iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Graphics Card Buyer's Guide

Version 1.2, 29.02.2008

Practical guidelines on choosing a graphics card

In this section we are going to help you make your choice, if you have already decided on a price range. Still better if you have already chosen your GPU vendor: AMD(ATI) or NVIDIA, depending on important peculiarities (e.g., faster OpenGL or AA+HDR). But even if you haven't made up your mind yet, this section will still be useful. It compares the most interesting graphics cards of the previously determined price ranges. Even if you haven't chosen your price yet, numbers published here may help you. But first of all, you should read the previous parts, reference materials, and tables, if you haven't already done so.

Of all graphics cards that take part in our monthly i3D-Speed we have selected four brightest representatives of all price ranges. We tried to select two cards from each GPU vendor, where possible. AMD and NVIDIA. And we failed to do it only for Upper Mid-End, because NVIDIA is not doing well here (read the details below). In all other segments we selected two cards from each vendor.

We tried to review reference solutions in the first place. The guide will mention other products, factory-overclocked and/or with non-standard memory size, given they are available in stores, preferably from several vendors at once. Information about key features for each price range is provided in the table below.

We selected several games from i3D-Speed, which were the best at revealing advantages of one card over another. The set of games is deliberately different in each price range. Besides, we used different quality settings and resolutions for each price range, similar to those used by gamers. If you are interested in other results, complete test results are provided in the 3Digest/i3D-Speed. Our simplified comparison will recommend only the most expedient cards for each price range for the time of guide publication.

This part of the guide must be regularly updated to be helpful to you, our readers, because the graphics cards market is changing very fast, so conclusions valid now may surprise you in a couple of months. We update this part each two or three months. More frequent updates will be published in case of emergency, because this article only supplements the 3Digest/i3D-Speed, which can be used for more accurate analysis and conclusions.

Low-End (<$100)

For the time that passed since the previous update, several Mid-End cards have gone down to this price range. For example, GeForce 8600 GT came down to $100, the other Low-End cards are now even cheaper. RADEON X1650 PRO as well as GeForce 7600 GT and GeForce 7600 GS can still be found in stores, but there is no point in buying such cards, especially if you want to play modern 3D games.

It makes sense to buy a Low-End card only for $70-80 or higher, all the other solutions are being integrated into chipsets. Cheaper solutions just cannot compete with graphics cores integrated into chipsets. Such cheap graphics cards are usually not expected to demonstrate high performance in games. All we want from them is 2D and video decode acceleration in some cases. 3D performance is not important here, because none of them support modern games.

We are still expecting graphics cards under $100 to be pushed out by new integrated chipsets. As for now, discrete solutions for $100 still make sense for budget home computers, although they are no good for gaming. In this case you must save money for at least a Mid-End card. OK, let's have a look at the most expedient Low-End offers:

Graphics card Memory, MB GPU clock, MHz Memory clock, MHz MSRP, $ Real price, $
ATI RADEON HD 2400 XT 256 700 1600 - 65
ATI RADEON HD 2600 PRO 256 600 1000 99 80
NVIDIA GeForce 8500 GT 256 450 800 89 70
NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GT 256 560 1560 149 100

All these graphics cards have identical memory sizes. They are all equipped with 256 MB of memory, which is positive. Only the cheapest cards are equipped with less memory, they are already disappearing from the market. The difference in memory clock rates may reach twofold. This has to do with different bus widths. So manufacturers have to use fast memory to make up for the 64-bit bus. RADEON HD 2400 XT should be the weakest card at first glance. Even though it's relatively new, it comes at a low price, and possesses low frequencies and memory bandwidth. It seems to be an outsider. And GeForce 8600 GT is the most expensive product in this price range, so it should be the fastest here.

Tests for this price segment were run in 1024x768, no antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, because these graphics cards do not provide sufficient framerates in heavier modes. FPS is usually below 30-40 frames per second, which is evidently not enough. Weak cards are often too slow even in 1024x768:

Our tests illustrate performance differences well, most results conform with prices. As we have assumed, RADEON HD 2400 XT is the weakest card, and GeForce 8600 GT is the fastest product in these games. The cards have lined up in a perfect ladder, except for Company of Heroes, where AMD cards traditionally perform better. GeForce 8500 GT and RADEON HD 2400 XT have similar price tags, but the card from NVIDIA is always a tad faster, even in Company of Heroes.

