We’re constantly on the hunt for top-shelf PC performance—you’re not reading Bottom-Feeder PC, after all. When rendering our review verdicts, we do factor in price, but recommending a subpar product just because it’s cheap is sacrilege to us. Pricing can be relevant, but when it comes to videocards, we typically anchor our opinions on the toughest criteria we know of: 3D performance in the most demanding games on the market, at resolutions of 1920x1200 and higher and with all eye candy enabled.
While our editorial mantra might best be expressed as “better, faster, stronger” (hey, we should do a cover story on that! ), there’s no escaping the fact that the videocard market boasts a broad spectrum of inexpensive—and intriguing—alternatives. In fact, as AMD and Nvidia have been battling for supremacy at the top of the market, we’ve watched the entry points for penultimate-performance videocards gradually but consistently come down to earth. Sure, playing Crysis on a 30-inch panel might be out of the question if you’re running one of the lower-priced cards, but we still wanted to discover the 3D tipping point—the point at which you’re better off giving up PC gaming altogether because the card you’re running is horribly, utterly lacking in horsepower.
To hack our way through the 3D puzzle, we assembled a field of six videocards, ranging in price from less than $100 to a maximum of $250. We asked AMD and Nvidia to pick three of their best third-party representatives within this spectrum, but it must be noted that we’re not pitting the two companies against one another. This article is not an AMD versus Nvidia cage match. In a nutshell, we wanted to know how little you could spend before your 3D firepower became woefully incapable, and for this reason we’ll be presenting our six reviews in street-price order, from lowest to highest.
In our book, an acceptable gaming card must be capable of running Far Cry 2 and Crysis at 60 frames per second with a resolution of 1680x1050. Anything short of this performance metric falls below our basic expectations (though for these two games we are willing to sacrifice antialiasing and some other high-end features). Similarly, an acceptable card must be able to play Call of Duty 4 at 60fps at that same 1680x1050 resolution with 4x antialiasing.
Nonetheless, all “frame rate is king” posturing aside, we’re also of the opinion that you don’t necessarily have to be a hardcore gamer to be a PC enthusiast, so we also examined each budget card’s feature set to evaluate its home-theater capabilities. And after taking price, performance, and feature set into consideration, we awarded a pass-or-fail rating to each card—this in addition to our usual numeric verdict. Bottom line: If a card receives a fail mark, it’s not worth your money, no matter how cheap it sells for.
So, PC enthusiasts don’t have to be gamers, but can they be skinflints? Let’s find out.
AMD and Nvidia both trumpet extra “features” that are exclusive to their respective platforms. Nvidia’s unique technologies are CUDA, PhysX, and GeForce 3D Vision, while AMD has ATI Stream, an integrated digital audio engine capable of sending audio over HDMI without any internal cabling, and support for DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1. Of these features, the only one that’s of any significant value to someone buying a cheap videocard is AMD’s solution for routing audio through HDMI. The RV770 has an integrated Realtek 7.1-channel audio device, so it can output surround sound directly to DVI or HDMI. All Nvidia solutions require an internal S/PDIF cable.
CUDA and ATI Stream are the two competitors’ respective GPGPU technologies. GPGPU stands for “general purpose graphics processing unit,” and enables a GPU to run applications that are typically handled by a CPU. Despite the hype, neither company’s approach has gained significant traction in the marketplace, and by the time they do (if they ever do), you’ll be ready for another videocard.
PhysX is an API for accelerating physics processing in games. Nvidia likes to advertise it as a “free” benefit, but it’s not free in terms of computational power. To wit: If a card based on the GeForce 9800 GT can’t run Crysis at 60fps, it doesn’t have any reserve horsepower for physics processing. The same goes for GeForce 3D Vision, Nvidia’s stereoscopic vision product.
AMD’s support for DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1 is largely irrelevant, since so few games take advantage of this interim release.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want to boost your game’s frame rate on an inexpensive videocard, you’ll need to sacrifice some of the game’s visual features. It’s best to do this on a game-by-game basis, either by setting up individual profiles using the videocard’s control panel, or by accessing the game’s graphics options menu. This way, you can utilize antialiasing on a game like Call of Duty 4, but turn it off when you play a more computationally intense title like Crysis.
Alternatively, you can make your tweaks using the global settings in the videocard’s control panel, which will affect every game. Here are our suggestions, in order of their impact on frame rate (from highest impact to least).
Considering there’s only a $90 price gap separating the least-expensive GeForce GTX 275 card (arguably the best budget solution) from the most-expensive GeForce GTX 285 card (arguably the best high-end choice, if you exclude dual-GPU cards), should enthusiasts give any budget videocard a second thought?
In our view, the price/performance ratio of the high-end cards more than justifies their steeper price tags. But $90 is $90, and if you’re a gamer and $250 is the absolute most you can spend on a videocard, you have a plethora of choices to consider. In this roundup, HIS’s $220 Radeon HD 4870 card delivered the best bang for the buck. EVGA’s GeForce GTX 275, meanwhile, didn’t deliver a significant jump in gaming performance—certainly not enough to justify a $30 price bump. On the other hand, PhysX does lend visual flair to the few games that take advantage of it, and PhysX is available only on Nvidia GPUs.
If you’re looking for other forms of computer entertainment—movies, for instance—you won’t gain anything by moving up to a more expensive class of videocard. In fact, these cheaper cards will serve your needs better because they require less cooling and therefore produce less noise. If you’re looking for a videocard to drop into your home-theater PC, PowerColor’s Radeon HD 4850 is the best choice among the cards we tested, thanks to the Radeon’s integrated HD audio and the presence of an HDMI port on the card’s mounting bracket.
Nvidia’s solution—using an internal S/PDIF cable—is something of a kludge, and it won’t work at all if your motherboard doesn’t have a S/PDIF header. Then again, DRM restrictions prevent any PC from transporting HD audio from a Blu-ray disc (we’re talking Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) to an A/V receiver.
Bottom line: There’s never been a better time to be in the market for a new videocard. And you don’t have to drain what’s left of your massacred 401(k) to pay for it.
PowerColor Radeon HD 4830
PowerColor Radeon 4850 HD
EVGA GeForce 9800 GT
EVGA GeForce GTX 260 Core 216
HIS IceQ 4+ Radeon HD 4870
EVGA GeForce GTX 275
Far Cry 2 (fps)
Call of Duty 4 (fps)
3DMark Vantage Game 1 (fps)
3DMark Vantage Game 2 (fps)
Best scores are bolded. Benchmarks run on an Intel Core 2 Duo E8600 with 4GB of DDR3 memory in an Asus P5Q3 Deluxe motherboard running Windows Vista (64-bit Home Premium). All games tested at 1680x1050 resolution. 3DVantage games tested using Performance preset, Crysis and Far Cry 2 tested without AA, Call of Duty 4 tested with 4x AA.