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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: Jan. '09

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: Jan. '09
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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 board, 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.

December Review and January Updates:

In December, the biggest news in the graphics card world was the preview of Nvidia's upcoming GeForce GTX 295 card, which comprises two slightly underclocked GeForce GTX 280 GPUs on a single card with 55 nm dies. Nvidia promises that this card will launch with a $500 manufacturer-suggested retail price (MSRP), putting it in the same ballpark as the Radeon 4870 X2's price point. Preliminary indications suggest that if Nvidia can pull off a solid launch with retail availability during the next few weeks, then the GTX 295 will give the firm back the graphics crown currently held by the Radeon 4870 X2. Only time will tell if Nvidia can get this card to the public in a timely manner, but the launch is targeted for this month.

If the card does launch this month, we can expect a lot of price shifting in a short time—the Radeon 4870 X2 would thus have to become cheaper to remain competitive. Indeed, Nvidia's own GeForce GTX 280 will probably have to drop in price as well. And we might also expect Nvidia to launch some new cards based on the new die-shrunk GPU and perhaps new versions of the GTX 260 and GTX 280.

Another slight change we have made in this month's recommendations is that we now recognize the difference between the 512 MB Radeon 4850 cards and the 1 GB versions we've seen come to market in the past few months. But at the same time, there hasn't been a lot of graphics card news over the holiday season. Prices have shifted slightly for certain product offerings, but the landscape has remained fairly stable, which can be expected after the large price reductions we've seen in previous months. But when the GTX 295 is released, things will likely change fairly quickly.

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, the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need;
  • Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing info, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest;
  • 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 be a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.
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  • 1 Hide
    kyeana , January 7, 2009 8:14 AM
    Really no change sense Decembers review. I wonder how much the GTX 295 will change things up?
  • -2 Hide
    fudgeboy , January 7, 2009 8:50 AM
    would be interesting to have a dual card section in the hierarchy chary and go back over the older models to see how they shape up (where applicable). i'd love to see where my 7600gt would sit as compared to a single card...
  • 7 Hide
    V3NOM , January 7, 2009 9:31 AM
    i think they should reformat it... pick a bunch of resolutions and show us the best cardsssssssss fpr low, medium and high settings for the majority of the games. or three different pric ranges for a specific res.
  • 1 Hide
    xsamitt , January 7, 2009 11:10 AM
    Quote"It turns out that the Radeon 4870, when equipped with a whole gigabyte of GDDR5 RAM, can up the ante to compete against the GeForce GTX 260+ in some titles".

    Interesting way of wording it.......Since it was the nvida card that was beefed up to the Radeon card,which by the way was out first.

    All in the wording isn't it?
  • -4 Hide
    Pei-chen , January 7, 2009 11:56 AM
    A few days too early. GTX 285 will lunch on January 9th. It's basically a die shrank version of 280 with higher clock speed.
  • 0 Hide
    Lans , January 7, 2009 12:37 PM
    A report by Fudzilla shows it is questionable that the GTX 295 will actually debut at the $500 MSRP... Early indication is closer to $600.

    Good news is there are signs that the prices of GTX 280 are dropping and as mentioned in article, others will likely to follow with the actual launch of the GTX 295 (and the GTX 285). :-)

    Yeah, I am going to have to stay tuned for Feb. charts. :-)
  • 0 Hide
    theblade , January 7, 2009 1:28 PM
    It would be nice to have some numbers to inform the readers further about the average performance per dollar of each card recommended, also to have the best bang for the buck at the targeted resolution and in general.
  • 1 Hide
    smirnovovich , January 7, 2009 1:47 PM
    I believe this to be the first time Tom's acknowledge the existence of the 4870 1GB end even now it is being acknowledged as "It turns out that the Radeon 4870, when equipped with a whole gigabyte of GDDR5 RAM, can up the ante to compete against the GeForce GTX 260+ in some titles."

    I think it would be better if you would turn this around because GTX 260+ was only launched to match the 4870 1GB.

    (btw, i am no fanboy cause i am gonna sell my 4870 to get a 260+ because it is slightly better :) )
  • 3 Hide
    Anonymous , January 7, 2009 2:03 PM
    The GTX 280 is only $315 on newegg I think it should be on the list between the 4850 x2s.
  • 3 Hide
    cleeve , January 7, 2009 3:03 PM
    The GTX 280 is certainly looking better, as prices have dropped sharply in the last week. Clearly they're getting rid of the stock to set up the soon-to-be-here 285.

