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 or NVIDIA, depending on your personal preferences and several aspects, such as support for CUDA and PhysX in NVIDIA products or DirectX 10.1, full hardware support for VC-1 video playback, and integrated audio codec for HDMI output in ATI RADEONs.
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 i3DSpeed we have selected four brightest representatives for each price range (if possible). We tried to select two cards from each GPU vendor, where possible. AMD and NVIDIA. We managed to do it in all price ranges, with some reservations (read the details below). There is no direct comparison only in Upper High-End sector. AMD solutions are cheaper than their counterparts from NVIDIA.
We try to review reference solutions in the first place. But we also mention factory-overclocked models and models with non-standard memory volumes, especially if they are manufactured on a mass scale and 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 resolutions and antialiasing settings for each price range, similar to those used by gamers. If you are interested in other results, complete test results are provided in the 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 plan to update this part in three months. More frequent updates will be published in case of emergency, because this article only supplements the i3D-Speed, which can be used for more accurate analysis and conclusions.
First of all we'll dwell on the events that took place in the market of graphics cards after the last update of this article. Several new models and overhauled products appeared in March from AMD and NVIDIA. For example, a new card RADEON HD 4770 and overhauled products: GeForce GTS 250, GTX 275, and RADEON HD 4890. Unfortunately, the product based on the new 40-nm RV740, called HD 4770, was produced in a limited edition. So it's not very expedient, and it's not easy to find in stores. So we shall not include it into our guide.
We wrote a lot about AMD's tough pricing policy to sell its products for much lower prices than competing products from NVIDIA. So NVIDIA has to respond in the same way. The average prices for graphics cards have dropped much, and recent High-End cards have already gone down. So even powerful solutions can be bought for less than $200 (GeForce GTX 260 and RADEON HD 4870).
We can also mention that graphics cards are equipped with more and more video memory. The minimum size in many graphics cards is already 896-1024MB instead of 512MB. So you won't see 256-MB cards even in Low-End. It's good for the industry, as it lifts off some limitations and lets game developers off the leash.
For the time that passed since the previous update, some of the Mid-End products entered this price range -- for example, RADEON HD 4830 and GeForce 9800 GT. GeForce 9500 GT is still available in stores, but it's even cheaper. So we shall not analyze it here, as there are more interesting options. The same concerns RADEON HD 4650, which price tag is even lower, and it's almost gone.
Such models can still be found in stores, but there is no point in buying such cards, especially if you want to play modern 3D games. In other cases you might want a motherboard with a modern integrated chipset. RADEON HD 4670 and GeForce 9600 GT are still in the list of interesting offers for their prices.
It makes sense to buy a Low-End card only for $70-75 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.
Some solutions for less than $100 still make sense for budget home computers, although they can be used for gaming only out of severe economy. However, modern 3D games require at least a Lower Mid-End card. OK, let's have a look at the most expedient Low-End offers:
All these graphics cards have identical memory sizes. They are all equipped with 512MB of memory, which is very good. Only the cheapest cards are equipped with less memory, which are already disappearing from the market. There are also cards with a cut-down memory bus, such as GeForce 9600 GSO.
There are almost no differences in memory frequency and bandwidth. As there is no need to make up for the 64-bit bus -- all such solutions come with a 128-bit bus. RADEON HD 4670 looks like the weakest card here, as it's the old solution. GeForce 9600 GT hasn't gone far, but it should be faster. GeForce 9800 GT and RADEON HD 4830 with the same price tags and similar characteristics will be fighting for the first place in this price range.
Tests for this price segment were run in 1280x1024, no antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, because these graphics cards rarely provide sufficient framerates in heavier modes. And it makes no sense to choose lower resolutions, because native resolutions of LCD monitors and TV sets rarely drop below this value. Weak cards are often too slow even in such conditions:
Our tests illustrate performance differences well, most results conform with prices with some exceptions. As we expected, the RADEON HD 4670 is the weakest card in this price range, while the 9800 GT and HD 4850 compete with each other with varied success (AMD wins more tests, but its advantages are smaller). The cards have lined up in a ladder, except for Devil May Cry 4, where AMD cards traditionally performed better and now lag behind.
