Better than ever, and yet a lot worse. That just about sums up the contradictory, confusing state of PC graphics at the moment.
On the one hand, has there ever been more choice than there is today? It's a full-time job keeping up with all the different GPUs, official SKUs, factory overclocked cards and more on the market at the moment. Whatever your budget, and however many pixels you want to pump, there's almost definitely a card that absolutely nails your requirements.
Then there's the imminent arrival of the next-gen games consoles from Microsoft and Sony. With them comes the promise of all kinds of knock-on goodness for PC graphics and games. Honestly, it's all good - more on that in a moment.
We're also much happier with the current state of graphics than, say, CPUs. With AMD and Nvidia keeping each other honest, things are still progressing in tech terms. Okay, the pace of major new GPU releases has slowed a little, but it's still happening and bringing with it performance gains you can feel. We'll have proof of this soon, when we finally get our hands on the brand new Radeon HD R9 290X, with Nvidia's response expected shortly after.
Not like the processor market
Compare that with the realm of CPUs, a place where Intel rules almost unchallenged - an issue that has really slowed the progress of raw processor performance.
But it's not all sweet-smelling roses in the garden of graphics. Despite the competition and huge range of choice, prices towards the top end are still higher than we'd like. Nvidia has several single-chip offerings that sell for much more cash. For us, that's so pricey they're almost irrelevant.
Likewise, with all that choice it's darned hard to know which card to go for. Fortunately, that's something we can help you with. This month, we've given every current graphics chipset that matters a benchmark bashing. Sure, there are plenty that don't appear. But this digital-imaging dozen represent the key cards you need to care about.
On top of that we've got a sample from AMD's new line up, in the form of the Radeon HD R9 280X, which makes for interesting reading in itself.
Where in the price lists, exactly, does true gaming graphics begin? That's the key question for us. The answer, inevitably, is pretty fluid. Our collection of 12 plausible-looking GPUs kicks off at just £78 (around USD $128, AUD $141) and scales all the way up to £800 (around USD $1311, AUD $1448). And, immediately, one of the problems pinning down the perfect GPU pick rears its ugly head.
On the one hand, there's simply no way that an expensive board is ten times as fast, or ten times as effective, as the cheapest card here. In fact, the fantastic news for those of you on a tight budget is that the absolute crappiest graphics chip here sometimes offers up nearly 50 per cent the performance of the absolute fastest. The best is about five times faster, which is admittedly quite a bit.
Anyway, the other side of the story, and the point at which pure value comes unstuck, is that you might have a seriously high-res LCD that you've paid a lot for. Hell, you might even be pondering the purchase of a wondrous new 4K screen. In which case, you can't afford to get too sniffy about the price of high-end GPUs. Instead, you simply have to soak it up and pay the going price. Otherwise, the investment in that pricey panel is all for nought.
The reality for most of us is somewhere inbetween. We realise the absolute best bang-for-buck ratio is typically found lower down the price range. But we're also wary of false economies. There are certain things we want out of gaming, and we want to pay as little as possible for the privilege.
Finding the balance
As it happens, those things are actually pretty easy to define. We want to play all of our favourite games at native resolution on our monitors, and we want to play them with the eye candy maxed out. Now, it's true that there are often several image quality settings in any given game, where you can wind back a notch or two from the bleeding edge without a noticeable drop-off in image quality. The problem is, you might not know what they are.
No doubt, some internet trawling and trial and error tweaking will provide insight. But a lot of the time, we just want to be able to crank up the settings and play without worrying about the details. So our ideal card will be able to cope with that.
If there is an exception to this, it's anti-aliasing. In our experience, 4x anti-aliasing is always good enough. Yes, 8x looks that little bit better, but it sometimes comes with a pretty brutal performance hit. Anti-aliasing is also an image quality option that's available to most games, not something unique or only occasionally open to tweaks. So it makes sense for us to limit our anti-aliasing aspirations, and therefore benchmark testing, to 4x across the board.
The other major consideration, of course, is panel resolution. These days, it pretty much boils down to two options: 1080p or one of the so-called 2,560 panels. 1080p works out to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels and happens to be the default standard for HDTV. It's close enough to the 1,920 x 1,200 grid a few PC monitors still offer to be a proxy for that, too.
Anyway, 1080p panels come in all sizes, and for most will be the optimal compromise between decently sharp visuals and pricing of both the screen itself and the GPU you'll need to run games nicely on it. More pixels just means more load on your graphics subsystem.
