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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, then 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.
There was one major graphics launch last month: Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560 Ti. In summary, this new card offers the performance of GeForce GTX 470 with the power signature (roughly) of a GeForce GTX 460. It's based on the new GF114 GPU, which is essentially a re-spun GF104 with all of its 384 CUDA cores enabled, plus 64 texture units and 32 ROPs.
In comparison, the GeForce GTX 460's GF104 graphics processor had one of its streaming multiprocessors disabled, resulting in cut-back 336 CUDA cores and 56 texture units. The GeForce GTX 560 Ti also sports relatively high 822/1644/1002 MHz core/shader/memory frequencies. The bottom line? At $250, this card offers a great price/performance ratio, just like the GeForce GTX 470, but with lower power usage. This card gets our recommendation out of the gate, and you can read more about it in: Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti Review: GF114 Rises, GF100 Rides Off. On a side note, Nvidia resurrected the premium Ti suffix with this card. We suspect this move was made with an eye to the future, so lesser models based on the same GPU might be designated with a different name (hopefully to avoid confusion, rather than to create more of it).
The same day that Nvidia announced its GeForce GTX 560 Ti, AMD launched a Radeon HD 6950 1 GB to counter it. In testing, we found the 1 GB card is every bit as fast as the pricier 2 GB version. It only gives up performance at quality levels that exceed the 1 GB frame buffer (Metro 2033 with 4xAA and High Quality settings, in our experience). Frankly, that's a more attractive value play than the 2 GB model. That is, unless you're interested in trying to soft-mod your 2 GB board into a Radeon HD 6970.
We've seen a lot of reported success modding AMD's Radeon HD 6950 2 GB to a full Radeon HD 6970 2 GB with a BIOS flash. Both of these cards are based on the exact same Cayman GPU, but the Radeon HD 6950 is crippled, with two of its 24 SIMD engines disabled. AMD can choose to purposely handicap its GPUs physically or via firmware. Apparently, the retail Radeon HD 6950s currently available are soft-moddable for the most part, and can be unlocked with a relatively simple BIOS flash.
The real beauty of this is that the 6900-series cards come with a BIOS-backup switch. So, if a flash fails, there's a way to resurrect the card. Keep in mind that there's always a chance of damaging your hardware or rendering it unstable with such an update. After all, there's no guarantee that the disabled SIMDs passed validation to begin with. On top of this, AMD could very well be scrambling to change the way it disables logic on the 2 GB Radeon HD 6950s, and unlocked cards might dry up at retail. There's certainly no guarantee that the card you buy will be easily modified.
Successful modification results in a card with the full 1536 shader processors and 96 texture units enabled, just like the Radeon HD 6970, although some modified BIOS files out there allow the card to run the 6950's lower 1250 MHz GDDR5 memory speed.
There have been relatively few price changes, and that's likely a result of the very crowded (and competitive) mid-range. There's simply not as much room for prices to shift with fast products in each pertinent segment and few obvious holes left. We have seen a few deals on Newegg that stand out, so we'll mention them: we found a Palit GeForce 9800 GT for $60, which is about $45 less than other models. And according to its specs, it's a fully-functional 112-shader card that will outperform a Radeon HD 5670. There's also a Diamond Radeon HD 5870 for $235, which is very impressive when you consider that this card is notably faster than the Radeon HD 6870 and about as fast as the Radeon HD 6950. The prices of these cards are an anomaly compared to the rest of the playing field, so we can't give them full recommendations in the list below. As individual values, they're uncontested, though.
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list: