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Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April '09

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: April '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.

March Review and April Updates:

It's no secret that the brand new GeForce GTX 275 and Radeon HD 4890 have been released since our last update. Those two cards have been the biggest graphics card news we've had in a while. So, let's go over these new products and consider where they stand from a price-performance perspective.

We'll begin by talking about the card that was reviewed here first: the Radeon HD 4890. While the RV790 graphics processor is a re-spun version of the RV770 found in the older Radeon HD 4870 and Radeon HD 4850, it isn't equipped with any new features and is manufactured using the same 55 nm process. Essentially, the new RV790 is an RV770 tweaked to maximize overclocking potential. And maximize overclocking potential it does, with a 1 GHz overclock setting considered viable enough that it's included in AMD's own Overdrive overclock utility and in the driver.

As great as this sounds, the real-life performance benefits of an overclock are usually limited by the architecture in the first place. As impressive as the Radeon HD 4890 is with its 100 MHz core and 75 MHz memory overclock versus the older Radeon HD 4870, we're looking at a real-world 10% speed increase over the cheaper Radeon HD 4870. From a value standpoint, this speed increase isn't worth the ~$70 price premium over a single Radeon HD 4870 or GeForce GTX 260. In fact, the new Radeon HD 4890 is priced about $10 away from the performance/value leading Radeon HD 4850 X2, which sports CrossFire on a single card.

With that assessment in mind, let's have a look at Nvidia's answer to the Radeon HD 4890: the brand new GeForce GTX 275, which has a lot more to offer than just a simple overclock. The new GeForce GTX 275 GPU is the same 55 nm processor that can be found in Nvidia's flagship GeForce GTX 295 card, the important difference being that the GTX 295 sports two of these GT200 graphics processors in an SLI-on-a-card configuration, while the GeForce GTX 275 is equipped with just one.

Since the GeForce GTX 275 specifications are a mix between the GeForce GTX 285 (240 shader processors) and the GeForce GTX 260 (28 ROPs and a 448-bit memory bus), its performance lies somewhere between these two products. Lower-resolution performance tends to be close to that of the GTX 285 and higher resolutions cause the performance to drop down in the direction of the GeForce GTX 260.

However, the end result is that the new GeForce GTX 275 performs very close to the new Radeon HD 4890. This is all well and good, except that we once again have to compare it to the similarly-priced Radeon HD 4850 X2, against which neither of these new cards stand a chance.

The bottom line is that for these new cards to be priced according to the value of their relative performance, they would have to retail for about $210. As long as they remain within spitting distance of the Radeon HD 4850 X2, they're going to be an extremely hard sell from a value standpoint.

Other than these new products, the graphics card market has remained somewhat stable with a few prices slightly shifting up or down. Let's move on to our recommendations.

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. 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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  • 1 Hide
    33696933 , April 14, 2009 6:10 AM
    Looks Good!
  • 6 Hide
    touchdowntexas13 , April 14, 2009 6:29 AM
    I really wish the gtx 285 would go down in price and make this list. i would rather have this single gpu than another gpu in sli or crossfire. Then i would sli in the future if necessary. maybe there is hope for the gtx 285 to make the value list sometime this summer especially if ati comes out with their new gpu and the 285 has a nice drop in price.

    another great article. i always enjoy this.
  • 3 Hide
    RazberyBandit , April 14, 2009 8:18 AM
    This article is always a good read.

    I must admit I'm a little disappointed to see another month with no changes in recommendations, even with two new releases thrown into the mix. There's really only one change I expect for next month, and that totally depends on whether or not the 47XX card(s) from ATI goes gold and displaces the 4830. I suppose if it's enough of a performance increase over the 4830, it could potentially take over part of or the entire ~$80 to ~$130 range of recommendations.

    I suppose we wait and see.
  • 0 Hide
    realcyberghost , April 14, 2009 8:46 AM
    I bought 2 x GTX285, I want the fastest single GPU, and that is still the GTX285, then I can always fall back to single GPU when there are problems with SLI.
    SLI and Crossfire came a long way, but there are still many situations where the performance does not add up.
    That is why I consider 2 x GTX285 a much safer and better investment then a single GTX295 or Radeon 4870x2.
  • 3 Hide
    nerrawg , April 14, 2009 8:51 AM
    Good article as always - not anything to criticize except that I was surprised that 2 4830's in CF didn't even get a mention - after all you have a GPU solution there for $180 that beats all the competition (4870 1GB and 260 GTX) by a noteworthy margin:
    http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/video/display/radeon-hd4830-crossfire.html
    After mail-in-rebates its only ~$150 - thats seem pretty good bang for the buck and even if isn't a solution for everybody as you need a crossfire capable board and some good air flow, its still a great choice to consider.
  • 6 Hide
    Proximon , April 14, 2009 8:58 AM
    As our triple-posting friend brings up, there are indeed times when a single GTX 285 might be a good purchase, or even two. I felt that might need more attention as I read this. At least some people do indeed want or prefer single GPU solutions.

