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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.
The graphics card market has stabilized a little since the introduction of the GeForce GTX 295 in January, and while prices will fall over time, we haven't seen the huge drops this month like we did after the GTX 295 arrived and put pressure on the Radeon HD 4870 X2.
Having said that, we've seen the market offer a lot more Radeon HD 4870 512 MB cards at a very low $165 price point. At this price, they're getting so close to Radeon HD 4850s and GeForce 9800 GTX+ cards that it's almost hard to recommend those older cards any more. It seems only a few months ago that Radeon HD 4870s were a decent buy at almost twice that price and the opportunity to CrossFire a pair of Radeon HD 4870s for $330 is pretty darn compelling. It's certainly impacting our recommendations this month.
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.
The word on the street is that the naming shenanigans won't stop there, with the GeForce 8800 GT/9800 GT to soon be renamed as the GeForce GTS 240. Some reports say this product might at least be overclocked compared to the 8800 GT/9800 GT, which would help justify the new designation. If it turns out to use the same reference clocks, then we'll have a product that has been renamed twice with no tangible upgrades whatsoever, which is probably pushing it a little.
Finally, it is rumored that the lower-tiered GeForce 9000-series GPUs will be renamed in the G 100 to GT 150 range. The GeForce 9500 GT will likely become the GT 150, the GeForce 9400 GT will likely become the GT 140, etc. While this will be confusing at first, I guess there's a silver lining in that all GeForce models' performance will be easily distinguishable against each other based on the model number alone. For example, right now it's a little ambiguous for the consumer to determine whether a GeForce 9500 GT would perform better or worse than a GeForce GTX 260. In the future, comparing a GeForce GT 150 to a GeForce GTS 250 or a GeForce GTX 260 based on the nomenclature alone will be easier. Maybe in the final analysis, the consumer will be less confused.
A final interesting tidbit we've noticed over the past month is more information about AMD's upcoming Radeon HD 4000-series refresh to battle Nvidia's GT200b refresh. The buzz seems to be that AMD is either re-engineering the RV770 into a new 40nm RV790, or just releasing a faster version of the RV770 that may or may not have a new stepping. In either case, the GPU will sport the same technical specifications, but will be released in a new card with notably higher clock speeds. Without any hard evidence, it's our guess that it'll likely be called something like the Radeon HD 4890 or Radeon HD 4970. If this is the case, will a future Radeon HD 4890 X2 be strong enough to take down Nvidia's reigning GeForce GTX 295 champ?
The hearsay about AMD's future midrange GPU, the RV740, is even more interesting. If the rumors are true, then the RV740 will be the heart of the upcoming Radeon HD 4700 series, with the Radeon HD 4770 able to challenge the Radeon HD 4850 and GeForce 9800 GTX+/GTS 250 for just over $100. If this comes to pass in a timely manner, then it will really change the graphics card landscape quickly. The Radeon HD 4750 would likely challenge the Radeon HD 4830 and GeForce 9800 GT for under $100.
Of course, for all of this to work, AMD must execute quickly and flawlessly. And like all rumors, we're not sure how much is based on reality, but it's certainly something to look forward to if true. Enough of the nebulous future though, as we look at some concrete recommendations for today.
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list: