I see two types of buyers considering these cards.
First, there are the value-oriented enthusiasts who try to keep their systems updated once a year or so. They’d love the fastest technology, but know that flagships always carry the largest pricing premiums. These are the folks who kept an eye on our Best Graphics Cards for the Money column, and when Radeon HD 4870s hit $140 bucks, they bought (and got a killer deal, even by today’s standards). If you belong to that group and are looking at “Radeon HD 5700-series,” expecting a big step up in performance, even the 5770 is a disappointment. After all, if you own a 4870 or 4890 already, that card is faster in today’s games.
Of course, there’s an X factor in play: ATI’s value-adds. Eyefinity—the ability to run three concurrent display outputs—is completely unique at the high-end still. It’s particularly exciting at the $159 and $129 price points being represented here. Likewise, the ability to bitstream Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA are capabilities previously available through $200+ sound cards. Now you can get that functionality from a DirectX 11 graphics card. Both extras are compelling enough on their own to sell these cards to the folks able to exploit their benefits today. And it’s personally telling that I’ve put one card in my desktop workstation to drive a trio of monitors, and one into my HTPC, driving a 55” Samsung LED display.
The second group of folks is upgrading from older graphics technology, or perhaps even building a first system. They don’t have a good point of reference, so they’re seeing Radeon HD 5770/5750, Radeon HD 4870, and GeForce GTX 260 on the shelf next to each other for the first time. Available for $145 online, and with consistently better performance than the 5770, ATI’s Radeon HD 4870 remains a good buy. But paying an extra $15 for Eyefinity, bitstreaming, and the promise of DirectX 11 should really be a no-brainer.
What about the Radeon HD 5750 versus GeForce GTS 250 grudge match? Again, Nvidia seems to have the faster GPU, but again, it’d be short-sighted to pass up on ATI’s value-adds at the same price point for a few frames per second. As an aside—and this is going to get me crucified in the comments—but props to Nvidia for designing a GPU that could hang around for more than two years and continue to do battle against modern architectures in modern games and come out ahead.
I think it’s our second-to-last page that’s the most telling here, though. Stepping from a 2.66 GHz Core i5-750 to the same chip running at 3.8 GHz makes almost no difference to the gamers running at 1920x1200. If it means saving a few bucks on a less expensive CPU so that you can step up to a Radeon HD 5850, that’s the move I’d most likely make.