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Best Graphics Cards For the Money: March 2011

Best Graphics Cards For the Money: March 2011
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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.

February Updates:

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.
Display 60 Comments.
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  • 2 Hide
    Annisman , March 7, 2011 3:41 AM
    Not much new to this months list, why not wait a few days until the 6990 launches to release this article ? With that being said, the 6990 probably won't be in the category of 'best card for the money'
  • 2 Hide
    Darkerson , March 7, 2011 5:09 AM
    2 x Radeon HD 6950 1 GB in CrossFire
    Universal Shaders: 2816* (2 x 1408) instead of the 1816 you have it listed :p 
    Anyway nice article none the less.
  • -1 Hide
    akorzan , March 7, 2011 5:23 AM
    It is very interesting to see how over a 6 month period the power consumptions of each architecture evolved. Half a year ago, Fermi 100 architecture consumed a lot more power than the similarly performing ATI/AMD cards, but now a faster GTX 580 consumes less power than the slower AMD 6970.
  • 2 Hide
    psyndrome , March 7, 2011 6:26 AM
    I am a little surprised that the HD 4870 X2 are so high in the list. Are they still that capable?
  • 0 Hide
    Luay , March 7, 2011 6:30 AM
    Too soon to add performance level @ 5760x1200 and raise the cap to $600? Instead of the current 2560x1600 capped to $500?? AMD is trying to push this standard into mainstream.
  • -2 Hide
    old_newbie , March 7, 2011 6:47 AM
    Once again, good information here; but the article still confuses me due to lack of some sort of pricing scale. It would make MUCH MORE sense to me if you:
    A) pick ONE winning card in the price ranges you list, (e.g. best card: $100 To $175 is the $125 Radeon 5770) then go on to list the reason for the recommendation.
    ...OR...
    B) pick a "best card" at a regular increment, say every $25. (i.e. best card for ~$100, ~$125, ~$150, ~$175...)

    Thanks to to your awesome hierarchy chart at the end of the article, I ALREADY KNOW which cards compare/compete with each other, preformance wise. What I DO want to know is which one should I buy if I have a certain budget and why you think so.
  • 2 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , March 7, 2011 6:50 AM
    MSI6950 2GB is available ~$250 with rebate.The additional memory helps at higher resolutions and antialiasing.
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814127555&cm_re=6950-_-14-127-555-_-Product

    Most of the GTS 250s are close the HD5770 price point.IMO it doesn't deserve recommendation.
  • 3 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , March 7, 2011 7:15 AM
    akorzanIt is very interesting to see how over a 6 month period the power consumptions of each architecture evolved. Half a year ago, Fermi 100 architecture consumed a lot more power than the similarly performing ATI/AMD cards, but now a faster GTX 580 consumes less power than the slower AMD 6970.


    Where did you get that info ? Their power consumptions are not even close

    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/radeon-hd-6970-radeon-hd-6950-cayman,2818-21.html

    take a look if you understand graphs ;) 
  • 1 Hide
    killerclick , March 7, 2011 8:37 AM
    Why is there a TIE in cases where one card uses 20% more power than the other? If the cards are close in price and performance but one card uses 20% more power then it's not a TIE - the more efficient card is better. Same with CPUs, you're giving recommendations for CPUs that use a lot more power than the price/performance equivalent competing products. Why?

    Take a stand, Tom's!
  • 1 Hide
    geok1ng , March 7, 2011 9:41 AM
    "2 x Radeon HD 6950 1 GB in CrossFire"
    "Excellent 2560x1600 performance"

    I beg to differ. At $500+ users are looking for insane AA levels@25x16 or multimonitor setups. In both of these scenarios the 6950 fails to be "excellent":

    http://www.hardocp.com/article/2011/02/24/amd_radeon_hd_6950_1gb_performance_review/

    "In Battlefield: Bad Company 2 ...In the case of the AMD Radeon HD 6950 2GB video card, we were able to play this game with Transparency Antialiasing enabled at 4X AA. The 1GB Radeon HD 6950 1GB video card struggled when we enabled Transparency Antialiasing at 8X and 4X AA."
    "Running Civilization V at 8X MSAA at 2560x1600 exposed the memory limitations on the 1GB Radeon HD 6950. For almost the first entire minute of gameplay performance dropped to a few frames per second until the frame buffer could catch up and texture everything out correctly. At that point performance was still erratic and choppy and overall slower than the 2GB Radeon HD 6950."
    "F1 2010...When we tried to run this game at 8X MSAA on the 1GB Radeon HD 6950 and 1GB GeForce GTX 560 Ti we experience framerates in the 0-3 FPS range, which rendered playing the game impossible. However, the 2GB Radeon HD 6950 was completely playable at 8X MSAA!"
    "In Metro 2033 we could not enable 4X MSAA at 2560x1600 on the two 1GB video cards in this game. Similar to the game above, this game was also unplayable with that enabled at this resolution. The 2GB Radeon HD 6950 was not playable with 4X AA enabled, but it was possible to do a run-through at least, it just had slow framerates, but it wasn’t near as low as the two 1GB video cards."

