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Top High-End Graphic Cards for 2012

The following five cards represent the pinnacle of modern graphics performance. These are cards that are beyond the sweet spot of what's needed in order to enjoy the latest games at reasonable resolutions.

The following cards are essentially here to fill the niches in gamers' requirements that the likes of the AMD Radeon HD 6950 can't satisfy. Here we're talking about outputting to 27-inch and 30-inch panels that have a native resolution of 2560 x 1600. Or multiple screen displays made up of three or more 22-inch or 24-inch panels.

This end of the market is complicated somewhat by the advances made in SLI and CrossFire. These twin-graphics card pairing technologies now genuinely provide the performance improvements over single cards that you would hope for – 90-95% is often the norm.

A pair of cheaper cards in SLI can outperform the following cards too, which means the requirement of having a supporting motherboard is generally the only thing holding you back.

5. Nvidia GeForce GTX 570

Value for money may seem like a strange metric to pull out of the hat at this end of the graphics market, but the GTX 570 does a decent turn at making your investment feel prudent rather than simply excessive.

Essentially a replacement for the soon to be retired GTX 480, here's a card that does everything that Nvidia's last-generation top dog did, but without the problems that card suffered from when it shipped.

The cooler is quiet and more efficient, and the raw power on offer from this sub-£300 card is stunning. This is a slightly cut down version of the GTX 580, losing one Streaming Multiprocessor (or 32 CUDA cores, to put it another way) and 8 ROPs.

The GTX 570's core operates at 732MHz as opposed to the GTX 580's 772MHz, while the 1,280MB of GGDR5 memory speeds along at 950MHz, as opposed to the GTX 580's 1,002MHz.

For the money, there isn't a lot out there that can touch the GTX 570 in terms of pure performance, apart from possibly a pair of GTX 460s in SLI – but such a configuration requires an SLI motherboard.

4. AMD Radeon HD 7970

AMD blinked first and opted to release its brand new graphics card architecture before Nvidia did. It was a brave move by AMD though. Bringing out a radically different graphics design spec, compared with its previous vector processors, in the same year as it brought us a brand new CPU architecture.

It may well be one of the fastest single-GPU cards around at the moment, but there is still little justification for the price. There are very few of us out there running a monitor capable of the eye-watering resolutions of 2560x1600 so realistically a 1920x1080 resolution is going to be more likely.

And at that resolution the excellent £365 Nvidia GTX 580 is all the card you're going to need. The overclocking potential of the AMD Radeon HD 7970 is incredible.

Topping 1,100MHz is a huge overclock and makes it almost comparable to the previous generation of dual-GPU cards.

3. Nvidia GeForce GTX 580

Created as the spiritual successor to the much-maligned GTX 480 , Nvidia took the problems it had with its first DX11 graphics card and corrected them with the GTX 580.

This means you get a full-fat core boasting 512 CUDA cores and 48 ROPS, not one that has been cut down to achieve better yields. And all running at a healthy 772MHz with a 1,002MHz memory bus for the 1,384MB of GDDR5 memory.

Not everyone needs the power of a GTX 580 – only those with serious screens to power. This is a market targeted by the twin-GPU Goliaths that are the AMD Radeon HD 6990 and Nvidia's own GeForce GTX 590.

The GTX 580 still has the nod, however, because those cards have had to be throttled back to fit on a single card, while here you know nothing is being constrained. This is still the most sensible option for anyone looking for unfettered speed from a single GPU.

2. AMD Radeon HD 7950

AMD is really putting the pressure on Nvidia now with its second release of the new AMD HD 7000 graphics card generation, the AMD Radeon HD 7950. We've been pushing the Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 as the go-to gamer's card since it was released, but the HD 7950 has that beat and for a good chunk of cash less than the Nvidia card.

And that's just at stock speeds. When you start overclocking this card the difference in performance increases hugely.The AMD HD 7950 could also be a massive hit for the CrossFire crew too, as for £700 you'll find yourself with an insanely quick graphics setup.

And for £300 less than an equivalent HD 7970 array. The AMD Radeon HD 7950 is one hell of an impressive pixel-pusher, and Nvidia is going to have to work incredibly hard with its Kepler cards to best this excellent card.

1. Nvidia GeForce GTX 680

It may have been a long while coming but the Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 is on the way to balance up the next-generation graphics market.

AMD launched its Radeon HD 7970 in December so it's a bit of gap that Nvidia has to make up with its latest top-end GPU.

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 is its latest £400-odd, top-of-the-line card and is now the fastest graphics card in the world. We all kind of knew that would be the case, after all Nvidia has played the waiting game with AMD, letting the competition draw first and release its entire slew of HD 7000 graphics cards.

That meant Nvidia could see how the competition was performing and ensure its engineers finalised the GTX 680 specs and set the clocks to ensure the requisite 10% performance improvement.

As it turns out this Kepler-based Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 is far more than just another big, power-hungry graphics card, relying on pure grunt alone to give it the edge.

This is actually a far more elegant card than people might give it credit for.
It's not the power-crazed GPU behemoths we're used to from Nvidia, but it's still got the performance chops and some neat extra tricks.

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