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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: September '09

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: September '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 card, 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.

August Review and September Updates:

If rumors are to be believed, we should be expecting some Radeon HD 5000-series cards in the near future (specifically the Radeon HD 5870, Radeon HD 5850, and Radeon HD 5870 X2).

While we can't say anything for sure as of yet, the indications are that the Radeon HD 5870 will sport DirectX 11 and OpenGL 3.1, and will possess one gigabyte of memory, as many as 1,200 shader processors, 48 texture units, and 32 ROPs. That's 1.5 times the shaders wielded by the Radeon HD 4870, and twice the texture units and ROPs. With the GPU said to be running in the neighborhood of 900 MHz and GDDR5 memory running as high as the 1,100 MHz range, the card is hoped to perform about twice as fast as the current Radeon HD 4870. This means it should beat the fastest single-GPU card currently available: Nvidia's GeForce GTX 285. If the Radeon HD 5870 is released in the rumored $400 range, it'll be a great deal, offering better value than two Radeon HD 4870's in CrossFire for about the same price.

The junior sibling would be the Radeon HD 5850, with the same specifications as the Radeon HD 5870 but lower clock rates: purportedly 750 MHz on the core and about 900 MHz for the GDDR3 memory. If this model is released in the $300 range, it could offer performance similar to the GeForce GTX 285 at a slightly lower price point.

The flagship of course would be the Radeon HD 5870 X2, with two GPUs on a single card. With similar clock speeds compared to the single Radeon HD 5870, the X2 should be able to easily wrest the mantle of supremacy from the current GeForce GTX 295 champion. On the downside, such an incredibly powerful card will probably cost about $600 when it is launched.

Assuming all of these rumors are close to the truth (a brave assumption, indeed) what impact will these new Radeons have on existing pricing?

Right off the bat, these cards will likely drive down the prices of Nvidia's fastest cards. With the Radeon HD 5850 potentially below and the Radeon HD 5870 above, the GeForce GTX 285 will likely have to drop under $300 to remain a viable contender. Other than that, we might see Radeon HD 4890 and GeForce GTX 275 prices fall a little too, in response to the Radeon HD 5850. Depending how well the Radeon HD 5870 performs, the GeForce GTX 295 might also face a little pressure to drop. We suspect the Radeon HD 5870 X2 prices will be high enough above the GeForce GTX 295 that it probably won't have a large impact on the card's pricing. But only time will tell.

Finally, let's not forget that Nvidia isn't sitting on its hands and is working on its next-generation graphics process as well. AMD will certainly have a jump on the Nvidia lineup by at least a month, but after that, the GT300 will likely keep things interesting...

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.
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  • 21 Hide
    dirtmountain , September 10, 2009 6:29 AM
    Still the best monthly feature here at Tom's and the hierarchy chart is a great reference list. As always a great job.
  • 21 Hide
    doomtomb , September 10, 2009 6:37 AM
    I agree, a good article but really there is nothing new to report. The graphics card market has been very stagnant for the past year... We want 5XXX and 3XX series please.
Other Comments
  • 21 Hide
    dirtmountain , September 10, 2009 6:29 AM
    Still the best monthly feature here at Tom's and the hierarchy chart is a great reference list. As always a great job.
  • 21 Hide
    doomtomb , September 10, 2009 6:37 AM
    I agree, a good article but really there is nothing new to report. The graphics card market has been very stagnant for the past year... We want 5XXX and 3XX series please.
  • 7 Hide
    drealar , September 10, 2009 6:43 AM
    I have always browse through first 3 pages and the hierarchy page ONLY :D  Yeah call me cheapskate :p  Oh well I'm always on a budget for everything.

    Anyway was it last month or earlier did Tom's update the hierarchy chart with 'discrete','integrated','mobile' tags?
    Didn't notice it till today, and I found it very useful for quick lookup.
  • 2 Hide
    haplo602 , September 10, 2009 6:49 AM
    adding the best price listings just hit you in the face ... 9600GT 129.99$ :-) talk about cheap cards ...
  • 5 Hide
    Proximon , September 10, 2009 7:01 AM
    GTX 260 is out of the picture I see. I had to go check prices for myself and sure enough NVidia seems to be having trouble competing. Hopefully they'll have something going by next month.
  • 0 Hide
    dirtmountain , September 10, 2009 7:35 AM
    There's only a few games where i'd pop for the extra $20 or $30 for a Nvidia card right now, and only for the games (WoW is one) where Nvidia has a large edge.
  • 1 Hide
    anamaniac , September 10, 2009 7:37 AM
    Just waiting for the 5xxx already...
    My main concern.. What will the power consuption of the 5870 be?
    Will I need a new PSU just to use one, nevermind crossfire?

