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.
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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.