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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: Feb. '09

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: Feb. '09
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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, 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.
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Top Comments
  • 13 Hide
    xx12amanxx , February 16, 2009 6:03 AM
    Alot of performance for soo little cash have to thank AMD for that!
Other Comments
  • -7 Hide
    romulus47plus1 , February 16, 2009 5:19 AM
    Woo! Tomshardware's been sponsored by Newegg! I wonder if that's the reason why it took so long for them to come out with this month's best bang of the buck. And looks like Tom's love AGP no more.
  • 13 Hide
    xx12amanxx , February 16, 2009 6:03 AM
    Alot of performance for soo little cash have to thank AMD for that!
  • 5 Hide
    Silluete , February 16, 2009 8:37 AM
    my his radeon hd 4650 just arrive (after 2 times rma) , never see such a performance from $62 bucks card, i even can run assain creed at (almost)max setup without any hassle ^^
  • 3 Hide
    rlevitov , February 16, 2009 9:27 AM
    actually i have a 42" monitor and the 4670 doing great in most titles at 1920*1080 so who needs nore
  • 5 Hide
    romulus47plus1 , February 16, 2009 9:36 AM
    rlevitovactually i have a 42" monitor and the 4670 doing great in most titles at 1920*1080 so who needs nore


    Try running it with a Geforce 285 and see the difference ;) 
  • 6 Hide
    sstym , February 16, 2009 9:47 AM
    I fully expected to see two Radeon 4830 in crossfire configuration in the $200 price bracket. Is it an omission or did they deliberately scratch it? They were the ones praising the capabilities of such a setup.
  • -6 Hide
    Tindytim , February 16, 2009 10:20 AM
    You screwed up the GeForce 9800 GTX+ specifications on page 3.

    Apparently it's 55 nm, runs DX 10.1, and was codenamed RV770
  • 0 Hide
    ilikesoup , February 16, 2009 11:18 AM
    I just took a look at newegg, and there is only 1 ATI 4870 card under $200, also it's only a 512mb version, at least all of the 4870x2 cards are 2gb (1gb effective). Even the 4870 card they link to in the article is $229. Did we miss a big price cut that has been reversed since the article was written?
  • 4 Hide
    JeanLuc , February 16, 2009 11:31 AM
    ilikesoupI just took a look at newegg, and there is only 1 ATI 4870 card under $200, also it's only a 512mb version, at least all of the 4870x2 cards are 2gb (1gb effective).


    They said in the article prices were likely to change so the prices at the time of writing may still not be there at the time of publication.
  • 2 Hide
    JeanLuc , February 16, 2009 11:33 AM
    Also I thought the 4870X2 could address all of it's Vram and that the issue with the memory had been resolved with the updated Crossfire bridge chip.
  • 3 Hide
    JPForums , February 16, 2009 11:53 AM
    It seems Tom's disagrees with their own assessment in the graphics hierarchy (at least in one case). In the Graphics charts it seems that the GeForce 8800GTS 512Mb outperforms the Radeon HD4850 512Mb in the majority of benchmarks including the sum total at given resolutions. However, in this chart the HD4850 is considered a level above the 8800GTS. With all the sites that show the HD4850 beating the 9800GTX(+), I was inclined to disregard the charts.

    Coincidentally, I own both an HD4850 and an OCed 8800GTS 512Mb. I got the HD4850 thinking it would give me 9800GTX level performance. At 1680x1050, the 8800GTS actually gets slightly higher frames per second. At the end of the day, both cards give me the same gaming experience.

    So it seems that Tom's graphics charts were more in line with my experience (which leads me to wonder what they are using for there hierarchy chart as it disagrees in this regard). The HD4850 only pulls slightly ahead at 1920x1200 w/AA in the charts, so its only better at high resolutions with AA.
  • 3 Hide
    sublifer , February 16, 2009 12:48 PM
    sstymI fully expected to see two Radeon 4830 in crossfire configuration in the $200 price bracket. Is it an omission or did they deliberately scratch it? They were the ones praising the capabilities of such a setup.


