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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: December 2010

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: December 2010

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.

December Updates:

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.
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Top Comments
  • 13 Hide
    gxpbecker , December 21, 2010 11:55 AM
    Love the compition between AMD/Nvidia

    Dear Tom's
    Please for the love of everything holy remove those Jump ads afeter EVERY page change. Thanks - frustrated Tom's User
Other Comments
  • 2 Hide
    jjb8675309 , December 21, 2010 4:06 AM
    pretty much reciprocates my thoughts exactly
  • 1 Hide
    Tamz_msc , December 21, 2010 4:49 AM
    Great article as usual.
  • 4 Hide
    duk3 , December 21, 2010 5:46 AM
    Ties everywhere, I love it
  • 1 Hide
    ShahJahan , December 21, 2010 6:35 AM
    Along with the "Check Prices" link, please also provide a "Full Review" link for every graphic card.
  • 5 Hide
    Silmarunya , December 21, 2010 8:06 AM
    reprotectedIt's funny how ATI's fixed Crossfire scaling proves useless against Nvidia's original unimproved SLI.

    Actually, since 69XX Crossfire's scaling is more or less on par with SLI, depending on the title.

    Still, I agree with SLI's merits. Of course, ATI also has its merits (far superior performance per watt and often per dollar as well for example).

    It's a good time for PC enthousiasts. For the first time in months both ATI and Nvidia now have something worth buying (unlike in the original Fermi era, where ATI ruled alone).
  • -2 Hide
    dEAne , December 21, 2010 8:43 AM
    Thanks for the update tom - I need that.
  • 0 Hide
    zodiacfml , December 21, 2010 9:46 AM
    I still love it when you state " is the most powerful card you can buy that doesn't require an auxiliary PCIe power cable" as this is always my card of choice. The type of card simplifies things and still would think I got the best card. :p 
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , December 21, 2010 10:33 AM
    they should've included the ~600$ twin 6950's.. since an extra 80$ will walk all over the geforce 580.. i know that 80$ isn't a small amount, but when you're building a pc with ~2000$ budget, two of those rather than one 580 does seem pretty logical...
  • 0 Hide
    christop , December 21, 2010 10:48 AM
    Nice info..
  • 0 Hide
    youssef 2010 , December 21, 2010 11:40 AM
    Great Article. BTW has any body seen this wicked $169.99 HD5850 at newegg?

    or this $179.99 GTX 460 1 GB (seen only in the cart)
  • 0 Hide
    nafhan , December 21, 2010 11:41 AM
    Just a thought about the Sandy Bridge comment at the start of the article:
    It looks like Sandy Bridge may be in the same performance category as the truly low end discrete parts (i.e. Radeon 5450/GT 210). That's a huge improvement for Intel IGP's (and IGP's in general), but those GPU's are basically to slow for gaming and much slower than the 4650. So, I don't think Sandy Bridge should impact the recommendation for the 4650.
  • 13 Hide
    gxpbecker , December 21, 2010 11:55 AM
    Love the compition between AMD/Nvidia

    Dear Tom's
    Please for the love of everything holy remove those Jump ads afeter EVERY page change. Thanks - frustrated Tom's User
  • 1 Hide
    jedi940 , December 21, 2010 12:32 PM
    ^+1 Agreed. PLEASEEE!!!
  • 0 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , December 21, 2010 1:19 PM
    for ~600 bucks, two 6950s in crossfire kicks ass massively..
  • 1 Hide
    NuclearShadow , December 21, 2010 1:25 PM
    reprotectedIt's funny how ATI's fixed Crossfire scaling proves useless against Nvidia's original unimproved SLI.

    ATI has finally remedied that problem. So I don't see how its "useless"
    go ahead and check the benchmarks with the 6850's CF and the 1GB 460's
    SLI. At this point any gamer should really just decide on price and maybe Physx if the gamers personal preferences desire it.
  • 1 Hide
    Onus , December 21, 2010 1:35 PM
    I appreciate the addition of power-usage remarks among the recommendations. With multiple cards able to provide the required performance, power usage becomes a valid criterion for making a final selection. All else being [effectively] equal, there is no sane reason not to choose the card that draws less power.
  • 0 Hide
    wolfram23 , December 21, 2010 1:41 PM
    Good list. This is the one thing I hate about PCs... I just got two 5850s for $299 each back in April/May which was a great deal at the time... Now I could get more for less. Oh well, the good news is they're able to crush anything I throw at them so I can't really complain. Still... 6950s at that price point makes me sad lol.
  • 0 Hide
    flyinfinni , December 21, 2010 1:57 PM
    Toms- you dropped the ball here on the 450/5750. The reviews actually show the 5750 and 450 to be very close in single card configurations, but show the 5750 PULLING AHEAD in dual card configurations. You state the opposite in this article. Might be worth an edit here.
  • -2 Hide
    rpgplayer , December 21, 2010 2:19 PM
    reprotectedIt's funny how ATI's fixed Crossfire scaling proves useless against Nvidia's original unimproved SLI.

    which is a direct product of AMD's terrible driver support, AMD/ATI needs to exert more effort in driver development, and driver optimization. Their hardware has always been great, software support on the otherhand has always been where they are lacking.
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