Best Graphics Cards For The Money: November '09

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.

October Review and November Updates:

A whole lot has happened on the graphics scene since our last update, most notably the introduction of ATI's new Radeon 5000-series, which includes the Radeon HD 5870, 5850, 5770, and 5750. Nvidia also launched a couple of low-end cards, the GeForce GT 220 and GeForce 210. We've reviewed the entire list in painstaking detail, so if you missed any of last month's excitement, feel free to give those stories a read.

Let's start with ATI's new flagship, the Radeon HD 5870. With 1,600 shaders, 80 texture units, and 32 ROPs, it sports almost identical specifications compared to the Radeon HD 4870 X2, the main difference being that it uses a single 40nm GPU instead of two 55nm processors, making it a lot more cost-effective to produce (of course, there are other, finer-grained improvements incorporated into the new GPU, too). It boasts full DirectX 11 compatibility and Eyefinity technology (AMD's new multi-monitor gaming/productivity feature) on top of relatively low power consumption for such a potent card.

The downside is that the new Radeon HD 5870 isn't the fastest add-in board on the block. In fact, as far as raw frame rates go, the Radeon HD 4870 X2 and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 295 often best it. We can expect some performance increases as the drivers mature, but the card's main saving graces are a $390 price tag, almost $70 below that of the GeForce GTX 295, and the aforementioned value adds. Unfortunately, availability is disappointingly scarce right now so close to launch. We're hoping that ATI can catch up with consumer demand over the holiday rush.

The Radeon HD 5850 is the 5870's little brother, sporting 1,440 shaders, 72 texture units, and 32 ROPs. At $290, it costs $100 less than the 5870 and performs a bit faster than a GeForce GTX 285, which was previously the fastest single-GPU card out there. So, there is a lot of value here for folks who want to jump on the DirectX 11 bandwagon. Unfortunately, it is suffering from the same availability issues as its big brother. Additionally, this board was supposed to launch at $259, and we're sure some folks were lucky enough to buy it at that price. Prices on the card are more than 10% higher today, though.

When you descend another rung on ATI's new hierarchy, you run into the Radeon HD 5770 and 5750, which are roughly as powerful as the Radeon HD 4870 and 4850, respectively. But once again, the two new 40nm chips offer lower power usage, DirectX 11, and the Eyefinity feature. At this time, these cards are priced a bit higher than their older counterparts, but they are more readily available that the flagship boards.

From the Nvidia side of the fence comes the new GeForce GT 220 and GeForce 210. The GeForce GT 220 has some potential, as it is Nvidia's first GPU built on the 40nm process, offering DirectX 10.1 and lower power usage. With 48 stream processors, you can consider the GeForce GT 220 similar to a GeForce 9600 GSO that has also been cut down with a 128-bit memory interface. It dominates ATI's Radeon HD 4650, but for now, it's priced too closely to the powerful Radeon HD 4670, a card that bests it more often than not. We suspect that, as prices drop, it might end up being an attractive option for budget buyers, and we've already seen it provide promising results as a dedicated PhysX card. As for the new GeForce 210, with its 16 shaders and a 64-bit memory interface, you can consider it an overclocked 8400 GS: nothing to see here, gamers.

There is a lot going on in the graphics world aside from these launches as well. Nvidia's exclusive PhysX feature seems to be gaining more traction with appealing use in titles like the new Batman: Arkham Asylum. But AMD now has an answer with currently-exclusive support for DirectX 11. Of course, Nvidia will inevitably offer its own DirectX 11 cards, but those are almost surely months away still (at least far enough that Nvidia has kept completely silent in discussions of the next generation). The common theory tossed around online is that Nvidia is giving up the high-end graphics market for now, and we'll be seeing cards faster than the GeForce GTX 260 wane in availability before its next architecture emerges. Indeed, it is already getting difficult to find a new GeForce GTX 275 or GTX 285 available for purchase.

The same can be said for the Radeon HD 4870 X2, 4870, and 4850, actually, but with cost-effective 40nm replacements here or on the way, this isn't much of a problem for AMD (Ed.: though I must say, the lack of availability at the high-end and higher-than-launch prices are oddly reminiscent of the Radeon HD 4770 debut, which was chalked up to poor 40nm yields).

As a result, we expect the old-school 4800-series Radeons to disappear in the weeks to come, with the new 5000-series Radeons taking their places. This means those of you who are considering an upgrade to a low-priced Radeon HD 4800-series card might want to act while they're still available.

