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.
December Review and January Updates:
With no new cards introduced in December, the biggest news was the increased availability of the new Radeon HD 5800-series in the second half of the month. Sourcing one of these cards seems to be fairly easy now, and we're glad to see that the 5850 and 5870 cards haven't strayed into vaporware territory (unfortunately, both models are still priced well above where ATI launched them in 2009). Hopefully this means that TSMC has had some good luck ironing out its difficulties with the 40nm process.
On another positive note for ATI, Radeon HD 4850 cards seem to have resurfaced at the sub-$110 price point, bringing back some competition for the GeForce GTS 250. On the flip side, availability of other models remains scant, and the dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970 remains difficult to find at retail. Some GeForce cards, such as the GTX 275 and GTX 295 are also hard to find, even though they are still officially in production (and we'd argue that, overall, they're more available now than they were a month ago).
Prices have fluctuated a bit, and the new Radeon HD 5700-series cards are about $5 more affordable. Meanwhile, the GeForce GTX 260 seems to have been bumped up a few dollars. As a result the Radeon HD 5770 stands alone in the ~$155 space that used to be a battleground between the Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260. In addition, the majority of GeForce GTX 285 models seem to have suffered a significant price increase that puts them too close to the superior Radeon HD 5850.
What surprises does the start of 2010 hold for us? Well, according to the roadmaps that AMD has supplied us with for the 5800- and 5700-series launches, we should be expecting their low-end GPUs in the near future, the 'Redwood' and 'Cedar' models. It will be interesting to see how they will improve on the Radeon 4600- and 4770-series cards.
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.