1. Sapphire HD 7770 GHz Edition
£90 (around USD $147, AUD $163) Mid-range card
So, it's come to this. The cheapest card here and therefore an automatic berth in room 12 of the Budleigh Salterton Twilight Rest Home for the Terminally Short of Cash. It's the sort of thing Edmund Blackadder would say were he a modernday tech guru. And he'd have a point.
This is the only GPU under the £100 barrier. Can it really be a good idea? False economies are certainly a major fear when it comes to PC components. It's no good if this card offers great on-paper bang for buck if it doesn't deliver a good enough gaming experience.
First, the on-paper bit. We're talking AMD's latest GCN shader cores to the tune of 640. For context, you get only 768 of the things in the Xbox One. What's more, this card's core is clocked at 1GHz to Xbox's 853MHz. Not much in it for raw pixel pumping, then.
2. Sapphire HD 7790 Dual-X OC
£125 (around USD $205, AUD $226) Mid-range card
One small step for a GPU. One giant leap for all kinds of gaming. Is that the overall message from this uprated 7700-series board? There's significantly more to this board than meets the eye.
You might be expecting something similar to the 7770, with the clocks cranked up a bit. And you'd be only partially right. A standard AMD Radeon HD 7790 has the same 1GHz clock as the 7770.
This bad boy ramps things up to 1,075MHz. That's the kind of frequency bump that allows card makers to plaster "overclocked" all over the packaging. But can you feel 7.5 per cent more frequency in the real world? In a word, no.
3. AMD Radeon HD 7850
£71 (around USD $116, AUD $128) Performance card
This groupie really ought to be a fight between the AMD Radeon HD 7850 and boards based on the Nvidia GeForce GTX 650Ti Boost chipset. We should be regaling you with a blow-by-blow account of a titanic contest for perhaps the most important price point in the graphics game; because both chipsets represent the beginning of what we'd call proper gaming performance.
You can dig into the 650Ti Boost's details in our review of Asus's take on that chipset. Right now, our fight report ought to stick to the 7850.
It's based on Pitcairn, AMD's performance rather than outright-enthusiast GPU. You don't get the full complement of 1,280 shader cores in this version of Pitcairn. That number is cut down to 1,024. The texture units take a bit of a chop too, from 80 to 64.
4. Asus GTX 650 Ti Boost DirectCU II OC
£150 (around USD $245, AUD $271) Performance card
One hundred and fifty pounds here. £150 there. Pretty soon you're talking about real money. OK, the original quote that inspired that quip was dealing in billions, not a few hundreds, of pounds. And the Asus DirectCU II OC 650Ti Boost isn't that expensive. But, for us, £150 is enough to generate expectations of proper gaming performance. It's a lot of money to spend on one component.
Straightaway, then, you might be concerned with the card's last-gen status. Much of the Nvidia GeForce family has been upgraded to 700 series status during 2013. So the GTX 650Ti Boost chipset looks a little last year.
But when you look closer at what's underpinning the latest 700 series boards, that concern melts away. The 650Ti Boost is based on the GK106 chip, so it's derived from the same Kepler architecture as the latest 700 series boards.
5. Nvidia GeForce GTX 760
£190 (around USD $311, AUD $344) Performance card
Want something shiny and new? May we suggest the Nvidia GeForce GTX 760? Without question, it tops the table among our 12 for spangly newness. Dig a little deeper and the truth quickly emerges, though.
Just like the other members of the high-performance GeForce 700 series, the GTX 760 is a reworking of a 600 series chip. In this case, we're talking GK104, the GPU that begat the GTX 670 and 680 boards. Of course, that was Nvidia's top graphics chip until not all that long ago.
In GeForce GTX 680 trim, it sold for around £400 for a time. By that metric, picking up a GK104 board for £190 looks like the bargain of the century.
6. Asus HD 7870 DirectCU II TOP
£199 (around USD $326, AUD $360) Performance card
Conventional wisdom says the second-rung effort in any family of graphics chips is where the sweet spot sits. In that case, glaze us in honey and hand over the 7870 GHz. Because that's where it lies in AMD's current range of GPUs.
