Tom's Hardware Charts: 2009 Mainstream Graphics Update

Seven Games For Our Graphics Tests

Here, we provide a precise description of the individual benchmarks and settings for the different graphics chipsets, including vendor tweaks and information about SLI or CrossFire compatibility.

Fallout 3

This game is a mix of an RPG and FPS title, with visuals that come from the improved Oblivion graphics engine. Fallout 3 supports HDR rendering using Shader 3.0. If you want to activate surface textures and AA at the same time, you must use a high-end graphics card, because the older GeForce 7-series cards can only do one of these at a time. This graphics engine renders outdoor scenes very fluidly and interiors with short horizons pose no difficulties for capable graphics chips.

Those who want to bring their graphics cards to their knees can integrate add-ons for improved texture handling from mod Web sites (such as Fallout 3 Nexus). These will boost graphics quality to nearly photorealistic levels.

To maximize game compatibility, we ran our tests using the standard version of Fallout 3. We used a scene from Tenpenny Tower to measure frame rates with FRAPS during an outdoors scene, with a distant horizon and numerous objects and ruins in the visible landscape.

The Oblivion 3D engine supports SLI and CrossFire well. For our High Settings tests, we set the graphics quality slider to Very High (the maximum usable setting) where 8x AA was the highest value available for AA. For our Low Settings tests, we set the graphics quality to Low and deactivated HDR rendering, which enabled older graphics chips to use AA without difficulty.

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 is a 3D shooter in the grand tradition of Crysis. Its Dunia 3D engine displays very nice DirectX 10 effects, particularly when rendering fire, shadows, water, and background vegetation, and streaming sunlight through dust, fog, and so forth. We set graphics quality settings at Very High for the high-end tests, because the maximum Ultra bogs even the best of graphics cards down too much, which is why we elected not to use it. For our Low Settings tests, we set the graphics to Low in DirectX 9 mode, with HDR rendering disabled.

We ran the Ranch Small benchmark sequence for our tests, which shows people, a sweeping plain, burning grass, and various huts in great profusion. SLI worked well, but CrossFire ran even better, which made more graphics RAM and higher AA at 1920x1200 resolutions pretty important. Our highest test setting for AA was 8x.

F.E.A.R. 2

This game is a horror-themed 3D shooter. Once Warner took over this label, the game was polished with professional Hollywood shock effects of all kinds. The interiors and short sequences run very smoothly and produce very high frame rates. SLI and CrossFire both work superbly, while the performance boost from adding a second card is stupendous. Overall, graphics quality is superior and dream or vision scenes benefit from beautiful shader effects on screen. We used the Maximum graphics quality setting for our High Settings tests. For the Low Settings tests, all options were set to Minimum and the graphics enhancements and HDR rendering were turned off inside the game. We used the elevator scene in the Mission Ruin for our FRAPS measurements.

Left 4 Dead

In Left 4 Dead’s 3D shooter game world, protagonists bite, claw, and blast their way through hordes of zombies. The game runs on an enhanced version of the Source Engine from Half-Life 2. Owing to very good support for multi-core processors and a modest appetite for 3D effects, gamers are virtually guaranteed completely fluid frame rates.

For our high-end tests, graphics quality was set to Very High, which guarantees the best possible graphics quality. The highest test setting for AA was 8x AA. SLI and CrossFire enjoy superb support, where CrossFire delivers higher frame rates for Half-Life 2 but falls off slightly for this game. We used a variety of timedemo items for our frame rate tests, where the group conducts a running street battle with countless zombies.

The Last Remnant

This role-playing game follows a more leisurely tempo because its battles are conducted in predictable rounds, much like those in Final Fantasy. Visuals come from the Unreal 3 engine, which keeps gaining more DirectX 10 content throughout. Because you can’t turn AF on for this game manually and the Nvidia drivers can’t deliver higher settings at all, we used the standard settings, which are locked at 4x AF. We used a real battle for the test sequence that we measured with FRAPS. Because game action and encounters varied, we averaged two different runs for our readings. Without AA turned on, mainstream graphics cards deliver decent frame rates, while higher-end GPUs deliver absolutely fluid action throughout.

