We’re back once again with our monthly guide to video cards and video card industry recap, this time for May of 2014.

All things considered, the month of May has been extremely quiet in the land of video cards, even more so than April was. There have been no major product announcements from either NVIDIA or AMD this month – not that we were expecting any – so the video card market hasn’t shifted very much this month compared to the bigger shake-ups of earlier this year.

The biggest change for the month of May is of course yesterday’s launch of NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX Titan Z. NVIDIA’s dual-GPU flagship was originally scheduled for release in April but was held back to this month, leaving a two month gap between announcement and release. The GTX Titan Z is NVIDIA’s most powerful card yet, packing a pair of GK110 GPUs and all functionality/features that have come to define the Titan family, including uncapped (1/3rd rate) double precision performance and 6GB of VRAM per GPU. However at a price tag of $3000 it’s twice the price of AMD’s dual-GPU R9 295X2 and NVIDIA’s more conservative power consumption and clockspeeds means that they face an uphill battle when it comes to performance. Consequently the GTX Titan Z is being treated as more a compute card than a gaming card by NVIDIA, though if money is no object then it can certainly be used as a gaming card and should turn in some impressive numbers.

The launch of the GTX Titan Z also coincides with the first WHQL release of NVIIDA’s R337 drivers, 337.88.  R337 is a performance optimization heavy driver branch for NVIIDA, incorporating a number of smaller optimizations with an apparent focus on cutting down on CPU driver overhead. 337.88 also includes support for the new generation of single tile (SST) 4K monitors, which will eventually render the existing multiple tile (MST) 4K monitors obsolete.

Meanwhile in the AMD camp, AMD engaged in a small amount of price shuffling among their product lineup. The Radeon R9 280, AMD’s 200 series analogue to the venerable 7950, received a price cut from $279 to $249. This is in reflection of the fact that the R9 280X has been back to its MSRP for several weeks now, and as such the R9 280 was overpriced for the performance it delivered. At $249 it’s now much more competitive against AMD’s other cards while capable of putting the squeeze on NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 760.

And not to be outdone on the driver front, AMD had their own major driver release this month with the release of the Catalyst 14.6 betas. These drivers overhaul AMD’s Eyefinity functionality, incorporating support for new modes that can be used with mixed resolution monitors. AMD can’t work magic, but between the new Fit and Expand modes they have greatly increased the usability of Eyefintiy with disparate monitors, making it possible to work with Eyefinity when mixing old and new monitors, cheap and expensive monitors, etc.

Anyhow, market summaries behind us, let’s look at individual recommendations. As always, we’ve laid out our ideas of price/performance bands and recommendations in our table below, with our full explanations and alternative options to follow. As always, in the case of the sub-$200 market it’s worth pointing out that there’s a video card for roughly every $10, so picking a good video card is as much about budgets as it is finding an especially strong card.

May 2014 GPU Performance Guide
Performance Band Price Range Recommendation
1080p (Low) $99-$149 AMD Radeon R7 250X
1080p (Med)
$149-$199
1080p (High)
$199-$289
1440p (Med)
$289-$399
1440p (High)
$399-$649
1440p (Max)
$649+
4K/Multi-Monitor (High)
$1000+

As a general recommendation for gaming, we suggest starting at $99. There are cards below this price, but the amount of performance you have to give up below $99 far outweighs the cost. Even then, performance gains will generally exceed the price increases up to $150 or so.

Meanwhile for gamers looking for high quality 1080p gaming or better, that will start at $199. Going above that will find cards that are good for 1440p, 4K, and multi-monitor, while going below that will find cards that will require some quality sacrifices to stay at 1080p.

Finally, this guide is by its very nature weighted towards price/performance, based on the passionate feedback we've received from our readers. For these purposes we consider AMD and NVIDIA to be equal from a functionality and compatibility perspective, but it should be said that both parties have been building out their ecosystem in the past year, and this will only continue to grow as the two companies try to differentiate themselves. So if you need or want functionality beyond the core functionality a video card offers, it may be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the NVIDIA and AMD ecosystems, including Gameworks, Eyefinity, Mantle, GeForce Experience, and more.

