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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April 2011

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April 2011

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.

April Updates:

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.
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  • 0 Hide
    chefboyeb , April 20, 2011 5:12 AM
    The HD6970s are still a great buy in my books... I'm glad i got me a pair...
  • 2 Hide
    burnley14 , April 20, 2011 5:45 AM
    It's not nearly the most exciting, but I always find the low end graphics updates the most interesting. I've never had to have the latest and greatest cards but it's interesting to see how much performance one can get for so cheap these days, and it's constantly improving with trickle-down.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , April 20, 2011 5:51 AM
    only 4 nvidia cards?
  • 3 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , April 20, 2011 6:18 AM
    so AMD cards are still better value despite people crying about drivers and stuttering and such. Just wondering if you guys at Toms have had any driver or stuttering issues?
  • 7 Hide
    Anonymous , April 20, 2011 7:28 AM
    Just a thought, but maybe you could add a plot graph of performance vs. price with various cards in it. I think a visual presentation would give a better understanding when comparing cards and special deals.
  • 1 Hide
    alikum , April 20, 2011 7:40 AM
    iam2thecroweso AMD cards are still better value despite people crying about drivers and stuttering and such. Just wondering if you guys at Toms have had any driver or stuttering issues?

    Well, I've also seen people crying with blue screen issues on nVidia's side. I own numerous nVidia and AMD cards whichever had the better value at point of purchase and I can say, these people who cry and whine represent only a small percentage of the market.

    Look, I'm not being bias on either side, but to say that the drivers from either company is perfect is absurd (again, not saying that you said so). Each company has its fair share of driver issues so don't let purchase be affected by drivers. More times than not, monitor calibration, games development and color profiles could be the root of issues.
  • 0 Hide
    unklg , April 20, 2011 8:28 AM
    what if a gtx460 768mb and hd5770 1024mb cost the same? which is better?
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , April 20, 2011 9:01 AM
    best card for $420, article released on 4/20.. hmmm
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , April 20, 2011 9:03 AM
    ^obviously gtx460 768mb...
  • 0 Hide
    Sud099 , April 20, 2011 9:12 AM
    @unklg:o n that occasion no doubt gtx460 768mb would be the choice...
  • 1 Hide
    rainwilds , April 20, 2011 10:08 AM
    What's with the rating system? Is 'excellent' better than 'great'?
  • 0 Hide
    vaughn2k , April 20, 2011 10:08 AM
    Wow, my HD5770 is till there?
  • 0 Hide
    renz496 , April 20, 2011 10:26 AM
    lol. where did all GTX460 go? :lol: 
  • 0 Hide
    Rizlla , April 20, 2011 11:17 AM
    I'm still looking at a pair of those 6970's. So tempting.
  • 1 Hide
    ProDigit10 , April 20, 2011 12:52 PM
    I wish the graphic chips of arm powered devices could once be tested too!
    A lot of gear out there that has unknown GPU's, some of which are reasonably good for the job they perform.
  • 1 Hide
    ScrewySqrl , April 20, 2011 12:53 PM
    rizllaI'm still looking at a pair of those 6970's. So tempting.

    It was always a tie with the 6850, but all th 460s are $190 now while the 6850 is $165. Not worth a $25 price increase for te same performance
  • 1 Hide
    enzo matrix , April 20, 2011 12:55 PM
    What about the 6570? With it's overclocking potential, it is a no brainer over the 5670 for those who overclock.
  • 0 Hide
    enzo matrix , April 20, 2011 12:58 PM
    There's another reason to consider this model. Many folks have had luck modding this board into a fully-functional Radeon HD 6970 through a firmware update. If you can pull that off, the value of the 2 GB Radeon HD 6950 seems pretty clear.

    Not really. The 1GB version can still unlock the shaders. Then overclock to 6970 speeds and you achieve the same result.
  • 2 Hide
    colanusus , April 20, 2011 1:02 PM
    I believe it should be mentioned what is the setup and the details set for these benchmarks; i.e I currently own Q6600@3.2Ghz + 4GB 800Mhz DDR2 + GTX580 + 120GB Vertex 2 SSD; I can tell you that on 1920-1080 res it can not cope with 8xMSAA and ambient occlusion on high or other such details at max; So to me Excellent or Great means that you can play at a certain resolution with everything on MAX (including aliasing, transparency, ambient light, etc)
  • 1 Hide
    tony singh , April 20, 2011 1:22 PM
    I believe it should be mentioned what is the setup and the details set for these benchmarks; i.e I currently own Q6600@3.2Ghz + 4GB 800Mhz DDR2 + GTX580 + 120GB Vertex 2 SSD; I can tell you that on 1920-1080 res it can not cope with 8xMSAA and ambient occlusion on high or other such details at max; So to me Excellent or Great means that you can play at a certain resolution with everything on MAX (including aliasing, transparency, ambient light, etc)

    GTX580 with q6600 & 800Mhz DDR2 ???
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