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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April 2010

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April 2010
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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.

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.
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Top Comments
  • 15 Hide
    nottheking , April 19, 2010 11:14 AM
    Really, I think that you give the GTX 400 series a bit TOO much benefit of the doubt. Especially when it comes to the GTX 470, given that it often LOSES to the 5850, seemingly more than it wins, it makes it a head-scratcher at $60US more; how could it get an honorable mention for slightly inferior performance with a ~20% higher price? And when the 470 does win, it tends to be a very narrow margin; compared to an often-wide margin when it loses.

    The GTX 480 isn't quite as bad off; it USUALLY wins over the 5870, but then again, it can be quite questionable to ask for the nearly $100US pemium over the Radeon; certainly a more questionable premium than jumping straight to the 5970, which at times seems to offer better price/performance than the 480.

    Similarly, it makes it another head-scratcher that you went out of your way to list the 470/480 on separate, higher tiers than the 5850/5870. With the former of each pair, the 470 most certainly CANNOT be argued to be outright superior; at best it is really on a par. As for the latter, while the 480 shows itself to be typically stronger than the 5870, It's relatively small margin most of the time.

    neiroatopelccQuestion about graphics.....Do you think we'll see non-flat floors in a game any time soon? tesselation is for non important stuff right? and bump mapping doesn't properly work on floors - even the crysis 2 screenshots very clearly show a flat floor with objects placed on it. I'm soo looking forward to the day where the geometry doesn't feature painted on grass or shader grass on flat surfaces (that was good in oblivion, but that's ages ago).

    First off, Oblivion's grass wasn't all that complex an implementation; it simply was a procedural-generation routine that on-the-fly populates the ground with grass "clumps," with the chance, color/texture, and size of them appearing determined by the ground texture(s) used for that vertex.

    As far as the floor surfaces, what they look like is largely determined by the programmer; if one wanted, one could readily apply paralax mapping (or even a more complex shader) to ground surfaces, it's just that they typically don't. I honestly don't quite know why, (perhaps Cleeve would) but my two hyptheosis are that it could be a design choice to distinguish "walkable" terrain, or that it could be a limitation of the terrain-heightmap subsystem. (possibly calculating it over very large surfaces?)
Other Comments
  • 1 Hide
    matt314 , April 19, 2010 6:18 AM
    Yay finally up :)  thanks Tom!
  • -4 Hide
    Annisman , April 19, 2010 6:19 AM
    What ?
  • 8 Hide
    touchdowntexas13 , April 19, 2010 6:35 AM
    Another great overview. I think next month's(or the month after that) should prove to be a bit more exciting though. Nvidia's cards will be on the market, and hopefully not too scarce. Maybe we can see some price drops from ATI, followed hopefully by Nvidia though I think it's less likely.

    Just my thoughts anyways.
  • 8 Hide
    triculious , April 19, 2010 6:43 AM
    I'm still waiting for the Nvidia cards to be available... once they are the price war should start shortly after... then shopping for cards will become interesting

    Also, one request here: would it be too much to ask the hierarchy chart to show the standings of dual card configurations?
  • 5 Hide
    knowom , April 19, 2010 6:49 AM
    G92 is the little engine that could I'm actually hoping Nvidia gives it another steroid shot from a die shrink to 40nm and maybe even make a 40nm X2 that's SLI capable version a good design has so much lasting power just look at Intel's Atom that's basically just a highly refined P3 essentially.
  • 4 Hide
    Silluete , April 19, 2010 7:26 AM
    dammit my 4650 ddr2 not even in list anymore *sob*
  • -5 Hide
    IronRyan21 , April 19, 2010 7:47 AM
    IMO, I wouldn't have included Nvidia's GTX 470/480 Not even available. They've only release like 8000....
  • 1 Hide
    nirdinur , April 19, 2010 8:21 AM
    giving a single card a honorable mention makes sence because not everyone has xfire/sli mb but I don't understand the reason behind giving it to 2 5770 setup compared to a single 5850. Even if you have a xfire mb and performance is a better a single card at the same price is a better choice because you have a good upgrade option later adding another card.
  • 3 Hide
    micky_lund , April 19, 2010 8:47 AM
    5770 CF can beat 5870 in some titles. surely it should be given some consideration, specially as they are much more available than most of the 58**s
  • -1 Hide
    XxOsurfer3xX , April 19, 2010 9:17 AM
    Waiting for the price drops! I want my 5870!
  • -3 Hide
    mitch074 , April 19, 2010 9:22 AM
    I'm feeling mighty good: my 2 yo 4850 is still a recommended product! ... If I hadn't had to change the HSF for an aftermarket one. And tinker with its VBIOS base frequencies.