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.
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  • wintermint
    Ahh the article finally came out :D
  • dirtmountain
    The 2 monthly articles by Mr. Woligroski (Best Graphic Cards for the Money and Best Gaming CPUs for the Money) are some of the best and most informative articles here at THW and should be required reading for anyone posting questions about a new gaming build or an gaming upgrade.
  • Onyx2291
    Finally another! Was wondering when it'd come out. November is a good month to take a look at this.
  • liquidsnake718
    A year and a half ago when I upgraded my 8800gt to a 9800gtx+ that card was considered one of the best and most efficient at a pricing/preformance standpoint. Now that card or any of its counterparts are nowhere to be seen..... Good job Ati for putting out the dismal 4850.....
  • noob2222
    would also be noteworthy to mention that the 58xx cards can be xfired for even better futureproofing. Honorable mention at 5850 290, recommended at $580 imo since its considerably faster than the 295 for $120 extra.
  • avatar_raq
    It makes sense to put the 5800 cards as honorable mentions, after all they are extremely hard to find online..I'm waiting to see their performance in DX11 games, probably I'll wait for the 2Gb version of 5870.
  • Isn't the 8600M GT a mobile variant?
  • To Nivdia.


    Merry Xmas from ATI, 2009
  • coonday
    Honorable mentions are lame.
  • eddieroolz
    Thanks for the great article as usual! This time around it was more fun to read than the other times for some reason.

    I also caught one typo in the hiearchy chart: HD 485?
  • Samamba
    Typo in last page
    Discrete: HD 3870 X2, HD 485, HD 5750

    **HD 4850**
  • manwell999
    September's hierarchy had the GTX295 one level above the 4870x2, this month they are on the same level.
  • xizel
    typo also in last page third tear mistake on the 4890
    Discrete: HD 4870, HD 489, HD 5770
  • skora
    Great article again. The ever changing GPU market keeps us on our toes.

    Is there any merrit to suggesting CF setups with the note of minimum PCIe lanes? I know once you get into the boards that really start to saturate the lanes, you're in a budget that shouldn't be using x8/x8, but it might be worth noting when that happens.

    The 9600GSO is listed with a 256bit memory bandwidth. Never seen anything higher than 192.
  • coconutboy
    Hey Don, question/comment. It's great to have mobile and integrated chipsets added to the hierarchy chart, but the huge amount of added text saying "discrete" makes things less readable. I think a good compromise would be to have a note at the top or bottom of the chart saying that all parts listed are assumed to be discrete unless otherwise noted. This will have the added benefit of making it easier to spot the mobile/integrated chipsets for those who are actually interested.
  • donovands
    Ok, how likely is it that we'll be seeing exclusive DX11 games anytime in the next five years? The 5800 series gets a mention here because of their DirectX11 compatibility as 'Futureproofing'. I strongly suspect that even if games are released with DX11 support, they will run just fine on 9 and 10. That being said, we're probably better off with a pair of 4890's rather than a single 5870.
  • donovands
    4890 x2 not on the list. Should be tier 1.
  • Zenthar
    I'd like to point out that for really high resolution like 2560x1600, the limited 512MB of the 4870 in crossfire could be a limiting factor. Then again, if you were planning on spending only 250$ on a card to play at that resolution, you might be delusional :P.
  • Zenthar
    donovands4890 x2 not on the list. Should be tier 1.

    The chart only include single cards, the X2 presents are for dual-GPU cards. Since there is no dual-gpu card based on the 4890, it isn't present. But if you are eager to see ATI on top, wait for the 5970 (aka 5870X2 ;)).
  • cleeve
    manwell999September's hierarchy had the GTX295 one level above the 4870x2, this month they are on the same level.

    You noticed that, huh? :)

    Yes, I went and ran a ton of cuurent results through a spreadsheet. To my surprise, there was less than a 5% performance spread between the 295 and the 4870 X2. Looks like ATI's drivers have pushed the card in the past months, or maybe I just assumed a bigger performance spread between the two cards. In any case, I tweaked the heirarchy to reflect that.

    The sad part is, based on availability it looks like the 4870 X2 is being end-of-lined. :(
  • cleeve
    xizeltypo also in last page third tear mistake on the 4890 Discrete: HD 4870, HD 489, HD 5770

    Thanks! Fixed
  • cleeve
    dirtmountainThe 2 monthly articles by Mr. Woligroski (Best Graphic Cards for the Money and Best Gaming CPUs for the Money) are some of the best and most informative articles here at THW and should be required reading for anyone posting questions about a new gaming build or an gaming upgrade.

    Thanks dirt! very kind of you to say. :)
  • cleeve
    SkywalkerIsn't the 8600M GT a mobile variant?

    Yes thanks, fixed!
  • shubham1401
    Nice article...
    Good to see so many cards in the list!