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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April 2015

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April 2015
By , Don Woligroski

Nvidia's misreported GeForce GTX 970 specs continue to dominate the graphics world news, with a public apology from the CEO and the launch of a class-action lawsuit. Of course, we also report the latest trends in graphics card pricing!

Detailed graphics card specifications and reviews are great, assuming you have the time to do the research. But at the end of the day, a gamer needs to know what the best graphics card is for their money. So, if you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right card, then fear not. We've compiled a simple list of the best gaming cards offered in any given price range.

April Updates:

Last month, Nvidia launched its GeForce GTX Titan X, based on the eight-billion-transistor GM200 GPU. Armed with 3072 CUDA cores operating at 1GHz and 12GB of GDDR5 memory on an aggregate 384-bit memory bus, the card comes close to driving the latest games at 4K using their highest detail settings. In some cases, your experience would certainly benefit from a slightly less demanding quality preset. Still though, it’s amazing to see one 250W graphics card plowing through scenes that would have taken two or three previous-gen boards.

What many enthusiasts may have missed is that Nvidia is taking an opportunity to pocket some additional margin by selling direct through its geforce.com site. Online stores like Newegg and Amazon will still sell cards branded by Nvidia’s partners, but it’ll be interesting to see how those “partners” react to competition from the manufacturer. Unfortunately for all parties, even though last month’s launch was deemed “hard” (in that availability was supposed to be immediate), there aren’t any cards available to buy as of today.

Of course, given a $1000 price tag, the number of impatient gamers upset by this will probably be fairly small. A greater number will notice a handful of GeForce GTX 980s on sale for $530 to $540, as other models creep higher. The reference-class version we prefer, with its centrifugal fan that exhausts waste heat out of your chassis, will run you $570.

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 970 is one step down on the performance ladder. However, it’s also more accessible at around $330—a price fairly consistent with what we saw a month ago. AMD battles the 970 with its Radeon R9 290X. Although the Hawaii GPU-powered card typically sells for more ($340 and up), a number of rebates keep it competitive. As a result, both boards continue to share a recommendation.

AMD’s board partners use the same approach to make the Radeon R9 280X more attractive. Most models hover in the $240 to $250 range, while rebates take some of them down closer to $230. Despite relatively high power consumption, the 280X is a sweet spot for playable 2560x1440 frame rates at a reasonable price.

From there, it’s a short drop to 1920x1080 and the GeForce GTX 960 with 2GB of GDDR5 memory. Readily available under $200, Nvidia’s GM206-powered offering displaces the Radeon R9 280 from our charts. Several of AMD’s partners do have $20 rebates going on the 280 and 285, but Nvidia’s balance of power, performance and features is simply more compelling at this price point.

Although we still like Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 750 Ti for its modest performance at 1920x1080, its compact form factor and its downright conservative power consumption, AMD’s Radeon R9 270 recently dropped to a similar $150 to $160-ish price point, delivering notably higher frame rates. As such, the 270 picks up a recommendation, while the 750 Ti takes an honorable mention for those limited by chassis size or power supply output. In the same vein, steer clear of the few remaining Radeon R7 265 models, which also sell for roughly $150.

Down in the entry-level discrete space, Nvidia’s GeForce GT 730, which already had our recommendation, is back to the $60 range after briefly flirting with a $70 price point. Our existing Radeon R7 260X recommendation is also cemented in place after dropping to $120, or around $100 after a number of $20 rebates.

Based on your feedback, we’re making some adjustments to our multi-GPU recommendations this month. The Radeon R9 295X2 maintains our honorable mention for its impressive performance. You should be able to find the dual-Hawaii card for under $700. Just make sure your chassis can accommodate its closed-loop liquid cooler and your power supply has two eight-pin auxiliary connectors. Down from there, the best reason we can think of for CrossFire or SLI is achieving playable performance at 3840x2160. To that end, a pair of GeForce GTX 970s or 980s are your best bet (the equivalent from AMD, a couple of 290Xes, is made redundant by the 295X2). Should you have the means to put multiple 4K displays on your desk, scaling up with GeForce GTX Titan X cards is the only way to go. We’ve seen some issues with Titan X in SLI though, so we’re not yet ready to recommend them.

