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The best graphics cards under 250 / $330 and under 400 / $500

The GPUs to buy if you're willing to seriously invest in your graphics hardware.

Towards the end of last year, Nvidia redefined the high-end graphics market with the release of its second generation cards based on the Maxwell architecture: the GTX 980 and the GTX 970. The former is a premium performer with a price to match, but the latter was something altogether different. Priced at £250/$329, it offered the majority of the GTX 980's performance and at the same time out-performed both the AMD Radeon R9 290 and its altogether more expensive R9 290X. The aftershock of GTX 970's arrival has meant only good things for high-end gaming enthusiasts. AMD was forced to evolve and push on, and the end result is the R9 390 and the R9 390X - with the former in particular well worth a look.

Moving up to the top-tier cards offers the chance to run many games at max settings or very close to it, and also opens up the opportunity to run with SSAA - super-sampling, or the process of internally rendering at a higher resolution, then downscaling to the native pixel count of your display. Perhaps most importantly though, you have the power to combine great visual quality with high frame-rates - 60fps with only minor drops should be attainable on all but the most demanding software. Based on our testing of high-end cards, we'd recommend the following:

  • On recent titles, we still cannot recommend MSAA anti-aliasing - provided it is an option at all. The drain to GPU resources remains intense, and modern engines are built with a lighting model that does not favour multi-sampling. Indeed, with Far Cry 4 for example, MSAA actually looks worse than the post-process SMAA.
  • Nvidia offers an MFAA mode for most games that support MSAA, offering arguably better image quality at a much lower cost to system resources. On balance we would still stick with post-process options to ensure higher frame-rates.
  • AMD is now competitive in this space, but the trade-off comes down to heat and power consumption - both 390 and 390X are large, hot cards and you'll need good ventilation in your case.
  • If you have the money to afford a GTX 970 or GTX 980, we highly recommend investing in a G-Sync monitor. This completely eliminates screen-tear and reduces the stutter produced by a game running with v-sync that is dropping frames.
  • AMD has its own adaptive sync alternative, FreeSync. It's not quite as flexible as G-Sync, but with a little more care in settings management, you can achieve very close results.
  • High-end cards open up the chance to run games on high settings at 2560x1440, producing some beautiful results. However, even with all the power on offer in these cards, you will still need to drop settings compared to 1080p.
  • Both Nvidia and AMD have marketed these cards for 4K gameplay. 3840x2160 is an enormous resolution and to our mind, a single graphics card - even one as potent as the GTX 980 - doesn't have enough horsepower. The new tier of 'uber' GPUs are required here, but even they struggle at higher quality presets.

We kick off with our Crysis gameplay challenge, with the main video showing three of our four contenders (you can see how the GTX 980 fares against the R9 390X at both 1080p and 1440p here. The aim here is self-evident. With v-sync engaged, we want to match the native resolution and refresh of the typical gaming display, so 1080p at 60Hz. And the results are pretty clear-cut - the GTX 970 is now the weakest card in the bunch, with the two Radeons surpassing it. Meanwhile, we are almost certainly under-utilising the 390X and GTX 980 here, with the minuscule frame-rate drops most likely down to CPU hiccups.

The new R9 390 and 390X square off against the GTX 980 and the R9 290 in a bid to see which cards can play a maxed-out Crysis 3 at as close to a locked, tear-free 1080p60 as possible. The R9 290 has been discontinued now, but suffice to say that the R9 390 is a lot faster.

Crysis 3 1080p V-Sync Gameplay R9 390 R9 390X GTX 970 GTX 980
Lowest Frame-Rate 50.0fps 47.0fps 44.0fps 51.0fps
Dropped Frames (from 18650 total) 156 (0.8%) 107 (0.6%) 465 (2.5%) 27 (0.1%)

Alternative video analyses:

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Moving into our benchmark suite at 1080p full HD, we see that the R9 390 and the GTX 970 are very closely matched indeed. Far Cry 4, Ryse and Shadow of Mordor tend to favour AMD hardware and both hand in convincing wins, while Crysis 3 is also faster. However, Tomb Raider and The Witcher 3 are still more optimal on Nvidia hardware, while Assassin's Creed Unity and Battlefield 4 are essentially much of a muchness between Radeon and GeForce cards. Bearing in mind the overclocking headroom available on the GTX 970, we still think it has the edge here. There's been a lot of discussion and controversy about the GTX 970's memory arrangement (3.5GB of fast RAM, 512MB of much slower memory), but it doesn't really make any difference at all at 1080p. Indeed, it took extreme measures for us to show any difference at all compared to the GTX 980's set-up, which has a full 4GB of RAM operating at full bandwidth. The question is how situation might might change in the future, which is a bit of a concern.

In comparing the GTX 980 and the R9 390X, it's clear that the new AMD challenger isn't quite as competitive as the R9 390 is in the lower price tier. At 1080p, seven out of nine test titles run faster on the GTX 980. Crysis 3 and Far Cry 4 are hardly conclusive wins though, while AMD-friendly games Shadow of Mordor and Ryse do see the 390X pull ahead. High-end AMD hardware tends to favour higher resolutions, and there we see the Radeon hardware get more competitive. That's absolutely fine - it's just that the vast majority of gaming occurs on full HD screens, according to the Steam hardware survey.

