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, 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.
January Review and February Updates:
The big news for January was, of course, the introduction and hard launch of the new GeForce GTX 295. This new card is between a pair of GeForce GTX 280 and 260 cards in SLI on a single board. The differences are that Nvidia has shrunk the GT200 GPU by building it on a smaller 55 nm process and that its clock speeds are slightly lower compared to the original GTX 280. Regardless of the details, the new GeForce GTX 295 flagship is powerful enough to wrest the mantle of supremacy from the Radeon HD 4870 X2—and since it is available at the Radeon HD 4870 X2's former $500 price point, it's a winner.
Although performance of the new GT200 processor is identical to the original version at the same clock speeds, re-building the GT200 GPU on the smaller 55 nm process allows it to run cooler while requiring less heat compared to the original 65 nm GT200 processors found in the GeForce GTX 280 and GTX 260. And since Nvidia has revamped its flagship GPU anyway, it's not just the new GeForce GTX 295 that benefits from the upgrade since the entire GTX lineup is having a face lift. First, the new GeForce GTX 285 is now available, which is essentially an overclocked GeForce GTX 280 with the new GT200. Secondly, the new GeForce GTX 260 is also built with the upgraded processor even though clock speeds and stock performance should remain the same.
We will note that there are now three versions of the GTX 260 cards: the original (65 nm process with 192 stream processors), the upgraded (65 nm process with 216 stream processors), and the new version (55 nm process with 216 stream processors). All three cards are called GTX 260s and all three have identical reference clock speeds. The newer cards with 216 stream processors are desirable because they'll show a performance improvement over the original versions with 192 stream processors and the brand new 55 nm cards are even better thanks to lower power usage and higher overclocking headroom. Unfortunately, all three versions are called the GeForce GTX 260, so the interested buyer has to do his or her homework before purchasing. Nvidia, if you're reading this, please consider differentiating them a little to avoid the confusion next time—calling them the GTX 260, GTX 260+, and GTX 265 would have made a lot of buyers' lives easier.
On a side note, now that Nvidia has the high-end sewn up with the GeForce GTX 295, we're hoping that it can adapt the strong points of the GT200 architecture to a low-end GPU. Right now, the $60 GeForce 9500 GT can't really compete with the identically-priced Radeon HD 4650. And while the 9600 GSO and 9600 GT are great cards for $70-$85, the falling prices of the Radeon HD 4830 really make it difficult to recommend them.
Speaking of Radeons, AMD has not sat idly by with the introduction of these new GT200-based cards from Nvidia—but with no new products on the immediate horizon, it is competing on price. Now that the 4870 X2 is no longer the performance king, online prices for the X2 have been slashed by $70 to $430, making the Radeon HD 4870 X2 a compelling buy for the money. However, even more compelling is the price cut of the Radeon HD 4870, which can be found for under $200. Other prices have fallen quite a bit as well, which changes the landscape somewhat and you'll see more about that in the rest of the article.
On a final note, January 2009 has seen the release of the first AAA title that uses Nvidia's PhysX physics processing enhancements out of the box: Mirror's Edge. This is forcing us to consider that PhysX may become a factor in future "Best Cards for the Money" articles if more blockbuster game titles support PhysX in meaningful ways. As this article's focus will remain on price/performance in the gaming arena, buyers who might be interested in other factors such as GPU processing, CUDA, and GPU-assisted media encoding might want to do some research before purchasing.
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, the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need.
- Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing info, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest;
- 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 be a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.
- You'll notice the Newegg theme on this piece, similar to what you see in our System Builder Marathons. Before this story goes live, we're hunting down the best prices on these recommendations to present. That doesn't mean prices won't change later, but you should at least get a good idea of the low prices for most of our suggestions.