The goal of this guide is to provide a good set of video-card choices for people like me. Most review sites are aimed at the extreme tweaker, first-person-shooter obsessed person. They typically involve people who go for maximum framerate for blasting their friends over visual quality.
When I’m looking for a video card I’m interested in the following goals-
- Great basic support in Vista, etc, for large monitors. My current desktop rig is one 30″ LCD and a second 20″ LCD in portrait mode (so its the same pixel-height as the 30″).
- Support for common 3d games and applications at great visual quality. I’m running them at 2560×1600 so my ideal is to be able to run at the highest visual settings at full screen resolution with a decent (>30fps) framerate. Typical targets here for me at WOW, Half-Life 2, Flight Simulator X, Google Earth, etc.
- Great media support. It should support H.264 and VC1 acceleration so I can run high definition video at full screen easily without taxing the CPU
- Reasonable price. I’m unlikely to spend $600 on a video card (although sometimes I’ve been tempted to spend $400).
- Stability. If the drivers crash a lot I’m going to be very upset…
- Flexibility. SLI and Crossfire (dual card solutions) are a pain. Having said that I would consider them if the price is right, and especially for the flexibility of getting one card now and another later. The fact that the standard Intel chipsets don’t support SLI is a major mark agaisnt Nvidia.
This guide will try to list all the models on the market in order of descending prices. I’ll mark what date I look up a given price, and prices are typically taken from NewEgg. NewEgg doesn’t always have the best price but they are usually representative and they have been great when I’ve needed to do returns.
I should also mention that I have not tried most of these cards myself and have benchmarked almost none of them. I’ll be pulling benchmark data from AnandTech and Tom’s Hardware and other sources. I’m mostly reading their reviews and reinterpreting them in the context of the goals above, plus organizing the list a bit.
As I write this June 25, 2008, the new card lineups for ATI and NVidia are rolling out. They both look like pretty impressive improvements and the final details are still coming out. However, it looks like for our criteria the big winner is going to be the ATI HD4850. This card is inexpensive (can be found for $159 with rebates), runs just about every current game just fine at 2560×1600 resolution, uses relatively low power and only takes a single slot.
The ATI 4870 costs 50% more but only gives about 20% better performance. A better bet would be if you need more performance to get two 4850s (using Crossfire which is supported by most of the better Intel chipsets) which together appear to be way faster than the 4870 and for only a little bit more. The nice thing is that you can get one now, and a second one later as new games come out that need the extra horsepower. The dual 4850 setup appears to be very close to the performance of the dual 4870 setup, and at $320 costs just about as much as a single 4870.
The other thing that could be nice about the Crossfire route would be having 4 DVI ports that would in theory let you attach 4 monitors. Presumably you can’t use them all for playing games, but you could use them normally. I’m not sure if cross-fire mode allows this though or if the extra ports have to be unused, or what switching modes is like. The big disadvantage is that I’d still be concerned about driver stability for Crossfire operation since its just that much more complicated and less mainstream. You also still need to worry quite a bit about heat from running those two boards each of which is consuming quite a bit of power.
The two companies seem to have gone for a real split in philosophy although I’m sure some of that is driven by their approaches to working around underlying fab and technology issues. NVidia just introduced their new generation of super-massive, super-powerful chips. These are pretty much on the extreme high-end starting at $400 with the higher end chip hitting a solid $600. They have great performance, but are power hungry and expensive. To fill in the mid-range segment they sell you the previous generation chips, with the most noticeable being the 9800GTX that was just introduced for $220. This one delivers good price-performance but is still power hungry and its realistically last generations technology (with the impact on video decoding and such still unclear).
ATI on the other hand doesn’t have any single chips that can challenge the NVidia high end- they are pushing more mid-range chips, but seem to have invested a ton in having them run as pairs, so their high end cards typically bundle two of those chips on the same card. Now, once you put two chips on a card its just as expensive and possibly even uses more power than the NVidia approach, but the single-chip versions seem to fit really nicely into the mid-range “good gaming performance, great Vista workstation, great media support” that we are looking for in this guide.
(In descending order of price)
NVidia GF9800GX2 1GB (2×512MB)
ATI Radeon HD3870X2 1GB (2×512MB)
$400 (4/1/2008). Pretty good choice on the high end. Basically two HD3870s together on one card, but it costs a bit more than two 3870s.
NVidia GF9800GTX+ 512MB
$230 (6/21/2008). This is the only other real alternative to the ATI 4850 right now. Nice card with great gaming performance although its just a faster clocked version of the previous generation of technology.
NVidia GF8800GT 512MB
$200 (4/1/2008). I don’t know why you would buy this anymore- the ATI HD3870 is as fast/faster on most games, costs less, has better media support, and is easier to pair up.
ATI Radeon HD4850 512MB
$180 (6/21/2008). This is my basic mid-high recommendation. Overall very solid board, good 3d, great media support.
NVidia GF9600GT 512MB
ATI Radeon HD3850 256MB
$130 (4/1/2008). I’d strongly consider getting this instead of the HD3870 for a machine that I don’t expect to play any games on- it should be more than enough for normal Vista usage, it has the same great media support as the HD3870, etc. Its just not as great at the 3d games- on some games at 2560×1600 resolution it does about half the frame-rate as the HD3870, although at lower screen sizes its only about 25% slower (and for some older games the two are very close).
NVidia GF8600GTS 256MB
$100 (4/1/2008). This is a decent card on the low-mid range. Not really good for any 3d games but it is what I have in my main media center box right now. It actually has better media decoding support than the twice-as-expensive GF8800GT. Having said that if I were buying a new card now I’d probably get the slightly more expensive ATI Radeon HD3850 which appears to have even better media support and is slightly less underpowered on the 3d front.
ATI Radeon HD3470
$65 (4/1/2008). Can be found without a fan- might be decent for a media-center machine, although its not clear if it has enough horsepower for one with a bigger display.
ATI Radeon HD3450