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.