With six new graphics cards released since our last update, this month's column sees recommendations all switched around and prices shifting in a big way. Learn all about the latest products and where they fit into the price/performance equation here!
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.
With so many product launches since our last update, the graphics landscape has changed significantly. March saw the introduction of two ultra-high-performance flagships from AMD and Nvidia, plus a mid-range GeForce card. April isn't proving to be a slouch either, with three product debuts so far. Let's review the latest models in the order they were released.
On March 8, AMD rolled out the Radeon HD 6990, its new flagship offering. The two fully-functional Cayman GPUs on a single card boast 3072 combined ALUs, 192 texture units, 64 ROPs, and 4 GB of GDDR5 memory. With a 375 W maximum TDP using its stock firmware setting, it literally draws as much power as two 8-pin PCIe connectors and a PCIe slot are specified to serve up. Given its 830 MHz core/1250 MHz GDDR5 memory clocks, this card isn't quite as fast as two Radeon HD 6970s in CrossFire. But, with a flick of a built-in BIOS switch, the core clock increases to 880 MHz. Memory can also be overclocked to 6970 levels using the Overdrive applet, if your card is capable of coping with the higher frequencies. On release, the Radeon HD 6990 earned the distinction of "fastest graphics card in the world," an honor previously held by its predecessor, the dual-GPU-equipped Radeon HD 5970. While the 6990 is capable of incredible performance, we found its noise output particularly disruptive under load. This, combined with a $700 starting price, means the Radeon HD 6990 won't be a recommended card, even if it's capable of unbeatable frame rates. Editor-in-chief Chris Angelini instead recommended going with a pair of Radeon HD 6970s in CrossFire for exceptional dual-GPU performance. For more information on AMD's Radeon HD 6990, read our launch review.
A week later, Nvidia unveiled its GeForce GTX 550 Ti, a product designed to fill the gap between the GeForce GTS 450 and GeForce GTX 460 768 MB. Armed with 192 shader cores and 32 texture units, the new GF116 GPU employed the same basic GPU specifications as the GeForce GTS 450, albeit with higher 900/1800 MHz core/shader clocks. But the 192-bit memory interface and 24 ROPs are identical to the higher-end GeForce GTX 460 768 MB. The 550 Ti had the distinction of being the first GeForce card officially able to handle mixed density memory ICs (little-known fact: that functionality is technically available in other Nvidia GPUs). It can be equipped with 1 GB of graphics RAM, unlike other 192-bit cards with three 64-bit memory partitions limited to 768 MB or 1.5 GB. Specifications aside, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is about as fast as the Radeon HD 5770. Despite the $150 launch MSRP, this card can already be found online for $135, although the Radeon competition still undercuts it by $15 at the time of writing. For more information on Nvidia's GeForce GTX 550 Ti, read our launch review.
But the GeForce GTX 550 Ti was merely an appetizer: Nvidia's premier reveal happened a couple of weeks after that with the GeForce GTX 590. The new flagship sports two of the world's most powerful (and power-hungry) GPUs on a single card: GF110 from the GeForce GTX 580. With a total combined 1024 CUDA cores, 128 texture units, 96 ROPS, and 3 GB of memory, the GeForce GTX 590's guts are fully functional. But thermal and power limitations force dramatically lower operating frequencies. Running at 600/853 MHz core/memory clock speeds, the 590's GF110s are significantly slower than the GeForce GTX 580's 772 MHz core/1002 MHz memory. While the card's power draw still exceeds AMD's Radeon HD 6990, the noise generated by Nvidia's card under load is significantly less, as demonstrated in these YouTube videos. Performance is excellent (albeit similar to the Radeon HD 6990). And while the ~$700 price tag is similar to AMD's offering, availability is downright dismal at the time of writing. In any case, this card isn't a recommended buy either because lower-priced options running in CrossFire and SLI exceed its price/performance ratio. For more on the GeForce GTX 590, check out our coverage.
The next launch brings us to early April: AMD's Radeon HD 6790. This card sits between the Radeon HD 5770 and Radeon HD 6850, competing with the GeForce GTX 460 768 MB. With 800 ALUs, 40 texture units, and 16 ROPs, you might assume it uses the Radeon HD 5770s same GPU. But it doesn't. The 6790 is equipped with Barts, first seen late last year in AMD's Radeon HD 6800 series, and then crippled to those lower-end specifications. Its 840/1050 MHz core/memory clocks are very close to the Radeon HD 5770's 850/1200 MHz levels. However, the new Radeon features a 256-bit memory bus, which is twice as wide as the 5770's 128-bit pathway. As a result, the Radeon HD 6790 is about as fast as Nvidia's GeForce GTX 460 768 MB, and it offers some of the extras introduced with the Radeon HD 6800-series cards like UVD 3. Found for $150 online, this new Radeon card is an alternative the GeForce. However, both boards are priced too close to the Radeon HD 6850 to get a full recommendation. To learn more, check out our Radeon HD 6790 review.
A mere two days after that, AMD followed up with its Radeon HD 6450. Armed with only 160 ALUs, eight texture units and four ROPs, this card isn't of much interest to gamers. It has potential to be a good, cheap HTPC card for video and Blu-ray 3D playback, though. With about twice the raw power of AMD's Radeon HD 5450, this card could certainly be used for light gaming at 720p. But there are better ~$50 options out there for this task. See our Radeon HD 6450 launch coverage.
Nvidia released its own low-power HTPC card in the GeForce GT 520 shortly after. Sporting 48 CUDA cores and a 64-bit memory interface, however, performance is actually a step down from the GeForce GT 220, a card with similar specs and a beefier 128-bit memory interface. Like the Radeon HD 6450, this card is not a gamer's choice. There are better options at the $60 price point. It brings accelerated Blu-ray 3D to the Nvidia camp at a lower price than GeForce GT 430, but that's about all it has going for it.
Aside from those myriad launches, there are a number of pricing changes to discuss. Read our recommendations on the following pages for more info!
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.