Thursday, June 20, 2013

Choosing a proper graphics card for your gaming PC

The most critical part of a gaming PC is the graphics card. Graphics card prices range up to $1000 but that does not mean you have to save $1000 to get a good gaming experience. As with everything, at the lower scale of the spectrum, you are getting very bad performance (only slightly better than integrated solutions from Intel and AMD) and at the higher scale of the spectrum, you are getting diminishing returns. Midrange is where the sweet spot lies for most people. I said "for most people" because it is not always the truth. Sometimes you have to bend the rules and go for the absolute highest end cards.

AMD vs. NVidia - which one is better?

This is a sensitive matter. You cannot go wrong with either brand. Here's a comparison between the two, and I suggest that you match up your requirements with those and see which one suits you best.

Advantages of going with AMD

  • Gives better performance for the money you spend. (Might not be true in some parts of the world.
  • You get an amazing free games bundle with the card.
  • Has less performance drop when Anti-Aliasing is enabled/increased the level as well as resolution is increased.
  • All next generation consoles are using AMD GPUs, and the games will probably be more optimized for AMD's GCN architecture. This is just an assumption.
  • Usually overclocks a bit better than NVidia cards.
  • Has much better general purpose compute performance.
Advantages of going with NVidia
  • SLI works much, much better than Crossfire (at least as of now)
  • Ability to overclock the Pixel Refresh Rate of your display (how far your can overclock, depends on your display. I've managed to increase it from 60Hz to 69Hz on my Iiyama 27" display.)
  • Has a little bit better power efficiency.
  • People believe that NVidia drivers are usually more stable. But both companies put out buggy drivers every now and then.
  • GeForce Experience service, which automatically sets the graphics settings in each game for the best gameplay experience. On top of that, you are getting a cool feature called Shadow Play in a few days.

The effect of display resolution

The resolution that you are going to play games will primarily decide how much of a powerful video card you need. More the pixels it needs to process, faster the GPU needs to be and more the amount of video memory required.

Here's a little guideline
Situation NVidia AMD
1080p budget GTX650Ti HD7790
1080p midrange GTX660 HD7870
1080p high-end GTX670 HD7950
1080p enthusiast GTX770 HD7970
1440p high-end GTX770 4GB HD7970GHz
1440p enthusiast GTX780  
Triple display 1080p (5760x1080) high-end GTX770SLI
Triple display 1080p (5760x1080) enthusiast GTX780 SLI (*)
Titan SLI
* memory might become a bottleneck
Going for faster setups than recommended above will be a waste of money. Of course, once in a while, a game with bad-ass graphics gets released and even the fastest graphics card on the planet would not be able to deliver a constant 60FPS. But basing your choice on such infrequent situations is not a wise thing to do.

If you look at my suggestions, you'll see that I completely dropped the AMD Crossfire option. That is because, as of this moment, there is a problem in the AMD graphics driver which causes micro-stuttering with Crossfire. AMD is rumored to be releasing a new driver that fixes this issue this month or July. But until it is released and the fix is proven to work, I cannot recommend Crossfire. I will update the guide when those results are released.


Balance is the key

If you have a low-end CPU and want to couple it with a high-end GPU, that's is going to be a waste. You need both the CPU and the GPU to work together when playing games. Otherwise the faster part will wait for the slower part until it finishes its designated job. In other terms, the faster part will bottlenecked by the slower part. This wastes money because you cannot take the full advantage of the faster part. It'll be sleeping most of the times - literally speaking.

But most games these days are more dependent on horsepower of the graphics card, thus for a gaming PC, the right balance means going with a little bias towards the GPU. However don't forget that you can always get a cheap CPU and overclock it. But this is not applicable to Intel CPUs anymore. Only AMD, because Intel only allows overclocking their high-end, unlocked CPUs. Sucks, I know.

Here's a small guideline. (I'm only talking about CPUs released in 2012 or later.)

  • Core i3, FX6000 and below: keep it below GTX660, HD7850
  • Core i5, FX8000: keep it below GTX770 SLI. A single Titan or GTX780 is also OK.
  • Core i7 (normal): keep it below Titan two-way SLI. Overclocking might be needed if going with two Titans.
  • Core i7 (extreme): anything. Tri-SLI and Quad-SLI might need some overclocking.

In all these situations, I would suggest that you overclock the CPU if possible. Overclocking would not damage or harm anything if conservatively and carefully done. Keep the voltages well below the max allowed voltage and be watchful about the temperature.


Do I need PCI-E 3.0?

Not really. There is almost no loss in performance by using a PCI-E 3.0 graphics card in a PCI-E 2.0 system. It will inadvertently change in the future. It better! But at the moment, there is no need to upgrade your system just for PCI-E 3.0.
Click here for some solid benchmarks. You'll see that current cards don't really need the extra bandwidth that PCI-E 3.0 provides over PCI-E 2.0.



That’s pretty much it folks. Sure, you have to spend a bit more time researching when you are about to buy a new graphics card than anything else. But it doesn’t mean you have to break a bank to a good graphics card. You can get a very good graphics card for around $250. (Indeed I know that the price in the US is not what is charged in rest of the world. Still…)
Sometimes all you need to get a good gameplay experience from a not so high-end graphics card is to find the graphics settings which cause the biggest performance hit, and then dropping them a notch or two down. For example, you can drop Anti-Aliasing or Tessellation or high quality geometry or shading quality. Most of the times, you don’t have to drop them all. One or two settings might give you that smooth gaming experience. But you have to do that on your own, or if you have an NVidia graphics card, you can use GeForce Experience.

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