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Tested: The Right $250 PC Graphics Card

By Loyd Case

Upgrading your graphics cards offer the best bang-for-the-buck when you want to boost performance in modern PC games. However, not anyone wants to buy, or can afford, a $700 GPU. Here's our pick for a great $250 card.

There’s an arms race happening in PC gaming. GPU manufacturers are beefing up the capabilities and performance of their graphics chips while PC game developers keep ladling on additional eye candy. If you’ve played the latest Assassin’s Creed or Battlefield, their lush graphics are easily capable of reducing systems running older graphics cards to a whimpering, huddled mess. Okay, maybe that whimpering mass is the owner of said system. Even slightly older games, like Tomb Raider and Metro: Last Light can easily hammer older PCs if certain graphics features are enabled.

Upgrading your graphics cards offer the best bang-for-the-buck when you want to boost performance in modern PC games. However, not anyone wants to buy, or can afford, a $700 GPU. Also, most PC gamers run their games on a single monitor at full HD resolution: 1920 x 1080, usually shortened to 1080p. The problem is that the mid-range GPUs, running in cards costing between $200 and $300, are in a holding pattern. While both Nvidia and AMD have ramped up the high end substantially in an effort to become king of the GPU mountain, the mid-range cards are mostly rebadged GPUs – old wine in new bottles.

Take the Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition. AMD has added clock rate boost capability and called it the R9 270X. The GPU is otherwise the same. Nvidia has taken a slightly different approach. The GTX 760 is ostensibly replacing the GTX 660 Ti. Both use cut-down GK104 GPUs (the same GPU used in the GTX 770). But the GTX 760 offers fewer shader cores and texture units than the GTX 660 Ti, while beefing up the clock speed. On the other hand, the GTX 760 has more of everything than the somewhat anemic, GK106-based GTX 660 non-Ti variant. Confused yet?

Where both companies gain back some favor is that they’ve cut prices back. The original Radeon HD 7870 cost $350 when they originally shipped in early 2012. The cards I tested for this review are all $250 or less. Here are the contenders.

eVGA’s GTX 760 SC ACX. “ACX” refers to eVGA’s own dual-fan cooling system. “SC” is “superclocked” – the core GPU clock is 1046MHz, almost 7% faster than Nvidia’s reference card. The boost clock, however, is 1111MHz, a scant 2.3% better than the boost clock for Nvidia’s reference board.

eVGA’s GTX 760 SC is more compact than its competition, but doesn’t lack in performance.

The Asus R9 270X DCII TOP Edition. Asus pushes the core GPU clock to 1050MHz, or 5% higher than the default 1GHz. As with eVGA’s GTX 760, the R9 270X DCII TOP ships with a dual-fan cooling system.

Asus is a little more conservative on the clock speeds than Sapphire, but the card is a little less noisy to boot.

The craziest card in the bunch is Sapphire’s R9 270X Toxic, including a beefy, three-fan cooling system, making the card notably longer, but pushing clock rates even higher. The card is a foot long, as compared to 10.5 inches for the Asus card and a scant 9.5 inches for the GTX 760.

The third fan keeps the overclocked GPU and memory cool, but adds bulk.

Let’s take a look at the speeds and feeds of our three contenders, and compare them to older generation cards.

SpeceVGA GeForce GTX 660 SCeVGA GTX 760 SCSapphire R9 270X ToxicAsus R9 270X DCAsus Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition
Shader Units9601152128012801280
Base Clock (MHz)10461072110010501000
Boost Clock (MHz)1111113711501120NA
Memory Clock (MHz, effective)60086008600056004800
Memory (MB)20482048204820482048
Memory Interface192256256256256
Texture Units8096808080
ROPs2432323232
Transistor Count (Billions)2.543.52.82.82.8
Price$200$250$250$220$220

Test System and Performance Tests

I popped these three cards into the standard testbed I’ve been using recently. By today’s standard, it’s fairly mainstream, which is a better fit for $250 GPUs.

