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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: December '09

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: December '09

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 Review and December Updates:

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.

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
  • 12 Hide
    cleeve , December 7, 2009 1:42 PM
    juliomThe bias from Tom's favouring Nvidia is more clear with each passing day... How I miss Tom's from the old days...

    I've been writing this article since it started, Juliom. I didn't see you complaining that AMD was being favored unfairly when I gave the 4850 got top honors at $100 for months on end.

    Now that the prices have changed I suppose you'd consider it more 'fair' if I recommended AMD cards at every price point even though other cards offer better value? How does that work?

    Everytime price/performance shifts from one vendor to the other I get fanboys crying foul.

    These aren't sports teams, they're graphics card vendors. If you want a blind biased report that always recommends one vendor over the other, you probably won't like my stuff. Find a writer who only gives props to your favorite team.
Other Comments
  • 1 Hide
    knightmike , December 7, 2009 5:37 AM
    Thanks for this wonderful article. I look forward to it every month. I was able to pick up a PNY GTS 250 1GB for $73. It's connected to an Acer 21.5" 1920x1080 monitor I got for $84. I paired it with an AMD 240. I'm currently playing Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Left 4 Dead getting a smooth 60 FPS on all three games at high settings.
  • -9 Hide
    WINTERLORD , December 7, 2009 6:08 AM
    why 2 5770 in crossfire with the slow bandwidth bus? 3d and faster refresh screens will be here soon and kinda wondered bout that
  • 7 Hide
    shubham1401 , December 7, 2009 6:12 AM
    Nice to see Old 9800GT and HD4830 in the recommended list.

    I'm surprised how much time 9800GT/8800GT have remained in the recommended list.
  • 3 Hide
    rutoojinn , December 7, 2009 6:52 AM
    tacoslavei lol'd when i saw the 295 as an honerable mention. By the way where is this 5890 they mention?

    There is no 5890, and yes how ATi label their models is kinda confusing but it goes to this order 5770, 5870, 5970 and replace the 70 with a 50 for the 2nd tier of that group.
  • -2 Hide
    rutoojinn , December 7, 2009 6:54 AM
    Sorry for double post but there is no 5950 lol.....
  • 5 Hide
    falchard , December 7, 2009 8:27 AM
    Lack of research alert. You listed a $200 card for $150. I mean seriously, did you need to create all those new categories so you can squeze in a nVidia. Since nVidia still hasn't dropped prices its only logical in 1 price segment, $100~$130.
  • 5 Hide
    basket687 , December 7, 2009 9:11 AM
    Good Article, but I have two comments:
    1- Shouldn't you switch the GT 240 GDDR5 and DDR3 positions in the list?
    2- Why do you consider the GTX 280 to be of the same level of HD 5850 (in the list), isn't the 5850 significantly faster?
  • 7 Hide
    jj463rd , December 7, 2009 9:53 AM
    Yeah HD5970 is at the TOP of the graphics card hierarchy chart and GTX 295 bumped into the second tier sobbing.
  • 8 Hide
    Syndil , December 7, 2009 9:53 AM
    I fail to see how a non-DX11 card ties with a DX11 card. If the two offer similar performance at a similar price point, but one offers more future-proofing, then there is a clear winner.
  • 2 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , December 7, 2009 10:27 AM
    It gets a little confusing with so many categories.
  • -4 Hide
    grimjester , December 7, 2009 10:47 AM
    falchardLack of research alert. You listed a $200 card for $150. I mean seriously, did you need to create all those new categories so you can squeze in a nVidia. Since nVidia still hasn't dropped prices its only logical in 1 price segment, $100~$130.

    "Like many cards, the GeForce GTX 260 is becoming very hard to find, and may soon be end-of-life'd"

    The prices have changed heavily since the article was written. Presumably someone who bothers to read articles like this knows enough not to pay $200 for a GTX260 anyway. Agree that Nvidia needs to drop prices, but it needs to be added that the 295 is still very competitive.
  • 0 Hide
    ubernoobie , December 7, 2009 10:49 AM
    error with the 4670, 1000(4000) effective? it's gddr3 not 5
  • 0 Hide
    Pei-chen , December 7, 2009 10:52 AM
    There really isn't much to see here. HD 5000 are fast but they are so scarce that their impact on the mainstream gamers is small.
  • 0 Hide
    cinergy , December 7, 2009 11:35 AM
    This watch artificially pushes geforces to every random price point. 9600GT @ $85, GTS250 @ $110, GTX295 @ $465. What is this best card for $123.45 logic? Why not mention e.g. HD4870x2 ~$429?
  • 0 Hide
    huron , December 7, 2009 11:39 AM
    Thanks again for the article. I always check it out each month, even if I won't be in the market to purchase.

    It's amazing to me that even though it has been awhile, the 8800GT/9800GT and the GTS 250 (rebadged 8800GTS/9800GTX, etc) still make the chart and do OK.

    I guess it's not quite time to upgrade (still playing OK).

    Thanks again for the article.
  • -1 Hide
    juliom , December 7, 2009 11:54 AM
    The bias from Tom's favouring Nvidia is more clear with each passing day... How I miss Tom's from the old days...
  • -1 Hide
    cinergy , December 7, 2009 11:57 AM
    basket687Good Article, but I have two comments:1- Shouldn't you switch the GT 240 GDDR5 and DDR3 positions in the list?2- Why do you consider the GTX 280 to be of the same level of HD 5850 (in the list), isn't the 5850 significantly faster?

    HD5850 IS faster than GTX285 no matter how they put it. Well, if they bench Last Remnant, Last Remnant and Last Remnant, then perhaps not.
  • 8 Hide
    superpowter77 , December 7, 2009 12:15 PM
    4890 is currently the top dog for conscious gamers under $200, no point discussing here a fact already proven on tomshardware article a few days ago. I currently own a 3870, 9800Gtx+, gtx 260 core 216, gtx 275, 4890 and a gtx 295(yes, I'm a freaking maniac) and just realized how overpriced the gtx 200 series are with the sole expection of the fantastic and unique for its price/performance ratio: gtx 295. If you don't have an Icore 7 you are wasting your money on gtx 200 series cards(Including the amazing gtx 295), simply because nvidia cards don't scale properly on heavy games as farcry 2 and crysis warhead(with very high settings) . I was checking prices today at newegg trying to find 4870x2 and saw a EVGA OC gtx 275 for a ridiculous price of $349. 4890 and gtx 275 are basically on same league and just got my 4890 for $169(on sale), why we need to spend almost double or at least $100 more on a video card which perform identical to 4890. people need to start reading and checking specs on real games with real configuration based on their current CPU/GPU combination to get the most of it. Currently nvidia gtx260,gtx 275 and gtx 285 are a rip off for customers.
  • 6 Hide
    eaclou , December 7, 2009 12:23 PM
    Unfortunately, scant availability forces us to regulate the Radeon HD 5850 to Honorable Mention status

    should be "relegate"
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