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.
November's big news was, of course, the release of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 580. The GF110 GPU shows us what Nvidia originally intended Fermi to be, with all 512 shader cores fully functional. The card has 64 texture units and 48 ROPs, running at 772/1544 MHz core/shader clocks and 1002 MHz (4008 MT/s effective) GDDR5 memory. Simply put, Nvidia's single-GPU flagship gives the dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970 a run for its money, though neither card can claim clear superiority, as both take their share of victories in the benchmarks. A dual Radeon HD 6870/GeForce GTX 470 setup offers more raw performance, but the GeForce GTX 580 and Radeon HD 5970 get honorable mentions for delivering their frame rates in a single-card form factor, rather than eating up as much as five upgrade slots worth of expansion. Unfortunately, both look like they're suffering limited availability right now.
Soon after the 580 appeared, Nvidia also released the GeForce GTX 570. This card uses the same GF110 GPU featured in the GeForce GTX 580, but slightly crippled down to 480 shader cores, 60 texture units, and 48 ROPs. If this sounds familiar, that's because those are the same front-end specifications used to create the GeForce GTX 480. The back-end is dialed down to GeForce GTX 470-like specs, with a 320-bit memory interface, but the 732/1464 MHz core/shader clocks and 950 MHz memory clock are higher than anything from the GeForce GTX 400 generation. The real news is that these cards are readily available for $350, pushing GeForce GTX 480-class performance down to a new low price.
Soon after the release of the GeForce GTX 570, AMD's counter-punch arrived with the Radeon HD 6950 and 6970, both armed with the company's Cayman GPU. The Radeon HD 6970 is now AMD's fastest single-GPU option, featuring 1536 shaders, 96 texture units, 32 ROPs, a 256-bit memory interface, and 880/1375 MHz core/memory speeds. The Radeon HD 6950 is slightly crippled with 1408 shaders and 88 texture units enabled, but the same 256-bit memory bus with all 32 ROPs enabled. The 6950 also employs slightly lower 800/1250 MHz core/memory frequencies. To make a long story short, the Radeon HD 6970 is roughly as fast as the GeForce GTX 570, and the Radeon HD 6950 is roughly as fast as the Radeon HD 5870. But the Radeon HD 6950 and 6970 are available at $300 and $360, respectively, and at these prices they are both compelling buys.
Not really a unique card so much as a variant, there is a new cut-down GeForce GTX 460 available called the GeForce GTX 460 SE. It has 288 shader cores (instead of the reference model's 336), and lower 650/1300 MHz core/shader clocks coupled with a 850 MHz (3400 MT/s effective) memory clock. On the other hand, it has the full 256-bit memory interface of the GeForce GTX 460 1 GB. Although we have seen this card sold for $160 on Newegg, it's as low as $140 after rebate. At this price, it may be good competition for the Radeon HD 5770, but without having tested the product, we can't make a call on its performance just yet.
On a final note, keep in mind that AMD has made it no secret that the Radeon HD 6990 will be a Q1 2011 product. It'll be driven by two Cayman GPUs that we'd expect to demonstrate performance similar to a pair of Radeon HD 6950s in CrossFire. We're very curious to see if Nvidia will allow AMD to once again grab an undisputed title to the fastest single graphics card in the world, or if the company has an alternative dual-card solution up its sleeve. Wouldn't it be interesting if the green team surprised the red team with a well-kept secret ahead of AMD's 6990 debut? That'd really be something.
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.