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.
If you don't have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don't feel confident enough in your ability to make the right decision, fear not. We at Tom's Hardware Guide have come to your aid, with a simple list of the best gaming cards available for the money.
January Review And February Updates
The big January story in the graphics card world was, of course, the introduction of the Radeon 3870 X2 Compare Prices on Radeon 3870 X2 Video Cards. With two Radeon 3870 GPUs working in unison on a single PCB, the X2 is, on average, the fastest single videocard that money can buy. Note that caveat, though: "on average": because this card relies on Crossfire drivers to get the job done, performance can be a little inconsistent, and there are a number of cases where the 3870 X2 will be outperformed by a single 8800 Ultra or even an 8800 GTX. The 3870 X2 also inherits the 3x00 series weakness in DirectX 10 applications.
At a street price of $450 however, the card is certainly a better deal than two Radeon 3870s, and the >$600 Geforce 8800 Ultra; the real question is whether or not it's a better deal than the ~$310 Geforce 8800 GTS 512 MB. In the final analysis, we think that the 3870 X2 is a viable choice if your display is 1920x1200 or higher; below that, the 8800 GTS 512 is probably a better value.
Regardless, Nvidia won't be satisfied with surrendering the "fastest video card on the planet" title, and we can expect an 8800 GX2 card out in the near future to compete with ATI's dual-GPU card. In addition, the Geforce 9600 GT is rumored to be released soon, and should boast performance in the Radeon 3850 range.
Nvidia really needs a midrange card to compete with the 3850 and continue in the tradition of the 6600 GT and 7600 GT. While the 8600 GT and GTS were somewhat disappointing compared to these predecessors, the 9600 GT looks like it may very well live up to the reputation of its forbears. Of course, until it arrives, ATI will be selling their excellent Radeon 3850s with very little to challenge them in the sub-$200 price range.
As far as changes in PCIe recommendations, the 7900 GS seems to be getting scarce, so we've removed it from the recommendations at the $120 price point. However, it's been replaced with its 8600 GTS sibling, which has become plentiful at that price.
The Radeon 3850 with 512 MB of RAM can now be found quite easily for $190; this really makes it much more attractive than the Geforce 8800 GT 256 MB, which has been shown to be RAM-limited in quite a few situations, especially at higher resolutions. Since the 256 MB 8800 GT is more expensive, at over $200, it's been removed from the recommended list.
Prices of the 3870 and 8800 GT/GTS cards have come down as well Compare Prices on Radeon 3870 X2 Video Cards, and at $310, the 8800 GTS has earned a place on the recommended buy list.
On the AGP side of things, the Radeon 3850 AGP has arrived as the undisputed god-king of the aging bus, although it seems easier to source in Europe than in North America. Whether or not it's worth the purchase price depends on your AGP system, but I certainly wouldn't recommend pairing it with anything less than an Athlon 64 or Core 2 Duo. Perhaps it might be worth pairing with a +3.0 GHz Pentium 4, but I'm not sure that would be a wise investment.
The Best Gaming Graphics Cards For The Money
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, the cards in this list are more expensive than you need.
- Prices and availability changes 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 retail, 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 that's outside the scope of what we're trying to do.