    I bought a 4870 1GB, but I regret not getting a 4890. =/

    Is it me, or, other than a few prices, this chart hasn't changed in a long long time? (excluding 4770)
  • -2 Hide
    dragoon190 , September 10, 2009 7:43 AM
    The lower part of the hierarchy chart looks messy...

    Are they really offering that many varieties of mobile graphic cards out on the market at the moment?
  • 7 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , September 10, 2009 8:27 AM
    @ Cleeve : Two things :

    1) page 1 : "The flagship will of course would be the Radeon HD 5870 X2" not brillaintly written.

    2) Are you sure all those dual card setups with 512mb memory are actually a good recommendation? I know you're recommending them every month, but still. Even my single 4870 is appearently more often limited by its 512 memory than it is by computation power - and crossfire only adds computation power. Sure it'll add more fps in most games, but as you often point out yourself, the improvement is only relevant if it's improving the gameplay experience.
  • 1 Hide
    maulataur1 , September 10, 2009 8:28 AM
    I found an XFX 4870x2 for $299 at mwave.com about a month ago. I wasn't looking for a new card but I immediately purchased it when I saw it. Replaced my 8800GT.
  • -1 Hide
    knekker , September 10, 2009 8:44 AM
    what do they mean with Discrete, when they write "Discrete: HD 4850 X2" any able to enlighten me?
  • 2 Hide
    IronRyan21 , September 10, 2009 9:01 AM
    knekkerwhat do they mean with Discrete, when they write "Discrete: HD 4850 X2" any able to enlighten me?


    Discrete: Separate; distinct; individual; Non-continuous. All Video Cards are discrete. The only video that isn't, is called "integrated" graphics, like Intel GMA. Some Mobos have Integrated, some dont. Integrated is built in with the mobo and already has a VGA or DVI port.
  • -1 Hide
    micky_lund , September 10, 2009 9:55 AM
    ok i have a question....where it always says "cards in SLI offer advantages in titles that run better with Nvidia's GT200 architecture" , what games actually run better for Nvidia ? and what games are favored for ATi

    any help...
    MICK
  • 1 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , September 10, 2009 10:17 AM
    micky_lundok i have a question....where it always says "cards in SLI offer advantages in titles that run better with Nvidia's GT200 architecture" , what games actually run better for Nvidia ? and what games are favored for ATi any help...MICK

    Check out the i5 platform comparison by Chris. That clearly sais that, at least in the games they tested, sli scales a lot better than cf. Ofc. most ati cards perform better than nvidia ones (taking price into account), but they don't scale as well.
    Typical scaling for sli I'd say would be around 30-50% more performance (ie 130-150% of single card performance), and for cf it's often more like 20-40% or something. It's highly dependant on the game, resolution and driver though, so it's like impossible to say. In genenral games with the 'nvidia' logo in the intro are supposed to work better with sli than cf, but even that isn't always the case.
  • -1 Hide
    masterjaw , September 10, 2009 10:40 AM
    Nice article. Still no big news since the release of the ATI 4800 series, just miniature price adjustments.
  • -2 Hide
    mikepaul , September 10, 2009 12:34 PM
    I think there should be a new user category for GPU apps like BadaBoom: Crunchers. Like Gamers, they want a GPU that screams through whatever they throw at it. Rating new video cards on the apps they run will be easier when the universal GPU API eventually launches, but knowing how well the existing card-specific apps work will help some of us out...
  • 0 Hide
    theubersmurf , September 10, 2009 1:02 PM
    I can't understand why you couldn't have waited a pair of days for the new radeons to be released so that they could be included in your review (should they make the cut).
  • -2 Hide
    grimrod518 , September 10, 2009 1:29 PM
    I am curious as to why there has been no listing for 8800GT 512MB SLI on the performance charts in a long time. I have 1 rig with 2 of those oldies but goodies and am curious as to where they stack up so I can determine if it's time to replace them
  • 3 Hide
    streak , September 10, 2009 2:38 PM
    I'm still amazed the venerable 8800GTX sits so high up in the hierarchy chart after almost three years. It has served me very well and despite the excellent pricing over the past several months on some great cards like the 4870 and GTX 260, it just hasn't been worth the money to get an incremental upgrade when the next generation of cards is rapidly approaching. Crossing my fingers that the upcoming wave of DX11 cards from AMD and Nvidia will be as impressive as the 8800GTX was when it was first released.
  • -1 Hide
    eyemaster , September 10, 2009 2:41 PM
    I don't want to feel bad for buying the MSI OC ATI 4890 card. Once it's bellow 200$ CAN, I'll buy a 2nd one and Crossfire them... For now, CnC3 is running quite well on that! :D  he he

    I need new games!
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