So it's a curious state of affairs here - in tackling the second-generation Maxwell products, AMD's fortunes vary - the R9 390 looks set to take the battle to the GTX 970, but the R9 390X isn't quite as competitive up against the GTX 980, which also has a large amount of overclocking headroom built in that the AMD card simply does not have.

By and large, the R9 390 is faster than the GTX 970 at 1080p, but the aggregate average advantage it has is mostly down to its convincing wins in Ryse, Shadow of Mordor and Far Cry 4.

1920x1080 (1080p) R9 390 R9 390X GTX 970 GTX 980
The Witcher 3, Ultra, HairWorks Off, Custom AA 53.8 57.4 56.0 65.8
Battlefield 4, Ultra, 4x MSAA 74.1 78.3 74.6 86.5
Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA 75.1 80.1 71.4 81.5
Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA 51.6 56.0 51.7 62.4
Far Cry 4, Ultra, SMAA 82.1 82.4 77.4 87.4
Ryse: Son of Rome, High, SMAA 76.6 81.8 65.1 76.1
Shadow of Mordor, Ultra, High Textures, FXAA 95.2 101.9 80.8 91.7
Tomb Raider, Ultimate, FXAA 100.4 107.1 102.4 118.2

At 1440p, AMD's hardware - based on its Hawaii chipset (renamed Grenada for its 300-series rebranding) starts to flex its muscles. It's a matter of a 512-bit memory interface competing against a 256-bit bus found in the leaner Nvidia hardware, and this, combined with faster GDDR5 modules compared to the 200-series cards, starts to produce tangible results for the red team.

The R9 390 is a decent fit for 1440p gaming, and as you can see in the table it takes point in every single benchmark compared to the GTX 970 - a remarkable turnaround compared to the full HD results. The extent of its dominance varies on a game-by-game basis though, with The Witcher 3 and Battlefield 4 just two to three points ahead, but Far Cry, Ryse and Shadow of Mordor are all over 20 per cent faster. Crysis 3 impresses with a 13 per cent lead, while Assassin's Creed Unity and Tomb Raider enjoy a five per cent uptick. Now, we can assume that overclocking will see the GTX 970 draw level in some cases, but in terms of out-of-the-box performance, that's a great showing.

There are also gains at 1440p for the R9 390X, but broadly speaking, it's a much more interesting battle and nowhere near as one-sided. The GTX 980 is faster on The Witcher 3, but AC Unity, Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty are less than four per cent faster, while the Tomb Raider and Crysis 3 experiences are essentially like for like. The R9 390X boasts a few good wins too, with Far Cry 4, Shadow of Mordor and Ryse around 13 to 15 per cent faster.

The R9 390 does a decent job of overtaking the GTX 970 at 1440p resolution. Its improvements over GTX 970 vary on a game by game basis, and more aggressively overclocked GTX 970s will get closer.

2560x1440 (1440p) R9 390 R9 390X GTX 970 GTX 980
The Witcher 3, Ultra, HairWorks Off, Custom AA 40.3 43.5 39.2 47.5
Battlefield 4, Ultra, 4x MSAA 51.7 54.5 48.9 57.0
Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA 48.7 52.3 43.0 50.0
Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA 35.5 38.4 32.8 39.7
Far Cry 4, Ultra, SMAA 64.7 69.0 53.9 61.3
Ryse: Son of Rome, High, SMAA 57.5 62.2 46.3 54.1
Shadow of Mordor, Ultra, High Textures, FXAA 69.2 74.4 57.0 66.0
Tomb Raider, Ultimate, FXAA 69.0 75.7 65.5 76.7

Our benchmarks conclude with 4K testing - and presents us something of a conundrum. AMD has clear dominance here - the R9 390 dominates the GTX 970, while 390X is fast enough not just to beat the GTX 980, but also to challenge AMD's own $550 R9 Fury. There's just one problem: we can't really recommend any of these cards for 4K gameplay, even though we've dropped down quality presets in our testing. The hit to frame-rate is just too high for our tastes and the variance in performance is also troublesome - and that's to be expected, bearing in mind that we are running with the pixel equivalent of four 1080p screens.

But the fact of the matter is that here we see the AMD hardware push well ahead of the Nvidia competition. The GTX 970 can only beat the R9 390 in one game - the heavily optimised Battlefield 4 (a game Nvidia piled resources into, in order to compete with the now-dead Mantle API). Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, Far Cry 4 and Ryse are 36 per cent faster. However, it feels like an 'on paper' victory as the actual gameplay experience is nothing to write home about. Perhaps if AMD implemented a half-rate adaptive v-sync solution for solid, properly paced 30fps gameplay, that might help but for now, that's not an option.

