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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.
A whole lot has happened on the graphics scene since our last update, most notably the introduction of ATI's new Radeon 5000-series, which includes the Radeon HD 5870, 5850, 5770, and 5750. Nvidia also launched a couple of low-end cards, the GeForce GT 220 and GeForce 210. We've reviewed the entire list in painstaking detail, so if you missed any of last month's excitement, feel free to give those stories a read.
Let's start with ATI's new flagship, the Radeon HD 5870. With 1,600 shaders, 80 texture units, and 32 ROPs, it sports almost identical specifications compared to the Radeon HD 4870 X2, the main difference being that it uses a single 40nm GPU instead of two 55nm processors, making it a lot more cost-effective to produce (of course, there are other, finer-grained improvements incorporated into the new GPU, too). It boasts full DirectX 11 compatibility and Eyefinity technology (AMD's new multi-monitor gaming/productivity feature) on top of relatively low power consumption for such a potent card.
The downside is that the new Radeon HD 5870 isn't the fastest add-in board on the block. In fact, as far as raw frame rates go, the Radeon HD 4870 X2 and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 295 often best it. We can expect some performance increases as the drivers mature, but the card's main saving graces are a $390 price tag, almost $70 below that of the GeForce GTX 295, and the aforementioned value adds. Unfortunately, availability is disappointingly scarce right now so close to launch. We're hoping that ATI can catch up with consumer demand over the holiday rush.
The Radeon HD 5850 is the 5870's little brother, sporting 1,440 shaders, 72 texture units, and 32 ROPs. At $290, it costs $100 less than the 5870 and performs a bit faster than a GeForce GTX 285, which was previously the fastest single-GPU card out there. So, there is a lot of value here for folks who want to jump on the DirectX 11 bandwagon. Unfortunately, it is suffering from the same availability issues as its big brother. Additionally, this board was supposed to launch at $259, and we're sure some folks were lucky enough to buy it at that price. Prices on the card are more than 10% higher today, though.
When you descend another rung on ATI's new hierarchy, you run into the Radeon HD 5770 and 5750, which are roughly as powerful as the Radeon HD 4870 and 4850, respectively. But once again, the two new 40nm chips offer lower power usage, DirectX 11, and the Eyefinity feature. At this time, these cards are priced a bit higher than their older counterparts, but they are more readily available that the flagship boards.
From the Nvidia side of the fence comes the new GeForce GT 220 and GeForce 210. The GeForce GT 220 has some potential, as it is Nvidia's first GPU built on the 40nm process, offering DirectX 10.1 and lower power usage. With 48 stream processors, you can consider the GeForce GT 220 similar to a GeForce 9600 GSO that has also been cut down with a 128-bit memory interface. It dominates ATI's Radeon HD 4650, but for now, it's priced too closely to the powerful Radeon HD 4670, a card that bests it more often than not. We suspect that, as prices drop, it might end up being an attractive option for budget buyers, and we've already seen it provide promising results as a dedicated PhysX card. As for the new GeForce 210, with its 16 shaders and a 64-bit memory interface, you can consider it an overclocked 8400 GS: nothing to see here, gamers.
There is a lot going on in the graphics world aside from these launches as well. Nvidia's exclusive PhysX feature seems to be gaining more traction with appealing use in titles like the new Batman: Arkham Asylum. But AMD now has an answer with currently-exclusive support for DirectX 11. Of course, Nvidia will inevitably offer its own DirectX 11 cards, but those are almost surely months away still (at least far enough that Nvidia has kept completely silent in discussions of the next generation). The common theory tossed around online is that Nvidia is giving up the high-end graphics market for now, and we'll be seeing cards faster than the GeForce GTX 260 wane in availability before its next architecture emerges. Indeed, it is already getting difficult to find a new GeForce GTX 275 or GTX 285 available for purchase.
The same can be said for the Radeon HD 4870 X2, 4870, and 4850, actually, but with cost-effective 40nm replacements here or on the way, this isn't much of a problem for AMD (Ed.: though I must say, the lack of availability at the high-end and higher-than-launch prices are oddly reminiscent of the Radeon HD 4770 debut, which was chalked up to poor 40nm yields).
As a result, we expect the old-school 4800-series Radeons to disappear in the weeks to come, with the new 5000-series Radeons taking their places. This means those of you who are considering an upgrade to a low-priced Radeon HD 4800-series card might want to act while they're still available.
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list: