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.
March Review and April Updates:
The end of March gave us a whole lot to talk about in the PC graphics arena.
Let's start with the obvious, the launch of Nvidia's next-generation DirectX 11 cards, GeForce GTX 470 and 480. The bottom line is that the GeForce GTX 470 performs between the Radeon HD 5850 and 5870, and the GeForce GTX 480 performs between the Radeon HD 5870 and 5970. Pricing falls appropriately, performance considered. The GeForce GTX 470 has a $350 MSRP and the GeForce GTX 480 is priced at $500 (assuming they will be available at that price when they actually hit retail in volume).
When it pulled the covers on its performance details, Nvidia claimed it'd have mass availability on April 12th. The day has come and gone, and as of this writing, cards are completely unavailable. We gave Nvidia the benefit of the doubt in our launch coverage, despite suggestions from top-tier board partners that the launch would consist of thousands of cards, rather than the tens of thousands we were hearing about. Unfortunately, the lack of cards currently suggests that there simply isn't enough supply.
Availability issues aside, these cards offer solid DirectX 11 performance, PhysX, and CUDA compatibility at a price that wiggles in between gaps in AMD's lineup. On the downside, they lack the triple-monitor capabilities of the new Radeon 5000-series cards, unless you're running a dual-card configuration, consuming a heap of power and generating copious heat.
For an in-depth look at these new GeForce cards check out our GeForce GTX 470 and 480 launch review. In the meantime, we'll be bestowing honorable mentions for these new products, since they are notable gaming boards. They simply can't be recommended given their current availability issues and more compelling pricing from AMD, though. We look forward to seeing what less-expensive derivatives of the Fermi architecture enables in the future.
From the competing camp, AMD has finally gotten around to delivering its long-expected 2GB Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6 Edition card. With six DisplayPort outputs capable of 2560x1600 each, the new Radeon is technically able to handle a whopping 7680x3200 resolution over a corresponding number of monitors. A more realistic six-display setup would probably consist of 1920x1200 panels, yielding a manageable 5760x2160 resolution, which still taxes the Eyefinity 6 Edition card to its GPU-imposed limit. We have a nice review of the Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity Edition card here, and although this makes for a killer setup, it's not mainstream enough to be considered for our monthly recommendations.
As always, prices have been moving (as usual, in a nice downward direction). Particularly, the Radeon HD 5670 and GeForce 9800 GT can now be found in the $80 range, which drop-kicks the GeForce 9600 GT out of the running. We're giving the nod to the 9800 GT as the better buy simply because it's a stronger performer, but we can't ignore the Radeon as a viable option. In addition, we've seen a 512MB Radeon HD 5770 as low as $120 and the 1GB version as low as $140, delivering a fantastic price/performance value in the sub-$200 bracket.
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.