Lastly, you may have heard that AMD published a driver with support for FreeSync. We have a plan in the works to compare both variable refresh technologies in much the same way we pitted CrossFire and SLI against each other after AMD’s frame pacing update. Stay tuned for more.

Some Notes About Our Recommendations

A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:

  • This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need. We've added a reference page at the end of the column covering integrated graphics processors, which is likely more apropos for home, office, and basic multimedia usage models.
  • Be sure to check out our new performance per dollar comparison page, where you can overlay the benchmark data we’ve generated with pricing, giving you a better idea where your ideal choice falls on the value curve. The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance.
  • Recommendations for multiple video cards, such as two Radeon cards in CrossFire mode or two GeForce cards in SLI, typically require a motherboard that supports CrossFire/SLI and possibly a chassis with plenty of space to install multiple graphics cards. These setups also usually call for a beefier power supply than what a single card needs, and will almost certainly produce more heat than a single card. Keep these factors in mind when making your purchasing decision. In most cases, if we have recommended a multiple-card solution, we try to recommend a single-card honorable mention at a comparable price point for those who find multi-card setups undesirable.
  • Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t base our decisions on always-changing pricing information, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest, along with real-time prices for your reference.
  • The list is based on some of the best U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will almost certainly vary.
  • These are new card prices. No used or open-box cards are in the list. While these offers might represent a good deal, it’s simply outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.
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  • 0 Hide
    adamovera , April 10, 2015 1:41 PM
    Archived comments are found here: http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/id-2557769/graphics-cards-money-october-2014.html
  • 1 Hide
    jl0329 , April 10, 2015 1:59 PM
    Is 970 an overkill in any game if my monitor only supports up to 1080p?
  • 0 Hide
    Macky6 , April 10, 2015 2:35 PM
    why don't you keep the old lists? It would be useful to look at them and compare IMO.
  • 0 Hide
    Kridian , April 10, 2015 4:07 PM
    Staying patient for Q2 releases.
  • 0 Hide
    rmpumper , April 10, 2015 11:08 PM
    Quote:
    Is 970 an overkill in any game if my monitor only supports up to 1080p?


    At the moment, yes, but only if you don't use high AA settings. But it won't be in a few months after GTA5, Witcher 3, Star Citizen, Arkham Knight, etc. will be released. I would say, get it for the peace of mind for the future and because it's still one of the best bang for your buck cards (or wait a bit for R9 300 series to compare if you have something decent for now).
  • 0 Hide
    MeteorsRaining , April 11, 2015 12:32 AM
    The $180-300 segment GPUs are "Enthusiast" and $300+ are "High-End"? Seems like a typo.
  • 0 Hide
    Grognak , April 11, 2015 12:42 AM
    So the 280 doesn't deserve a spot because its power consumption is higher than the 960, but the 290X is tied with the 970 despite having the same issue?
  • 0 Hide
    monkeymonk , April 11, 2015 12:44 AM
    "previously would have taken two or three previous-gen boards" sounds kind of redundant
  • 0 Hide
    PaulBags , April 11, 2015 12:51 AM
    I'd like to start seeing typical idle wattage listed as well as max tdp, and not just for graphics.
  • 0 Hide
    Pirx73 , April 11, 2015 2:02 AM
    What about R9 285? I was looking to purchase this one
  • 0 Hide
    cdrkf , April 11, 2015 3:48 AM
    I think a 285 or a 280 is a much safer bet long term than the gtx 960. That card has a pitiful 128 bit memory bus which I can't see being sufficient moving forward. The 280 would be my pick of the three given its substantially better memory subsystem (3gb over a 384bit bus).
  • 0 Hide
    davide445 , April 11, 2015 3:54 AM
    Still no performance chart for integrated Intel GPU? You are paid to do that?
  • 0 Hide
    Cryio , April 11, 2015 4:42 AM
    They should adjust the chart a bit. The 290X smokes the 780 Ti nowadays, yet it's a step higher.
  • 0 Hide
    NinjaNerd56 , April 11, 2015 6:24 AM
    Quote:
    I think a 285 or a 280 is a much safer bet long term than the gtx 960. That card has a pitiful 128 bit memory bus which I can't see being sufficient moving forward. The 280 would be my pick of the three given its substantially better memory subsystem (3gb over a 384bit bus).


