Everyone and their grandmother has a gaming console these days. I’m being hyperbolic, but not really. With the Xbox and Playstation consoles taking in hardcore and casual gamers with each generation’s installment, and Nintendo’s Wii and Wii U making fans of kids and adults alike, video game consoles really are everywhere.
It’s still incredibly accessible and easy to get started playing games, even if now, more and more, Internet connections, subscriptions, and lengthy downloads take some of the ease out of playing. But what consoles offer in ease, they sacrifice in performance and customizability, and that’s where gaming PCs enter the arena.
Gaming PCs are, generally, whatever you make of them. If you want to throw $2,000 at a build, you can have an extremely high-performance machine that will pump out visuals that put the current generation of consoles to shame, and might even give the next generation a run for its money. If money is no object, it’s all too easy to get set up with a killer gaming PC. But for the rest of us, we have to try getting the most bang for our buck.
That’s where these graphics processors (GPUs) come in. The folks over at PassMark Software do a brilliant job rating the performance of individual GPUs so we can see how much power they have to give us a beautiful gaming experience. Here, we’ll take a look at the GPUs that offer surprisingly high performance for the price. We’ll also see how they stand up to real-world gaming.
Note: The suggested retail prices mentioned are those noted by PassMark Software. They are prone to daily fluctuation, so PassMark’s list may reorder itself. This ranking is based on data from the week of April 19. You may find different prices when you’re shopping. Additionally, some of the graphics cards used in the videos may be OEM over-clocked versions of the GPU, which can have slightly increased performance — fortunately, you can over-clock a GPU yourself.
1. GeForce GTX 480 (suggested retail: $71.99)
Nvidia is a major force to be reckoned with in the field of graphics processors, so it’s no wonder a Nvidia product is topping this list. The GeForce GTX 480 is an older model, but it still boasts a G3D benchmark of 4343. For those who don’t know, a benchmark is a score given to a computer component after it is tested by a benchmarking software — the higher the score, the better. The 480’s benchmark puts it at No. 2 on this list, but its price is lower than the rest.
If you’re wondering how these benchmarks translate into game quality, here’s your answer: One YouTube gamer included the 480 in a rig that could play Far Cry 4 on Ultra settings as well as Battlefield 4 at 1080p and a smooth frame-rate. Watch Dogs at 1080p and a mix of Ultra and Medium settings wasn’t out of the question, either. For reference, in a blog post, Ubisoft noted that Watch Dogs would run at a resolution of 900p on the PS4 and 792p on the Xbox One, both at 30 frames-per-second (fps). If you’re interested, you can find them for sale here. If it’s not enough power, read on — or buy two and run them simultaneously with SLI.
2. Radeon HD 6950 (suggested retail: $79.99)
OK, so we’ll put this out here right away: This GPU has a lower benchmark than the GTX 480. It scored 3181. On a strictly performance-per-dollar evaluation, the GTX 480 blows everything else out of the water. But that doesn’t have to be your only consideration.
The Radeon HD 6950 does have one leg up on the GTX 480, and that’s its lower power requirement. While the GTX 480 needs 250 watts (W), the Radeon HD 6950 only needs 200W. If your gaming rig is already pushing the limits of your power supply unit, the lower power draw of this GPU could save you the cost of having to also upgrade your power supply.
In terms of real-world performance, it should prove a worthy card. One YouTuber ran Watch Dogs at 1080p and high detail and averages a smooth 33fps, though with some dips. If you can handle lower resolution and details settings, the HD 6950 ought to be able to get you in the game for the foreseeable future. You can find them for sale here.
3. GeForce GTX 750 (suggested retail: $91.99)
Here’s a surprise: Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 750, which is both newer and more expensive than the GTX 480, actually performed worse on benchmarks. Its benchmark rating is 3249, giving it just an edge up on the HD 6950.
You might be thinking, “Well, why would I ever buy this then?” The answer would likely be in its impressively low power demand. It requires only 55W, the least on this list, which means you won’t have to worry about an expensive, high-wattage power supply. If you currently have a non-gaming computer with an open PCIe 3.0 slot, you may be able to throw this GPU in without needing to upgrade power supplies (though you should make sure before trying).
Nvidia reports that it can play some older games, like Battlefield 4, Hitman Absolution, and Skyrim at 1080p, and Medium graphics settings with upwards of 30fps, sometimes even over 60fps. One YouTuber challenged the card with Titanfall at 1080p and looked to have a smooth experience and nice graphics settings. The same gamer ran Watch Dogs smoothly with generally High graphics settings at 1080p. You can pick up this GPU here.
4. Radeon R9 270X (suggested retail $127.99)
If you know you want power, this may be the card for you. AMD’s Radeon R9 270X is the highest benchmarked GPU on this list, hitting 4515 to top the GTX 480. On top of that, it also is less of a power hog, requiring only 180W, 70 less than the GTX 480. However, it’s also the most expensive card on this list. The price may be a drawback, but performance will help ensure that it ages better, as future games demand ever more from GPUs, thereby postponing the need to buy a newer card.
If you want to play the very latest games at top settings, you should be set with the R9 270X for now. One YouTuber tried out Battlefield Hardline at 1080p and Ultra settings, and had frame-rates between 30 and 60. Stepping down the High settings, the game ran even smoother, generally staying above 60fps. You can find this card here.
5. Radeon R9 270 (suggested retail: $119.99)
Yes, this is almost the same card as the R9 270, the main differences being that it’s cheaper, slightly weaker, and requires less power. With a benchmark of 4181, it still ranks at No. 3 for performance on this list, and its power requirement of 150W is the second lowest. If you really want to save on power but don’t want to sacrifice too much performance, this is probably the card to choose.
In terms of gaming, one YouTube user ran Battlefield Hardline at 1080p and High settings with over 30fps, and generally better. That’s a pretty good sign for a low-cost, low-power graphics card. You can pick one up here.
Honorable mention: GeForce GTX 970 (suggested retail: $263.99)
This card doesn’t quite go toe to toe with the others. Why? Because it’s too expensive. It’s more than twice the price of the next most expensive card on the list, the R9 270X. But it’s absolutely worth mentioning here because it is a powerhouse. Its benchmark hit 8639.
It may be No. 6 when it comes to this list, but it’s actually No. 5 when it comes to the most powerful consumer GPUs. The more powerful GPUs cost upwards of $400, one even hitting $3,999.99. So when you consider how much performance you’re getting from the GTX 970 for $263.99, it becomes amazing value for top-of-line graphics.
One YouTuber reviewed the card and tested it out in various games. He ran Battlefield 4 at 1080p and Ultra settings and got an average of 95fps. Another YouTuber went even further, testing it out Battlefield Hardline at 4K and Ultra settings, getting an impressive average 45fps — a PS4 and Xbox One won’t even come close to that kind of graphical presentation. You can purchase this card here.
All benchmark and suggested retail data are gathered from PassMark Software.