GeForce 8500 GT is slower than the more expensive RADEON HD 2600 PRO. The latter looks better in games, even though it's just a tad more expensive than those two cheapest cards. But still, you should pay most attention to GeForce 8600 GT, which justifies its highest price in this segment. It's more than twice as fast (!) as the other graphics cards in some games, so it's the best choice for thrifty buyers, who don't want to pay more than $100 for a graphics card.

So, if you choose a graphics card for an inexpensive gaming PC, GeForce 8600 GT will be the best choice, as it provides the highest performance here, although it's the most expensive card. RADEON HD 2600 PRO is a tad less expensive and slower. You should choose between these two options. Or you may focus on the next price range, because the average FPS here is below 30 even in old games in 1024x768. The situation in new games is much worse, you can see it with your own eyes in i3D-Speed results.

Lower Mid-End ($100-200)

The so-called Lower Mid-End range is one of the most popular segments of the market. Manufacturers try to populate it with the most expedient graphics cards in terms of performance/price ratio. Such outdated solutions as ATI RADEON X1950 PRO abandoned this price range long ago, as they were discontinued. Some cards are on the borderline with Low-End, we've already mentioned GeForce 8600 GT. We'll also touch upon a GDDR4 modification of the RADEON HD 2600 XT, which is included into our article together with its usual GDDR3 product.

This price range is also represented by two solutions from AMD and two cards from NVIDIA. These AMD cards are based on the same GPU and differ in frequencies and prices. The same concerns NVIDIA cards. Such graphics card does not need 512 MB of video memory, because the cost of high-capacity memory chips deteriorates the combination of price and performance and fails to provide noticeable performance gains. So we shall not consider this option.

Graphics card Memory, MB GPU clock, MHz Memory clock, MHz MSRP, $ Real price, $
ATI RADEON HD 2600 XT GDDR3 256 800 1400 129 100
ATI RADEON HD 2600 XT GDDR4 256 800 2200 149 140
NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GT 256 560 1560 149 100
NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GTS 256 720 2200 199 150

So, all graphics cards representing this price range are equipped with 256 MB. Memory clock rates are also similar in competing cards. More expensive products (GeForce 8600 GTS and RADEON HD 2600 XT) are equipped with faster GDDR4 memory, unlike cheaper modifications (GeForce 8600 GT and RADEON HD 2600 XT with GDDR3 memory). According to the prices, GeForce 8600 GT and HD 2600 XT GDDR3 should be slower than their more expensive modifications.

Graphics cards in this price range were tested in 1280x1024, as the most popular resolution for owners of mass-scale LCD monitors. These results were obtained without antialiasing and anisotropic filtering. Although some cards can provide a smooth framerate even in such modes (not in all games, of course), relative performance can be evaluated in this mode as well. Especially as this comparison involves new games with much higher requirements, such as Crysis.

The outcome is predictable, though not by 100%. GeForce 8600 GTS is faster than RADEON HD 2600 GDDR4 in all cases. Even a tad lower price for the latter does not help it in its competition, as the performance difference is much bigger. So if you don't want to spend more than $200 for a graphics card, you should choose the card from NVIDIA. It's a tad more expensive, but it's noticeably faster, even in Company of Heroes.

What concerns HD 2600 XT GDDR3 and GeForce 8600 GT, it's more difficult to make a choice, they come at the same price and outperform each other is various tests. Still, the HD 2600 XT GDDR3 performs a tad better in our tests, GeForce 8600 GT is slightly outperformed in two tests out of three. However, it's noticeably faster than the AMD card in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. So, if you plan to spend about $100, you should choose between these two solutions, and the card from AMD is a tad better. However, a better choice is to pay $150 for a more powerful solution from this price range.

Upper Mid-End ($200-300)

As we have already mentioned in previous parts of this guide, the most expedient choice is a graphics card from the Upper Mid-End segment. You'll get the most balanced gaming computer, which still cannot provide maximum performance. These solutions let you play all modern games in high quality modes, but their performance reserve for the future is not very big.

Solutions from the next price range offer higher performance and come at the justified price. The Upper Mid-End segment usually witnesses thick battles between AMD and NVIDIA. This segment is one of the tastiest morsels for them, such cards are quite popular and more expensive than Lower Mid-End solutions.

Last time we complained that there were no solutions in this price range. This gap in product lines from both manufacturers hinted at coming announcements of new graphics cards. Indeed, AMD and NVIDIA have recently rolled out solutions for this price range. Sort of. Because the new graphics cards perform on the level of current top solutions or better. Besides, the manufacturers failed to saturate the market with the new cards. That's why real price tags of the new products based on AMD RV670 and NVIDIA G92 are much higher than the recommended prices. So if you want a graphics card below $300, you can only buy them now or wait for the price drop.

As for now, Upper Mid-End in our local market, where prices are noticeably higher than in the world market, includes the old RADEON HD 2900 PRO and the new RADEON HD 3850, the only modern card below $300 in Moscow.

Graphics card Memory, MB GPU clock, MHz Memory clock, MHz MSRP, $ Real price, $
ATI RADEON HD 2900 PRO 512 600 1600 - 230
ATI RADEON HD 3850 256 670 1660 179 230

The tests were also run in the most popular resolution 1280x1024 here, but antialiasing and anisotropic filtering were enabled. Most graphics cards from this price range provide comfortable gameplay in such modes in modern games.

Well, everything is much less complicated in this price range. The new card expectably defeats the old solution from the same vendor. The advantage is not big though. Besides, it's getting cheaper, while the HD 2900 PRO is gradually disappearing. That is there is no point in buying a RADEON HD 2900 PRO, because RADEON HD 3850 is faster, consumes less power, and dissipates less heat.

However, you'd better wait until prices for cards based on G92 and RV670 go down. These cards should land in this price range, not only RADEON HD 3850. We hope that prices for these graphics cards will go down in the nearest future. It should be noted that this very price range will also be populated by new graphics cards from NVIDIA, GeForce 9600 GT. In fact, these cards will go down to the previous price range in time. They have proved themselves as competitive solutions in our performance tests. So it will all depend on their prices.

Lower High-End ($300-500)

Let's proceed to the first of top segments, from $300 to $500. This is not a mass sector, but enthusiast gamers often choose solutions from this very segment. More expensive graphics cards rarely provide more features and higher performance, and products from lower price ranges just cannot provide an acceptable gameplay level in modern games with maximal settings and in high resolutions.

GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB has been discontinued and has left this price range. It has been replaced with GeForce 8800 GTS 512 MB based on G92.

As in the previous case, the most interesting comparison in this price range includes only two graphics cards: RADEON HD 3870 and NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT. Although it will also be interesting to see how the prev-gen top graphics card from AMD fares against GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB.

Graphics card Memory, MB GPU clock, MHz Memory clock, MHz MSRP, $ Real price, $
ATI RADEON HD 2900 XT 512 750 1660 - 440
ATI RADEON HD 3870 512 775 2250 219 310
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB 512 650 2000 349-399 450
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT 512 600 1800 249 340

The most expensive cards from this price range are the old RADEON HD 2900 XT and the new GeForce 8800 GTS. HD 3870 and GeForce 8800 GT are cheaper by more than $100. Graphics cards in the Lower High-End price range are equipped with 512 MB of fast video memory or more, which depends on their bus width and the number/capacity of memory chips. Old GeForce 8800 GTS could be equipped only with 320 MB or 640 MB.

Graphics cards from this segment allow to use 1600x1200, antialiasing and anisotropic filtering must be enabled, of course. Selected graphics cards from this price range offer comfortable gameplay in heavier modes (except for the latest projects), but we kept them for the most expensive graphics cards. In this case we'll use heavy tests in Crysis DX 9.

So, let's analyze the situation in Lower High-End. Mid-End and old High-End graphics cards from AMD show practically no differences in games, just several percents. Considering possible DirectX 10.1 support in RADEON HD 3870 and its significantly lower price compared to RADEON HD 2900 XT, it makes little sense to buy the latter. RADEON HD 3870 slightly outscores it in our tests, and it's cheaper at that.

And the apparent leader in price/performance here is GeForce 8800 GT. It's faster than AMD cards in this price range by 25-45%. GeForce 8800 GT is a tad more expensive than RADEON HD 3870, but it's noticeably faster. GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB is the fastest graphics card in this price range, but it outperforms the GT card only by 10-15%. So it's less expedient for a thrifty gamer.

So, let's appoint the leader and the outsider here. Out of doubt, the most expedient Lower High-End graphics card is GeForce 8800 GT, and the least attractive card is the old RADEON HD 2900 XT. HD 3870 is also an expedient card here, the only problem of these new cards is their overhyped prices. They should go down to the lower price range in time. What concerns the new GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, it may also interest our readers, being one of the fastest single-GPU graphics cards.

