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.
Happy new year! Two thousand ten was a big year for powerful graphics cards, and 2011 will be no different. Having just been introduced to the Radeon HD 6900-series and GeForce GTX 570, we're on the cusp of a dual-GPU Radeon 6990, code-named Antilles. Our hope, of course, will be that Nvidia counters with its own GF110-based board to make the ultra-high-end a lot more interesting early on.
What about the market as it stands today, though? Cards are disappearing off of store shelves and prices are shifting. The Radeon HD 5800-series is already becoming scarce, but blowout pricing makes these cards a potentially great deal (with some Radeon HD 5850s and 5870s as low as $170 and $270, respectively). We can't give them a solid recommendation because availability is limited, but at these prices you should certainly consider a discounted Radeon HD 5800 card if you can find it.
The new Radeon HD 6800s recently dropped a few dollars, too, with the 6850 and 6870 found as low as $180 and $230. The GeForce GTX 460 is priced close to the 6850, but the GeForce GTX 470 typically costs $30 more than the 6870, at the time of writing. This spread is a little higher than it should be from a price/performance valuation, so we're taking the recommendation away from the GeForce GTX 470 until the cost falls a little more in line.
The flagships from both camps are increasingly becoming hard to find, especially the Radeon HD 5970. This makes sense, since it will soon be replaced, but the GeForce GTX 580 is also looking limited, especially on Newegg and Zipzoomfly (TigerDirect and Mwave both have a handful of brands in stock). Perhaps the shortage is due to the inevitable demand of the holidays, but we'll keep an eye on retail stock nevertheless.
Aside from this, the world waits to see what Sandy Bridge and Fusion will soon do for integrated graphics, and we wait with bated breath for the new dual GPU-equipped high end to arrive.
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.