    I 'only' have a 27inch IPS monitor, 1080p, and the EVGA SSC 960.

    I was a little put off by the tiny bus, but in actual use, this card screams...very quietly.

    I'm getting 160-180FPS in World Of Warplanes at max settings. In a 30 person furball, that's awesome.

    No complaints.
  • 1 Hide
    Sakkura , April 11, 2015 7:14 AM
    The R9 285 is cheaper than the GTX 960, so your recommendation there does not make sense.
  • 1 Hide
    xenol , April 11, 2015 7:20 AM
    Quote:
    I think a 285 or a 280 is a much safer bet long term than the gtx 960. That card has a pitiful 128 bit memory bus which I can't see being sufficient moving forward. The 280 would be my pick of the three given its substantially better memory subsystem (3gb over a 384bit bus).

    1. Maxwell 2's architecture has optimized how much bandwidth it needs, so it doesn't need that wide of a channel to get similar performance.
    2. Memory bandwidth doesn't matter anyway if your GPU can't handle the load, if you were suggesting that the card would be better suited for something like 4K. Memory performance only really matters if you're doing something like MSAA.
  • 0 Hide
    cdrkf , April 11, 2015 9:58 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    I think a 285 or a 280 is a much safer bet long term than the gtx 960. That card has a pitiful 128 bit memory bus which I can't see being sufficient moving forward. The 280 would be my pick of the three given its substantially better memory subsystem (3gb over a 384bit bus).

    1. Maxwell 2's architecture has optimized how much bandwidth it needs, so it doesn't need that wide of a channel to get similar performance.
    2. Memory bandwidth doesn't matter anyway if your GPU can't handle the load, if you were suggesting that the card would be better suited for something like 4K. Memory performance only really matters if you're doing something like MSAA.


    That is the point though, the R9 280, 285 and GTX 960 are all roughly equal on shader power. The 960 is power efficient, I'll give it that, however I'm certain if you put the three up against each other in a detailed set of benchies and pushed different settings (e.g. higher resolution, higher levels of AA and so on) that the AMD cards will pull in front. A 128 bit bus has no place in a card at that price point imo.

    I agree it works fine according to benchmarks in current games, however what happens when you crank it up a notch to 1200, 1440, or even 1600p. Everyone thinks it's 1080 or 4k, however there are actually quite a few steps in-between. Remember the 280 is actually AMD's last gen high end GPU (a HD 7950 boost to be specific) and as such inherits the wide memory bus and such. Those cards were built for higher than 1080p and I'm certain a 280 can still achieve that, whilst the 960?

    I also rate the 280 over the 285 for the same reason (despite the core enhancements to the 285). I mean if I was shopping for an nVidia card in this price segment I'd be looking to the 700 series instead. All the reviews pointed out the 960 *didn't offer any advantage performance wise over what it was replacing*. I mean it's not even like the 960 will have better API support, DX12 is coming to all nVidia cards post Fermi, and all AMD cards back to GCN 1.0.
  • 1 Hide
    hammerstrike , April 11, 2015 9:59 AM
    The article mentioned issues with Titan X / GM200 in SLI, but didn't describe what they are. this is the first I have heard of that. Does anyone know what they are referencing and/or have a link to the topic?
  • 0 Hide
    wb0607 , April 11, 2015 10:26 AM
    As of 4/11/15, the gtx 960 2gb GDDR5 is only $199.99 at newegg, with cards in stock. Best Buy price-matched this for me today. Hope someone can use this info =D
  • 0 Hide
    FormulaicWays , April 11, 2015 10:58 AM
    I'm very grateful for these "Best" articles. However, for months now the Amazon link you provide for the R9 290X is incorrect, especially if that's where you're sourcing your price info. The link goes to an R9 290: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00HJOXUKC/?tag=bom_tomshardware-20&ascsubtag=[site|thaus[cat|[art|[pid|B00HJOXUKC[tid|14287747897329983[bbc|LEPRIX

    The Sapphire 290X is significantly more expensive than the 290 counterpart.
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