If we compare equally-priced GeForce 9600 GT and RADEON HD 4670, the NVIDIA product is a tad faster. It's a good G94-based solution. What concerns GeForce 9800 GT and RADEON HD 4830, the former looks much better only in DMC4. The equally-priced card from AMD is a tad better in the other two games. So it's difficult to name a definite winner.
But these two 100-dollar cards justify their price. They are the best choice for thrifty users, who plan to spend up to $100 for a graphics card. Perhaps, you should consider the next price range, which includes solutions with just a tad higher prices.
And if you need a cheaper solution, you should choose GeForce 9600 GT, as it's a tad faster than RADEON HD 4670. If you need the cheapest solution, you should choose between these two options. Or you may focus on the next price range, because the average FPS here is close to the minimum comfortable value of 30 even in the relatively low resolution 1280x1024. 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 the most popular segment of the market. Manufacturers try to populate it with the most expedient graphics cards in terms of performance/price ratio. Such outdated solutions as RADEON HD 4830 and GeForce 9800 GT abandoned this price range and went down. Some cards are on the borderline with Low-End, we include them into Low-End.
Some solutions, such as RADEON HD 4850 and GeForce 9800 GTX+) descended to Lower Mid-End from a higher price range. The same concerns an excellent card, HD 4870 with 512MB of memory. There is also a new graphics card -- GeForce GTS 250. It's similar to the 9800 GTX+, but in our tests these cards differ in memory size.
RADEON HD 4770, launched this spring, is a very interesting card with MSRP below $100, but its real price is higher because of low production level caused by the unfledged 40-nm fabrication process. So it's not a very expedient offer compared to the HD 4830 from the Low-End and the HD 4850 from the Lower Mid-End, and we didn't include it into the review.
As a result, this price range is represented by two solutions from AMD and two products from NVIDIA. These pairs resemble each other, as they are based on the same GPU: RV770 and G92 correspondingly. The cheaper version of the HD 4850 operates at a lower frequency. The 9800 GTX+ and GTS 250 differ in memory size: 512MB and 1024MB.
Solutions of this level require at least 512MB, but some of them are already equipped with more memory. However, we'll analyze price/performance ratios of these solutions by comparing two NVIDIA cards, because the GTS 250 with more memory may fail to demonstrate noticeable performance gains.
As we have already mentioned, three cards included into this price range have the same memory size -- 512MB. The GTS 250 is equipped with twice as much memory. Memory clock rates would have been on a similar level, but for GDDR5 memory installed in the HD 4870, which has twice as high effective frequency as GDDR3 memory in the other cards. The other models have similar GDDR3 memory chips. That aspect should determine how these graphics card rank in rendering speed: the HD 4870 should be the fastest card here, while the other solutions will demonstrate similar results.
Graphics cards in this price range were also tested in 1280x1024, as the most popular resolution for owners of mass-scale LCD monitors. Low-res consumer electronics and small wide monitors have similar resolutions as well. But unlike the previous price range, the diagram contains test results in the graphics mode with antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, as graphics cards from this price range can provide sufficient frame rates even in such modes, although not in all games.
The cards lined up by their performance just as we expected, but there are some interesting details. For example, NVIDIA cards look much better in Company of Heroes than both cards from AMD. But on the whole, the HD 4870 is apparently faster than the other solutions, if we don't take this game into account. The HD 4850 is the weakest card in this price range, GeForce 9800 GTX+ outperforms its competitor in all our tests.