Even better, this is the full-fat iteration of AMD's second-fiddle Pitcairn graphics chip. Unlike the 7850, which makes do with 1,024 of AMD's GCN shaders, you get all 1,280 here. Hurrah. That's substantially up on the 1,152 GCN shaders in the PS4 and the Xbox One's 768.
Then factor in the 1,100MHz core clock (this Asus board is factory overclocked beyond the standard 1GHz spec) and the gap grows wider. Although it's tempting to make comparisons with the games consoles now that both are based on PC-derived technology, it's never quite that simple.
7. Asus HD 7950 DirectCU II
£265 (around USD $434, AUD $479) Enthusiast card
The Radeon HD 7850 and GeForce 650Ti are where proper gaming graphics kick off, but this is surely where the big boys begin. For the Radeon HD 7950 is the cheapest chipset to sport bone fide, enthusiast-class silicon.
We're talking the full 4.31 billion transistors and a meaty 384-bit memory bus. By any sane metric, this pixel pumper is a beast. But it's been around a while, and is not terribly long for the world. That explains why the very cheapest 7950s can now be had for just £175. At that price, the 7950 takes some beating.
But this Asus board clocks in much higher. It's yours for £265, which is a pretty painful premium over the reference design. So what do you get? Not a huge amount more. Whether it's the 1,792 GCN shader count, 3GB of GDDR5 memory or 384-bit bus, the key metrics go essentially unchanged.
8. Nvidia Geforce GTX 770
£294 (around USD $481, AUD $532) Enthusiast card
Some harsh words have been spent on Nvidia's recent decision to roll out a new family of GeForce 700 series boards. The problem is that the chips underneath are not new at all. They're a bunch of rebadges.
Now, we're no fans of cynical marketing stunts like that, but if a rebadge means we can have a great graphics chip for a lot less money, what's the problem? That's pretty much the proposition on offer with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 770.
It's based on the same GK104 chip as the old GTX 680. Like the 680, you get 1,536 shaders, 32 ROPs, a 256-bit memory bus and 2GB of memory. And instead of costing a lot, you can bag a 770 for less. Even better, Nvidia has tweaked the clocks slightly in the 770's favour. So you're getting a slightly faster 680 for a lot less money.
9. Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition 3GB
£300 (around USD $491, AUD $543) Enthusiast card
You could argue it's inauspicious timing to be even considering a card based on AMD's 7970 GHz chipset. After all, we've had a sneak peek at AMD's next über GPU, the AMD Radeon HD R9 290X, and surely that new slither of silicon means this chip is dead in the water.
Actually, not so fast there, there's still a lot to love about the 7970, and given that the R9 290X is going to be coming in as a high-end GPU with a price tag to match, the days aren't as numbered as you first think.
The new R9 290X is still going to be based on the same production process as this, that's 28nm, but AMD has ramped up the amount of transistors that can be found inside its form, to produce a much higher overall shader count and therefore a far more powerful card. Importantly though, it's aimed at a different market.
10. Nvidia Geforce GTX 780
£500 (around USD $819, AUD $905) Enthusiast card
Of all the members of the new GTX 700 series, this is the one we were excited about. It may be a rebrand, not a new graphics chipset, but what a rebrand it is. We're talking about GK110, the chip inside the mighty Nvidia GTX Titan. It's easily the most complex graphics chip ever made, all 7.1 billion transistors of it.
If you love pure technology, you have to like the cut of GK110's jib. With the GTX 780, we're talking about GK110 for a lower price than before. Titans still go for at least £800. The 780? Yours for a piffling £500.
The price drop comes with some feature culls, mind. The shader count drops from 2,688 to 2,304 and the texture units from 224 to 192. The memory plummets from 6GB to 3GB. On the upside, the core clock edges upwards from 837MHz to 863MHz, with the boost clock up from 876MHz to 900MHz, helping to offset the loss of functional units.
11. AMD Radeon HD 7990
£528 (around USD $865, AUD $955) Enthusiast card
The prize for the most frustrating card goes to the AMD Radeon HD 7990. When it's good, it's very good. When it's bad, well, you'll wish you spent that £500 elsewhere. But let's start with the good.
