Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: February 2011

Best Graphics Cards For The Money: February 2011

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.

February Updates:

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.

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. We've added a reference page at the end of the column covering integrated graphics processors, which is likely more apropos.
  • The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance. We acknowledge that recommendations for multiple video cards, such as two Radeon cards in CrossFire mode or two GeForce cards in SLI, typically require a motherboard that supports CrossFire or SLI and a chassis with more space to install multiple graphics cards. They also require a beefier power supply compared to what a single card needs, and will almost certainly produce more heat than a single card. Keep these factors in mind when making your purchasing decision. In most cases, if we have recommended a multiple-card solution, we try to recommend a single-card honorable mention at a comparable price point for those who find multi-card setups undesirable.
  • Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t base our decisions on always-changing pricing information, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest, along with real-time prices from our PriceGrabber engine, for your reference.
  • 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 represent a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.
Ask a Category Expert

Create a new thread in the Reviews comments forum about this subject

Example: Notebook, Android, SSD hard drive

Display all 63 comments.
This thread is closed for comments
  • 3 Hide
    anacandor , February 10, 2011 5:04 AM
    I love this competition, if only AMD's CPU's could compete at the same high level...

    Anyone else get the feeling that nVidia and AMD cut back on the performance of their cards simply to slot into a pricepoint?
  • 4 Hide
    haplo602 , February 10, 2011 5:44 AM
    can you include the e-350 iGPU 6310 in the charts since you do include the previous integrated GPUs ? I know it's slow but just to have the chart almost complete.

    I am missing DX version support information on the cards, since raw performance does not help with lacking features.
  • 1 Hide
    executor2 , February 10, 2011 6:27 AM
    I unlocked the HD 6950 and over clocked it to HD 6970 specs. Works great and stable in different games.
  • 1 Hide
    mi1ez , February 10, 2011 6:41 AM
    Hilarious how they put in vendor prices that show that their chosen cards at the lower price points aren't even close to retailing at the price point they claim!
  • 0 Hide
    mi1ez , February 10, 2011 6:45 AM
    And don't even get me started on the fact they're all US...
  • -2 Hide
    haplo602 , February 10, 2011 8:24 AM
    mi1ezAnd don't even get me started on the fact they're all US...

    these articles are compiled over some timeframe and the current prices do not have to reflect the prices when the article was finished.

    and since you are on a US site, do you expect Euro prices?
  • 2 Hide
    joytech22 , February 10, 2011 8:41 AM
    AMD makes great GPU's but can't even keep up in the CPU space?
    Better to be good at one thing than to be mediocre at both I guess.
  • 2 Hide
    maurbeast , February 10, 2011 9:41 AM
    one suggestion that i am obliged to make is to add to the hierarchy chart sli/crossfire configs as well.
    would be most useful!
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , February 10, 2011 10:24 AM
    kinda have to agree with mi1ez, the prices listed here for the radeon 6800 series cards is a little inflated. i've been shopping around on newegg and tigerdirect for about a month, price optimizing a new system, and the 6850s can be had as low as $160 and the 6870s as low as $200 with mail in rebates. AMD currently has nvidia beat on prices, imo
  • -2 Hide
    cmartin011 , February 10, 2011 10:44 AM
    yawwnnn... my 295 gtx still near the top of the chart now there is a surprise
  • 1 Hide
    cmartin011 , February 10, 2011 10:47 AM
    so funny to see intel can't trade punches with a 8800gt yet wow who would have thought!
  • -1 Hide
    tony singh , February 10, 2011 10:50 AM
    My old 4650 still hangs on..
  • 1 Hide
    dirtmountain , February 10, 2011 10:54 AM
    A pretty big jump from $120 to $185 from the 5770 to the GTX 460 1GB. The GTX 460 768MB at $150-$160 would have been a great midpoint there.
  • 0 Hide
    haplo602 , February 10, 2011 11:47 AM
    joytech22AMD makes great GPU's but can't even keep up in the CPU space?Better to be good at one thing than to be mediocre at both I guess.

    that's a point of view question :-)

    I mean how much compute intensive tasks for an average user need a 6core i7 ? Even an Athlon II X4 is sufficient for 80% of people. So Intel taking the high end is just for show. Price is what sells today.
  • 1 Hide
    RazberyBandit , February 10, 2011 11:56 AM
    I've seen 5870's regularly priced below the $250 mark over the last couple weeks. With rebates, these same cards drop to $200-$220. That, to me, represents the best value in the $175 to $275 bracket, hands down.
  • -1 Hide
    vvhocare5 , February 10, 2011 1:22 PM
    haplo602can you include the e-350 iGPU 6310 in the charts since you do include the previous integrated GPUs ? I know it's slow but just to have the chart almost complete.

    This made my day!! An IGP? haha..... Man these parts arent even in the city where the ballpark is located
  • 0 Hide
    christop , February 10, 2011 1:32 PM
    I guess I will stick with my 5850 for now.
  • -1 Hide
    Onus , February 10, 2011 2:10 PM
    With the dollar soon to crash, the build I'm planning for late Spring/early Summer may be my last personal build for the foreseeable future. I'm thinking a GTX560Ti is probably where I want to be; higher than I need right now, but should remain viable for years.
  • 2 Hide
    caamsa , February 10, 2011 3:25 PM
    dirtmountainA pretty big jump from $120 to $185 from the 5770 to the GTX 460 1GB. The GTX 460 768MB at $150-$160 would have been a great midpoint there. [...] 6814127519

    I agree with you. The big problem is that every single card you buy now has a dang rebate. So you can get some great deal if you are willing to take the chance with the rebate. Am I the only one who hates all these rebates?
  • 0 Hide
    nottheking , February 10, 2011 3:30 PM
    mi1ezAnd don't even get me started on the fact they're all US...

    No one's stopping you from going and putting together a complementary article for other (non-USA) markets. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised that if you put in the time and effort to consistently make a monthly update like Cleeve (Mr. Woligroski) here has, Tom's just might offer to post it up alongside these.

    cmartin011yawwnnn... my 295 gtx still near the top of the chart now there is a surprise

    Not really. The dual-GPU (especially nVidia's) cards tend to last a Looooong time. However, they tend to only hold up particularly well in older shader models, and without using AA; in those cases two GPUs from an older generation will easily thump nVidia's next big thing. The same went for the generation before, when I noted to people that for those who didn't use AA, a 9800GX2 curb-stomped the supposed "latest and greatest" GTX 280 at a lower price. (oh, and also actually even putting a damper on the 4870's parade, too)
Display more comments