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Conclusion

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: March '09
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What about this other card that’s not on the list? How do I know if it’s a good deal or not ?

This will happen. In fact, it’s guaranteed to happen, because both stock levels and prices change quickly. So how do you know if that card you’ve got your eye on is a good buy in its price range?

Here are two resources to help you judge if a card is a good buy or not. The first is the graphics card hierarchy chart, which groups graphics cards with similar overall performance levels into tiers. The top tier contains the highest performing cards available and performance decreases as you go down the tiers from there.

You can use this hierarchy to compare the pricing between two cards, to see which one is a better deal, and also to determine if an upgrade is worthwhile. I don’t recommend upgrading your graphics card unless the replacement card is at least three tiers higher. Otherwise, the upgrade is somewhat parallel and you may not notice a worthwhile difference in performance.

At the request of readers, I have added mobile graphics and integrated chipsets to the hierarchy chart. I want to make it clear that there is very little performance data available for these graphics solutions. While the discrete video cards in the chart are placed in tiers based on a lot of information, many of the mobile and integrated devices in the chart are guesstimates based on their specifications. At worst, I don’t think they’re more than one tier away from their actual performance, but this is something to keep in mind when considering mobile graphics chipsets.

Graphics Card Hierarchy Chart
GeForceRadeon
GTX 295


4870 X2
GTX 280, GTX 285 4850 X2
9800 GX2, GTX 260 4870
8800 GTX, 8800 Ultra, 9800 GTX, 9800 GTX+,
GTS 250
3870 X2, 4850
8800 GT 512 MB, 8800 GTS 512 MB, 9800 GT 4830
8800 GTS 640 MB, 9600 GT HD 2900 XT, 3870
8800 GS, 9600 GSO 3850 512 MB, Mobility 3870, 4670
8800 GT 256 MB, 8800 GTS 320 MB, GO 8800M HD 2900 PRO, 3850 256 MB, Mobility 3850
7950 GX2 X1950 XTX, 4650 (DDR3)
7800 GTX 512, 7900 GTO, 7900 GTX X1900 XT, X1950 XT, X1900 XTX
7800 GTX, 7900 GT, 7950 GT X1800 XT, X1900 AIW, X1900 GT, X1950 PRO, HD 2900 GT
7800 GT, 7900 GS, Go 7950 GTX, 8600 GTS, 9500 GT (GDDR3) X1800 XL, X1950 GT, Mobility X1800 XT, 4650 (DDR2)
6800 Ultra, 7600 GT, 7800 GS, Go 7800 GTX, Go 7900 GTX, 8600 GT (GDDR3), 9500 GT (DDR2) X800 XT (& PE), X850 XT (& PE), X1650 XT, X1800 GTO, Mobility X1900, HD 2600 XT, 3650 (DDR3), 3670, Mobility 3670
6800 GT, 6800 GS (PCIe), Go 7800, Go 7900 GS, 8600 GT (DDR2) X800 XL, X800 GTO2/GTO16, Mobility X800 XT, HD 2600 PRO, Mobility HD 2600 XT, 3650 (DDR2), Mobility 3650
6800 GS (AGP), Go 6800 Ultra, Go 7600 GT, 8600M GT, 8700M GT X800 GTO 256 MB, X800 PRO, X850 PRO, X1650 GT, Mobility HD 2600
6800, Go 6800, 7300 GT GDDR3, 7600 GS, Go 7700, 8600M GS X800, X800 GTO 128 MB, X1600 XT, X1650 PRO, Mobility X1800
6600 GT, 6800LE, 6800 XT, 7300 GT (DDR2), Go 7600 (128-bit), 8500 GT, 9400 GT 9800 XT, X700 PRO, X800 GT, X800 SE, Mobility X800, X1300 XT, X1600 PRO, HD 2400 XT, HD 3300, Mobility 3470, HD 4350, HD 4550
FX 5900, FX 5900 Ultra, FX 5950 Ultra, 6600 (128-bit), Go 6800 (128-bit) 9700, 9700 PRO, 9800, 9800 PRO, X700, X1300 PRO, Mobility X1450, X1550, Mobility X1600, Mobility X1700, HD 2400 PRO, Mobility HD 2400 XT, Mobility X2500, HD 3200, Mobility 3450
FX 5800 Ultra, FX 5900 XT, Go 6600, Go 7600 (64-bit) 9500 PRO, 9600 XT, Mobility 9800, 9800 PRO (128-bit), X600 XT, Mobility X700, X1050 (128-bit), Mobility X1350, Mobility X1400, Mobility X2300, Mobility HD 2400
4 Ti 4600, 4 Ti 4800, FX 5700 Ultra, 6200, 8400 GS 9600 PRO, Mobility 9700 (128-bit), 9800 LE, X600 PRO, Mobility X600, Mobility X1300, Xpress 1250, Mobility HD 2300
4 Ti4200, 4 Ti4400, 4 Ti4800 SE, FX 5600 Ultra, FX 5700, 6600 (64-bit), 7300 GS, 8400M GS, 9300M G, 9300M GS 9500, 9550, 9600, Mobility 9600, X300, X1050 (64-bit)
3 Ti500, FX 5200 Ultra, FX 5600, FX 5700 LE, Go 5700, 6200 TC, 6600 LE, 7200 GS, 7300 LE, 8200M, 9200M GS, 9100M 8500, 9100, 9000 PRO, 9600 LE, Mobility 9700 (64-bit), X300 SE, X1150
3, 3 Ti200, FX 5200 (128-bit), FX 5500, Go 5600, Go 6200, Go 6400, Go 7200, Go 7300, Go 7400 (64-bit) 9000, 9200, 9250, Mobility 9600 (64-bit), Mobility X300
FX 5200 (64 bit), 6100, 6150, Go 7200, Go 7400 (32-bit) 9200 SE, Xpress 200M, Xpress 1000, Xpress 1150
2 GTS, 4 MX 440, 2 Ultra, 2 Ti, 2 Ti 200 7500
256, 2 MX 200, 4 MX 420, 2 MX 400 SDR, LE, DDR, 7000, 7200
Nvidia TNT Rage 128

