Monday, January 7, 2013

The Best Graphics Card for Gaming: 2012

Looking for the best new video card to fit your budget? These options from AMD and Nvidia deliver serious frame rates at price levels top to bottom.

Best Graphics Card for Gaming
Video-card reviewers are stocking up on the Red Bull these late-summer days of 2012: Video cards—or, more specifically, the chips on which they're based—tend to come out in waves, and it looks like it's Nvidia's turn to be in all-out release mode with new graphics-processing units (GPUs). That means we'll be in red-eyed, late-night testing mode, ourselves, to figure out which is the best graphics card for gaming.

At the end of 2011, AMD rolled out its new top single-chip graphics processor, the Radeon HD 7970, followed shortly by the Radeon HD 7950, a slightly stepped-down but still quite powerful GPU for top-end cards. Both were undisputed frame-rate leaders for the first part of 2012—if money was no object. They were especially appealing for multiple-monitor aficionados.

Come March 2012, though, perpetual AMD competitor Nvidia rolled out a high-end card of its own. The company had been a while in releasing a new line of top-shelf desktop graphics chips, but the GeForce GTX 680 proved to be a killer performer. It didn't top the HD 7970 in every one of our frame rate tests, but it was better overall by a small margin, and more power-efficient to boot. That GPU was followed by the GeForce GTX 670, another top performer that, then and now, we gauge a better deal for the frame-rate-obsessed yet price-conscious. This is still a $400 card, but it edged out the Radeon HD 7950, which was, at the time, its closest competitor.

Also in Nvidia's early-2012 wave was the truly extreme GeForce GTX 690, an over-the-top dual-GPU card that, at $999, was more a conversation piece and a bragging-rights token than a realistic card choice. We didn't get the chance to review this luxury card, but our sister site, did. (See PCMag's review of the GeForce GTX 690.) Nor did we formally review AMD's follow-on Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, a high-$400s, slightly speed-bumped version of the Radeon HD 7970. (See's review of the Radeon 7970 GHz Edition.)
Best Graphics Card for Gaming
Fast-forward to late summer 2012, and the high-end video card landscape has changed again. In August, Nvidia rolled out a next-step-down GPU, the GeForce GTX 660 Ti, which we tested in slightly overclocked form in the EVGA GeForce GTX 660 Ti Superclocked. With cards based on this GPU expected to hit at around $300, this is a compelling card for extreme gamers running on a single 22-to-24-inch screen. With more new Nvidia 600-series cards expected before long to fill in the gaps in the line, the desktop-GPU pendulum seems to be swinging in Nvidia's direction as 2012 progresses.

That said, AMD is not leaving the high-end turf undefended. Shortly after the release of the 660 Ti, the company announced that its already-released HD 7950-based cards would fall in price, showing up in stores as you read this in the low to mid-$300s. So it pays to shop around, especially if you're an AMD loyalist. If you’re an absolute-enthusiast PC gamer shopping for a card in this lofty price range, the AMD Radeon HD 7950 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 Ti are our dual picks at the moment for the best graphics card for gaming in terms of maximum value at the high end. The differences really come down more to feature set than raw performance. (You can read more about those things in the individual reviews.) Still, if you simply must have the best frame rates money can buy in a single-processor card, don't ignore the AMD Radeon HD 7970 and Nvidia GTX 680—they are stunning performers.

The Midrange & the Low End

If your frame-rate needs are a lot more modest (or your budget is well under $200), one card in particular that AMD announced early in 2012 is worth considering. The Radeon HD 7770 GHz Edition is our pick here for the best graphics card for gaming for cash-strapped, moderate-to-serious players. Available when we wrote this for as little as $129, it offers reasonable gaming muscle if you haven't updated your card for a few years or are coming over from integrated graphics. It's a good choice for those who game at resolutions of 1,680x1,050 or lower, and who don’t want to dial back many in-game settings. Even gamers who intend to play at 1080p (true high-def) resolutions on a single monitor—and who are willing to switch off some in-game eye candy to get smooth frame rates at a fair price—will find a lot to like in the HD 7770 card, as well.
Best Graphics Card for Gaming
Earlier in 2012, AMD called its “sweet spot” of 2012 gaming performance its cards that lie between the ultra-enthusiast 7900 series and the under-$200 7700-series mainstream cards. And here, we still have to give AMD the nod, with its pair of 7800-series cards announced the first week of March 2012. Both are much closer to the bottom of that range than the top, where the GTX 660 Ti and HD 7950 are currently duking it out.

The Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition bested Nvidia’s comparably priced last-gen GeForce GTX 500-series offerings, and in some cases it topped the GeForce GTX 580, not long ago a $500 card and one of Nvidia's best. That's impressive, and AMD says that you should be seeing versions of the card starting at $249 as you read this. (We were less enthused with this card at its original $349.) The somewhat lesser Radeon HD 7850 is our favorite pick of all of AMD’s current release wave, though. It has the same features as the other 7000-series cards, and it only requires a single six-pin power connector. Its performance in our tests was mostly level with (and sometimes better than) the much costlier last-gen GeForce GTX 570. That was the clincher at the time we reviewed this Editors' Choice-winning card, and the price has since dropped; AMD estimates that 2GB HD 7850-based cards should be available now in the low $200s, with a few carrying only 1GB of onboard memory showing up slightly under $200.

If you’re looking for the sweet spot of value and performance in a moderate-priced graphics card in the spring of 2012, the Radeon HD 7850 is the best graphics card for gaming on a budget, in our opinion—at least until Nvidia unveils its own new cards in this price range. More on that, we suspect, later this year.

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