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Graphics Card Buying Guide

As of July 31, 2009.

July 31, 2009



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Price ranges

We have already mentioned that you should buy a powerful graphics card for a gaming computer, and now we are going to review price ranges in the graphics cards market. Vendors usually launch series of several models for different price ranges. Entry-level solutions are the cheapest. They support almost all features of top GPUs, but are also the slowest -- so slow that sometimes you can barely run a modern game, not speaking of playing it comfortably at high-quality settings and resolutions. It's expedient to buy such cards only if your budget is very limited and/or you don't want to play modern games.

On the other hand, top-level products are always too expensive for a common user with prices of $600-700, and you should think twice before you buy one of them. There is nothing good in buying a top-level card and starving afterwards :). These fastest graphics cards allow to choose the highest settings and still retain high performance in all games. They allow to postpone your next upgrade for much longer, but their prices are too high for most users.

The most popular cards with the best price/performance ratio belong to Mid-End. They are in between entry- and top-level solutions, so they provide acceptable performance and are not very expensive. But I still recommend that you upgrade to at least an Upper Mid-End card (or a Lower High-End, if your budget allows), to have some performance reserve for the future. Otherwise, you'll start dreaming about the next upgrade in 12-18 months.

By the way, when new models appear, you shouldn't forget about the old series. For example, a top-level solution from the old series may be faster and more expedient than a new Mid-End card. Even considering that the latest card has new features, typical of the series, you may just have no opportunity to use them. But if a new series differs much from the previous (by hardware support for newer DirectX or Shader Model version), you shouldn't install an outdated graphics card. You'd better try to buy a Mid-End solution of the latest series. Otherwise, you will most likely have to upgrade your graphics card much earlier than you plan.

Here is an example. Owners of ATI RADEON X800 and X850 faced a problem in 2006, when some modern games (Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Rainbow Six: Vegas) just wouldn't start up on their seemingly modern computers. But simpler NVIDIA's Low-End cards supported them, even though the performance was low. It turns out a couple of years ago those users could choose between NVIDIA's SM 3.0 and ATI's non-SM 3.0 solutions. It seemed that time that games requiring SM 3.0 would not appear in the nearest future. So they bought products from ATI. The reality turned out to be different. Hence the lesson -- always pay attention to supported features and DirectX versions. But don't think these features are the most important for a graphics card. You should also pay attention to performance. Evaluate a product as a whole!

Graphics card price ranges:

  • Low-End -- below $99 (GeForce 9600 GT, GeForce 9800 GT, RADEON HD 4670, RADEON HD 4770)
  • Lower Mid-End -- $100-199 (GeForce GTS 250, GeForce GTX 260, RADEON HD 4850, RADEON HD 4870)
  • Upper Mid-End -- $200-299 (GeForce GTX 275, RADEON HD 4890)
  • Lower High-End -- $300-499 (GeForce GTX 285, GeForce GTX 295, RADEON HD 4870 X2)
  • Upper High-End -- $500 and higher (SLI and CrossFire systems)

These price ranges were valid for the time the article was updated. They will be corrected in time. In this case we publish vendor's Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP). We'll mention retail prices in the last section of the guide -- among practical tips on choosing a graphics card for all price ranges.

Even though the Low-End range doesn't have a bottom limit, there are actually no decent graphics cards below $50. If you want to get a graphics card from this very range (i.e. assuming you are not going to play modern 3D games at all), you'd better consider integrated motherboards. These products support many features of discrete graphics cards, but they don't offer sufficient 3D performance, just like the slowest graphics cards.

You can read our reviews with tests of integrated graphics cores in our motherboards section.

And products that sell for $500 and more are intended for enthusiasts, who can spend hundreds on a graphics card. Another example here is SLI and CrossFire. These technologies allow to join two (or sometimes even more) identical graphics cards in a single configuration.

Again, remember that very much depends on the price range of your choice. It will determine the comfort of playing games and the image quality you'll get. Here are several screenshots to show the quality difference for various settings, so that you could see the differences between graphics cards from different price ranges.

Call of Duty 2



Call of Juarez



Some of you may object there is no big difference between these screenshots. No shadows, no post processing, primitive lighting, no per-pixel processing, worse textures... No big deal, you can still play these games. Well, I can only say all of these make for scene realism. Remove a single component, and you might spoil the whole image.

And we are striving for photorealism and the highest quality. If you don't want it, you can certainly buy a cheap graphics card. It's up to you to decide. But you should understand these screenshots do not show the difference in various resolutions and antialiasing modes. They were not taken with the extreme lowest and highest settings. In reality the difference may be much bigger. Like below, for example.

Gothic 3



Here are the extremes of the lowest and highest settings. By the way, you will hardly be able to play Gothic 3 with integrated graphics or Low-End cards even at the lowest settings, since they are not powerful enough. By the way, you can compare performance of solutions from different price ranges using the following graph from our i3DSpeed:



We took several couples of ATI and NVIDIA graphics cards belonging to different price ranges. As you can see, graphics card performance scales well depending on their price. A graphics card for $100 lets you play only at the lowest resolution without much comfort (and these are not the cheapest products!) Upper Mid-End cards enable higher resolutions for you. And High-End cards provide comfortable framerates even at the highest resolutions, including 2560x1600. Of course, we are speaking of the highest quality settings here.

