Graphics Upgrades for Every Budget
By Dave Spohn
It's always a challenge to keep up with the rapid pace of progress in graphics technology these days. Nvidia's GeForce GTX 280 has easily held the top spot for overall single-GPU performance since its release, but ATI got back in the race with their aggressively priced Radeon HD 4000 series. An assortment of dual-GPU cards have recently hit the market, such as the Radeon 4870 X2, to which Nvidia ultimately responded with the new GeForce GTX 295. As a result, there is a staggering amount of graphics processing power available for those who want it, but there is also an abundance of great cards for gamers that are keeping a close eye on their budget.
Assessing Your Needs
Several things should be considered when assessing your video card needs, beginning with the size of your monitor. Most people are still using LCDs that are under 22" in size. The latest Steam Hardware Survey showed that very few Steam users are running games at resolutions higher than 1680x1050. 1280x1024 (a typical 19" screen) narrowly edged out 1024x768 as the most popular resolution, and in fact, these two resolutions combined still accounted for roughly half of the gamers surveyed. By comparison, only a handful of people are playing on 24" or larger displays that support very high resolutions.
The specific games you plan to play are another key consideration. From a hardware perspective, most MMOs are a great deal less demanding than the latest crop of shooters, which tend to push the graphical envelope. Simply put, if games like Crysis aren't on your play list anyway, a really expensive video card probably isn't warranted.
Also keep in mind that the settings you run a game on can make a big difference in performance. Turning a few visual settings down often makes a game playable without having a dramatic affect on its appearance. While Anti-aliasing and Antrioscopic Filtering are wonderful options, only the fussiest gamers insist on maxing everything out.
Subsequently, multi-GPU solutions are overkill for the average gamer. More graphics processors inevitably translate into more heat, more noise, greater power requirements, and a higher price tag. It's no surprise that less than two percent of the systems in the Steam survey had more than one GPU.
The amount and speed of dedicated memory on graphics cards has continued to increase over the years. We are now at a point where 512MB is becoming the norm, but there are already lots of cards on the market with 1GB or more of memory onboard. Although the Radeon HD 4870 supports very fast GDDR5 memory, GDDR3 is commonly used in other gaming cards.
As video cards get more powerful, it stands to reason that they also consume more power. Since there is a limit to how much power can be provided through the PCIE slot itself, many cards now have additional power connectors that take power directly from your system's power supply. Not every PSU is up to this task, especially if you're considering a dual card approach, so depending on how good your current PSU is, a video card upgrade could also mean a new power supply. Power requirements for the card are usually specified by the manufacturer on the box and in the manual.
I often get asked what brands of card I prefer, but I'm not really loyal to any particular brand. Given that the boards themselves tend to be almost identical, it comes down to coolers, overclocking, customer service, software included in the package, and obviously, price. Paying a little more for a card with a solid cooler is usually worth it, and I always take brands I've had a good experience with in the past into account when looking for an upgrade.
$300 and Up
If you just bought a 30" monitor and you want to run all the latest games at the highest possible settings, a multi-GPU solution is your best bet. Note that it is technically possible to put two dual-GPU cards in a system, giving you four graphics processors and huge bonus points with your nerd friends. The fastest gaming cards on the market right now sport Nvidia's GeForce GTX 295 chipset, which features two GPUs and almost 2GB of memory.
ATI fans can look to the Radeon HD 4870 X2 for a dual-GPU solution. It's not as fast as the GeForce GTX 295, but it has 2GB of GDDR5 and packs more than enough power for high-resolution gaming purposes. While they come a little cheaper than the GTX 295, you're still looking at well over $400.
At current prices, bargain hunters should consider the Radeon HD 4850 X2, or two HD 4850s using CrossFire. Although slower than HD 4870s, 4850s are affordable enough that you can have two of them working together for around $300, which is a relatively good value for your hardware dollars.
If you want uncompromised performance in the single-GPU department, the recently-launched GeForce GTX 285 currently holds the crown. This is essentially the GTX 280 made with a smaller 55nm process, but at $350 or more, they are still a tough sell.
$200 - $300
The Radeon HD 4870 really shook things up in the video card market in 2008. Although on average they're in the $250 range right now, a diligent shopper could likely find one marked down to under $200, which is an exceptionally good value. The HD 4870 is the first card to use GDDR5 memory, and DirectX 10.1 is also supported. Sapphire and Palit both make editions of this card with nice coolers at competitive prices.
Nvidia's GeForce GTX 260 costs a bit more at the moment, but it's definitely a contender. You'll notice that more recent ones are designated as "Core 216" because they have 216 stream processors rather than the 192 that the GTX 260 originally launched with. The BFG GeForce 260 GTX OCX MaxCore 55 features one of the latest versions of this GPU and comes overclocked from 576MHz to 655MHz.
$100 - $200
The days when it was hard to find a good gaming card for under $200 are becoming a distant memory. The remarkably powerful GeForce 9800 GTX+ is now within this price range, and the GeForce 9800 GT, successor to popular 8800 GT, sells for less than $150. Overclocked 9800 GTs are available from Gigabyte, EVGA, MSI, and BFG, among others.
As I mentioned earlier, the Radeon HD 4850 is also a good buy. It's a step down from HD 4870, and it uses less expensive GDDR3 memory, but will still handle most games with ease.
Less Than $100
We all know someone who simply wants to run World of Warcraft at decent settings on a 20" or smaller display. This has become more affordable than ever in recent years, with numerous cards aimed at gamers on a budget. The Radeon HD 4670 is very appealing with as much as 1GB of memory, 320 stream processors, and no need for an external power connector. If you don't like fan noise, Sapphire and HIS make silent versions.
Another good gaming card for tough economic times is the GeForce 9600 GT, which has dropped below the $100 price point in recent months. MSI's version of this proven performer comes overclocked from 650MHz to 700MHz. You can also find 9600 GTs in a low-profile format if you don't have much room in your case.
SIDEBAR : Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard
A recent addition to Logitech's G-series of peripherals is the G13 Gameboard, designed to give you a left hand controller that surpasses the traditional keyboard. The G13 has 25 programmable keys, a small stick for your thumb, and an integrated GamePanel LCD. While gaming keypads are nothing new, this is the first one from Logitech. As well as being loaded with features, it's very ergonomic and attractive, but I'm sure many gamers will hesitate over the $80 price tag.