When set to High, graphics quality settings are maxed out for the game, so that’s what we used for our High Settings tests. The graphics engine works very well with SLI, and CrossFire has finally been optimized to deliver three times more performance. This turns 20 into 60 FPS, and 15 into 45 FPS. Performance for the Radeon HD 4870 has also been improved in Catalyst 9.6. Alas, the Radeon HD 4670 is still hampered, so we’re waiting on another new driver version. It’s not unusual for games that use the Unreal 3 engine to require stepwise optimization, while in our experience, it takes one or two driver versions before they get things right .

Tom Clancy’s EndWar

EndWar presents the RTS game World in Conflict. It uses an enhanced Unreal 3 engine that looks very good on the screen. This game really isn’t ideal for benchmarking, because its frame rate is capped at 30 FPS by a software limiter. This is typical for most recent RTS games, for which settings options for benchmarking are limited to a narrow range.

Nevertheless, we observed that it was possible to decrease frame rates below 30 FPS in the Replay Kopenhagen scene. We could only use the 1920x1200 resolution without AA, while the 3D engine and the fastest graphics cards all had enough headroom to hit the 30 FPS limit, which produced identical results for all contenders.

Borderline cards in this category include the GeForce 9800 GTS+ and the Radeon HD 4870, both of which achieved frame rates of 29.5 FPS (or 30 FPS when rounded up). Any faster cards were clipped to 30 FPS, although they probably could have delivered at least a few frames per second more.

When AF was turned on our measurements worked better, because our replay could even tax the most powerful graphics cards more heavily. The top-end graphics chip classes all hit the 30 FPS ceiling more often. At the bottom of the range, results are less ambiguous. If a graphics card lacked sufficient power, a difference of 10 FPS meant a 30% decrease in performance. The High setting was as high as we could use for graphics quality; SLI was well-supported; and CrossFire appeared to deliver no advantage.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X

H.A.W.X. will never challenge Flight Simulator X for realism, but this new flight simulator delivers very pretty DirectX 10 graphics and hectic dogfights. Thanks to automatic image stabilization, daredevil flight maneuvers are rendered perfectly and contribute mightily to the excitement of the game. In our tests, DirectX 10 crashed at 8x AA and the game and screen went black. Switch to DirectX 9 instead, and the game works at 8x AA, with frame rates up to 50% higher.

The graphics differences are huge; the sunlight effects are sharply reduced and the haze over landscapes and cities is missing. For our tests, we used DirectX 10 and the High setting to achieve maximum graphics quality. In our new Low Settings tests, we switched to DirectX 9 mode and turned off HDR rendering. This produced good results even from otherwise slow graphics cards.

We used the test sequence Mission: Glass Hammer over Rio to measure frame rate. Frame rates were good overall, but AA reduces 3D performance by as much as 50%. It’s not unusual for this game to stutter or hiccup when running on a single graphics card (or GPU), even though frame rates consistently show over 35 FPS. When AA is enabled, this effect is particularly noticeable with ATI graphics cards. The performance boost from adding a second graphics card, either in SLI or CrossFire, is astonishing.


We continue to use this synthetic DirectX 9 benchmark, primarily because 3DMark Vantage doesn’t always finish error-free and because it works only with DirectX 10 graphics cards. Thus, 3DMark06 remains relevant to our 3D charts and different generations of graphics cards, particularly older ones. In the meantime, it has become more of a diagnostic tool that we can use to compare CPU performance and 3D graphics values, to help us track down issues or problems with overclocking, SLI, or CrossFire. That said, its results when comparing different graphics cards to each other aren’t always meaningful, because 3D performance in real games is often much lower than what 3DMark06 reports.

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  • rambo117
    no stalker cs, wth. thats a new graphically demanding title.
  • haplo602
    hmmm ... weird choice of options ...

    I would consider low as medium detail settings with no AA/AF up to 1680x1050 and 1900x1200 at low again without AA/AF ... any card that cannot meet this at playable fps is HTPC material at best.
  • haplo602
    also can you please PLEASE finaly implement multiple criteria selects ?