You get a pair of Tahiti-class GPUs, as found in the 7900 chipset. All 2,048 stream processors are humming away in both chips, so that's 4,096 shaders and truly epic raw pixel processing power. Each GPU has its own 3GB pool of silly-fast 6GHz GDDR graphics memory, too. The results can be spectacular.
Run Sleeping Dogs at 2,560 by 1,600 with everything set to the max and an Nvidia GeForce Titan knocks out an average of 35 frames per second. The 7990? 56 frames per second. That's a huge advantage, especially when you consider the 7990 is getting on for £300 cheaper. The problem lies in that very multi-GPU configuration.
12. Nvidia Geforce GTX Titan
£800 (around USD $1,310, AUD $1,447) Enthusiast card
We can forgive Nvidia for thinking there's no pleasing us. For the best part of a year, we moaned about the Green Team flogging a mid-range GPU, the GK104 chip, as an enthusiast product, and all the while Nvidia had a real enthusiast chip tucked away but not on sale as a gaming product.
Eventually, Nvidia released the glorious GeForce GTX Titan, and finally the 7.1 billion transistor GK110 chip was where it belonged. Inside a PC. And, once again, we whinged.
Second time around, it was to do with pricing. And that complaint holds true today. At £800, the Titan is far too expensive to be relevant to 99 per cent of gamers.
DirectX 11 gaming performance
Sleeping Dogs: Frames per second: Higher is better (Min/Avg)
Sapphire HD 7770 GHz Edition: 13/19
Sapphire HD 7790 Dual-X OC: 16/24
AMD Radeon HD 7850: 19/28
Asus GTX 650Ti Boost Direct CU II OC: 18/28
Nvidia Geforce GTX 760: 24/41
Asus HD 7870 Direct CU II TOP: 25/36
Asus HD 7950 Direct CU II: 27/39
Nvidia Geforce GTX 770: 30/52
Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition Vapor-X: 36/52
Nvidia Geforce GTX 780: 36/60
AMD Radeon HD 7990: 59/97
Nvidia Geforce GTX Titan: 31/65
GRID 2: Frames per second: Higher is better
Sapphire HD 7770 GHz Edition: 34/43
Sapphire HD 7790 Dual-X OC: 40/50
AMD Radeon HD 7850: 42/52
Asus GTX 650Ti Boost Direct CU II OC: 39/52
Nvidia Geforce GTX 760: 56/73
Asus HD 7870 Direct CU II TOP: 57/73
Asus HD 7950 Direct CU II: 56/71
Nvidia Geforce GTX 770: 67/90
Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition Vapor-X: 73/87
Nvidia Geforce GTX 780: 71/85
AMD Radeon HD 7990: 50/60
Nvidia Geforce GTX Titan: 75/93
Company of Heroes 2: Frames per second: Higher is better
Sapphire HD 7770 GHz Edition: 11/19
Sapphire HD 7790 Dual-X OC: 13/21
AMD Radeon HD 7850: 15/28
Asus GTX 650Ti Boost Direct CU II OC: 11/22
Nvidia Geforce GTX 760: 15/31
Asus HD 7870 Direct CU II TOP: 22/39
Asus HD 7950 Direct CU II: 21/35
Nvidia Geforce GTX 770: 20/40
Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition Vapor-X: 28/46
Nvidia Geforce GTX 780: 27/49
AMD Radeon HD 7990: 26/44
Nvidia Geforce GTX Titan: 31/55
Metro: Last Light: Frames per second: Higher is better
Sapphire HD 7770 GHz Edition: 13/22
Sapphire HD 7790 Dual-X OC: 19/28
AMD Radeon HD 7850: 20/30
Asus GTX 650Ti Boost Direct CU II OC: 14/33
Nvidia Geforce GTX 760: 8/45
Asus HD 7870 Direct CU II TOP: 19/39
Asus HD 7950 Direct CU II: 21/40
Nvidia Geforce GTX 770: 24/56
Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition Vapor-X: 25/51
Nvidia Geforce GTX 780: 21/65
AMD Radeon HD 7990: 23/75
Nvidia Geforce GTX Titan: 27/70
BioShock Infinite: Frames per second: Higher is better
Sapphire HD 7770 GHz Edition: 13/28
Sapphire HD 7790 Dual-X OC: 14/34
AMD Radeon HD 7850: 21/41
Asus GTX 650Ti Boost Direct CU II OC: 17/47
Nvidia Geforce GTX 760: 15/65
Asus HD 7870 Direct CU II TOP: 19/51
Asus HD 7950 Direct CU II: 16/57
Nvidia Geforce GTX 770: 21/78
Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition Vapor-X: 19/74
Nvidia Geforce GTX 780: 23/91
AMD Radeon HD 7990: 14/123
Nvidia Geforce GTX Titan: 21/98
Heaven: Frames per second: Higher is better
Sapphire HD 7770 GHz Edition: 13/19
Sapphire HD 7790 Dual-X OC: 13/23
AMD Radeon HD 7850: 16/28
Asus GTX 650Ti Boost Direct CU II OC: 17/31
Nvidia Geforce GTX 760: 21/43
Asus HD 7870 Direct CU II TOP: 18/36
Asus HD 7950 Direct CU II: 20/40
Nvidia Geforce GTX 770: 24/52
Sapphire HD 7970 GHz Edition Vapor-X: 23/51
Nvidia Geforce GTX 780: 780 29/69
AMD Radeon HD 7990: 30/100
Nvidia Geforce GTX Titan: 30/77
And the winner is…
A completely different card…
That's right. We have a winner. But it's not one of our terrific 12. Well, not exactly. Here's the thing: for this particular groupie we wanted to touch on examples of all the key video chipsets. Problem is, for any given chipset, there are scores of alternatives from multiple card manufacturers.
Covering every one would mean hundreds upon hundreds of card reviews. And to be honest, that's tedious in the extreme and not actually necessary. If the given example of a chipset we have here isn't quite optimal, it still serves as a yardstick which gives us a much better measure of the market.
Anyway, the final GPU tally goes something like this: bringing up the rear are the two Radeon HD 7700-series boards. In theory, the 7770 and 7790 offer the best bang for buck of all. In practice, they're just too slow for that to matter. They're simply not up to the job of smooth 1080p gaming... next!
From here on in, things get much tighter. Both the Radeon HD 7850 and the Geforce 650Ti Boost are nice little cards that just about pass the any-settings test at 1080p. Problem is, the 7870 GHz does even better and it can be had for as little as an extra £10. However, our test 7870 GHz is an Asus overclocked effort that comes at an additional £50 premium for a few extra FPS. That puts it up in the company of the cheaper versions of pukka enthusiast chipsets - and it just couldn't cope.
Speaking of not coping, we can't handle the pricing of the Geforce GTX Titan, Radeon HD 7990 and Geforce GTX 780 either. Each one has lots to recommend, and we'd love to have any of them inside our PCs. Trouble is, at £800 for the Titan and around £500 each for the other two, they just aren't relevant for the vast majority of buyers.
Vaguely sane prices
That leaves us with four heavy hitters available at vaguely sane prices. You can make an argument for each and every one of them - and the first to fall is the GeForce GTX 770. It's an awfully nice card, but the cheapest examples of the 770 are very nearly £300. At that price point, it just simply doesn't offer enough value.
You can't say that about the GTX 760, too. It's over £100 cheaper and still offers most of the 770's performance, in subjective terms at least - but even the 760 can't cope with AMD's 7900-series boards. It's ironic, really, as the 7900's replacement is just arriving. However, with 7950s now available for as little as £175 and 7970s for £235, they really are the no-brainer options for smooth gaming at any conceivable setting.
The caveat, of course, is that the 7950 and 7970 boards in this test are overclocked efforts with premium pricing. That basically means a five per cent performance boost you simply can't feel, in return for a massive price hike - it just doesn't add up.
So we can't in good faith recommend the boards reviewed here. However, if we had to settle on a decent GPU, we'd go for the £175 7950. It's a proper enthusiast graphics card with a big, fat 384-bit bus and you can pick one up for less than £200. Get in.