Budget (<$100): AMD Radeon R7 250X

At $99 there is no other card even worth considering besides AMD’s Radeon R7 250X. NVIDIA’s closest cards remain more expensive for the performance, so compared to both NVIDIA and AMD’s lineups the R7 250X will outperform any AMD or NVIDIA card at similar prices, making it the fastest thing at this price.

From a performance perspective the R7 250X isn’t going to quite hit the sweet spot we outlined earlier, but for those gamers on a strict budget it will get the job done. In the long run it should be able to run most games even at 1080p with medium-to-low settings, along with keeping texture quality down a notch to account for its 1GB of VRAM. Battlefield, GRID 2, and even Total War: Rome 2 can easily hum along on this card at decent settings at 1080p.

Mainstream Sweet Spot ($149): AMD Radeon R7 265

Among the crowded $149 market our primary recommendation is the Radeon R7 265, AMD’s recently launched Pitcairn card designed to lock in this price point. Essentially a 7850 with a higher GPU clockspeed and a revised memory bus allowing for higher memory clockspeeds, the R7 265 a very capable card for the price.

From a performance standpoint the R7 265 not going to be able to play every game at 1080p at high settings, but it will be fast enough for medium-to-high depending on the game, which will be a couple of notches higher than what the $99 cards can do. Meanwhile the 2GB of VRAM will mean that future games shouldn’t bog down the card quite as badly; higher graphical fidelity games will slow it down like any other card, but there’s enough VRAM to keep up with the demands of higher resolution textures and heavier use of intermediate buffers.

Runner Up: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti

Since our guide is written on the assumption that most buyers are looking for the best performance at a given price, our performance recommendations are going to favor AMD, as they’re more willing to throw out larger, more powerful cards at these sub-$200 price bands. NVIDIA on the other hand isn’t going to be able to directly compete with AMD on price/performance, but they do have an interesting technological advantage for gamers who are looking for a different set of tradeoffs.

Powered by NVIDIA's Maxwell architecture, at a price these days closer to $139 NVIDIA is able to offer the GeForce GTX 750 Ti, a card that offers performance approaching the R7 265 with much lower power consumption. The GTX 750 Ti is a sub-75W card – no external PCIe power connector required – allowing it to work in cases and systems where the near-150W R7 265 cannot, while also offering the improved acoustics that come with lower power consumption. So for OEM upgrades, or buyers just looking for something even quieter, the GTX 750 Ti is an interesting alternative. Just keep in mind that from a performance standpoint it trails the R7 265 by about 16%.

There are also a pair of options between here and the R7 250X that bear mentioning. The R7 260X resides at $119 and goes up against the GTX 750, with AMD holding a performance advantage similar to R7 265 vs. GTX 750 Ti. We’re fans of stepping up to the greater performance of the $149 cards, but it does offer something between $99 and $149.

1080p Gaming ($199): AMD Radeon R9 270X

Moving up our product lists, at $199 we’re finally up to cards that are fast enough to play most games at 1080p with high-to-ultra settings. More powerful/expensive cards will offer a further edge for the most demanding games, along with offering a bit more longevity, but for most games at the extremely common resolution of 1080p, it only takes $209 to hit a great level of graphical fidelity for that resolution.

To that end there is no better card at this price than AMD’s Radeon R9 270X. Based on a fully enabled Pitcairn GPU, 270X easily offers the most bang for the buck, keeping its distance from NVIDIA’s GTX 660 while getting rather close to NVIDIA’s more expensive GeForce GTX 760.

Runner Up: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760: The GeForce GTX 760 offers a small but respectable performance lead over the Radeon R9 270X. On a pure price/performance basis it doesn’t make sense, and at $239 sits in an odd gap between the $199 270X and the more capable $300 cards, but for buyers looking for an NVIDIA option for 1080p gaming around $199, it’s as close as one can get.

Reaching For 1440p ($289): AMD Radeon R9 280X

Based on AMD’s venerable Tahiti GPU, the Radeon R9 280X offers the performance of the Radeon HD 7970 at around half the launch price of the aforementioned card. Since coming back down to its MSRP the 280X has continued to fall in price some, and lower-end cards can now regularly be found on sale for less than $299.

