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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: September 2011

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: September 2011
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This month we're talking about the disappearance of Nvidia's GeForce GT 240 and GeForce GTX 460 graphics cards. Additionally, we consider the implications of our micro-stuttering investigation on the dual-card configurations we recommend.

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.

September Updates:

Just like we saw in July, August was a quiet month with regards to graphics cards. It's actually pretty typical for things to come to a standstill in the summer and then pick up at the end of the year, so we're not too surprised. This is just the calm before the storm.

There is some news to report, though: the GeForce GT 240 and GeForce GTX 460 768 MB are becoming harder and harder to find. Nvidia mentioned that we could expect the GeForce GTX 460 768 MB to slowly evaporate from shelves when the GeForce GTX 550 Ti was launched to replace it, but we were hoping the older and more powerful model would hang around to keep pressure on the Radeon HD 6790.

That the GeForce GT 240 is being nudged out of the picture is a bit more surprising. We had hoped that the GeForce GT 545 was being groomed to replace it. After all, a relatively strong spec sheet suggested the newer card could hold its own against AMD's mainstream lineup. Unfortunately, it looks like this card is destined to remain an OEM option. When you do find it for sale, it's priced on par with much more powerful options. Manufacturing sources tell us that the GeForce GT 440 is the official replacement for the GT 240. When it's equipped with GDDR5 memory, the new model delivers performance similar to the GDDR5-based GeForce GT 240. But that care still costs more than the Radeon HD 5670, which is notably more powerful, earning our recommendation.

We recently published an article that takes a close look at the micro-stuttering phenomenon reported to plague dual graphics card setups; read "Micro-Stuttering And GPU Scaling In CrossFire And SLI" for more. There were two take-aways from that piece: micro-stuttering can be a problem with graphics cards slower than the Radeon HD 6950/GeForce GTX 560 Ti, and that a third card in triple-CrossFire or SLI seems to ameliorate the phenomenon. While this author isn't sensitive to the micro-stuttering issues that many folks observe in dual-card setups, these results have to be taken into consideration in our recommendations. As a result, all dual-card setups slower than a Radeon HD 6950/GeForce GTX 560 Ti are being slid back to honorable mentions, at best. Triple-card solutions are not recommended at this time because they are not cost-effective.

There are a lot of rumors surrounding the upcoming Radeon HD 7000-series launch expected at the end of this year, and we surmise Nvidia's response would surface shortly after that. But it's just too early to report anything credible right now, so we're all stuck waiting impatiently for new toys to review.

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
  • 23 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , September 14, 2011 5:57 AM
    5770 "Great 1920x1200 performance in most games"
    6850 "Great 1920x1200 performance in most games"
    that makes no sense, that basically says the cards are on the same level, the 5770 does NOT give great performance at 1920, the 6850 only just cuts it at that res. Please re-structure your comments as to how well these GPU's play games, all the lower end ones are way off too, a 5570 cant play recent games well at 1680x1050, not even at 1440x900. Everything seems pretty much way off.
  • 11 Hide
    Zero_ , September 14, 2011 5:49 AM
    The GTX560Ti gets nothing. Sad, really.
Other Comments
  • 11 Hide
    Zero_ , September 14, 2011 5:49 AM
    The GTX560Ti gets nothing. Sad, really.
  • 23 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , September 14, 2011 5:57 AM
    5770 "Great 1920x1200 performance in most games"
    6850 "Great 1920x1200 performance in most games"
    that makes no sense, that basically says the cards are on the same level, the 5770 does NOT give great performance at 1920, the 6850 only just cuts it at that res. Please re-structure your comments as to how well these GPU's play games, all the lower end ones are way off too, a 5570 cant play recent games well at 1680x1050, not even at 1440x900. Everything seems pretty much way off.
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , September 14, 2011 6:07 AM
    For $220 a GTX 560Ti should be a good bargain.
  • 5 Hide
    xcamas , September 14, 2011 6:34 AM
    I own a Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2GB, pretty good video card. It's giving me good times with crysis, even with that useless tessellation workload they put on background, i caped that out, and i really like my vid card.
  • -2 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , September 14, 2011 8:23 AM
    toms, did you know i can thumbs up my own message? it happens when im not logged in, then press a thumbs button, then it asks me to sign up or log in, and i log in. I can then thumbs up my own message.
  • -5 Hide
    vaughn2k , September 14, 2011 9:26 AM
    I was wondering if we can include the HD6870X2. It has a good bang for the buck against GTX580....
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , September 14, 2011 10:00 AM
    Hey where is the 6970 ??? It has great performance and good price for a single card.
  • 3 Hide
    Communism , September 14, 2011 10:31 AM
    Should list Memory Bandwidth if you're going to list memory bus width and memory speed.