Summary

There you have it folks: the best cards for the money this month. Now all that’s left to do is to find and purchase them.

Don’t worry too much about which brand you choose, because all of the cards out there stick pretty close to Nvidia’s and AMD’s reference designs. Just pay attention to price, warranty, and the manufacturer’s reputation for honoring the warranty if something goes wrong.

Also remember that the stores don’t follow this list. Things will change over the course of the month and you’ll probably have to adapt your buying strategy to deal with fluctuating prices. Good luck!

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  • -5 Hide
    seboj , March 17, 2009 5:38 AM
    Quote:
    While February didn't really bring any new cards to market, we did see the return of an old favorite with a new name: the GeForce GTS 250, which is essentially a re-branded GeForce 9800 GTX+. Some folks are getting riled up over Nvidia's practice of re-naming old models, but frankly, as long as they offer good performance for the price, I don't have a huge problem with it. I will say re-naming a product is probably confusing for consumers, which is a definite negative, but on the other side of the coin, I can understand why it's important to market products and keep them fresh for the buying public.


    Some people just can't let things go, can they? :) 
  • 1 Hide
    Proximon , March 17, 2009 5:45 AM
    Good deal. Small correction, you say while recommending 4870 512MB CF "The Radeon HD 4870 512 MB card cinched the $165 recommendation..." However you never recommended the 4870 512MB, opting to recommend the slightly more expensive 1GB version instead. (Which we all agree is the better single card deal.)
    I've seen some bad comments on the 4850X2 recently on other sites, complaints about performance from various reviewers. I know nothing for sure, but it makes me a bit nervous about the card.
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , March 17, 2009 7:31 AM
    ProximonGood deal. Small correction, you say while recommending 4870 512MB CF "The Radeon HD 4870 512 MB card cinched the $165 recommendation..." However you never recommended the 4870 512MB, opting to recommend the slightly more expensive 1GB version instead. (Which we all agree is the better single card deal.)I've seen some bad comments on the 4850X2 recently on other sites, complaints about performance from various reviewers. I know nothing for sure, but it makes me a bit nervous about the card.