    I just wanted to have a look at the 9800GT in all the benchmarks at 1900x1200 no AA/AF. however I can either select the cards or only the benchmark for all cards. any fine tuning is not possible.
  • Anonymous
    Shouldn't the mainstream segment go a little past the 8800GTS and the HD4670 at this point?
  • anamaniac
    Exodite3Shouldn't the mainstream segment go a little past the 8800GTS and the HD4670 at this point?

    The 4670/8800 are still powerful cars and will meet basic gamer needs. Hell, fallout 3 at high is playable for me on my pentium D, so what more do I need? (HD4670 underclocked by the way.)
  • amnotanoobie
    anamaniacThe 4670/8800 are still powerful cars and will meet basic gamer needs. Hell, fallout 3 at high is playable for me on my pentium D, so what more do I need? (HD4670 underclocked by the way.)

    I also think the 4670, 9600GT, and 3870 are proper mainstream cards. The Old 8800GTS 320MB for me is a little bit questionable though.
  • Onus
    Wow, great article; affirming and eye-opening. It affirms what I've thought for a long time, that surely many games are quite playable on cards like the HD4670. For players interested in the mechanics of the gameplay and/or the story line, this card is entirely suitable. I would like to have seen the HD4650 on the charts also, do you have benches for it?
    Eye-opening too, in that I can see why those who absolutely must have the eye candy, and might not care about other aspects of the game, want to spend $500, $600, or even more on graphics cards (and a PSU to support them!). While I hope they earned that money themselves, I can see much more clearly why they want to spend it.
  • belial2k
    it would be nice to know the reference system the cards were tested on. Unless I missed it someplace I didn't see it listed.
  • invlem
    I'm currently running a Core2Duo 6600 (2.4Ghz) with an old 8800 GTS 640,

    up to this point I have yet to find a game it cant handle at my resolution of 1680x1050, which I would consider to be the mainstream resolution for gaming.

    So using the 8800 series, 4670 series is more than adequate for mainstream as far as I'm concerned.

    Moving into the 1900x1200 and above resolutions, the 9800 / 4850 series would probably be better suited.
  • oldscotch
    Might want to update the cost of the 4890. Newegg has one on sale now for $180 with a list price of $200.
    The 260 seems a little high too.
  • Miharu
    I don't really the meaning of this article.
    Where is the chart?

    This look like a study report who refine all term before given the result.
    But with no result at the end.
  • royaldutchtweaker
    to add a little to the "you don't need monster GPU's"
    i played Fallout 3 on a X1300 Pro not that long ago. Far cry 2 was the only game it could not play anymore. that's why i moved to an HD 4670 which lets me play all games, mostly at highest setting, sometimes even with AA. i have to admit that i play on 1280*1024 but still immpresive for a budget card from January 2005. it even sported acceptable framerates.

    The HD4670 is even better, a recomendation i would have given to everyone. not anymore though as the prices of the 4850 are so low at the moment and it IS a better card.
  • philosofool
    Last Remnant? Seriously?
  • bounty
    btw, which mod boots fallout 3 graphics to almost photo realistic? Leaving it up to me to search for it amongst a sea of mods...
  • belardo
    I think, in general - the chart was problematic before, and now its even a bigger mess than ever before!

    The BASE model GPUs are fine. Any gamer who knows ANYTHING about the cards will know that there is a bit more performance with OC. But most people buy 8600s are not as interested in OC as someone who buys a GTX 285... so maybe 1 or 2 OC cards for reference.. but over all, its not

    By separating the bottom end cards out from the top, you guys (THG) make it more difficult for low-end game card owners to visualize the difference between a $40 card and a $400 one.

    We DON'T need 4 versions of the GTX 285! What are you guys doing, Advertising in the Charts NOW?! Between these 4 GTX 285 cards, the that the slowest is 90.2fps and the fastest is 91.0fps!

    The chart is harder to find what you want, the text is tiny with mesess off the various brands and their model numbers.

    The chart has 15 Brand specific cards that show nominal differences from the reference cards at stock speed.


    Here is an exmaple of junk:
    Sapphire HD4850 1G
    (HD 4850 1024 MB)

    Its no faster than the stock card. Make the chart better by saying:
    ATI HD4850 1024 MB (i)

    Make the Card type BOLD, tad bigger font. Memory size the font you use not. the (i) can be a graphic or word for "Product details". That's it.

    The colors should be:
    RED = ATI
    Green = Nvidia
    Dark Red = ATI Cross Fire
    Dark Green = Nvidia SLI

    No blue, no name brands.

    Include pretty much ALL current cards - so we can use them for reference... which is THE POINT of the chart.

    For some older cards, include base 8x & 7x series and HD 2 series.
    Because some people still use older cards, just include a handful of popular cards as long as they're PCIe like a X1900, X1600 and a 6600GT.
    And to really help out people, as horrible a they are:
    IGPs like an Intel GMA and and ATI & Nvidia (1 of each from current boards)

    Older or lower cards:
    GTX 2* (all of them)
    GTS 250
    GTS 150 (Find OEM card so a 150 owner knows how they scale)
    9800 GX2
    9800 GTX
    9800 GT
    9600 GT
    9500 GT
    9400 GS
    8800 Ultra
    8800 GTX & SLI
    8800 GT 512
    8800 GT & SLI
    8800 GTS 640
    8600 GT & GTS
    8400 gs
    8200 IGP
    7900 GT
    7600 GT
    6600 GT
    6150 IGP (if the 8200 IGP is any faster)
    5200 (There is a PCIe version - a very popular useless card)

    48x0 cards - ALL (CF on 50/70/90)
    4670 + CD
    3870 + CF
    3850 + CF (And the X2)
    3200 IGP (On board)
    2600 XT
    2600 Pro
    2400 Pro
    1900 XT (A single 1900 is fine)
    1550 (Current Low profile)

    Intel Onboard.
  • belardo
    Oops, I forgot to change title to Nvidia for that group... I was on a roll.

    Currently THG has 67 total cards, 50 in the "high" end area. None of them in SLI/CF mode (in their own chart with direct comparisons with their single card variants is good)

    In my list above, 28 cards (none in SLI), 20 ATI and and a single Intel = 49 cards. It would be CLEANER than what we have now and have a bigger variance than have 2~4 cards that are the same here and there.

    Find a GTS 150... someone should have one. It should be on par with the 9500GT... and when a owner of a 150 comes to the site, they can see where they are on the list.

    Don't need both versions of the original 8800gts.

    I know the 6150, 8200 and 1550 are very low end, but they are used in lots of computers and people do ask "Why do my games suck on my $800 computer"? This will show why.

    Please clean this up.
  • 2shea
    I personally am not amused to see brand names on a chart that should give us objective information and not put 'some' brands on it with their sooped up cards. Any one that would buy those knows how they perform.
    It's sad to see that it isn't what it used to be and too bad not someone like belardo, who does seem to understand how it should be done, works here...
    Big miss here although the games are better chosen I think. More differences in engines and waiting for the next crysis lookalike it is what engines are used now for gaming.
    Though I must say that stalker should be in it for the dx 10.1 benches too. I don't agree with it being unfair to nvidia that does not have dx10.1, hell there slacking on the job! Too bad they don't have it but let's not complain then when their benchresult suck in comparison to amd/ati's offering...
  • 2shea
    What I did notice is how well that rusty trusty old 8800 ultra is doing! Man it beats the sh*t out of most mainstream cards that are a full YEAR younger... Should say something about nvidia and working on getting better results outside of the gtx 400 + regions...
  • infyrno917
    Why isn't the radeon 4770 crossfire setup on any of the charts?
  • marraco
    [nobody’s going to equip an overclocked $1,000 PC with a $50 graphics card to play 3D games.]

    Some things to add:
    -When My Athlon X2 died, I upgraded to an i7 system, but conserved the old Gf8800GT, because i don't want to waste money until DX11 cards are released.
    still I would like to see a high end CPU with a low end card, to know the difference to a GPU upgrade.
    -Many dudes ask me advice on what system to buy. If you publish a high end CPU with cheap card, I can point my arguments agaist such purchase, by showing your benchmarcks. If such rig does not make sense, still is useful to check it.
    -Frequently somebody don't need a gaming PC, so buys a powerfull CPU, but then needs to add a video card, and maybe use the rig for some gamming, so the questions is: how much money it takes an i7 to do basic gamming? what is the difference to a better card?