    These are strong points to consider before rating the 1GB 6950CF an excellent rating at 2560x1600. Factoring in that these cards can not be unlock to 6970, and the 2GB 6950 becomes even more attractive at 25x16 and higher resolutions.
    I believe that the 580 stands alone at the $500 price point, but Price x Performance wise there is little reason not to stretch the budget to 2GB 6950 in CF.

    I better plan is to get a single 2Gb 6950, unlock it, see if it meets the games needs and add a secod card later.
  • 0 Hide
    wribbs , March 7, 2011 10:16 AM
    I fail to see why your suggesting the 6870 in xfire when the same reason you are against it is still valid for a xfire setup. Also, you really should be recommending the 6950 2GB model for xfire at the top end because you will want that extra memory to keep from bottlenecking at the resolutions you'll likely run with those.
  • 0 Hide
    Reynod , March 7, 2011 10:46 AM
    Thanks Don ... good work.
  • 0 Hide
    preolt , March 7, 2011 11:44 AM
    I would much rather buy the gtx 560ti with an after market cooler. They have 2x the headroom of the 6950. Not a fan boy I just believe in bechmarks for comaprisons not overall company review.
  • 0 Hide
    lhowe005 , March 7, 2011 11:50 AM
    Good review but I would still buy the best single card you can afford now so you have the option to upgrade to a crossfire or sli setup as games become more demanding. Also the price of a second matching video card will have come down by then.
  • -1 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , March 7, 2011 11:51 AM
    Why are the amd 4500 series mobile chips absent in the last page list?
    one of those is residing in my i5 notebook (hp 6540b).
    Can do wow if need be, but too slow for flatout or newer games.
  • 0 Hide
    JPForums , March 7, 2011 1:51 PM
    Quote:
    First off, we're mentioning a deal that may not last: the HIS Radeon HD 5550 GDDR5 is on Newegg for $61 right now.


    First off, since it isn't a sale or mail-in-rebate price, your suggestion that it may not last is pure speculation. They could have a warehouse full of these. High supply and low demand tends to drive prices down. Besides it only needs to last a single month to be valid as you'll update your recommendation again next month.

    Quote:
    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.


    As you said, the GDDR5 model never really took off. As far as I'm aware, there were never very many manufacturers of this card. It may be true that this card is going to be discontinued, but you don't really have any strong evidence of that. A simple call to the manufacturer would resolve this issue. Even if they have been discontinued, if they have large stores, supplies could still last more than a month. (Especially with low demand)

    Quote:
    If there was more than a single model available, we'd easily give this card a full recommendation.


    In your February Edition of Best Gaming CPUs, you recommend a product (Sandy Bridge) that, by your own words, had zero usable models at the time(due to chipset issues). This card with its single model is already in a better position than that. It wouldn't even need to last a full month.

    My point is, this is a list that gets updated monthly. If new products are coming to market or old products are leaving the market, by all means mention it. If there are real indications of low supply, we want to hear about it. I'm not even opposed to giving honorable mentions to alternate products based on these facts. However, full recommendations should only be made for products available at the time of writing and available products should not be dismissed over speculation.
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , March 7, 2011 1:54 PM
    Remember to check individual benchmarks for the games you want to play! For example, if it's Civilization V, even a GTX460 outperforms the HD6950: http://www.anandtech.com/bench/GPU11/203
  • -1 Hide
    dgingeri , March 7, 2011 3:36 PM
    again, predominantly AMD cards at the low end. However, what this does not take into account is Linux support and HDTV support. Yes, I spent $80 on a GT430 so I could use my Linux system as a HTPC on my HDTV. The Radeon 4650 I had just would not work properly with Linux, and under Windows it would leave huge black borders around the screen. With my GT430, it takes up the whole screen and works properly with Linux. I think it deserves mention at the $80 mark just for that.
  • 0 Hide
    gm0n3y , March 7, 2011 4:26 PM
    I too would like to see Eyefinity resolutions included, though since Nvidia doesn't support them it would be a little unfair to them. Perhaps you could include Eyefinity performance qualifiers for the AMD cards and 3D for Nvidia?

    I'm currently considering running 3x 24" 1920x1080 monitors and it would be nice to have those values listed (though I can always look at reviews elsewhere).
  • 5 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , March 7, 2011 4:26 PM
    dgingeriagain, predominantly AMD cards at the low end. However, what this does not take into account is Linux support and HDTV support. Yes, I spent $80 on a GT430 so I could use my Linux system as a HTPC on my HDTV. The Radeon 4650 I had just would not work properly with Linux, and under Windows it would leave huge black borders around the screen. With my GT430, it takes up the whole screen and works properly with Linux. I think it deserves mention at the $80 mark just for that.


    This article is based on gaming - if you're using linux or osx you're not using the computer with gaming in mind.
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