Detailed graphics card specifications and reviews are great—that is, if you have the time to do the research. But at the end of the day, what a gamer needs is the best graphics card within a certain budget.
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 at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best gaming cards offered for the money.
We didn't see any new graphics card launches in the past month, but that will change in March.
As we reported at the end of February, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti specifications were already leaked. Rumor has it that this card is an overclocked GeForce GTS 450 designed to take on the popular Radeon HD 5770. Now found online as low as $125, AMD's card has been a price/performance leader for some time, with no direct competition. So, it makes sense that Nvidia would launch an alternative. With no official word from the company, we'll have to wait and see if the rumors are true, or if the new GeForce GTX 550 Ti is a different animal.
Whatever happened to the dual-GPU flagships we were supposed to see last year (in the case of the Radeon HD 6990) and earlier this year (in the case of the GeForce GTX 590)? Recall the Radeon HD 6800 launch, where AMD suggested its dual-GPU "Antilles" card would arrive before Q4 2010. We saw the Radeon HD 6990 at CeBIT. Rumor has it that this board performs similarly to a pair of Radeon HD 6950s. But as this column is being written right on the cusp of the launch (and Chris won't share any of the specs or performance data), you'll want to keep your eyes peeled for our review.
Rumors abound of Nvidia's response to the Radeon HD 6990, a card suspected to be called the GeForce GTX 590. We can't divulge much about it, aside from the Internet-based speculation. However, a dual-GF110-based solution would seem likely. If the card is, in fact, on its way, we imagine it would follow relatively soon after the Radeon HD 6990 launch. But even that is postulation at this point.
While not strictly graphics-oriented news, AMD recently released a little information about its upcoming "Llano" APU. This is the next Fusion-based design, which will find itself in notebooks and also desktops. Whereas the Brazos-based platforms already shipping center on AMD's Bobcat processing cores, Llano centers on the existing Stars architecture found in Phenom II and Athlon II CPUs. The YouTube demo pits AMD's A8-3510MX processor with its integrated Radeon HD 6620M graphics against a Core i7-2630QM and its integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000. In the comparison, admittedly controlled entirely by AMD's own lab, Llano wipes the floor with mobile Sandy Bridge. Based on transistor counts we've seen before, Llano's integrated Radeon HD 6620M might very well be as powerful as a Radeon HD 5570. This is something we're really looking forward to from integrated graphics, as we believe it may have the potential to bring budget-class 720p gaming to the PC.
Last month did present us with the usual and expected price fluctuations, of course. First off, we're mentioning a deal that may not last: the HIS Radeon HD 5550 GDDR5 is on Newegg for $61 right now. The Radeon HD 5550 with GDDR5 never seemed to take off, but HIS was an early adopter, and with the only model that we can find, we're wondering if the low price reflects a discontinued product. If there was more than a single model available, we'd easily give this card a full recommendation. But, it sits in too precarious of a position to take that. Suffice it to say, budget graphics card buyers probably don't need to look further than this card, assuming availability lasts. It performs about as well as the Radeon HD 5570 for a few dollars less, but in cases where the memory bandwidth is taxed, it can beat the 5570.
With the superior Radeon HD 5770 dropping to $125, it becomes very difficult to recommend the Radeon HD 5750 or GeForce GTS 450. Because of this, the 512 MB GeForce GTS 250 at $100 takes a recommendation for performance, as it maintains enough of a spread between the 5770 to make it worthwhile. In addition, the 1 GB Radeon HD 6950 at $250 removes the recommendation for the Radeon HD 6870 and GeForce GTX 560 Ti, as it's price is close enough to the lower-end cards to discount them as recommended buys.
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, then 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.
- The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance. We acknowledge that 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 or SLI and a chassis with more space to install multiple graphics cards. They also require a beefier power supply compared to 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 from our PriceGrabber engine, 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 most certainly vary.
- These are new card prices. No used or open-box cards are in the list; they might represent a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.