6950 can now be had for just £160

If you can, I'd recommend holding out a month or so for the GTX 660 to appear and the market to readjust. If you really must buy right now, you have three options. If you can stretch all the way to the GTX 670, that's great. If not, a 2GB Radeon HD 7850 isn't a bad buy if you can find it for £180 or less. Otherwise, hunt down the cheapest Radeon HD 6970 or 6950 you can find. There are some real bargains out there, like the 2GB XFX 6950 Scan is currently doing for £160, or Pixmania's Sapphire effort for even less. That's a lot of card for the cash.

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