For the 280X we’re looking at a card that will straddle 1080p and 1440p. It’s not quite fast enough to work in every game at 1440p with high quality settings, but it’s fast enough for many of them. Alternatively, it’s fast enough at 1080p that it has no problem at that resolution with everything cranked up, including high levels of MSAA and even SSAA in some games. Plus the 3GB of VRAM will give it some leg room if future games demand more VRAM.

On a competitive basis the R9 280X performs very similarly to NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 770, generally trailing by a few percent. However with AMD making the conscientious decision to undercut NVIDIA on pricing here, it gets our nod for this bracket.

Runner Up: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770

NVIDIA’s counterpart to the R9 280X is the GeForce GTX 770. With the cheaper GTX 770 cards now available for around $319 it still holds a price premium over AMD, but less than it once was. The GTX 770 is ever so slightly faster than the 280X – leading by a few percent on average – which generally isn’t enough to offset the price difference, but it goes without saying that it leaves the two cards close. The GTX 770 is a perfectly practical alternative to the 280X in this case, trading a slightly higher price tag for entry into NVIDIA’s ecosystem, something that may become more important as G-Sync monitors are scheduled to become available next month.

Extreme Performance for Cheap ($399): AMD Radeon R9 290

For gamers who want to top-tier performance without completely breaking the bank, AMD’s Radeon R9 290 is easily going to be the card of choice. Offering performance that rivals the more expensive R9 290X and GeForce GTX 780, the 290 is unparalleled in performance for its price. At this level of performance it should be able to run virtually anything at 1440p with high-to-extreme settings, and 1080p gamers should have no trouble hitting 120fps in anything that isn’t CPU limited to begin with.

As the vast majority of reference-style cards have gone out of circulation by now, there is thankfully a good selection of superior semi-custom and fully-custom cards at $399 (and sometimes on sale for even less). These cards offer all of the fantastic performance of the 290 without the noise or throttling drawbacks of the reference 290. Just keep in mind that all of these cards will be open air cooled cards that will want a case environment that can dissipate the additional 250W-300W of heat.

Extreme Performance with Refinement ($499): NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780

Positioned as NVIDIA’s lowest tier GK110 card, the high performance offered by the GeForce GTX 780 means it should be fast enough to run virtually anything at 1440p with high-to-extreme settings, and 1080p gamers should have no trouble hitting 120fps in anything that isn’t CPU limited to begin with. To that end the GTX 780 is the cheapest card that can drive all sub-4K single-monitor setups, giving it a sweet spot position of its own in the current market.

As an added bonus, even at the $499 base price this gets access to NVIDIA’s impressive metal shrouded blower, which in our tests is enough to keep noise levels under 50dB. So for gamers looking for a balance between performance, cooling effectiveness, and noise, the GTX 780 is a star. Meanwhile for gamers looking at open air coolers, GTX 780 cards with alternative coolers such as EVGA’s ACX cooler will find that the GTX 780 can be even quieter for the usual tradeoff between a blower and an open air cooler.

Runner Up: Radeon R9 290X

With prices on the R9 290X falling as low as $499 these days, the 290X has shifted over to being direct competition for the GTX 780. Like the R9 290 the supply of reference cards is nearly gone, so everything from top to bottom is an acoustically superior semi/fully-custom open air cooled card. Looking primarily at the cheapest cards – what are essentially near-reference in clockspeeds and features – the R9 290X puts up a good fight with the GTX 780, capable of edging it out at the same retail price. The only issue the 290X faces is that the 290 is so close in performance that it doesn’t have much of a lead here, making it harder to stand apart from the 290 and the GTX 780.

Taking the Single-GPU Crown For Gaming ($649): NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti

For the fastest single-GPU card on the market for gamers, NVIDIA’s top tier GK110 part, GeForce GTX 780 Ti, stands alone. The performance advantage over the Radeon R9 290X (or even the 290 for that matter) is not incredible, but there’s admittedly nothing new about paying a notable price premium for the very best card.

4K for Me ($1000+): 2x AMD Radeon R9 290X

Though the Radeon R9 290X doesn’t make a ton of sense on its own in light of competition from the GTX 780 and R9 290, if we want to move into 4K gaming and the extreme load it presents, a pair of 290Xs becomes a very tantalizing option. Thanks to AMD’s XDMA engine the 290X has no problem scaling up to 4K in Crossfire, taking AMD’s decent single-card 4K performance and scaling it up to something that allows for 4K without the quality compromises. Considering 60Hz 4K monitors still run for $800+ and demand incredible GPU performance to drive them, to get the most of of such a monitor it doesn't make sense to pair it up with anything less than a pair of 290Xs.