However, we should take into account the lower price of the RADEON HD 4850. From that point of view, the HD 4850 may be the winner. It depends on what's more important to you: performance or price. The price-performance ratio of these products is approximately the same. If you want to buy a graphics card for $120-140, the best choice will be GeForce 9800 GTX+ (judging by results in game tests). But RADEON HD 4850 also has some advantages -- support for Direct3D 10.1, which may come in handy in the nearest future, and a lower price.
The same concerns the HD 4870 and GeForce GTS 250, but the situation is inverted. If we ignore results obtained in Company of Heroes, the card from AMD is definitely faster, but it's also more expensive. In fact, the GTS 250 is not that much faster than the 9800 GTX+ in our tests, only Far Cry 2 reveals a noticeable performance gain from 1 GB of its video memory. It's up to you to decide: spend more money in hopes that future games will use more video memory or save some money and buy a 512-MB modification.
So, let's draw a bottom line. If you plan to spend only slightly more than $100, you should choose between GeForce 9800 GTХ+ and RADEON HD 4850. The second card has a small advantage, as it's cheaper. But the card from NVIDIA is a little faster, though more expensive. The same concerns more expensive graphics cards from the Lower Mid-End range. If you expand the budget to $160-180, you can choose between two more powerful solutions from the same price range -- the cheaper GTS 250 or the faster HD 4870. There are no direct competitors to these cards in 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 cannot provide maximum performance, but it's still sufficiently comfortable in games. These solutions let you play all modern games in high quality modes, and have a small performance reserve for the future.
Solutions from the next price range offer even higher performance and still 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.
For the past several months, RADEON HD 4850 1 GB and RADEON HD 4870 512MB went down to a lower price range. In return, new models have joined the ranks with RADEON HD 4870 1GB and GeForce GTX 260: HD 4890 and GTX 275. Both of them came out in spring, and they compete with each other directly. The only difference is that the HD 4890 is based on the nominally new GPU (RV790), while the GTX 275 is based on the old 55-nm GT200.
The price range of $200-300 currently includes new solutions from both companies. Some of them were initially designed for a higher market segment. But competition took its toll, and now this price range includes solutions with top GPUs from NVIDIA and AMD that differ mostly in clock rates and memory sizes.
There are small differences in memory frequencies and sizes between solutions of this price range. NVIDIA currently offers only 896-MB modifications, as it's difficult to install other memory volumes on the cut-down GT200 because of its bus width. The GTX 275 is already equipped with 1792MB, but such models are rare and more expensive, and their price is not justified by their performance gains. In other respects, cards differ primarily in clock rates and the number of active units (for NVIDIA).
The tests were run in a quite popular LCD resolution 1680x1050 here with enabled antialiasing and anisotropic filtering. Graphics cards from this price range provide comfortable gameplay in such modes in most modern games, except for the heaviest ones.
Well, one can say that everything is somewhat less complicated in this price range. The cards lined up almost exactly according to their prices, which speaks of relatively justified pricing in the market. The obvious leader is GeForce GTX 275, it's just $10 as expensive as its direct competitor RADEON HD 4890, but it's also faster in all our games.
Let's figure out the most expedient cards in this price range. In the most general case, if a card is more expensive, then it's faster. But it's not always so. The GTX 275 apparently stands out in this list, and the cheaper GTX 260 looks faster than the HD 4870 with 1 GB of video memory. And it's a tad cheaper as well.
So if we compare the HD 4870 1GB and GTX 260, we'd prefer the card from NVIDIA. You can also take into account other characteristics (DirectX 10.1, CUDA, PhysX, etc). From the point of view of gaming, the best card is the fastest and the most expensive GeForce GTX 275. However, the GTX 260 is the optimal choice here. The cards from AMD are defeated just a little, and they can be faster in other games, which are not included into our monthly i3D-Speed.
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, if they are not pressed for money. More expensive graphics cards rarely provide more features and significantly 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.