It's a similar situation as we compare GTX 980 to R9 390X. Once again, Nvidia only has one win - not surprisingly, it's the same game: Battlefield 4, and it's just five per cent faster. Otherwise, it's a clean sweep for AMD. Now, The Witcher 3, Crysis 3 and Call of Duty aren't really that much faster on AMD hardware, but the uptick is there, and of course, Radeon-friendly mainstays Ryse, Shadow of Mordor and Far Cry 4 open up even more commanding leads, with anything from 18 to 23 per cent uplifts. Great results for AMD, but the practical implementations are limited for reasons already mentioned. Conceivably we could talk about CrossFire/multi-GPU set-ups, but realistically that isn't really possible - both R9 390 and 390X are power-hungry and very hot.

At 4K resolution, the refreshed 'Grenada' cards post their biggest increases over Nvidia's second-gen Maxwells, but in truth, none of these products have the raw power to provide satisfying ultra HD gameplay on modern titles at very high settings.

3840x2160 (4K) R9 390 R9 390X GTX 970 GTX 980
The Witcher 3, High, HairWorks Off, Custom AA 26.8 29.1 22.8 27.7
Battlefield 4, High, Post-AA 42.3 44.5 39.5 46.8
Crysis 3, High, SMAA 38.5 40.2 31.9 39.0
Assassin's Creed Unity, Very High, FXAA 21.0 22.7 18.4 21.8
Far Cry 4, Very High, SMAA 40.8 44.4 30.0 36.1
Ryse: Son of Rome, Normal, SMAA 35.0 37.8 25.7 31.5
Shadow of Mordor, High, High Textures, FXAA 43.8 50.1 35.3 42.4
Tomb Raider, Ultra, FXAA 46.6 51.4 39.0 47.1

AMD is back in the game in one of the most important performance tiers in the graphics market, but it has come at a cost. The R9 390 and 390X are much larger, and usually longer cards than the products they were designed to compete against. And any idea of power efficiency goes completely out of the window when you look at the peak system power draw figures below - we're talking about a remarkable 180W differential between Grenada and Maxwell. And that was actually felt on our test bed, where the amount of heat generated by the Radeons was palpable. You can overclock the R9 390 and 390X, but not by much - and when you push the cards to their limits, peak power draw can hit 530W. These are easily the hottest and most power-hungry GPUs we've tested.

GTX 970 and GTX 980 consume far less power, less heat is generated, they overclock better and the door is open to running multiple cards in SLI too. Generally speaking, the cards are shorter, so they fit more easily into more cases too, plus obviously, the load on the power supply is less pronounced.

R9 390 R9 390X GTX 970 GTX 980
Peak System Power Draw 447W 477W 277W 294W
970

The best graphics card under £250 / $330: GTX 970

Honourable mention: R9 390

It was always on a knife-edge, but we've decided to flip our verdict here. Previously, we opted for the R9 390 owing to its future-proof VRAM and excellent performance, but recent issues with driver support for key titles such as Fallout 4 and Just Cause 3 have highlighted that weak software support really impacts the Radeon ownership experience. Meanwhile, Nvidia's GTX 970 has continued to flourish with day one driver updates for every major release. If there are issues with the controversial 3.5GB/0.5GB split in VRAM, we have yet to see them manifest outside of multi-card SLI set-ups, and for 1080p gameplay in particular, the strong performance plus superb overclocking performance puts the GTX 970 on top.

But AMD deserves a huge amount of kudos in responding to the arrival of the GTX 970 last year, which gave the R9 290 a good kicking and even beat the 290X in many scenarios. Overclocking the Hawaii core and upgrading the memory has given AMD the performance boost it needs to take the fight to Nvidia and to win in straight, out-of-the-box performance at 1440p. Also, the R9 390 brute-forces its way past any potential VRAM issues by providing a mammoth 8GB of GDDR5. It may well be the case that games won't utilise it, but to be frank, it's kind of reassuring that it's there.

980

The best graphics card under £400 / $500: GTX 980

Honourable mention: R9 390X

This market category is a curious one. In our opinion, the R9 390X and the GTX 980 do not provide a genuinely transformative gameplay experience compared to the much cheaper R9 390 and GTX 970, so the overall value proposition does seem a little suspect. This isn't helped by the fact that the GTX 980 Ti and the R9 Fury X lurk at the £510/$650 price-point, offering a tangible leap in performance. Sure, you're paying an extra £110/$150, but some might say that if you're budgeting so much money for a GPU, you may as well go for the best you can get.

Still, within its price-tier, the GTX 980 is our pick - simply because its combination of efficiency and overclocking is untouchable in this area. AMD's strategy of overclocking its Hawaii core and ramping up memory frequencies paid off pretty well with the R9 390, but there's the sense that the same strategy only goes so far with the 390X, which is the most power-hungry and the hottest GPU we've ever tested. The R9 390 had performance leadership, but the situation is far less clear with the 390X. Meanwhile, the GTX 980 has the performance, it has the overclocking headroom, and it works just fine in most gaming cases.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry  |  digitalfoundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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