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The video-card game is a lot like Hollywood. Movies like My Left Foot and The Artist take home the Oscars every year, but movies like Grown Ups 2 and Transformers 3 pull in all the cash. It's the same with GPUs, in that everyone loves to talk about $1,000 cards, but the actual bread-and-butter of the market is made up of models that cost between $100 and $150. These are not GPUs for 4K gaming, obviously, but they can provide a surprisingly pleasant 1080p gaming experience, and run cool and quiet, too.
This arena has been so hot that AMD and Nvidia have recently released no fewer than six cards aimed at budget buyers. Four of these cards are from AMD, and Nvidia launched two models care of its all-new Maxwell architecture, so we decided to pit them against one another in an old-fashioned GPU roundup. All of these cards use either a single six-pin PCIe connector or none at all, so you don't even need a burly power supply to run them, just a little bit of scratch and the desire to get your game on. Let's dive in and see who rules the roost!
Budget GPUs have always been low-power components, and usually need just a single six-pin PCIe power connector to run them. After all, a budget GPU goes into a budget build, and those PCs typically don't come with the 600W-or-higher power supplies that provide dual six- or eight-pin PCIe connectors. Since many budget PSUs done have PCIe connectors, most of these cards come with Molex adapters in case you don't have one. The typical thermal design power (TDP) of these cards is around 110 watts or so, but that number fluctuates up and down according to spec. For comparison, the Radeon R9 290X has a TDP of roughly 300 watts, and Nvidia's flagship card, the GTX 780 Ti, has a TDP of 250W, so these budget cards don't have a lot of juice to work with. Therefore, efficiency is key, as the GPUs need to make the most out of the teeny, tiny bit of wattage they are allotted. During 2013, we saw AMD and Nvidia release GPUs based on all-new 28nm architectures named GCN and Kepler, respectively, and though Nvidia held a decisive advantage in the efficiency battle, it's taken things to the next level with its new ultra-low-power Maxwell GPUs that were released in February 2014.
Beginning with the GTX 750 Ti and the GTX 750, Nvidia is embarking on a whole new course for its GPUs, centered around maximum power efficiency. The goal with its former Kepler architecture was to have better performance per watt compared to the previous architecture named Fermi, and it succeeded, but it's taken that same philosophy even further with Maxwell, which had as its goal to be twice as efficient as Kepler while providing 25 percent more performance.
Maxwell offers far greater power savings by using more granular clock gating, which allows it to shut down unused graphics units.
Achieving more performance for the same model or SKU from one generation to the next is a tough enough challenge, but to do so by cutting power consumption in half is an even trickier gambit, especially considering the Maxwell GPUs are being fabricated on the same 28nm process it used for Kepler. We always expect more performance for less power when moving from one process to the next, such as 32nm to 28nm or 22nm to 14nm, but to do so on the same process is an amazing achievement indeed. Though Nvidia used many technological advances to reduce power consumption, the main structural change was to how the individual CUDA cores inside the Graphics Processing Clusters (GPCs) are organized and controlled. In Kepler, each GPC contained individual processing units, named SMX units, and each unit featured a piece of control logic that handled scheduling for 192 CUDA cores, which was a major increase from the 32 cores in each block found in Fermi. In Maxwell, Nvidia has gone back to 32 CUDA cores per block, but is putting four blocks into each unit, which are now called SM units. If you're confused, the simple version is this—rather than one piece of logic controlling 192 cores, Maxwell has a piece of logic for each cluster of 32 cores, and there are four clusters per unit, for a total of 128 cores per block. Therefore, it's reduced the number of cores per block by 64, from 192 to 128, which helps save energy. Also, since each piece of control logic only has to pay attention to 32 cores instead of 192, it can run them more efficiently, which also saves energy.
The benefit to all this energy-saving is the GTX 750 cards don't need external power, so they can be dropped into pretty much any PC on the market without upgrading the power supply. That makes it a great upgrade for any pre-built POS you have lying around the house.
Nvidia's new Maxwell cards run surprisingly cool and quiet in stock trim, and that's with a fan no larger than an oversized Ritz cracker, so you can guess what happens when you throw a mid-sized WindForce cooler onto one of them. Yep, it's so quiet and cool you have to check with your fingers to see if it's even running. This bad boy ran at 45 C under load, making it the coolest-running card we've ever tested, so kudos to Nvidia and Gigabyte on holding it down (the temps, that is). This board comes off the factory line with a very mild overclock of just 13MHz (why even bother, seriously), and its boost clock has been massaged up to 1,111MHz from 1,085MHz, but as always, this is just a starting point for your overclocking adventures. The memory is kept at reference speeds however, running at 5,400MHz. The board sports 2GB of GDDR5 memory, and uses a custom design for its blue-colored PCB. It features two 80mm fans and an 8mm copper heat pipe. Most interesting is the board requires a six-pin PCIe connector, unlike the reference design, which does not.
The WindForce cooler is overkill, but we like it that way.
In testing, the GTX 750 Ti WindForce was neck-and-neck with the Nvidia reference design, proving that Nvidia did a pretty good job with this card, and that its cooling requirements don't really warrant such an outlandish cooler. Still, we'll take it, and we loved that it was totally silent at all times. Overclocking potential is higher, of course, but since the reference design overclocked to 1,270MHz or so, we don’t think you should expect moon-shot overclocking records. Still, this card was rock solid, whisper quiet, and extremely cool.
