Every video card has its place based on its sticker price and graphical performance, but experts overwhelmingly agree that if you demand a smooth gaming experience without an exorbitant price tag, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti (*Est. $225) delivers the most graphical bang for your buck. In fact, the stock Nvidia design earns more expert recommendations than any other card, and specific manufacturer models similarly dominate the competition.
For less than $250, the GeForce GTX 560 Ti delivers silky-smooth 50-plus frame per second (fps) rates in all but the highest of resolutions, even in taxing titles like "Metro 2033." Even at a very high 2,560-by-1,600-pixel resolution, TomsHardware.com finds the stock GTX 560 Ti capable of producing perfectly acceptable -- if not quite totally jitter-free -- 30-plus fps rates in virtually every title. Analysis shows that the card is easy to overclock, as well. See What to Look For to learn more about overclocking and its pros and cons.
Extensive testing by reviewers shows that the card runs cooler than most other Nvidia 500 and AMD Radeon HD 6000 cards. Those cool temperatures allow the GTX 560 Ti's fan to work less strenuously, resulting in very low average decibel levels in TechPowerUp.com's fan noise tests, especially when running at high load during intense gaming sessions. However, the card's power consumption is just average.
Among GTX 560 Ti video cards, experts single out the MSI N560GTX-Ti Twin Frozr II/OC (*Est. $245) as the top choice. The "OC" stands for overclocked; the GPU clock speed is bumped from 822 MHz to 880 MHz, and the memory clock speed also receives a slight bump. The boosts result in roughly a 3- to 6-fps increase in the titles TomsHardware.com tests with both the stock GTX 560 Ti and the MSI OC version. The Twin Frozr II/OC's custom cooling system -- which HardOCP.com calls "stunning" -- improves upon the already excellent thermal results of the stock card, staying 9 degrees Celsius cooler than the reference GTX 560 Ti card under full load in Bit-Tech.net's tests. Experts say the dual fans result in an extremely slight noise increase.
The extras come at little additional cost over the stock Nvidia design, which further impresses critics. "For a few dollars more, you get 5 percent to 7 percent upclocks, better performance and a card that doesn't generate vast amounts of heat and noise," Loyd Case writes at Maximum PC. "That's a good deal in our books."
The Asus ENGTX560 Ti DirectCU II TOP (*Est. $240) is another strong pick. The video card comes overclocked to 900 MHz -- slightly higher than the MSI N560GTX-Ti Twin Frozr II/OC -- and sports its own custom dual-fan build that cools things down even further with the help of three strategically placed copper heat pipes. The memory also receives a 5 percent speed boost. Critics say the card's performance is neck and neck with the MSI version, but if you're considering overclocking even more, HardOCP.com and LegitReviews.com say they pushed the Asus card to slightly higher speeds. Both find Asus' SmartDoctor overclocking software easy to use. On the downside, Maximum PC's Loyd Case compared the ENGTX560 Ti DirectCU II TOP to its MSI counterpart and found the Asus card to be slightly louder and more power-hungry.
Both Asus and MSI offer upgraded versions of these cards built around the limited-edition Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448-Core GPU (*Est. $225). More than just a beefed-up GTX 560, the GTX 560 Ti 448-Core cards contain the same technology as the upper-end Nvidia GeForce GTX 570 (*Est. $350) and GTX 580 (*Est. $500). The resulting leap in performance is much higher than standard GTX 560 Ti video cards. In fact, frame rates are so close to GTX 570 levels that reviewers have a hard time recommending GTX 570 video cards now that the GTX 560 Ti 448-Core cards are available. "If you overclock it, then you'll have a card that is much faster than the GeForce GTX 570 for a fraction of the price," says Nathan Kirsch at LegitReviews.com. However, Maximum PC's Loyd Case says that factory overclocked GTX 570s -- such as the well regarded Asus ENGTX570 DirectCU II (*Est $320) -- may have higher frame rates.
Built with a slightly modified version of the Twin Frozr technology found in the standard GTX 560 Ti offering by MSI, the N560GTX-Ti 448 Twin Frozr III Power Edition/OC (*Est. $280) earns the most accolades. Testing at LegitReviews.com and Guru3D.com show the 448-core card to be slightly warmer and louder than the stock GTX 560 Ti, but considerably cooler and quieter than the GTX 570 reference card. TechPowerUp.com says the fans are noisier than the GTX 560 Ti under full load. But in graphics benchmarks, the Twin Frozr III Power Edition/OC really shines. In LegitReviews.com's tests, the 448-core video card achieves frame rates 5 to 10 fps higher than the Asus ENGTX560 Ti DirectCU II TOP -- a major leap -- and is on par or slightly better than stock GTX 570 levels, all for $40 to $50 less. Several other reviewers post similar results.