    UNfortunately, that's the nature of this article - it's a 'snaphot', and on a month like this when new products are coming out, things are going to change quite a bit.
  • 1 Hide
    JonnyDough , January 7, 2009 3:26 PM
    Pei-chenA few days too early. GTX 285 will lunch on January 9th. It's basically a die shrank version of 280 with higher clock speed.



    Shrank ain't a word cuz my teacher said it ain't. I think you meant shrunk, which happens to be the past tense of the word shrink.
  • -1 Hide
    drixle45 , January 7, 2009 3:48 PM
    V3NOMi think they should reformat it... pick a bunch of resolutions and show us the best cardsssssssss fpr low, medium and high settings for the majority of the games. or three different pric ranges for a specific res.


    I agree. I have always felt that there could be a better way of formatting these articles but didn't know what to suggest. I would make my decision based on quality, not price. V3NOM's idea bears consideration as an alternative.
  • -4 Hide
    badagliacca , January 7, 2009 4:32 PM
    Any recommendations for non-gamer applications? Text[crispness], video editing, etc.
  • 5 Hide
    Pei-chen , January 7, 2009 4:42 PM
    JonnyDoughShrank ain't a word cuz my teacher said it ain't. I think you meant shrunk, which happens to be the past tense of the word shrink.

    Thank you.
  • 2 Hide
    bourgeoisdude , January 7, 2009 4:42 PM
    So...finally we see the end of the AGP section (sorry Cleeve, someone had to bring it up :)  ). I'm actually surprised you kept it this long, but from someone who has read your "Best Gaming Cards For The Money" articles since you were putting them in the forums--heh, brings back memories...

    ...Okay I'll shut up now.
  • 2 Hide
    jerreece , January 7, 2009 4:47 PM

    Have to agree. Would be nice to a also see the performance differences visually, along with pricing. Would be a cool addition to these monthly reports.
  • 2 Hide
    cerulean , January 7, 2009 5:12 PM
    V3NOMi think they should reformat it... pick a bunch of resolutions and show us the best cardsssssssss fpr low, medium and high settings for the majority of the games. or three different pric ranges for a specific res.


    I was thinking the same thing as I was reading through this article. The format of this article is the same month after month and that's great if you know exactly how much you want to spend on a video card--but it tells you nothing of how good each card's performance is relative to the others in adjacent price ranges. For instance, a card might be the best within a particular price range, but if it's just slightly faster than a card, which is $50 less, it might not be justified to some buyers.

    I would like to see these articles formatted differently and, as per V3NOM's suggestions, rate the cards based on their overall performance per dollar at different resolutions using a standard set of benchmarks. As new benchmark apps and new hardware are introduced, you can change your standard set of benchmarks and add a date/revision so we have a reference point to compare the results. This will allow the readers to rate the cards not only on their price but on their relative performance.
  • 3 Hide
    marraco , January 7, 2009 5:29 PM
    This series of articles are great, but the last page "GRAPHICS CARD HIERARCHY CHART" needs some performance comparison orientation.

    Also, it would be more useful to include Crossfire/SLI setups.
  • -7 Hide
    theubersmurf , January 7, 2009 5:37 PM
    GTX 265 is the name, not GTX 260+.
  • 5 Hide
    cleeve , January 7, 2009 6:24 PM
    I'll address some of your comments here:

    - This article will never have benchmarks for a direct performance comparison. Why? Because this is an editorial article based on my knowledge and experience, it's purpose is to provide quick refrence for people who don't want to look at mountains of data. To add a ton of benchmarks would be in direct conflict with the purpose and spirit of this article; if you're not satisfied with this general overview or are curious about how a specific card performs, google a review of that particular card.

    - I hesitate to add Crossfire and SLI to the heiarchy. Why? Multi-card performance can be very inconsistant. Truth be told, I'm not even 100% comfortable with the dual-GPU cards on the chart, but it's important to have them there so I do the best approximation I can muster.

    - ubersmurf, I'm not talking about the upcoming 265 (if there is an upcoming 55nm version of the 260), I'm talking about the newer versions of the 260 with more stream processors than the original 260 had. Hence, the unofficial designation "260+".
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