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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: May '09

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: May '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.

April Review and March Updates:

The big news over the last month was, of course, the introduction of ATI's Radeon HD 4770. This new card's raw speed doesn't break any records, performing somewhere between the Radeon HD 4830/GeForce 9800 GT and Radeon HD 4850/GeForce GTS 250. The real story is that its price and performance levels make it a fantastic value. The card can be purchased for as low as $100, which is about the same price as the Radeon HD 4830/GeForce 9800 GT. The Radeon HD 4770 also outperforms these two cards. It even nips at the heels of the more expensive Radeon HD 4850 and GeForce GTS 250.

What allows AMD to generate profits at this price? It designed the Radeon HD 4770, which is based on a 40 nm process, so that it boasts the most efficient manufacturing technology associated with a graphics card to date. Its architecture is almost identical to its older brother, the Radeon HD 4830, sporting 640 shader processors and 16 raster-operation processors (ROPs). But at 750 MHz, the new card's core clock speed runs 175 MHz faster than its Radeon HD 4830 sibling and even 125 MHz faster than its big brother, the Radeon HD 4850. Because of this, it can calculate almost the same amount of shader instructions per second as the Radeon HD 4850 and even more raster operations per second.

To keep costs down (and probably to keep the Radeon HD 4770 from embarrassing its larger brothers), its memory bus was narrowed to 128-bits. But AMD didn't leave the card completely crippled in this respect, as the Radeon HD 4770 comes with new GDDR5 memory that doubles the usable bandwidth per clock, effectively negating the memory bus limitation (compared to a GDDR3 board, for instance).  This is a smart move for a cost-effective part, keeping the GPU die simpler and cheaper to produce and guaranteeing it will get even cheaper to manufacture the card as the price of memory inevitably falls.

The bottom line is that the new Radeon HD 4770 is definitely on our recommended list this month, taking the place of the Radeon HD 4830 and GeForce 9800 GT. At almost the same price, there isn't much of a contest. Two Radeon HD 4770s in CrossFire also take the $200 spot in the recommendations, beating out the Radeon HD 4890 for less money.

Editor's Note: ATI sent along the following statement regarding the availability of its Radeon HD 4770s. It indeed seems that the company is struggling to keep up with demand, which is based in large part to TSMC's 40nm yields:

"With TSMC’s current 40nm yields, AMD was able to deliver a significant quantity of high-quality 40nm GPUs to ensure a worldwide hard launch, with every region receiving a supply of ATI Radeon HD 4770 cards. Although initial demand was met, AMD couldn’t foresee the tremendous enthusiasm from the marketplace for the ATI Radeon HD 4770, and is currently working closely with TSMC on supply. In addition, we are working with our AIB partners to deliver a compelling solution in the same price band that will ensure supply long-term. Even today, many users are opting instead to purchase a higher-performance ATI Radeon HD 4850 card, whichis available at e-tailers worldwide starting around $100 or 99 EUR including VAT."

Otherwise, we've seen the usual price shifting here and there but nothing earth shattering. One thing we've noticed is that the GeForce GTX 295 cards are a little harder to find. Radeon HD 4890 prices seem to have dropped a little as well.

With the monthly updates out of the way, let's get to the recommendations, shall we?

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 themes are similar to what you see in our System Builder Marathons (SBMs). Before this story went live, we hunted down the best prices on these recommendations. 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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  • 4 Hide
    boudy , May 20, 2009 6:23 AM
    Hmmm, ATI has the majority of honorable mentions and best cards (for the price point). I wonder how/if Nvidia will respond to such great deals.