So, NVIDIA is victorious in this price range. If you choose between RADEON HD 2900 XT and GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, you should consider the latter, as it's significantly faster than the AMD card in all cases (you can see it in detailed test results published in our monthly i3D-Speed). GeForce 8800 GT performs generally better than RADEON HD 3870, even though the AMD card is slightly cheaper.

Upper High-End (>$500)

Time has come for the elite price range - Upper High-End. It's intended for well-off hard driving gamers and enthusiasts. As we already mentioned many times, the old single-GPU card from AMD is only nominally represented here, because RADEON HD 2900 XT with 1 GB of GDDR4 memory is almost no different in performance from the regular product. Besides, it's not manufactured anymore.

AMD just had nothing to offer in the Upper High-End segment at that time. But now the company has rolled out RADEON HD 3870 X2. This card is based on two RV670 GPUs operating in CrossFire mode, detected as a single device. Besides, this price range still keeps the most powerful cards of the GeForce 8800 family. NVIDIA GeForce 8800 Ultra SLI was removed from our tests, because we published its results just to show performance differences between dual-GPU and single-GPU systems in games. It's up to HD 3870 X2 now.

Graphics card Memory, MB GPU clock, MHz Memory clock, MHz MSRP, $ Real price, $
ATI RADEON HD 2900 XT 1024 750 2000 - 510
ATI RADEON HD 3870 X2 2x512 825 1800 399 600
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX 768 575 1800 549 570
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 Ultra 768 612 2160 - 720

These models are intended for users, who want maximum performance right now, no matter at what cost. While GeForce 8800 GTX can be a justified purchase, if your budget permits, SLI or CrossFire solutions with powerful graphics cards may be necessary only when you need the most powerful solution no matter the costs. In this case you should take a closer look at RADEON HD 3870 X2, which offers the double power of RV670 at the cost of GeForce 8800 GTX.

This comparison involves only the most powerful solutions, which must be compared in the highest resolution used in our i3D-Speed. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering must be enabled, of course, especially as the list of graphics cards includes the latest dual-GPU CrossFire system from AMD.

Our test results show that the fastest single-GPU solution from AMD is seriously outperformed by both top cards from NVIDIA. It's cheaper than even GeForce 8800 GTX, but the performance difference is too big to consider buying RADEON HD 2900 XT 1GB. Especially as it's difficult to find this card in stores already. You should pay attention to the dual-GPU model instead. It demonstrates decent results in CrossFire/SLI-optimized tests. At last AMD has a worthy solution for Upper High-End!

Unfortunately, HD 3870 X2 suffers from the main CrossFire/SLI problems. As FPS grows, latencies do not change. And efficiency of a dual-GPU system depends much on optimizations in games and drivers. Have a look at Crysis results - HD 3870 X2 demonstrates poor results there, being outperformed by the equally-priced GeForce 8800 GTX up to two times in one test. That's the case when CrossFire does not work well. Judging by other tests (unpublished), performance gains relative to a single-GPU card may reach 70-80%. However, some games reveal weaknesses of dual-GPU systems too well, as they are not optimized for SLI. Many games demonstrate no performance gains from the second GPU at all.

What concerns the comparison between GeForce 8800 GTX and Ultra, you should make a choice only proceeding from your budget and your readiness to part with so much money. The Ultra modification is not much faster, the difference from the GTX card is just 10-25%, although the Ultra is much more expensive. The same concerns SLI systems - if you have enough money, and you want to spend it on a top-performance graphics card, you may choose this solution. There is nothing faster than GeForce 8800 Ultra SLI.

I want to note that Crysis DX 10 is a very heavy test even for such powerful cards... Just look at the framerate of the most expensive graphics cards with maximum graphics quality settings. The average framerate does not reach 30 FPS even in 1280x1024! And if you recall the announcement dates of GeForce 8800 GTX (G80) and add that the Ultra card based on the same GPU is the fastest solution ever, you will understand that High-End graphics cards almost haven't progressed for a year and a half! G80 was launched in Autumn 2006, and it remains the best solution. However, even GeForce 8800 Ultra cannot provide sufficient performance in Crysis with maximum graphics quality settings. You will have to wait for the appearance of new-gen GPUs. That is G80 may be two years old, when it retires...

Alexei Berillo aka SomeBody Else (sbe@ixbt.com)

April 8, 2008

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