The Asus GTX 560 Ti 448-cores DirectCU II (*Est. $225) also receives high praise, most significantly an Editor's Choice award from XBitLabs.com. Performance is comparable to the MSI version, but the low temperatures are exchanged for higher fan noise. Several reviewers dislike that the card and its oversized cooling system takes three PCI-E slots, which may limit the card's usefulness in multicard SLI setups or cases with a small form factor.
Moving up the chain, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 (*Est. $500) offers a big leap in graphics performance over the GTX 560 Ti and the GTX 570, but at a much steeper price. The boost in gaming prowess is both unquestionable and considerable, however: AnandTech.com and several other reviewers test all of Nvidia's stock cards and find that the GTX 580 delivers frame rates that are a whopping 10 to 20 fps better than the GTX 560 Ti -- a very noticeable difference.
More powerful graphics require more energy, though. AnandTech.com's system comparisons show that the stock GTX 580 uses about 13 and 72 watts more power than the stock GTX 560 Ti at idle and at full load, respectively. It also runs about 10 degrees hotter regardless of load, and it's no surprise that the fan noise levels are about 10 decibels higher than the GTX 560 Ti under load. Obviously, the hotter a card runs, the harder the fan needs to work to keep things cool and stable.
The GTX 580 video card that receives the most recommendations is the Asus ENGTX580 DirectCU II (*Est. $440). The card includes a very slight overclock, but testing shows the performance gain is minimal -- less than 1 fps in most cases. However, HardOCP.com reports achieving exceptional performance gains after overclocking the card with Asus' SmartDoctor utility.
The ENGTX580 uses a custom direct-touch copper heat pipe system similar to that found in the ENGTX560 Ti DirectCU II TOP. XBitLabs.com says the Asus-specific cooling system keeps the card about 5 degrees Celsius cooler than stock GTX 580s at idle but only 1 degree cooler at full load. However, the unique system delivers those temperatures with much lower noise levels than stock cards; TechPowerUp.com's testing shows that the ENGTX580 DirectCU II is even quieter than a stock GTX 560 Ti under full load. "This makes the Asus GTX 580 DirectCU II the leading solution if you are looking for a low-noise, high-performance graphics card," the reviewer writes. Whisper-quiet cooling comes at a significant boost in size, however. The card takes up three full PCI-E slots, and XBitLabs.com advises leaving a fourth open to give the fans room to breathe.
The Gigabyte GV-N580SO-15I \"Super Overclock\" (*Est. $470) also earns several recommendations. XBitLabs.com found anywhere from 3 to 12 percent frame-rate increases over stock GTX 580 numbers, and Gigabyte includes software to help you overclock the card to even loftier performance heights. The card runs very cool and relatively quietly for its size thanks to a custom Windforce 3X triple fan cooling system paired with copper heating pipes, although some experts say other modified GTX 580s run even quieter. Unlike the gargantuan Asus ENGTX560 Ti DirectCU II TOP, the Gigabyte card takes only two PCI-E slots. Multiple Newegg.com users warn that running a pair of these in SLI mode causes rapid overheating, however, and Gigabyte's customer service department has a less than stellar reputation with contributors to the site.
An even more powerful Nvidia card is available in the GeForce GTX 590, which uses a pair of GPUs, but it starts at $600 and isn't highly recommended. Most experts suggest running two cheaper single-GPU cards like dual GTX 560 Ti cards in SLI mode -- Nvidia's solution for combining two or more graphics cards in tandem for greater graphics processing power -- for less than what just one GTX 590 costs. The same holds true for its dual-GPU AMD counterpart, the AMD Radeon HD 6990 (*Est. $700).
It's worth noting that the next-generation Nvidia graphics cards, code-named "Kepler," are scheduled for release sometime in 2012. They offer the same technical advancements found in the next-gen AMD Radeon HD video cards -- see our discussion of the AMD Radeon HD Video Cards for more information -- that hit the market earlier this year, and are expected to offer significant performance and power efficiency jumps over current Nvidia models. That being said, most of the current-gen Nvidia graphics cards will probably stay on store shelves for some time even after Kepler cards ship, and those discussed in this report will only become cheaper.