Whether you intend to play games, watch videos, or even look at pictures on your computer, you will need a graphics card. If you primarily use your PC for browsing the web or editing spreadsheets you can get by with the mere basics – an IGP from Intel will do. If gaming is your favorite pastime, on the other hand, we are talking about an entirely different animal. A reasonably powerful dedicated graphics card is simply a must-have. In this guide, we will walk you through the top 10 fastest desktop graphics cards based on performance. It’s based on the capabilities of an individual video card, regardless of dual-GPU SLI or CrossFireX configurations.
The HD 6990 is a real monster. It has two high-end GPUs soldered onto the same board and the result is the most powerful graphics card on the market. It is also priced accordingly and draws a lot of power–something to bear in mind when getting a power supply for your next uber-powerful gaming rig. The two GPUs are based on the Cayman XT core, but the clocks are slightly lower to make things a little more manageable. Since each of the cores have 1,536 stream processors this card has 3,072 in total and more than five billion transistors. Needless to say, this enthusiast card will breeze through any game with all the details turn up to the maximum possible settings.
The GTX 590 is very close to the HD 6990 in most games and even exceeds it in some games. It is indeed created to compete with its AMD rival and just like the 6990 it comes with two GPUs on the same PCB. If you have been considering Nvidia 3D Vision in your next system, this is the manufacturer’s best-performing graphics card. Naturally, it is also the most expensive and power consuming, but if you want the best and nothing but the best and also want an Nvidia card, this is the one you’re looking for.
The Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 is an incredible piece of hardware for numerous reasons. It is the follow-up of the Fermi-based GTX 480–Nvidia’s first entry into the DX11 world–but has been improved in all possible ways; reduced noise and improved performance counts among the primary benefits of this cards. On top of that it is also the fastest single-GPU alternative on the market. It features a 512 CUDA cores, 1.5GB of GDDR5 video memory and a 384-bit memory bus. It is also considerably less expensive than the dual-GPU options, making it one of the best options available at the moment.
The card in question is AMD’s answer to the GTX 580 and the fastest single-GPU solution from this manufacturer. In most circumstances it’s not quite as fast as its Nvidia counterpart but not far from it. It is essentially a HD 6990 with one GPU instead of two and it has higher stock clocks since it doesn’t have to cope with two heat-generating components on the same PCB. The card comes standard with 2GB of GDDR5 video RAM, which is more than enough for most users and it easily plows through all your games with the details on high. The card’s 1,536 shaders, 32 ROPs and 1,375MHz memory clock will take care of that.
This graphics card is also based on the Fermi architecture and fully DirectX 11 compliant. The overall performance of the graphics card is good enough for any recent title at high settings, and it also comes in at a more attractive price point than the more expensive, high-end GTX 580. It is by no means significantly handicapped compared to the GTX 580; the GTX 570 comes with 480 CUDA cores running at 732MHz and an odd 1,280MB of GDDR5 video RAM clocked at 1900MHz (effective) over a 320-bit memory bus. On the whole it is actually slightly faster in most circumstances than the initial top-tier Fermi card, the GTX 480.
Next in line is the original Fermi design in the form of the GeForce GTX 480, which is somewhat difficult to recommend since it has been surpassed by newer and more efficient cards. However, if you manage to find one at an attractive price point it is still a viable option, but you should be aware that it’s not as power-efficient as the 500 series and it offers about the same performance as the GTX 570. That being said, it is a fast card with DX11 capabilities that produces playable frame rates at high resolutions in all current games.
The GTX 560 Ti is one of the most popular GPUs at the moment, and for good reason. It hits an excellent “sweet spot” in terms of price versus performance. It is not far from the top-tier cards in the average number of frames per second it churns out in the latest games but is considerably cheaper. There are GTX 560 Ti cards available from practically all graphics card manufacturers and in different varieties. Most of them perform (or can be made to perform) about the same.
The HD 6950 is AMD’s answer to Nvidia’s GTX 560–it comes in at about the same price point and offers equivalent performance. Thanks to the fierce competition in the upper mid-range segment, the price on this card from most manufacturers has dropped further in recent months. It comes standard with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and 1408 stream processors, which are clocked at 1250Mhz and 800MHz respectively. In short, it’s a good graphics card, and if you are looking for something that is cost efficient it is clearly worth considering.
Compared to the HD 6950, the HD 6870 is equipped with fewer shaders–1170 vs. 1408–but this is partly compensated by the higher core clock speed 900MHz (of course, this is the standard clock speed and it differs between manufacturers). It is nevertheless slower than the HD 6950 and has just 1GB of GDDR5 instead of 2GB, but it is still a fast GPU and the best part is the very attractive price tag compared to its closest competitors. For gamers on a budget this is therefore a great option at the moment.
#10. ATI Radeon HD 6850
Finally, we are hitting the bottom of this list with the ATI Radeon HD 6850, but the fact that it’s on this list at all means that it is a fast graphics card. It builds on the same design as the HD 6870, but has slightly less processing power. There are 960 stream processors in this card and 1GB of GDDR5 memory. The standard core clock is 775MHz and memory clock 1000MHz, but just like with the other GPUs, the manufacturers are free to set their own default clocks and the speeds will vary between different cards.
Most of the above cards can be configured in SLI or CrossFireX, which will improve performance but not necessarily double it (or treble in 3-way SLI etc). How well a multi-card setup performs largely depends on the driver support. When using a multi-GPU configuration it is therefore more important than ever to have the latest drivers installed or you might not have a benefit at all from the extra graphics card(s). Most of the time there are specific profiles that need to be applied for each game for optimal performance, but these are integrated in the drivers and rarely something you have to worry about.
As far as we’ve been able to discern, these are the top 10 desktop graphics cards currently available on the market. The ranking is based on several factors and real-world performance may differ between different cards and different games. There are also differences between different cards from different manufacturers–some are factory overclocked and they all have their own unique pros and cons. If you find an error in the list, don’t hesitate to use the comments to let us know.
Either way, when purchasing a graphics card you can largely expect to get what you pay for, although there are some that offer a better price/performance ratio than other. Hopefully this list has at least helped you get an overview of what’s currently available and what to expect from the different GPUs.