    Great article, keep it up.
  • 5 Hide
    Anonymous , May 20, 2009 6:29 AM
    Without reading any further than the cover page, this article sounds out of date for its glowing praise of the 4770's value. 4770s are going for $110 on Newegg right now, meanwhile the lowest priced 4850s are getting as low as $95 after MIR. Are these 4850 prices just a temporary blowout or will the 4770 soon be available for cheaper?
  • 6 Hide
    cangelini , May 20, 2009 6:54 AM
    Well, they're actually going for as little as $99, but that's not the problem. The real issue is that nobody seems to have them in stock right now. I've sent a note to ATI asking for an official response and will tie that into this piece tomorrow morning, hopefully. I'd rather have a 512MB 4770 vs. a 512MB 4850, FWIW. Also, we don't count MiRs when we look at pricing. Think of that as icing on the cake, if you actually send it in!
  • 2 Hide
    doomtomb , May 20, 2009 7:03 AM
    Good list. I think the Crossfire 4770s is the best deal in a long time.
  • 0 Hide
    IronRyan21 , May 20, 2009 7:35 AM
    cangeliniWell, they're actually going for as little as $99, but that's not the problem. The real issue is that nobody seems to have them in stock right now. I've sent a note to ATI asking for an official response and will tie that into this piece tomorrow morning, hopefully. I'd rather have a 512MB 4770 vs. a 512MB 4850, FWIW. Also, we don't count MiRs when we look at pricing. Think of that as icing on the cake, if you actually send it in!


    I was on Newegg recently lookin for the 4770s, they were all out of stock. Newegg has a habit of also announcing new products and featuring them promenintly on home page.... like the 4890s or Phenom II etc...
    IMO seems they would like to advertise these cards. At least I would.
  • 3 Hide
    tacoslave , May 20, 2009 7:39 AM
    oooh i love ati upping the game and lowering prices.
    remember the days when spending $150 got you something that can barely game and now (thanks to ati) we can get beasts for that price.
  • -1 Hide
    scook9 , May 20, 2009 7:57 AM
    I know you all like recommending the 4850x2 (exclusively by saphire), but you all need to mention case compatibility, not just motherboards. That card is well OVER 11 inches long. Making it one of the longest cards ever. MOST cases will not fit that without some modification. The cooling on it is also not ideal due to the fan type note getting needed air if another card is next to the graphics card - you all said this yourself. Despite what is said this month, I am still looking forward to my GTX275 SLI setup on the way (since I can get them for $230 each before MIR - thanks to an employee program).

    Oh ya, and PLEASE stop referencing the GTX 280, it is dead. Refer to the better and same priced GTX 285.
  • 0 Hide
    PanSola , May 20, 2009 8:05 AM
    I would like to see a Radeon HD 4850 X2 2 GB included on the Gaming Graphics Chart 2009, if possible.
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , May 20, 2009 8:13 AM
    scook9I know you all like recommending the 4850x2 (exclusively by saphire), but you all need to mention case compatibility, not just motherboards. That card is well OVER 11 inches long. Making it one of the longest cards ever. MOST cases will not fit that without some modification. The cooling on it is also not ideal due to the fan type note getting needed air if another card is next to the graphics card - you all said this yourself. Despite what is said this month, I am still looking forward to my GTX275 SLI setup on the way (since I can get them for $230 each before MIR - thanks to an employee program).Oh ya, and PLEASE stop referencing the GTX 280, it is dead. Refer to the better and same priced GTX 285.


    I count seven GTX 280 SKUs still selling on Newegg for as low as $259 and 16 GTX 285 SKUs selling for as low as $319, just FYI.

    I'll let Don comment on the Radeon HD 4850 X2, as I've never had the chance to test the card myself and couldn't give it a thumbs up or down.

    With that said, a pair of GTX 275s is also a sweet setup, as suggested in this piece right here.
  • 5 Hide
    morpheas768 , May 20, 2009 11:35 AM
    In the Honorable Mentions of the 4890 and 4870x2 there are 2 errors;
    Memory Speed for the 4890 is 975 (3900 effective not 3750).
    Memory Speed for the 4870x2 is 900 (3600 effective not 3200).

    Great and very useful article as usual!
  • -4 Hide
    morpheas768 , May 20, 2009 11:35 AM
    In the Honorable Mentions of the 4890 and 4870x2 there are 2 errors;
    Memory Speed for the 4890 is 975 (3900 effective not 3750).
    Memory Speed for the 4870x2 is 900 (3600 effective not 3200).