Gigabyte GTX 750 Ti WindForce
Much like Gigabyte's GTX 750 Ti WindForce card, the MSI GTX 750 Gaming is a low-power board with a massive Twin Frozr cooler attached to it for truly exceptional cooling performance. The only downside is the formerly waifish GPU has been transformed into a full-size card, measuring more than nine inches long. Unlike the Gigabyte card though, this GPU eschews the six-pin PCIe connector, as it's just a 55W board, and since the PCIe slot delivers up to 75W, it doesn't even need the juice. Despite this card's entry-level billing, MSI has fitted it with “military-class” components for better overclocking and improved stability. It uses twin heat pipes to dual 100mm fans to keep it cool, as well. It also includes a switch that lets you toggle between booting from an older BIOS in case you run into overclocking issues.
MSI’s Twin Frozr cooling apparatus transforms this svelte GPU into a full-sized card.
Speaking of which, this board lives up to its name and has a beefy overclock right out of the box, running at 1,085MHz base clock and 1,163MHz boost clock. It features 1GB of GDDR5 RAM on a 128-bit interface.
The Twin Frozr cooler handles the miniscule amount of heat coming out of this board with aplomb—we were able to press our finger forcibly on the heatsink under load and felt almost no warmth, sort of like when we give Gordon a hug when he arrives at the office. As the only GTX 750 in this test, it showed it could run our entire test suite at decent frame rates, but it traded barbs with the slightly less expensive Radeon R7 260X. On paper, both the GTX 750 and the R7 260X are about $119, but rising prices from either increased demand or low supply have placed both cards in the $150 range, making it a dead heat. Still, it's a very good option for those who want an Nvidia GPU and its ecosystem but can't afford the Ti model.
MSI GeForce GTX 750 Gaming
The Sapphire Radeon R7 265 is the odds-on favorite in this roundup, due to its impressive specs and the fact that it consumes more than twice the power of the Nvidia cards. Sure, it's an unfair advantage, but hate the game, not the player. This board is essentially a rebadged Radeon HD 7850, which is a Pitcairn part, and it slides right in between the $120 R7 260X and the $180ish R7 270. This card actually has the same clock speeds as the R7 270, but features fewer streaming processors for reduced shader performance. It has the same 2GB of memory, same 925MHz boost clock, same 256-bit memory bus, and so on. At 150W, its TDP is very high—or at least it seems high, given that the GTX 750 Ti costs the exact same $150 and is sitting at just 60W. Unlike the lower-priced R7 260X Bonaire part, though, the R7 265 is older silicon and thus does not support TrueAudio and XDMA CrossFire (bridgeless CrossFire, basically). However, it will support the Mantle API, someday.
Sapphire's R7 265 is the third card in this roundup to use a two-fan cooling apparatus.
The Sapphire card delivered the goods in testing, boasting top scores in many benchmarks and coming in as the only GPU in this roundup to hit the magical 60fps in any test, which was a blistering turn in Call of Duty: Ghosts where it hit 67fps at 1080p on Ultra settings. That's damned impressive, as was its ability to run at 49fps in Battlefield 4, though the GTX 750 Ti was just a few frames behind it. Overall, though, this card cleaned up, taking first place in seven out of nine benchmarks. If that isn't a Kick Ass performance, we don't know what is. The Dual-X cooler also kept temps and noise in check, too, making this the go-to GPU for those with small boxes or small monitors.
Sapphire Radeon R7 265 Dual-X
$150 (MSRP), www.sapphiretech.com
The Radeon R7 260X was originally AMD's go-to card for 1080p gaming on a budget. It’s the only card in the company’s sub-$200 lineup that supports all the next-gen features that appeared in its Hawaii-based flagship boards, including support for TrueAudio, XDMA Crossfire, Mantle (as in, it worked at launch), and it has the ability to drive up to three displays —all from this tiny $120 GPU. Not bad. In its previous life, this GPU was known as the Radeon HD 7790, aka Bonaire, and it was our favorite "budget" GPU when pitted against the Nvidia GTX 650 Ti Boost due to its decent performance and amazing at-the-time game bundles. It features a 128-bit memory bus, 896 Stream Processors, 2GB of RAM (up from 1GB on the previous card), and a healthy boost clock of 1,100MHz. TDP is just 115W, so it slots right in between the Nvidia cards and the higher-end R7 265 board. Essentially, this is an HD 7790 card with 1GB more RAM, and support for TrueAudio, which we have yet to experience.
This $120 card supports Mantle, TrueAudio, and CrossFire.
In testing, the R7 260X delivered passable performance, staking out the middle ground between the faster R7 265 and the much slower R7 250 cards. It ran at about 30fps in tests like Crysis 3 and Tomb Raider, but hit 51fps on CoD: Ghosts and 40fps on Battlefield 4, so it's certainly got enough horsepower to run the latest games on max settings. The fact that it supports all the latest technology from AMD is what bolsters this card's credentials, though. And the fact that it can run Mantle with no problems is a big plus for Battlefield 4 players. We like this card a lot, just like we enjoyed the HD 7790. While it’s not the fastest card in the bunch, it’s certainly far from the slowest.
AMD Radeon R7 260X