While I am quite sure many of you reading this are already well informed, it would be prudent to dispel the usual misconceptions regarding modern video/graphics cards. And assuredly, I will avoid the outright cringe-inducing car analogies. First, higher numbers are not always better, even if the product is part of the same brand. For example, the nVidia GeForce 9400GT is nowhere near as powerful as the GeForce 8800GT. Parts are labeled by series, and while newer series tend to have new or improved features that does not at all mean they are more powerful. The second, third, and sometimes fourth digits in the number may give you some idea as to the relative performance level, but even then there are discrepancies among these numbers and sometimes even among different versions of the same numbered part. Without getting into the specifics, the best way to tell which parts are faster is to look at benchmarks performed using the games and applications you are buying the product for.
Second, the amount of RAM in bytes does not determine the speed of the part. This does not work for any product, ever. While memory can become a bottleneck, that's based on the specific workload and has nothing to do with the speed of the part. There are graphics cards out in the wild that advertise themselves based purely on RAM, and you can be sure that they're the ones to avoid. Just as the 9400GT above is much slower than the 8800GT, a 9400GT with 2048MB RAM (this really exists) is still much slower than an 8800GT with 512MB RAM. The speed of the RAM is still important, and faster memory is better, but the amount should be limited to how much the graphics chip can actually utilize when playing games or running applications. Thankfully, higher-end graphics cards tend to avoid piling on unnecessary RAM so it is less of a concern in the upper tiers of the market. Do remember, however, that if speed, performance, price, etc. are all the same then more RAM is never strictly a bad thing. Again, benchmarks run on your games and applications are key.
|9400GT 2GB being sold on Amazon. Don't be fooled by numbers.|
Third, your central processor does not handle graphics processing, so a faster processor - or more RAM, or a more spacious hard drive, or a more expensive motherboard - will not improve performance. There is sometimes graphics circuitry integrated into certain central processors or the northbridge chipset on the motherboard, but all of them are slow and often so much so that even the cheapest discreet graphics option is better many-fold. On the other hand, it is possible that other parts of your computer will bottleneck a sufficiently powerful graphics card, but that is for another time. For the purposes of this article, I assume your current or planned computer is powerful enough to avoid such bottlenecks. Let's say, perhaps, that you are expected to have something along the lines of a Core 2 Duo at 2-3Ghz with at least 4GB system RAM, a motherboard with an open PCI-E 16x slot, and a 500W power supply unit. If by the end of this article you fear that your computer is not up to snuff, feel free to ask me or simply enquire in the comments for other readers to help.
There are a variety of other myths surrounding graphics technology, but few of them are relevant to this article. Thus, we move on to what should make for a good set of purchases for different consumers today, breaking it down into six price categories based on value. This should allow for an acceptably granular approach and allow you as the consumer to pick a good product. By the way, I recommend checking out the Tom's Hardware 2010 Gaming Graphics Charts for various benchmarks. Also included below are reviews of some of the higher end video cards.
($0) - Integrated graphics processors, slow as they may be, cost nothing and work respectably when there is little to no graphically intensive work to do. You do not need a discreet card if your computer is used only for watching movies, browsing the web, etc. Modern computers are even perfectly capable of playing Blu-Ray discs and other high definition content without any problems. There is no specific card to list here; they all perform about the same. The new Core i3 and i5 processors do deserve some mention, however, as they are somewhat faster than previous generations' integrated graphics solutions.
($30-50) - The nVidia GT 240 and AMD / ATI Radeon HD 4650 make for excellent buys in this range. The GT 240, based on the last generation 9600GSO, performs admirably considering its price and likely won't require a high-wattage power supply. This card should be a useful addition to a somewhat slower or older computer that currently lacks a graphics card. It also makes for a decent $40 graphics card for a light gamer or someone who dabbles in CUDA. The 4650 will be slightly more expensive at about $50, but it also makes for a stronger performer. Neither of these graphics cards support DirectX 11 features, however, so do take that into consideration.
|nVidia GeForce GT 240 Reference Design|
($70-100) - The AMD / ATI Radeon HD 4670 is faster than the 4650 and priced at a somewhat higher $70. For even more power, the 4850 at $100 is a good value. Either of these cards can handle modern games at graphical settings that outperform what one might expect from the XBOX 360 or Playstation 3. AMD has also released the 5670, the current generation replacement for the $100 spot, but it outright disappoints compared to the performance of the 4850. nVidia also has the GeForce GTS 250 which can be found for between $70 and $120. Coming in at a performance level just under the 4850, the nVidia product's relevance in this segment depends entirely on what price you can find it for.
($150-200) - This is where graphics technology starts to become the realm of gamers and power users. There is no real reason to look here unless working in CAD or playing modern or even some future games at high levels of graphical detail. These graphics cards are also physically larger and have much higher power requirements. With that said, nVidia's relatively new GTX 460 has shown that the Fermi lineup can really hold its own. At about $200, the GTX 460 768MB is an extremely solid performer. The ATI / AMD Radeon HD 5770 is also a good purchase at $140-160. Also of note, these graphics cards all support modern features such as DirectX 11. The ATI cards also support "Eyefinity," or the ability to use at least three display outputs from a single card - some offer up to twelve. Much to my consternation, only two of these can be DVI or HDMI, but that is for later. Here are some reviews for the GTX 460 at Anandtech and HardOCP along with reviews for the 5770, also at Anandtech and HardOCP.
|nVidia GeForce GTX 460 Reference Design|
($220-280) - Once again, these are more for power users and gaming enthusiasts than anyone else. nVidia has a second, somewhat faster GTX 460 with 1GB RAM for an MSRP of $230. This makes for an good value considering that the product is almost as powerful as the more expensive GTX 465 - some overclocked models are actually at the same performance level. Because of this and a few other issues regarding undue heat and noise, the GTX 465 is not a good recommendation. Instead, the AMD / ATI 5850 fills the $280 segment. See the reviews above for the GTX 460. For the 5850: Anandtech, HardOCP.
|Sample 5850 Benchmark from Anandtech|
($400+) - If working with an SLI-capable machine, buying two GTX 460 graphics cards is potentially a good idea. A pair of GTX 460 graphics cards outperforms a single GTX 480 while both consuming about the same amount of power and operating more quietly. The AMD / ATI Radeon HD 5870 can sometimes be found for less than $400 and performs just under the dual GTX 460 configuration; as an added benefit it requires only one PCI-E slot. There are more powerful configurations available, but this represents the best value for the high-end enthusiast segment. 5870: Anandtech, HardOCP. GTX 460 SLI: HardOCP.
There are a few facets of graphics card purchases I have not gone over. One would be the different companies that package and sell variants of these products: ASUS, ECS, Gigabyte, EVGA, and so on each strive as companies to provide unique features or better performance than their competitors. However, the scope of this article was to discuss the merits of the graphics cards as they appear in their general reference specifications.
|A group of GTX 460 boards being tested. See the article on Tom's Hardware.|
Hopefully this has been helpful to you in deciding what to purchase for your current or next computer. I hold no bias toward either nVidia or AMD /ATI and made these selections based purely on value for each market segment. There will be people who need different features than available on the products I suggested, but the guidance presented here should at least help some consumers decide on products that fit what they need or want. With that held firmly in mind, I would appreciate feedback on this article along with your own information and suggestions. Feel absolutely free to contact me on the subject or leave comments attached to this post.