    Great and very useful article as usual!
  • 3 Hide
    terr281 , May 20, 2009 11:38 AM
    A mention that the 4770 is just about the best "high performance" card to put in smaller cases could also be added.

    The inverse to the comment about the 4850 X2 being too long, all of the other "high performance" cards are over 9 inches in length. I recently built 2 systems where the number 1 requirement was that they be built in a "larger desktop" style case. (As opposed to a mid-tower.)

    Luckily, I found a case that could support a full size ATX MB, but even it could not handle any video cards longer than the 4770.
  • 3 Hide
    cynewulf , May 20, 2009 11:48 AM
    Can't wait to see what ATI come up with next on the 40nm process.
    This is getting interesting!
  • 3 Hide
    avatar_raq , May 20, 2009 12:58 PM
    I admire this series of articles. They were the ones that brought me to Tom's. They helped make numerous decitions for me and my friends. Keep'em coming!.
    One thing I dislike is the notes "good ????x???? performance......some with lowered details". I believe they give false impression since they don't apply to all or even "most" games. In fact, games vary so much in their requirements.
  • 0 Hide
    copperfox , May 20, 2009 1:03 PM
    Radeon 4890 is not $235. I purchased mine (Sapphire) for $220 in late April, and that also includes a $20 MIR, making the final price 200. It's a great performer, despite being bottle-necked by my Pentium 4 (single core).
  • 6 Hide
    gwolfman , May 20, 2009 2:36 PM
    Suggestion: How about alternating the colors (white/gray) again on the hierarchy chart? Too hard to see where one section starts/ends. Thanks!
  • 4 Hide
    Onus , May 20, 2009 2:42 PM
    Ok, since the HD4670 was [again] recommended at its price point, please add it to the recently updated graphics card performance charts. Thank you.
  • 5 Hide
    glawk , May 20, 2009 2:45 PM
    How about separate articles for single vs. multi-gpu cards? Does Tom's even acknowledge "micro stutter" (god, I hate that term) as a potential issue in SLI/CrossFire setups?

    A few articles on micro stutter:

    http://www.pcgameshardware.com/aid,653711/PCGH-proves-micro-stuttering-on-the-Radeon-HD-4870-X2/Practice/

    http://www.overclockers.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4420:microstutter&catid=60:videocards&Itemid=4266

    http://www.pcgameshardware.de/aid,631668/Video-proof-Micro-stuttering-may-destroy-the-performance-gains-from-current-multi-GPU-technologies/Grafikkarte/Test/

  • 4 Hide
    esquire468 , May 20, 2009 3:02 PM
    Can anyone explain to me how 2 4770s can even be considered as "Best PCIe Card For ~$200"? I understand Tom's current infatuation with the card, especially with two in crossfire, and I do not dispute their performance or their value in such a configuration. However, I thought the whole point of this article is to rank the cards individually by performance at specific price points. I understand to a certain extent the intent is still there (best bang for the buck), but to me recommending multiple cards in either CFX or SLI setups changes the parameters and purpose of the article, i.e., best "card" in performance at specific price points. Putting multi-card setups into the fray fails to take into consideration whether most users can even install such a configuration on their motherboard. It does not take into consideration the number of available PCIe slots, whether they'll run in 16x/16x mode or if the mobo chipset will even support the configuration (CFX vs. SLI; 790FX vs. 790SLI vs. X58 etc.) Moreover, it doesn't even touch upon whether the PSU is adequate, both in power and number of available connectors. When you factor in these additional considerations, and the possibility that the configeration may require additional upgrades (new mobo; new psu), it sort of defeats the whole purpose of the article, in my opinion.

    I want to see what is the best available card in one slot, even if it s a multi-GPU card (GTX 295; 4870X2; 4850X2). Leave the multi-card setups for the specialty articles, such as the recent "GTX 295 vs. GTX 275 SLI" article.
  • 1 Hide
    hixbot , May 20, 2009 3:46 PM
    Amen. Why can't we see single cards evaulauted seperately? There are many reasons people want to know the best value of single GPUs at different price points. Dual cards, and multi GPU cards still suffer from microstuttering!
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