    Thanks Prox. I just re-worded this a little bit for Don. He made a couple of last-minute changes to reflect price adjustments that happened in the last day. Thus, the 512MB card dropped off the list as a single-card solution.
  • 1 Hide
    rags_20 , March 17, 2009 8:02 AM
    Why does the GTX 260 core 216 have 192 shader units? And why 65nm? 55nm version has been released.
  • 3 Hide
    cangelini , March 17, 2009 8:20 AM
    Ah ha, but you didn't catch the 64 texture units! =)

    Kidding, that table has been fixed as well.
  • 0 Hide
    eddieroolz , March 17, 2009 9:38 AM
    Just got myself a new XFX GTS 250, along with a Corsair VX550W PSU.

    Upgrading from a 8500GT, the leap is huge. It can run every single game except Crysis on max details! It was really worth the price, and it competes well against the 4850.

    Too bad in Canada I had to pay nearly $200 after tax.
  • 0 Hide
    superhighperf , March 17, 2009 10:14 AM
    what happened to the supposed price drop for the ati 4870? when is that going to happen?
  • 0 Hide
    nerrawg , March 17, 2009 10:22 AM
    Good article guys, as for the price drop superhighperf, THG did a news flash on it recently and looks like it might not happen: http://www.tomshardware.com/news/ATI-Radeon-Price-Drop,7252.html , or it might just be in the form of mail-in-rebates. I am curious about this possible new RV740, it might not increase performance over lower end R770's, but will it be much more power efficient I wonder? Maybe R740 CF will cost less at the wall then a single big GPU like the GTX285?
  • 0 Hide
    JeanLuc , March 17, 2009 10:39 AM
    I don't get it. You recommend the HD4870 1Gb for a single card (which I understand and agree with) but you recommend 2x HD4870 512Mb for Crossfire.

    I was under the impression that in a crossfire configuration a game would only be able to address half the available vram. Has this changed with the latest Crossfire technology because only having 512MB available for such a setup would badly bottleneck performance when running games at 2560x1600?
  • 0 Hide
    LightWeightX , March 17, 2009 11:38 AM
    Thanks for the article. You list the Radeon HD 4670 at about $70 however in doing some general checking the average price for the 512 MB model is $82 and $96 for the 1 GB model.
  • 0 Hide
    LightWeightX , March 17, 2009 11:40 AM
    Actually the Radeon HD 4670 1 GB average price is more like $106.
  • 0 Hide
    thedipper , March 17, 2009 12:10 PM
    Newegg has a 3850 up for $54.99, it's in the St. Patrick's special email.
  • 2 Hide
    cleeve , March 17, 2009 1:34 PM
    JeanLucI don't get it. You recommend the HD4870 1Gb for a single card (which I understand and agree with) but you recommend 2x HD4870 512Mb for Crossfire. I was under the impression that in a crossfire configuration a game would only be able to address half the available vram. Has this changed with the latest Crossfire technology because only having 512MB available for such a setup would badly bottleneck performance when running games at 2560x1600?


    I kept the 512MB 4870 because with two cards there's a $30 price spread between two 4870 1GB cards, instead of a $15 price spread as there is with a single card.

    Yes, with CrossFire I believe each card can only address it's own vram. But really, two 512MB 4870's are still going to deliver a heck of a lot of performance and you won;t notice the vram deficit except in extreme situations or with specific titles that are graphics ram dependant.
  • 1 Hide
    cleeve , March 17, 2009 1:35 PM
    LightWeightXActually the Radeon HD 4670 1 GB average price is more like $106.