Since the previous version of the guide released in spring, RADEON HD 4850 X2 has left the Lower High-End price range, as it was a rare card and too expensive. The upgraded iXBT testbed allowed us to compare CrossFire and SLI systems directly, so we included into our guide a couple of HD 4890 cards (CrossFire). Besides, prices for GeForce GTX 295 have dropped for the past year, and it almost fits into this price range now. So we added this card both to Lower and Upper High-End ranges.
This segment now includes relatively new dual-GPU solutions from AMD and NVIDIA. We are interested in two comparisons: a single-GPU GeForce GTX 285 versus a dual-GPU RADEON HD 4870 X2, as well as a dual-GPU GeForce GTX 295 versus two RADEON HD 4890 cards.
This price range shows the difference between approaches of AMD and NVIDIA to graphics cards. NVIDIA still manufactures powerful GPUs for single-chip top cards (G200), but AMD confines itself to Mid-End solutions (RV770 and RV790). Its High-End price range is filled with dual-GPU cards with the X2 index.
But the most expensive graphics card in this price range is the top dual-GPU card from NVIDIA -- GeForce GTX 295. This product competes with the CrossFire system based on new HD 4890 cards, which costs just as much. The HD 4870 X2 is cheaper, but slower. And GeForce GTX 285 is even less expensive. To all appearances, it will be the slowest card in this price range (average frame rate). The first place should be shared by the HD 4890 CF and GTX 295.
Graphics cards in the Lower High-End price range are equipped with at least 1024MB of fast GDDR3 or GDDR5 video memory per GPU. Sometimes a tad less, depending on the bus width. For example, each GPU in the GTX 295 provides only a 448-bit bus, and it can physically support only 896MB. Either twice as much, or twice as low. The relatively narrow memory bus in AMD cards is compensated with GDDR5 memory, which effective bandwidth is twice high as that of GDDR3.
Graphics cards from this price rage allow to use 1920x1200, antialiasing and anisotropic filtering must be enabled, of course. Selected graphics cards can offer comfortable gameplay even in a heavier mode (except for the most fastidious applications, one of which is included into the diagram), but we kept it for the more expensive graphics cards. In this case we'll use heavy tests in Crysis.
So, let's analyze the situation in Lower High-End. Company of Heroes is included as an example of a game, for which AMD didn't optimize their drivers. Even single-GPU cards from this company do not perform very well here. And when CrossFire doesn't work, a single-GPU GTX 285 card becomes noticeably faster than both systems from AMD.
This situation should illustrate those cases, when CrossFire (or SLI) does not work in some game. Dual-GPU cards look really bleak then. In other respects, we can see that the average frame rate of dual-GPU cards is generally higher by 20-40% than that of the single-GPU card from NVIDIA. From the point of view of the average FPS, between the HD 4870 X2 and GTX 285 you should choose the graphics card from AMD, although it's a bit more expensive.
If you don't like multi-GPU systems, you may go for the GeForce GTX 285 -- it's the best solution among single-GPU cards. It has a lower price than cheaper dual-GPU solutions (in our opinion, the HD 4870 X2 has a bloated price), it provides very high performance in all games. And you won't have problems with compatibility (see the diagram) or erratic FPS in some cases.
The second pair of contestants is simple. Having similar price tags, GeForce GTX 295 and two RADEON HD 4890 cards demonstrate similar performance, except for the case with driver bugs. So you should make your choice proceeding not only from the speed of solutions, but also from other characteristics.
On the whole, the most expedient solution in this price range in price/performance is GeForce GTX 285. It's a bit slower than the more expensive dual-GPU systems, and it has the lowest price here. But if you need high FPS, you may consider 2xRADEON HD 4890 (CrossFire) or GeForce GTX 295. They are the fastest solutions in this price range and have similar prices.
As a result, the most expensive solutions from AMD and NVIDIA will be the best choice for hard-driving gamers, who want to spend about $500 on a graphics system and hold nothing against dual-GPU solutions. Thriftier users, who are ready to spend just a bit more than $300, should focus on the single-GPU GeForce GTX 285.