SLI and CrossFire

Many modern motherboards and platforms allow to install two graphics cards in order to boost performance. You can actually buy one card first and add the second later. This upgrade method has its pros and cons. Such configurations have many issues, and there are several limitations and nuances examined in these articles:

Configurations of several gaming graphics cards were first used in a single system by 3dfx in the distant 90s. This company entered the market with its Voodoo 2 solutions. A couple of those could process the same scene using the technology named "SLI." At that time multi-GPU technologies did not get popular in gaming graphics cards, although 3dfx and ATI manufactured such systems for professional applications. The innovation returned to the consumer market with the rollout of NVIDIA SLI and ATI CrossFire. The former became much more popular because of its convenience -- one didn't need any special graphics cards, as in case with CrossFire Edition -- and an earlier release date.

All these dual solutions have their pros and cons. Pros include increased performance and/or image quality. SLI/CF really help increase performance, when you've squeezed maximum from a single card. In some cases you can also improve image quality with the help of new antialiasing modes. The evident disadvantages of these solutions include high prices (you have to pay for two graphics cards and a special more expensive motherboard), some compatibility issues (not all games will grant you performance boosts or quality improvements), doubled power consumption and heat dissipation resulting in required PSU and cooling upgrades.

The most important drawback of SLI and CF configurations is the absense of doubled performance in all applications. A couple of cards do increase performance, but usually by 1.5-1.7 times or even worse. In some cases these is no performance gain at all, or it's negative -- if drivers are not optimized for a given game. That's why SLI and CrossFire configurations based on inexpensive graphics cards are expedient only if you are to upgrade them soon with the second card (identical to the first one). But if you buy a new system, a more expensive single card will always be faster and more convenient than a couple of cheap ones. SLI and CrossFire make sense only when performance must be gained at all costs!

Besides, SLI requires special motherboards based on NVIDIA SLI chipsets. And CrossFire can be built only with motherboards based on respective ATI(AMD) chipsets and also some chipsets from Intel that offer two physical PCI Express x16 slots. Such motherboards usually belong to the High-End price range.

The situation with some outdated CrossFire systems is further complicated by the need to use a special "CrossFire Edition" master graphics card with a special connector. NVIDIA SLI does not have such problems, you just need a couple of ordinary cards installed in PCI Express slots and interconnected by a bridge.

ATI introduced a similar solution only after launching the following models: RADEON X1950 PRO and RADEON X1650 XT. These cards exchange data via PCI Express and special bridges, although a CrossFire Edition based configuration provides higher performance. All new cards support CrossFire without a master card.

To illustrate what you can get from CrossFire and SLI, let's analyze the comparative performance chart of a single NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX and a couple of these in F.E.A.R. The results are taken from our i3DSpeed.



You can clearly see that performance gains vary from 62% at 1024x768 to 98-100% at the highest resolutions. But F.E.A.R. is convenient for SLI/CrossFire. Its performance is mostly limited by fill rate and pixel shader performance. That's why it demonstrates a twofold gain in heavy-load modes. But it's very hard to get similar results in most other games. Even 50-60% is a good result sometimes, 100% being absolutely impossible.

We should also mention new dual-GPU solutions that work as a SLI/CrossFire system from the point of view of applications. Their SLI/CF is set up on the hardware level: GeForce 7950 GX2, RADEON HD 3870 X2, and GeForce 9800 GX2. AMD currently follows its new strategy to manufacture top solutions based on multi-GPU cards and CrossFire. At first the company announced the first such card based on two RV670 GPUs (RADEON HD 3870 X2). Thus started the era of dual-GPU solutions from AMD. Then NVIDIA also launched a similar card based on two G92 chips.


RADEON HD 3870 X2

Later on, in Summer 2008, AMD presented dual-GPU models HD 4870 X2 and HD 4850 X2. And NVIDIA launched a competing product already in 2009 -- GeForce GTX 295. We are a tad disappointed with such love for multi-GPU products operating as SLI/CrossFire systems (especially it concerns AMD that does not manufacture powerful single-GPU solutions). It's convenient to design products for various price ranges installing a different number of the same GPUs, but a single-GPU solution will always possess certain advantages: it will be faster in all applications, not just in programs optimized for multi-GPU configurations. Besides, it does not contain excessive units in each GPU, it offers better power consumption and heat release. And most importantly, a single-GPU card has no problems drawing the screen, unlike SLI/CrossFire solutions.

Dual-GPU cards are presently little different from corresponding SLI and CrossFire systems. They are just based on two GPUs installed on a single (or two connected) PCB. A dual-GPU system is based on SLI or CrossFire implemented on a hardware level. PCI Express lanes and a bridge are added right to a PCB, so the card does not use corresponding resources of a motherboard and does not require support for the above-mentioned technologies. And the real difference for a common user consists in PCB dimensions and operating frequencies of GPUs and memory.


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