    We look to the bottom end of pricing becauswe that's what we're recommending. We don't recommend spending more.
  • 1 Hide
    cleeve , March 17, 2009 1:38 PM
    nerrawgI am curious about this possible new RV740, it might not increase performance over lower end R770's, but will it be much more power efficient I wonder? Maybe R740 CF will cost less at the wall then a single big GPU like the GTX285?


    THe RV740 looks to perform similarly compared to a Radeon HD 4850, so two of them will likely perform like a 4850 X2 and will likely give the 285 a serious run for it's money. Of course nothin'g official yet but that's the buzz.
  • 1 Hide
    Inneandar , March 17, 2009 1:40 PM
    @ cleeve: quite a moot point to my opinion. if you care for dual card setups, you spend the extra 30$ because you want performance at higher resolutions. Making yourself memory-constrained for saving less than 10% of your budget is quite silly imho.
  • 0 Hide
    Inneandar , March 17, 2009 1:50 PM
    small adittion: post above in answer to the first cleeve post.

    Also, for single card you recommend the gtx 260 core 216, while in the sli setup you say: we recommend the older (192) card for being cheaper, same as for single card...

    Is there actually a paid editor at Toms, or is that too expensive (just as an edit button to avoid double (triple!) posts)
  • 0 Hide
    cleeve , March 17, 2009 2:04 PM
    InneandarIs there actually a paid editor at Toms, or is that too expensive (just as an edit button to avoid double (triple!) posts)


    Ouch! Well, it's all my fault for making some last-minute edits to keep the article current and *clearly* not being diligent enough in the cascading consequences of my changes.

    When I wrote the article, the GTX 260 Core 192 was WAYYY cheaper than the Core 216, and the cheapest 4870 I could find was $200 making it difficult to recommend the 4870 1GB.

    I will say I do disagree with you as to your dismissal of the 512MB 4870. In real world situations that extra RAM in the 1GB version doesn't make nearly the diffrence you're implying it does. At $30 cheaper for two, it's a viable option for sure.

    I will look for more flubs though, and thanks for pointing that one out about the Core 192 card.


  • 0 Hide
    raclimja , March 17, 2009 4:03 PM
    CleeveOuch! Well, it's all my fault for making some last-minute edits to keep the article current and *clearly* not being diligent enough in the cascading consequences of my changes.When I wrote the article, the GTX 260 Core 192 was WAYYY cheaper than the Core 216, and the cheapest 4870 I could find was $200 making it difficult to recommend the 4870 1GB.I will say I do disagree with you as to your dismissal of the 512MB 4870. In real world situations that extra RAM in the 1GB version doesn't make nearly the diffrence you're implying it does. At $30 cheaper for two, it's a viable option for sure.I will look for more flubs though, and thanks for pointing that one out about the Core 192 card.




    try to play gta iv with 4870 512MB in crossfire and tell me if it doesnt make any difference with the 4870 1gb in crossfire ^_^
  • -1 Hide
    hellwig , March 17, 2009 4:08 PM
    ArticleBest PCIe Card For ~$260 : Radeon HD 4850 X2
    ...
    The Radeon HD 4850 X2 is essentially two Radeon HD 4850s in CrossFire mode on a single card, and it will beat the similarly priced GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 and more expensive GeForce GTX 280 hands down. It will even put the hurt on the new, more expensive GeForce GTX 285.

    We're still quite pleased that the Radeon HD 4850 X2 can now be found on Newegg for $260. At this price, it's still cheaper than two Radeon HD 4850 cards which, at $145 each, didn't make the recommended list this month. But buying the Radeon HD 4850 X2 is the same as buying two Radeon HD 4850s for $130 each, and that's a lot of performance for the admission price.


    The GTX 260 is cheaper than the 4850X2, and was even recommended at the lower price-point.

    I don't get how the 4850X2 can be both cheaper and the same price as two 4850's. Plus the 4850 DID make the recommendation list this month. I think you forgot to delete one of those two sentances.

    Sorry, I don't normally critique the writing here, but I got to that section and had to scratch my head.
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