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Week in Tech: Buy Yourself The Gift Of Graphics

Something for the one you love...

As the festive season approaches and thoughts inevitably turn to gifts and giving, to those we love and cherish and want to keep safe from all the horror and the hurt, I can't help but recall Captain Blackadder's priorities at such moments. So, that'll be me. Or rather you. Look, what I'm trying to say is that it's nearly Christmas, graphics cards look cheap, so I suggest if you're struggling for frame rates, now's a good time to give yourself a treat and knock that particular problem on the head. Meanwhile, Samsung has wheeled out its first affordable SSD with 3D memory. Sounds exciting. But is it?

Before we begin, a routine disclaimer. It's never going to stop. By that I mean the relentless march of capitalism and technology. Whether its Black Friday as the latest and quite the most odious US import to UK shores or GPUs that process a few more pixels per clock, it's never, ever going to end. Buy anything now and soon enough something shinier and faster will come along.

And yet, there are sweet spots, moments when the merciless refresh cycle of PC components conspires to make pricing more palatable and value more attainable. Now is one of those times.

The most obvious metric here is AMD's Radeon R9 290X. At launch, it was positioned at a wallet-pillaging £450/$550. Aujourd'hui? A comparatively piffling £240/$330.

OK, still not chump change. But what's really appealing is that the 290X remains AMD's finest and fastest GPU, complete with a monster 512-bit memory bus and a healthy 4GB slab of graphics memory. All of which bodes well for half-decent longevity in this age of burgeoning pixel counts, super-wide monitors and 4K panels. You want all the bandwidth you can get and as big a frame buffer as possible.

Anyway, this is the price I would like to have seen the 290X launch at and what with current rumours suggesting AMD will ride the 290X out for about another six months and with Nvidia having just blown its Maxwell load, the current situation augurs for something of a hiatus, relative stasis in both product and pricing.

The inevitable caveat to all this? It's twofold. First, try to avoid AMD's craptastic reference cooler, which looks like this:

Try to get one with a custom cooler, which will look more like the board at the very top of this post. Second, I still occasionally get fed up with AMD's patchy drivers. Yes, it's clichéd to whinge about AMD drivers. But it was only last night I was battling with ye olde boot-to-black-death problems on my main rig after some OS-refresh-and-then-oh-bugger-it-fresh-install escapades. Eventually, I isolated the issue involving multiple GPUs and the order in which you should install hardware and software. But it was yet another hair-tearing, ball-aching evening of futility courtesy of AMD.

Whatever, the current GPU fun really only starts with 290X. Even the mighty Nvidia GeForce GTX 780Ti with its GK110 megachip has dropped to £300/$400. Not that I'd really recommend one. Ditto the over-priced GTX 980. But the 780Ti is at least miles off its £550/$700 launch price.

More intriguing is the GTX 970 and its shiny new Maxwell graphics architecture, now in the offing for £250/$330 or perhaps even a whisker less. It's a tough call, which way I'd personally go regards Nvidia 970 or AMD 290X. You can make the argument both ways.

The AMD option gives you a bona fide high end GPU with a commensurate 512-bit memory bus and the sense that it might just stand up to really high resolutions in the latest games that little bit longer. On the other hand, Nvidia's new Maxwell architecture does rather seem to be a rule breaker and do things that just shouldn't be possible with 28nm chip tech. And for whatever it's worth, most of the evidence suggests Nvidia cards are a bit more consistent across a given selection of games, even if that might be as much to do with game devs shilling themselves out as it is any technological advantage.

The GTX 970 looks like value, the rest of the current Nvidia line up, not so much...

A little further down the stack, things tend to look less compelling value. An AMD 280X is about £55 cheaper than a 290X, but that doesn't seem like enough of a discount for the full generational step backwards to what is really a Radeon HD 7970 by another name. And I don't really fancy the R9 285 and its 256-bit bus. So I'd probably ignore all things AMD until the R9 280 for sub £145/$175.

The rest of Nvidia's clobber looks a bit pricey to me, with the old GTX 770 at around £240/$320. The 760 is a bit of an odd one with UK items seemingly at £155 and Newegg offering an MSI effort for just $170. But a 280 still feels like better value.

My overarching advice would be to try very, very hard to stretch to the £240/$330-ish price point and the 290X / 970 options. They are, for me, the obvious sweet spot picks right now and they will give you serious gaming joy for some time to come with any monitor short of a 4K panel.

Finally, a quick word on Samsung's new 850 EVO solid-state drive. The big news is the use of 3D memory, which means chips with memory cells stacked atop one another. The core idea is cheaper SSDs, but there are a few fringe benefits in terms of performance and efficiency that spring from the way the vertical interconnects are engineered, amongst other things.

Samsung's 850 PRO was actually first out of the blocks with 3D NAND, but the EVO is taking it mainstream.

Anyway, the problem or advantage, depending on how you look at it, with the new 850 EVO is its old school SATA 6Gbps interface. That means you can whack it into pretty much any old PC. But it also means it's pegged back by a hard 600MB/s bandwidth limit and also by the AHCI control protocol I've mentioned previously (which essentially means the chatter between your motherboard and the drive is optimised for ye olde mechanical / magnetic drives, not flash-memory SSDs).

All of which means I hereby declare the 850 EVO a good option if you happen to be buying an SSD, but not really a dramatic upgrade if you've already got a half decent one. Oh, and in the highly unlikely event if you're wondering about Samsung's Rapid Mode, which appears to serve up the kind of performance we've all been waiting for from PCI Express SSDs but someone manages it over SATA, well, it's complete crap as far as I can tell. Knocks out huge benchmark numbers. Does bugger all in the real world.

In other words, for really exciting progess in SSD land, we're waiting for that perfect combo of 3D NAND, PCI Express connectivity and NVMe control. The result will then be very cheap, very big and very fast drives. Yippeee. Until next time.

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Jeremy Laird