    Well, maybe I could try and overclock it, now - the HSF I got seems a wee bit oversized.
  • 2 Hide
    jkcajkca , April 19, 2010 9:44 AM
    adbatStill missing are the "Intel® HD Graphics"


    do you have any idea on what you are talking about?
  • 1 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , April 19, 2010 10:03 AM
    The HD4670 section still points to the 9600 as superior alternative. Didn't you mean 9800? (5 bucks more expensive in your list)

    Anyway. Cleeve. Question about graphics.....

    Do you think we'll see non-flat floors in a game any time soon? tesselation is for non important stuff right? and bump mapping doesn't properly work on floors - even the crysis 2 screenshots very clearly show a flat floor with objects placed on it.

    I'm soo looking forward to the day where the geometry doesn't feature painted on grass or shader grass on flat surfaces (that was good in oblivion, but that's ages ago).
  • 15 Hide
    nottheking , April 19, 2010 11:14 AM
    Really, I think that you give the GTX 400 series a bit TOO much benefit of the doubt. Especially when it comes to the GTX 470, given that it often LOSES to the 5850, seemingly more than it wins, it makes it a head-scratcher at $60US more; how could it get an honorable mention for slightly inferior performance with a ~20% higher price? And when the 470 does win, it tends to be a very narrow margin; compared to an often-wide margin when it loses.

    The GTX 480 isn't quite as bad off; it USUALLY wins over the 5870, but then again, it can be quite questionable to ask for the nearly $100US pemium over the Radeon; certainly a more questionable premium than jumping straight to the 5970, which at times seems to offer better price/performance than the 480.

    Similarly, it makes it another head-scratcher that you went out of your way to list the 470/480 on separate, higher tiers than the 5850/5870. With the former of each pair, the 470 most certainly CANNOT be argued to be outright superior; at best it is really on a par. As for the latter, while the 480 shows itself to be typically stronger than the 5870, It's relatively small margin most of the time.

    neiroatopelccQuestion about graphics.....Do you think we'll see non-flat floors in a game any time soon? tesselation is for non important stuff right? and bump mapping doesn't properly work on floors - even the crysis 2 screenshots very clearly show a flat floor with objects placed on it. I'm soo looking forward to the day where the geometry doesn't feature painted on grass or shader grass on flat surfaces (that was good in oblivion, but that's ages ago).

    First off, Oblivion's grass wasn't all that complex an implementation; it simply was a procedural-generation routine that on-the-fly populates the ground with grass "clumps," with the chance, color/texture, and size of them appearing determined by the ground texture(s) used for that vertex.

    As far as the floor surfaces, what they look like is largely determined by the programmer; if one wanted, one could readily apply paralax mapping (or even a more complex shader) to ground surfaces, it's just that they typically don't. I honestly don't quite know why, (perhaps Cleeve would) but my two hyptheosis are that it could be a design choice to distinguish "walkable" terrain, or that it could be a limitation of the terrain-heightmap subsystem. (possibly calculating it over very large surfaces?)
  • 0 Hide
    nforce4max , April 19, 2010 12:33 PM
    This is to those who are into buying a 9800gt. Avoid every thing that says eco or green and don't be tinder footed about it plus the cards with the 6 pin connector are able to clock much higher any way as for power consumption you wont notice one. I own two 9800gt 1gb editions. If they are just a little to pricey over eco and green crap go buy a gts250 its far better any way.
  • 1 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , April 19, 2010 12:49 PM
    notthekingFirst off, Oblivion's grass wasn't all that complex an implementation; it simply was a procedural-generation routine that on-the-fly populates the ground with grass "clumps," with the chance, color/texture, and size of them appearing determined by the ground texture(s) used for that vertex.As far as the floor surfaces, what they look like is largely determined by the programmer; if one wanted, one could readily apply paralax mapping (or even a more complex shader) to ground surfaces, it's just that they typically don't. I honestly don't quite know why, (perhaps Cleeve would) but my two hyptheosis are that it could be a design choice to distinguish "walkable" terrain, or that it could be a limitation of the terrain-heightmap subsystem. (possibly calculating it over very large surfaces?)

    I didn't mean to imply that the grass was implemented very well. Merely that back then this method was okay, as it was a very good improvement over the painted on surface that it replaced. The point is, that now we're two generations of directx and 5 generations of gpu hardware futher down the road, and no more improvements have been made.
    The edges and flat surfaces of the used geometry are still very visible, and somehow every developer seems to focus more on lighting and shadows than the finished product. It doesn't seem to matter to them that all those fancy soft shadows are cast on flat layers of painted on gravel and flat walls with bumpmapped tiles.
  • 7 Hide
    eyefinity , April 19, 2010 1:33 PM
    I think this list needs to return to the days when being a good card got you on the list, not being one that was recently released.

    As for the 470 and 480, there is no justification for having those on the list at all. I remember you removing the 4850 and 4770 from previous lists because they were in scant supply, but I'd be willing to bet that they have always been in far better supply that the non-existent gtx 470 and especially 480.
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