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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.
Unless you've been living under a rock, November's big news came as no surprise: AMD's launch of its dual-GPU-equipped Radeon HD 5970 card. With two Radeon HD 5870 processors on the single card, it boasts a total of 3,200 shaders, 160 texture units, and 64 ROPs, easily allowing it to fly past the GeForce GTX 295 and claim the title of fastest graphics card in the world. Of course, it features the same DirectX 11 compatibility and Eyefinity technology as AMD's single-GPU flagship Radeon HD 5870. The clock speeds are slightly lowered to Radeon HD 5850 levels with a 725 MHz core and 1,000 MHz GDDR5 memory, keeping power usage within the range of power supplies with one eight- and one six-pin connector. The lofty $625 price tag is appropriate for the card, but like all of the new high-end AMD cards, availability is a problem. More on that in a bit.
Nvidia also released a new board, its GeForce GT 240. This card is not a high-end contender, but a mainstream part with a 96 shader processors able to perform close to the GeForce 9600-series it's set to replace. Fortunately, it does center on an efficient 40nm process, includes DirectX 10.1 compatibility, and demonstrates low power usage, like its GeForce GT 220 cousin. The GeForce GT 240 is the fastest reference card we've tested that doesn't require a dedicated power connector, making it a reasonable choice for HTPC owners (though not as attractive as ATI's Radeon HD 5750, which also bitstreams high-definition audio formats to your Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD Master-compatible receiver.
Unfortunately, high $90+ launch pricing has it pitched against the GeForce 9800 GT, which is far more powerful and a far better buy for performance seekers. The efficient 40nm process and 128-bit memory bus should allow Nvidia the flexibility to pull the price down to where it can be more competitive: the DDR3 version performs well against the Radeon 4670, and the GDDR5 version performs in the same range as the GeForce 9600 GT. We hope appropriate pricing will surface sooner rather than later.
A side note regarding Nvidia. Its Web site indicates that it is already re-branding the entry-level GeForce 210 as the GeForce 310 when it's being sold in an OEM system. According to the spec sheet, absolutely nothing has changed from the GeForce 210, and while this is a disappointing and misleading move, we're not going to spend a lot of time complaining about Nvidia's re-badging shenanigans. Just keep in mind that the first of Nvidia's 300-series cards is not a Fermi-based DirectX 11 part, or even a component you'll be able to easily buy (even if you wanted to).
Speaking of disappointments, the graphics card world has more than its fair share this holiday season. As we've touched on before, AMD's new Radeon HD 5800-series cards remain extremely hard to track down, and poor availability has caused prices to rise a bit. Even though they offer exceptional performance, it's hard to recommend something that you can't buy. Therefore we're going to include these boards as Honorable Mentions until they become easier to find.
The Radeon HD 5800s aren't the only cards disappearing and getting more expensive, though. The Radeon HD 4850 has risen far above the $100 level we've enjoyed it at for months, and is even becoming hard to find at higher prices. The Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce 9600 GSO also appear to be going extinct with low availability, and the GeForce GTX 275 isn't faring much better. These changes (specifically, the disappearing $100 Radeon HD 4850) have had a profound impact on our recommendations this month, especially around the $100 price point.
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list: