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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: March '09

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: March '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.

February Review and March Updates:

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.

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;
  • 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 are similar to what you see in our System Builder Marathons. Before this story went live, we hunted 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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  • -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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