Of course the Radeon R9 295X2 deserves a mention here. As we discussed in our recap of April, AMD’s recently launched dual-GPU flagship card offers all of the performance of the 290X in Crossfire with much better acoustics and in a smaller package. Since our guide is based first and foremost on price/performance our primary recommendation for this bracket is going to be the 290X CF, but if you can make the steep climb to $1500 the 295X2 and its liquid cooler is a very impressive product whose vastly improved acoustics make 295X2 a superior option to 290X CF.

Meanwhile the GTX 780 Ti in SLI is also going to be a viable alternative here. From a performance perspective it will trail the AMD setups by 5% or so at 4K, so while it can’t match the AMD setups hit-for-hit it doesn’t significantly fall behind, making it practical to get similar performance in the NVIDIA ecosystem. The catch is that at $1300 for the dual card setup it’s closer to the 295X2 than the 290X CF in price, so it doesn’t have a distinct sweet spot on price or acoustics like either AMD configuration. But unlike either AMD option, the GTX 780 Ti is available in a high quality blower configuration, allowing a 3rd option between the widely spaced open air cards of R9 290X and the unconventional CLLC of the R9 295X2.

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  • Sabresiberian - Thursday, May 29, 2014 - link

    My daddy taught me "Two wrongs don't make a right". :)

    The fanboy mindset, clinging to a particular brand and saying it is better despite evidence otherwise, does no one any good. It would be better to discourage that kind of thinking than excuse it.

    (I'm not saying it is wrong to make a personal choice about which brand you buy, I'm saying it's wrong to ignore evidence that demonstrates the superiority of one product over another in the criteria measured. Of course it is rare that all of the criteria are measured in a review.)
    Reply
  • Samus - Monday, June 9, 2014 - link

    I've also never had a Radeon card last more than 2 years before flaking out. My Sapphire 4870 eventually had failing VRAM (green artifacts) and my Asus 7750 has lately begun to bluescreen and 1/3rd of the time doesn't resume from standby (it fails to reinitialize the video.) Coincidently, there are tons of refurbs floating around on the market and a lot of people having the same issues even with the refurbs.

    To this day the most solid card I've ever had was my EVGA GTX560 (still working fine in my "garage" PC 3+ years later)

    If only EVGA made AMD cards, maybe they would have a reliable OEM. Because my experience, and many of my friends, hold AMD OEM's (and possibly the chips themselves) to be unreliable and drivers to be inherently sub-par.
    Reply
  • The Von Matrices - Friday, May 30, 2014 - link

    This article is intentionally called "Best graphics cards" since price/performance is only part of the equation. NVidia is much better in power consumption and noise, so if you are like me and care about either of those, the extra money is worth it. Reply
  • RussianSensation - Friday, May 30, 2014 - link

    You don't have any argument there really.

    The noise and temperatures are not relevant since one can purchase an after-market R9 280/280X/290/290X that runs both cool and quiet:

    Low Noise - http://www.techpowerup.com/reviews/Sapphire/R9_290...
    Low Temps - 73C - http://www.techpowerup.com/reviews/Sapphire/R9_290...

    Now power consumption at Peak load:
    780 = 222W
    Sapphire 290X = 253W
    780Ti = 269W

    These GPUs will be in a system that will use 100-200W. You are looking at 30W extra power use over the 780 but significantly faster performance. Power consumption between 280X and 770 is also very similar. So again, from a cost perspective, 780/R9 290/290X/780Ti all a very similar amount of power.

    Sounds like you have no credible argument at all but R9 290 4GB is just $400 while GTX780 6GB which is needed for Watch Dogs is at least $550. NV's pricing right now is horrendous and not worth the premium at all, especially once one starts scaling to 2-3 GPUs and these differences magnify.
    Reply
  • The Von Matrices - Friday, May 30, 2014 - link

    The 290X Tri-X is $700 while a GTX 780 Ti is $680. All you proved is that if you pay extra - the same money as the NVidia card - you can have the same low noise (you still can't beat the power consumption). Reply
  • RussianSensation - Saturday, May 31, 2014 - link

    Huh? First you claimed that R9 290/X cards have high power consumption and heat and noise levels. I disproved it by showing Sapphire Tri-X as just 1 example. You can use any other R9 290 cards to prove the same, such as XFX Double Dissipation, PowerColor PCS+, etc. All of your claims that R9 290 run hot and loud is not true for any of the good after-market cards.

    Second, you proceeded to evade my response by claiming that 290X Tri-X is $700. The current price for Sapphire Tri-X R9 290X is $550, not $700:
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Again, you are not seeing the big pictures. A gamer can buy say a HIS IceQ2 R9 290X for $460:
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Since I already addressed your comments on power consumption, heat and noise levels which are all negated by after-market cards or have very little difference between AMD and NV, that leaves us with price. Here is picture for you one more time:

    On Newegg as of May 31, 2014:

    R9 280X vs. 770 4GB:

    After-market XFX Double Dissipation R9 280X = $260 (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Cheapest GTX770 2GB = $310 --> but this card is like throwing $ into the toilet now since games like Wolfenstein New Order and Watch Dogs require 3GB of VRAM even at 1080P for ultra textures.

    Cheapest GTX770 4GB = $360! 38% price premium for similar performance.

    R9 290 vs. 780 3GB/6GB
    After-market HIS IceQ2 R9 290X = $360 (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Cheapest 780 3GB = $480
    Cheapest 780 6GB = $580 (EVGA 6GB can be bought for $550 on their site).

    Cards like R9 290 and 780 are often used at 1440p/1600p and 3GB is not enough for Watch Dogs. One has to pay a ridiculous $550+ vs. R9 290's price of $360 to get a similar performing card. Insanely overpriced card from NV!

    GTX780Ti Gaming 3GB is the cheapest on Newegg at $600 vs. $460 for the HIS IceQ R9 290X I noted. Again, rip off.

    You can either keep posting outdated prices, or admit that NV needs to drop 25-30% off their prices.
    Reply
  • Vayra - Monday, June 2, 2014 - link

    You are completely right about pretty much everything you said, but you forget that at this point, the 3GB limit does not really bottleneck the 770 as much as you'd think. Benchmarks from different sources do show very little performance loss in games that utilize the 3GB limit versus a R9 280x.

    This makes sense, because the GPU can't process more than it can process. Having 3GB on this level of cards is still out of balance with the performance these cards can deliver. Really great to have 3GB on the R9 280x, but the fact is that you will only see a true benefit in Crossfire, when you actually have the power to drive so many pixels at a smooth framerate.

    Cheapest GTX770 2GB = $310 --> but this card is like throwing $ into the toilet now since games like Wolfenstein New Order and Watch Dogs require 3GB of VRAM even at 1080P for ultra textures. -- Actually no, cards of this price range are only just powerful enough to drive 1440p and games that go over 2GB at 1080p are notoriously crappy coded games. Simple as it is. Are you really going to buy a bigger card just to help shitty developing?
    Reply
  • trichome333 - Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - link

    I think he pretty much addressed that question. Seems the development is about equal but Nvidia is either paying way more for it or counting on guys like you to ignore reality and flaunt the 20-30 watt power advantage. BTW 30 watts is like 30 bucks a year on 24 hours a day. Reply
  • nathanddrews - Thursday, May 29, 2014 - link

    I just bought an R9 290 OC Windforce a couple weeks ago and returned it. It was my own fault for assuming it would work, but AMD has dropped support of analog displays with Hawaii! I was shocked to discover that it did not have a DVI-I port, but only two DVI-D ports.

    A DVI-D to VGA adapter is at least $45 (usually closer to $100), but then most of them have a slow DAC, meaning no 1920x1200 or 2560x1600, and very few refresh rates over 60Hz. It now seems obvious to me as to where some of the cost savings come from with Hawaii - no DAC.

    NVIDIA has not dropped DVI-I. 780/780Ti for me, I guess.
    Reply
  • coburn_c - Thursday, May 29, 2014 - link

    Why on earth would you get a 250X when Newegg has the 260X for the exact same price. 1/3 again the number of shaders? Same price? Hello? Reply

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