    Other than that, good as always.
  • 8 Hide
    realcyberghost , April 14, 2009 9:29 AM
    I am sorry about the triple posting, I got some errors and thought the post didnt got thru.
  • 1 Hide
    phoenixpavan , April 14, 2009 10:54 AM
    Good to see HD 4830 there. I waz wondering the last time y it was not in the list. Good work. Keep it coming.Very useful.
  • 2 Hide
    Pei-chen , April 14, 2009 1:22 PM
    All these cards are good and all but non can give me the experience of playing KOTOR I for the first time on a 21" Mitsubishi and crappy Radeon 8500.

    We need better games and not lame games with good graphic a la Crysis. I would gladly pay for a 275 or 4890 if KOTOR III or Modern Warfare II needs it.
  • 2 Hide
    hixbot , April 14, 2009 1:29 PM
    I personally think these monthly evaluations should be split into two categories, Multi GPU and Single GPU. HD4850X2 might be a great bargain, but some people want to know the best value (in different price ranges) for single GPU configs. Multi GPU cards suffer from microstuttering, and driver support isn't perfect in every game.
    For my personal needs, my value sweet spot is the HD4890 or GTX275.
    The HD4850 might get higher average frame rates, but what about minimum frame rates? I'll NEVER buy multi GPU until they their issues are completely solved.
  • 3 Hide
    hixbot , April 14, 2009 1:33 PM
    HD4850X2 rather. man, why no edit function?
  • 0 Hide
    esquire468 , April 14, 2009 1:37 PM
    Quote:
    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.


    Geforce GTX 260's have dropped in price for some time now. In fact, there are several starting at $180, $80 below your suggested price point. Saying the 4850X2 will beat the similarly priced 260 is just plain off. A more adequate comparison in price would have been the GTX 275 or Radeon 4890. Was this just a cut and paste from last month's article, and oversight?
  • 9 Hide
    Fadamor , April 14, 2009 2:13 PM
    These poor guys can't win! :)  They get criticized for recommending cards paired in Crossfire or SLI. Then get comments on how readers were disappointed that a Crossfire configuration didn't make the list.

    I have no problem if they restrict the reviews to single-card performance because multi-card setups are a graphics CONFIGURATION, not a graphics CARD. The graphics companies cheat a little by providing the dual GPU cards (the x2 cards for Radeon and the GTX295 for Nvidia, for example) and those could be evaluated as a CARD.
  • 0 Hide
    SneakySnake , April 14, 2009 2:38 PM
    What about two's 4890's in crossfire for the crown. From what I've seen at techpowerup and other sites it beats the 295
  • 2 Hide
    cleeve , April 14, 2009 2:49 PM
    Pei-chenWe need better games and not lame games with good graphic a la Crysis. I would gladly pay for a 275 or 4890 if KOTOR III


    KOTOR III is on the way... Bioware is developing the next Star Wars MMO in the KOTOR universe! Should be pretty sweet.
  • 4 Hide
    cleeve , April 14, 2009 2:51 PM
    nerrawgGood article as always - not anything to criticize except that I was surprised that 2 4830's in CF didn't even get a mention - after all you have a GPU solution there for $180 that beats all the competition (4870 1GB and 260 GTX) by a noteworthy margin: http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/v [...] sfire.htmlAfter mail-in-rebates its only ~$150 - thats seem pretty good bang for the buck and even if isn't a solution for everybody as you need a crossfire capable board and some good air flow, its still a great choice to consider.


    Two 4830's are pretty good, but a single 4870 512MB for the same price performs similarly and cheaper when you consider you don't need an Xfire motherboard and a beefier PSU. That's why two 4830's didn't make the cut... not to mention two 9800 GTs.

    [EDIT] Yeah, that Xbit article makes a pretty good case for a couple 4830s. And therefore, probably a couple 9800 GTs. It's still not a slam dunk, but I'll reconsider for next month.
  • 2 Hide
    cleeve , April 14, 2009 2:57 PM
    ProximonAs our triple-posting friend brings up, there are indeed times when a single GTX 285 might be a good purchase, or even two.


    I'd disagree, the criteria to make this list is price and performance, I don't think the price of a single GTX 285 is justified at all when the 4850 X2 beats it quite soundly.

    If there's a game that a single 285 beats a 4850 X2 at because of multi-GPU issues, it probably doesn't beat it by much. Conversely, the 4850 X2 can really take it to a 285 from what I've seen.

    Of course I haven't benched every game under the sun, so if you have evidence of a few notable exceptions to this I'd be happy to review it and coinsider it. But without seeing that eveidence I have a hard time recommending the 285.
  • 0 Hide
    JeanLuc , April 14, 2009 3:06 PM
    I agree with Cleeve, the current price point of the GTX 285 makes it perhaps the worst value for money card you can buy at the moment.

    If I wrote this article I may have included the HD 4980 in there as well (or at least given it a special mention) considering overclocking that card can result in 30% extra performance.
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