  • Intel Core i7 3770K

  • Intel RT2011 sealed liquid CPU cooler

  • Asus P8Z77-V Premium motherboard (Intel Z77 chipset)

  • 8GB Corsair DDR3-1600

  • 240GB Corsair Force GT SSD

  • 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black HDD

  • LG Blu-ray drive

  • Corsair 850TX PSU

  • Monoprice 27-inch, 2560x1440 IPS display

I use a handful of games, plus 3DMark Fire Strike. It’s possible to glean general performance trends from just a handful of performance tests. The games include:

  • Metro Last Light

  • Tomb Raider (the 2013 reboot)

  • Bioshock Infinite (based on the Unreal Engine)

  • GRID 2

All games were run at 2560 x 1440 and 1920 x 1080, in two modes. The first mode is an “ultra” mode with all features maxed out. The second is the generic “High” mode listed in the game control panel.

In addition to the three new cards, we benchmarked against the GeForce GTX 760 reference card, the Asus Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition (which runs at reference clock speeds) and eVGA’s GTX 660 SC, an overclocked version of Nvidia’s GTX 660 GPU.

Let’s see how performance shakes out.

3DMark Fire Strike

As with past FutureMark benchmarks, Fire Strike is a synthetic test that tries to stress all aspects of a DirectX 11 GPU, including physics.

The massive Sapphire card beats out all comers in the 3DMark test. So the R9 270X Toxic is performs quite well when all you’re doing is exercising its graphics chops. What about games?

Gaming with Ultra Settings

Next up are the results of testing with all the eye candy maxed out, in 2560 x 1440 and 1920 x 1080.

All these cards struggle to hit high numbers in Metro Last Light if you turn all the game settings up to eleven. Meanwhile, the Nvidia cards seem to handle Unreal engine based Bioshock Infinite pretty well on 1080p displays, while the AMD cards fall a little short of the magic 60fps number. All the GPUs also fell a little short on Tomb Raider, though the Sapphire card ekes out a win here. GRID 2 proved the flip side of the coin, with all the cards easily hitting over 60fps when running 1920 x 1080.

Obviously, some sacrifices will need to be made.

Dialing Back to High

So what happens if we merely dial graphics quality back to the “high” preset most games seem to offer? Alas, there’s no standard definition for what to enable with any preset, but let’s see what we can do.

Once again, Metro: Last Light brings on the pain. The eVGA and Sapphire cards barely cleared 30fps. It turns out that “high” with Metro: Last Light still enables significant anti-aliasing, so cranking that back will likely help a lot. And while the GTX 760 SC still wins out in Bioshock: Infinite, all the cards cleared 70fps on a 1080p display. Tomb Raider and GRID2 benchmarks tell a similar story, with frame rates well north of 60fps – mostly, well north of 100fps.

Power and Noise

None of these cards were particularly noisy, even when I left the case side off.

Surprisingly, none of these cards were particularly noisy, even when I left the case side off. All have fairly large fans that turn more slowly, so fan noise levels are pretty acceptable across the board. Also surprisingly, the GTX 760 is something of a power hog at full load, even compared to the triple-fan Sapphire card. In fact, the Sapphire card had both the lowest maximum system power draw of all the newer card, while managing to have the highest idle power draw, at 97W while idling. I suppose turning those three fans must use a little juice. In the grand scheme of things, however, these cards are generally more power efficient that past GPUs of equivalent performance.

It’s All Good

I confess to being pleasantly surprised with this not-so-new generation of graphics card. Board layouts have been tweaked, AMD has added a boost clock setting and all these cards offer pretty decent performance. In general, I’d lean towards the eVGA GTX 760, particularly for systems with smaller cases. The Sapphire card acquits itself pretty well, but you’ll need a deep case to accommodate the 12-inch (30cm) length. The Asus card may not quite match up to the other two in terms of pure performance, but it’s also $30 less expensive, so that’s certainly a factor.

While it’s gratifying that mid-range performance has come down in price, I also wonder if PC GPUs are starting to reach a point of diminishing returns. Even as process technologies improve, the huge transistor counts that will be needed to boost performance further means GPU chips will still be pretty large. The low-hanging fruit for power efficiency and performance has been plucked. It will be interesting to see how AMD and Nvidia’s true next generation parts tackle these thorny questions. But for now, we can revel in pretty good performance and pretty good prices.