Upper High-End (>$500)
Time has come for the most expensive price range -- Upper High-End. It's intended for well-off hard driving gamers and enthusiasts (few of them left now). Not only because of the recession, but also because most new PC games are multiplatform projects, which are limited by relatively low resources of game consoles. And PC versions of such games do not have very high requirements to a graphics card, so there is no need in uberpowerful solutions.
As we have already mentioned, CrossFire has been added to SLI systems this time. AMD is represented in this segment by two single-GPU HD 4790 cards joined into CF (they are on the borderline between two price ranges) and two dual-GPU HD 4870 X2 cards. And we can still remember times when Upper High-End included even single-GPU cards. Now even powerful HD 4870 X2 and GeForce GTX 295 cards are cheaper than $500 or close to it.
As our new testbed supports both SLI and CrossFire configurations, this price range includes only the most powerful multi-GPU solutions from NVIDIA and AMD. Along with the above-mentioned products, we've added a system with two GeForce GTX 285 cards.
Prices make it clear that these solutions are for those rare users, who need maximum performance no matter the costs. Single RADEON HD 4870 X2 and GeForce GTX 295 cards from the lower price range could be justified, if you had enough money. But SLI or CrossFire solutions based on two powerful dual-GPU cards like HD 4870 X2 or GTX 295 may come in handy only if you can easily part with up to $1000!!!
In view of the above said about multiplatform games and multi-GPU rendering problems, we think that quad-GPU systems make little sense. If single-GPU graphics cards are too slow, you can buy RADEON HD 4870 X2 or GeForce GTX 295 -- they will be sufficient for most users, even if they have the highest requirements.
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. And such a hard-driving game as Crysis: Warhead adds extra complexity to the tests.
First of all, we should add a few words about multi-GPU AFR, even though much was already said about it. All solutions in this price range are based on two or four GPUs, and they are all susceptible to the main problems of all CrossFire and SLI systems to this or that degree. As FPS grows, important latencies are reduced much less than in a single-GPU card. Besides, efficiency of dual-GPU systems depends much on optimizations in games and drivers. There are other shortcomings, such as uneven frame rates, when the high average FPS on a dual-GPU system is perceived as less comfortable than in case of a powerful single-GPU solution.
So, our test results reveal that in such a high resolution NVIDIA cards have apparent problems with quad-GPU rendering efficiency in STALKER: Clear Sky. The system with two GTX 295 cards lags behind. Speaking of the above-mentioned problems with driver optimizations. The fastest rig with four GPUs from NVIDIA should have been the first in the 2560x1600 mode. But it actually fails in Clear Sky, and it is outperformed in Lost Planet.
It's only one of possible problems of multi-GPU rendering. For two, this rig is not much faster than the single graphics card. Efficiency of multi-GPU rendering may sometimes reach 70-80%, but several games and conditions reveal weaknesses of multi-GPU systems, and then the second GPU just doesn't contribute much to the overall performance. Look at test results in Crysis Warhead -- the difference between all systems is below 40%! While theoretically, they should have differed more than twofold...
So, you should make your choice here proceeding from your budget and your readiness to part with so much money. For example, two HD 4870 X2 cards are not as much faster as they are more expensive than 2 x HD 4890.
The most expedient cards here are 2 x RADEON HD 4890 or 2 x GeForce GTX 285, nothing more. They have fewer problems with multi-GPU rendering efficiency, and they are cheaper. You should consider quad-GPU solutions only to reach high results in overclocking and to stroke your ego. But they are much more expensive, and they do not justify their price.
Crysis: Warhead in Direct3D 10 mode with maximum graphics quality settings is still the heaviest test even for such powerful rigs. Even quad-GPU configurations provide only 20-28 FPS, which is apparently below the playable level! We understand that 2560x1600 with anisotropic filtering and antialiasing is too much, but it's four top GPUs and a relatively old game... It clearly indicates some problems in the game or in the graphics API, which do not allow to reveal full hardware capacity of these systems.
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