When building a gaming PC the graphics card is the component that has the greatest effect on gaming performance. However it is also one of the most expensive components you will buy for your computer. Thus if you aren’t intent on gaming at all it is probably worth just using the integrated graphics that are on the CPU. If you intend on gaming occasionally it is probably worth sticking to the budget option as it will still be able to play games just not at the highest settings.
Before discussing our GPU suggestions it is first important to discuss a few aspects that may confuse first time buyers. Firstly there are two main GPU manufacturers, AMD and Nvidia. AMD typically offers slightly “cheaper” cards with slightly less performance, especially at the high end. Nvidia on the other hand typically offers excellent performance at a higher price than AMD. AMD also has better multiple monitor support while Nvidia supports 3D gaming. Most important to note, however, is that you can’t really go wrong with either manufacturer and there should always be a graphics card in your price range.
Secondly and probably the most confusing aspect of GPU buying is deciphering what all the different numbers and terms mean. Starting with numbers and terms that actually affect card performance. The clockspeed of the GPU determines how fast the GPU runs. The faster the clockspeed the better performance you will get. However, to confuse matters further, not all GPUs are the same. The GPU in the Nvidia GTX 680 is different to the GPU in the GTX 580. Thus if they both have the same clockspeed, due to the 680’s inherent advantages it will always be faster than the 580. Another term that you will see when looking at graphics cards is the amount of RAM that each card comes with. Nowadays most high end cards come with 2GB and mid range cards with 1GB. RAM typically effects gaming performance at high resolutions. Thus if you are playing games on multiple monitors it is best to have a card with two or three gigabytes of RAM.
Arguably the numbers most confusing of all are those that AMD and Nvidia use to label their graphics card ranges. AMD uses a four number naming scheme whereas Nvidia uses three.
For example AMD’s most recent graphics cards are the 7000 series which were preceded by the 6000 series. Furthermore AMD’s high end cards are the 7900 series with the 7800 series below that and so on. On the Nvidia side their most current generation is the GTX 600 series which was preceded by the 500 series. More specifically the GTX 680 is the top range card with the 620 being the bottom of the range.
Finally while in these suggestions we will suggest the graphics cards to buy we wont suggest which manufacturer to buy them from. In general, however, ASUS, Gigabyte, XFX and MSI are all very reliable. Buying a cheaper card usually means that it either comes with a lesser warranty, is not factory overclocked (made to run faster out of the box) or doesn’t come with an aftermarket cooler.
Budget: AMD 6850
The AMD 6850 is the mid range card from AMD’s previous generation of graphics cards. This means that it has come down in price greatly to only £95 and at this price is an absolutely excellent budget card that will comfortably play current games at mid to high settings. Our only concern in recommending this card is that due to it being a previous generation card it is likely to start selling out fairly soon. But if its stock and you’re looking for quality gaming on a tight budget you cant go wrong with the 6850.
Midrange: AMD 7870
The AMD 7850 is the current mid-range card from the AMD line up and due to a recent price drop should cost around £190. Nvidia is yet to release its mid-range card, the GTX 660, but when it does so AMD will probably drop its prices slightly further. The 7850 comes with 2GB of RAM and a clockspeed of 860MHz. The reference version of the card is fairly quiet and doesn’t consume much power at all. Nowadays though most 7850s on the market will be fitted with aftermarket coolers which should mean that they run even quieter and are more overclockable. Something that the 7850 is very capable of doing. Due to the widespread stagnation of graphics due to the age of current generation of consoles the 7850 should be able to run most games at high to maximum settings on any resolution of 1920×1200 or less. In fact for under £200 the 7850 is an excellent purchase for those of you wanting good performance without breaking the bank and with prices set fall even further throughout the year it will only get cheaper.
Enthusiast: Nvidia GTX 680
The Nvidia GTX 680 is the fastest single graphics card ever made and represents the very top of Nvidia’s range. Due to the incredible performance of the card it costs £400 but bear in mind if you do decide to go all out and purchase this card you are getting a card that will easily be able to run nearly all games at max setting even on multi-monitor settings. In fact if you aren’t using multiple monitors or a high resolution 27 or 30 inch screen we’d suggest going for the less expensive GTX 670. The 680 comes with 2GB of RAM although there are more expensive versions that come with 4GB. There isn’t much else to say about the GTX 680 apart from the fact it has a clockspeed of just over 1GHz and is easily the fastest graphics card you can buy before getting into dual GPU territory. As an enthusiast you owe it to yourself to go and buy this card.
Top Photo Credit to Tambako the Jaguar
Second Photo Credit to Peter Van Lancker