As for the 2,560 alternative, that number represents both 27-inch and 30-inch panels with a horizontal resolution of precisely that, and vertical resolutions of 1,440 and 1,600 pixels respectively. Call them 1440p and 1600p if you like. Either way, they involve roughly double the two million pixels of a 1080p panel, and thus twice the GPU load.
So that's the context for what matters in PC gaming - running the best games maxxed out with a choice of two basic resolutions. As we said, it needn't be complicated, so we haven't made it so. All you have to do is read on to find out how every GPU that matters fares in our tests.
There's one other graphics performance issue that's worth having a sniff around: it's the console connection. We're talking next-gen gaming consoles - the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One. They've been a long time coming, and their arrival will mean a sudden uplift in the capability and graphical quality of most new games, mainly because consoles are typically the most important game development target.
Put simply, the consoles provide the lowest common denominator, and that's just about to leap upwards. But when you look at the specs of those consoles in detail, you realise that leap really only puts even the faster of the two, the PS4, into middle to upper-middle territory in graphics performance terms compared with pukka gaming GPUs available for the PC.
With 1,152 AMD GCN shader cores, it sits right in between the AMD Radeon HD 7850 and HD 7870 GPUs for raw pixel processing power. That makes the arrival of the new consoles the best of both worlds. Your average new game is going to look a whole lot better, but you're not going to suddenly find your PC can't cope. Not if you buy the right GPU, that is.
And that doesn't necessarily mean a hugely expensive one either. The new consoles are also closer than ever to the PC in terms of design and architecture. Both are based on x86 processor cores, and Microsoft's effort is inevitably related to the PC in terms of the underlying codebase of its operating system. Put it all together and you have a promising package of changes to the console landscape, every single aspect of which looks positive for the PC.
So what about integrated graphics?
Believe the hype from AMD and Intel and you'd be led to believe integrated graphics are a bona fide graphics option for gaming. Without doubt, Intel is now putting much more effort into integrated graphics than ever before. In fact, with its latest Haswell processors, Intel spent pretty much all its additional transistor budget on beefing up the graphics core. That has allowed for a pretty epic boost in raw graphics power.
Intel builds graphics cores up with what it calls execution units. They're not quite the same thing as the shader cores in AMD and Nvidia graphics chips, but the key metric here is comparing old Intel to new Intel.
The previous Ivy Bridge-gen graphics core topped out at 16 execution units. With Haswell, you can have as many as 40 units. Sounds impressive, but there's more. For select variants of the most powerful graphics core - now known as Intel Iris - 128MB of super-fast EDRAM cache were thrown in to help with memory bandwidth.
Despite all that, while Iris is decent enough for casual gaming in a cheap laptop, it simply isn't fit for high-detail gaming in desktop machines.
As for AMD, its best integrated graphics are currently found in its APU fusion processors, the A10 series with Piledriver CPU cores and AMD's old VLIW-4 graphics architecture. And, somewhat surprisingly, it's slower than the quickest version of Intel Iris.
That's something AMD really needs to fix, and fast. If AMD is about anything at the moment, it's about offering the best balance of CPU and GPU performance. And it really should be showing Intel the way when it comes to the GPU half of that equation.
How we tested
Put simply, there's no perfect single setting for testing graphics cards, but there are certain targets we think are critical for good gaming. The first is running at a native resolution. These days, that boils down to 1080p for most of us. The other options are 1440p or 1600p; so, that's either 2,560 x 1,440 pixels on a 27 incher or 2,560 x 1,600 on 30 inch panels.
To keep things fair and consistent we've tested every card at both the standard 1080p and the top resolution. Who says we're anything but fair?
If that's straightforward, what about the in-game detail settings? Potentially, this is where things get really complicated, with a raft of tweaks and optimisations possible. But the thing is, wouldn't it be nice to just max everything out and then play with some smooth and tasty frame rates? With one exception, that's pretty much what we've done.
While individual games have all kinds of weird and wonderful settings in place, there's one image quality option that applies to very nearly, if not quite all, games: anti-aliasing. There's scope for debate over the best level of anti-aliasing in terms of bang for your buck, but we reckon 4x anti-aliasing gets the job done nicely. Okay, 8x does look a little better, but can come at a significant performance cost. It's a simple enough standard to apply to all our benchmarks.
Anyway, put it all together and our results therefore give you the best possible idea of which cards offer truly smooth gaming at either of the two key resolutions, regardless of what graphical hoops you put them through.