    I also noticed it was left out... I would think that a pair of 4830's would outperform a 4870 512MB version and only lose to the 1GB version at the highest resolutions. Of course I own neither but I am curious to know if thats the case.

    What do you think Don, is a pair of 4830's worthwhile or does the GDDR3 hurt its performance enough to not be worth the mention against the 4870?
  • 0 Hide
    billiardicus , February 16, 2009 1:56 PM
    JPForumsIt seems Tom's disagrees with their own assessment in the graphics hierarchy (at least in one case). In the Graphics charts it seems that the GeForce 8800GTS 512Mb outperforms the Radeon HD4850 512Mb in the majority of benchmarks including the sum total at given resolutions. However, in this chart the HD4850 is considered a level above the 8800GTS. With all the sites that show the HD4850 beating the 9800GTX(+), I was inclined to disregard the charts.Coincidentally, I own both an HD4850 and an OCed 8800GTS 512Mb. I got the HD4850 thinking it would give me 9800GTX level performance. At 1680x1050, the 8800GTS actually gets slightly higher frames per second. At the end of the day, both cards give me the same gaming experience.So it seems that Tom's graphics charts were more in line with my experience (which leads me to wonder what they are using for there hierarchy chart as it disagrees in this regard). The HD4850 only pulls slightly ahead at 1920x1200 w/AA in the charts, so its only better at high resolutions with AA.


    Yeah, I noticed this too.
  • 5 Hide
    mmc4587 , February 16, 2009 1:58 PM
    Funny HOW NewEGG prices have increased $20 for the first 2 reccomendations...
  • 3 Hide
    Stillglade , February 16, 2009 2:03 PM
    If Tom's was shocked at seeing a 4850 X2 at $260, I wonder what they think about it being available at the egg for $225 after rebate. The 2GB version is $260 after rebate from Amazon.com - I wonder where they would fit in given the new prices. The 4850 X2 for $225 would explain the omission of a 4830 crossfire setup.
  • 2 Hide
    billiardicus , February 16, 2009 2:04 PM
    I agree that the 4850x2 1gb, and 4850x2 2gb are awesome on paper, but I won't buy either. I can only find the Saphire version of this card available, and if you check out the reviews on Newegg, 19% of the buyers give it 1 or 2 eggs(2gb version). The biggest complaint is driver issues (Saphire has to release the driver, and they're always late) and horrible customer service. THIS IS WHY THEY ARE SO CHEAP.

    I think Tom's should consider this stuff before recommending GPU's.
  • 3 Hide
    Onus , February 16, 2009 3:45 PM
    I see that many of the ATI and nVidia IGPs are on the chart, but where do the Intel Graphics Media Deccelerators fit in? Are they so low as to be in the dungeon beneath the chart?
    It doesn't matter at all for the [semi] gaming rigs most of us seem to be building, but for cheap general and/or business use, it would be nice information to have.
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , February 16, 2009 3:48 PM
    Oh, and rlevitov you may have a point. I probably didn't really need that 4850 that I've got waiting to install...
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , February 16, 2009 3:58 PM
    TindytimYou screwed up the GeForce 9800 GTX+ specifications on page 3.Apparently it's 55 nm, runs DX 10.1, and was codenamed RV770


    Fixed
  • 3 Hide
    Snillet , February 16, 2009 4:41 PM
    I thought that the GTX 295 is only about 5-15% more powerful than my hot 4870X2, since that is about the same amount the GTX 260 get's beaten by the 4850 - How come the GTX 295 sits a porch above the 4870X2?

    The performance gap i even smaller after the 8.12 Hotfix.
    Guess I'm fighting over cold heatsinks...

    Additionally, I think I feel good about you leaving AGP out of the picture, as that standard's getting close to five years old.
    Five years, almost as if we were buying 130nm parts today... (2000-2001)

    Oh wait - the X58!
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