    People looking at an article like this are really looking for memory bandwidth when looking at those two parameters.
  • 0 Hide
    DSpider , September 14, 2011 11:12 AM
    Regarding 5670/6670:
    the fastest card (at least the reference version we have from AMD) that doesn't require an auxiliary PCIe power cable. That is to say its power requirements are entirely satisfied by a second-generation PCI Express x16 slot.

    If the motherboard only has PCI Express x16 1.0 (not even 1.1) will that be a problem?
  • 8 Hide
    mobrocket , September 14, 2011 12:32 PM
    i wish there was a free category
  • -9 Hide
    pro-gamer , September 14, 2011 12:39 PM
    the famous card of the year 2011 is gtx 460
  • 0 Hide
    hyteck9 , September 14, 2011 12:44 PM
    I stubbled across a GTX590 in a retail store the other day and snagged it. It is an interesting beast. The performance is epic, and so is the heat. GPU #2 runs 8-10 degrees hotter than the already hot GPU #1. This did not change even with an open air case. I really wonder how much faster this card could get with a more dedicated cooling solution. Aren't the GPU's dialed down like 40% from thier single-card siblings?
  • 6 Hide
    killerclick , September 14, 2011 12:58 PM
    So the majority of GPUs on the market are in this list? How about being more strict? GTX 460 and 6850 can't be tied if they have the same performance and price but one uses 25% less power than the other.
  • 3 Hide
    Max_DTH , September 14, 2011 1:12 PM
    Wow, SLI and Crossfire demoted. I knew this should be the case after reading your article about micro-stuttering, but I've thought this is not going to happen. Respect Tom's Hardware, I wish all journalist were so honest.

    Maybe you could come up with some idea how to compare single and multi-card rigs? In my opinion baseline of those zig-zags we saw on charts in Micro-Stuttering And GPU Scaling In CrossFire And SLI article is good determinant of perceived frame rate, because every other frame rendered fast is just useless.
    This should be discussed among journalists. I know hardware manufacturers wouldn't like it, but we would know the real performance, not just guess how much of our cards performance (and frame rate) is eaten by micro-stuttering. We would also led to minimizing micro-stuttering not just maximizing this illusional frame rate we measure now.
  • -7 Hide
    jjb8675309 , September 14, 2011 1:53 PM
    Id take a gtx 560ti hands down over a 6950, most of the benches toms uses favor amd and beyond that I own a gtx 560ti ASUS DC2 model and it holds a 1ghz core oc, at that speeds it kills a 6950 and is on par with a 6970, for me the ti is on the same tier as the 570, 295, 6950, etc, it is ridiculous to say that you can actually see a difference between a ti and a 6950 at stock in terms of real world performance, Toms seems to be more and more biased as time goes on, and also that raw performance alone does not tell the whole story of performance in some instances where the gtx will offer better minimums, heat, and noise...
  • 4 Hide
    Anonymous , September 14, 2011 2:06 PM
    It saddens me that SLI/CF has been downgraded, but I understand why you did it and I applaud you for it. IMO, minimum frame rate is just as important a factor as average frame rate for the actual play experience. A steady 30 FPS is better than an average 60 with occasional drops to 10.
  • 3 Hide
    AppleBlowsDonkeyBalls , September 14, 2011 2:45 PM
    jjb8675309Id take a gtx 560ti hands down over a 6950, most of the benches toms uses favor amd and beyond that I own a gtx 560ti ASUS DC2 model and it holds a 1ghz core oc, at that speeds it kills a 6950 and is on par with a 6970, for me the ti is on the same tier as the 570, 295, 6950, etc, it is ridiculous to say that you can actually see a difference between a ti and a 6950 at stock in terms of real world performance, Toms seems to be more and more biased as time goes on, and also that raw performance alone does not tell the whole story of performance in some instances where the gtx will offer better minimums, heat, and noise...


    Many HD 6950s reach 1GHz Core and they overclock a lot more on the Memory, so you're wrong.

    Also, they're right about there being a noticeable performance difference between both stock:

    http://tpucdn.com/reviews/ASUS/Mars_II/images/perfrel_1920.gif

    51/47: 8%. I think 8% is enough to call it a win overall. Oh, and the 6950 2GB is actually 1% slower than the 1GB card at 1920x1200.
  • 6 Hide
    jednx01 , September 14, 2011 3:41 PM
    AMD 6950 2gb in crossfire is definitely still my pick. Good price/performance value.... I got two of these about 6 months ago and really don't regret it at all....
  • 2 Hide
    Darkerson , September 14, 2011 4:14 PM
    I am still glad I got the XFX 1GB Radeon HD 6950 at tax time. It has played all the games I like to play admirably, and I was able to unlock the extra shaders with very little problem. I may be looking for a 2nd one, if I dont upgrade to a 7xxx series, depending on price and what the new version have to offer. Either way, Im sure Ill be happy.
  • 2 Hide
    Onus , September 14, 2011 4:49 PM
    For those who do not need every setting maxed (even "medium" looks pretty good in a lot of game reviews I've seen), a HD5770 can indeed play many games at 1920x1080.
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