For gaming purposes, the graphics card reigns supreme. You need reasonable components elsewhere, but gaming performance scales almost directly with the money you put into your graphics card. It's only at the very top of the performance ladder when we get multiple graphics cards that things start to fall off.
Nvidia and AMD both offer plenty of performance, and while AMD is due to release their new Caribbean Islands parts in the near future, the current parts are no slouch. If you need a new graphics card, we have three choices for different budgets.
Would you like to game at 3840x2160 using a single graphics processor? Nvidia’s GeForce GTX Titan X is the only card able to make that happen. Any other configuration would necessitate two GPUs working cooperatively. The Titan X’s massive GM200 chip wields 3072 CUDA cores, 192 texture units, and 96 ROPs. All of those specifications represent a 50% increase compared to the already-fast GeForce GTX 980’s GM204.
An aggregate 384-bit memory bus connects the 8-billion-transistor processor to a staggering 12GB of GDDR5 memory. That's obviously overkill for even a single 4K display, but imagine three or four Titan X cards in a high-end gaming machine rendering to three Ultra HD monitors. Now that’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Surely such a beast chugs power like a V12 engine does gasoline, right? Au contraire. Thanks to the Maxwell architecture’s exceptional efficiency, GeForce GTX Titan X is rated at a relatively modest 250W. It gets all of the juice it needs from a PCIe x16 slot, one six-, and one eight-pin connector.
Nvidia wraps up its hardware in an attractive dual-slot form factor with lighting, a polycarbonate window, and five display outputs (four of which you can use simultaneously). With the Windows 10 launch imminent, it’s good to know that the GeForce GTX Titan X supports feature level 12.1 of the new DirectX API. For serious 3D performance now and in the months to come, it gets no better.
Enthusiasts eagerly awaiting the Oculus Rift now know what sort of graphics hardware they’ll need for an enjoyable experience: The company recommends either a GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290. That makes it pretty easy for us to suggest one of those two cards as a baseline for your next gaming PC. We chose the GeForce for its performance and efficiency (the 970 is actually most comparable to the Radeon R9 290X, which sells for a little bit less).
The GeForce GTX 970 employs the same Maxwell architecture as Nvidia’s flagship Titan X, but costs about one-third as much. And it’s still really, really fast—again, comparable to AMD’s Radeon R9 290X by most accounts. But whereas AMD calls the 290X a 250W board, Nvidia rates its 970 at 145W.
An uncut GM204 processor, which is what you’d find on a GTX 980, features 2048 CUDA cores. Nvidia shaves that number down to 1664 for the 970. It also trims the texture units to a not-so-round 104 and the ROPs to 56. The company then mates GM204 to 4GB of GDDR5. Perhaps its biggest misstep in recent memory was not disclosing that the memory bus isn’t one 256-bit aggregate, but is instead a 224-bit interface to 3.5GB of RAM and 32 bits to the remaining 512MB. Still, you can expect exceptional performance at 2560x1440 with the detail settings cranked up in your favorite games.
Value-added extras like G-Sync support, HDMI 2.0 connectivity, ShadowPlay, and GameStream further sweeten the deal.
AMD’s Graphics Core Next architecture is immensely successful. In fact, several of the company’s current products are based on GPUs launched more than three years ago! One of these, the Radeon R9 270, remains an exceptional value for gaming at 1920x1080.
The 270 is pretty much a direct replacement for AMD’s Radeon HD 7870. It employs the same GPU running at a lower core clock rate, complemented by faster memory, and rated at a lower power ceiling. The 7870 launched at $350 back in 2012. The 270 debuted at $180 in 2013. And today you can find it selling right around $150.
For that price, you get 1280 Stream processors, 80 texture units, and 32 ROPs. The Curaçao GPU operates at 900MHz and is attached to 2GB of GDDR5 memory at 1400MHz on a 256-bit aggregate bus. Although partner boards typically expose four display connectors, you can attach DisplayPort Multi-Stream Transport hubs and output to as many as six screens.
A modest 150W rating means your PSU only needs one six-pin auxiliary connector to drive this potent performer. And despite its advanced age, AMD still claims DirectX 12 support, though we doubt it exposes the API’s most advanced features. Regardless, the board’s continued success is a testament to AMD’s GCN design.
There are great GPUs available right now, but something faster is always just around the corner. AMD should be launching their Fiji parts in the near future, and Nvidia will most likely have a non-Titan GPU to take the place of the existing GTX 980. If you're not happy with your current gaming performance, a new GPU is the most likely cure, and it beats playing the waiting game.