Best Graphics Cards For The Money: May '09

Detailed graphics card specifications and reviews are great—that is, if you have the time to do the research. But at the end of the day, what a gamer needs is the best graphics card within a certain budget.

So if you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right card, fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best gaming cards offered for the money.

April Review and March Updates:

The big news over the last month was, of course, the introduction of ATI's Radeon HD 4770. This new card's raw speed doesn't break any records, performing somewhere between the Radeon HD 4830/GeForce 9800 GT and Radeon HD 4850/GeForce GTS 250. The real story is that its price and performance levels make it a fantastic value. The card can be purchased for as low as $100, which is about the same price as the Radeon HD 4830/GeForce 9800 GT. The Radeon HD 4770 also outperforms these two cards. It even nips at the heels of the more expensive Radeon HD 4850 and GeForce GTS 250.

What allows AMD to generate profits at this price? It designed the Radeon HD 4770, which is based on a 40 nm process, so that it boasts the most efficient manufacturing technology associated with a graphics card to date. Its architecture is almost identical to its older brother, the Radeon HD 4830, sporting 640 shader processors and 16 raster-operation processors (ROPs). But at 750 MHz, the new card's core clock speed runs 175 MHz faster than its Radeon HD 4830 sibling and even 125 MHz faster than its big brother, the Radeon HD 4850. Because of this, it can calculate almost the same amount of shader instructions per second as the Radeon HD 4850 and even more raster operations per second.

To keep costs down (and probably to keep the Radeon HD 4770 from embarrassing its larger brothers), its memory bus was narrowed to 128-bits. But AMD didn't leave the card completely crippled in this respect, as the Radeon HD 4770 comes with new GDDR5 memory that doubles the usable bandwidth per clock, effectively negating the memory bus limitation (compared to a GDDR3 board, for instance).  This is a smart move for a cost-effective part, keeping the GPU die simpler and cheaper to produce and guaranteeing it will get even cheaper to manufacture the card as the price of memory inevitably falls.

The bottom line is that the new Radeon HD 4770 is definitely on our recommended list this month, taking the place of the Radeon HD 4830 and GeForce 9800 GT. At almost the same price, there isn't much of a contest. Two Radeon HD 4770s in CrossFire also take the $200 spot in the recommendations, beating out the Radeon HD 4890 for less money.

Otherwise, we've seen the usual price shifting here and there but nothing earth shattering. One thing we've noticed is that the GeForce GTX 295 cards are a little harder to find. Radeon HD 4890 prices seem to have dropped a little as well.

With the monthly updates out of the way, let's get to the recommendations, shall we?

Some Notes About Our Recommendations

A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:

  • This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, then the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need;
  • Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t offer up-to-the-minute accurate pricing info, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest;
  • The list is based on some of the best U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary;
  • These are new card prices. No used or open-box cards are in the list—they might be a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.
  • You'll notice the Newegg themes are similar to what you see in our System Builder Marathons (SBMs). Before this story went live, we hunted down the best prices on these recommendations. That doesn't mean prices won't change later, but you should at least get a good idea of the low prices for most of our suggestions.
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  • I currently have a Radeon 3850 512mb, anyone have any opinion on whether its worth crossfiring it up with another or going for a new card completely?
  • What would SLI or Crossfire do with the cards in the tier system? Push them up 1 or 2 tiers? I have 2 8800 GTX OC2's from BFG which are MUCH closer to the Ultra than they are to the vanilla GTX although they were over £100 cheaper than the Ultra (which is why I bought the first one at the time, the second cost me £100 with an accelero xtreme already bolted on 8 weeks ago). Would me setup be in tier 1, 2 or 3?
  • maisere from looking at the charts it would be worth spending the extra bit of cash and get either a gtx 260 or the 4870. then you could always claw back some of your cash by selling the 3850
  • In case anyone was unaware, and novatech are both selling ASUS Radeon 4890's for 165 and 172 Pounds respectively after an ATI distributor offloaded a crapload at below market value! If I didn't have a gaming laptop, I would be straight in there to pick up two!
  • This Graphics Card Hierarchy Chart is great i use it a lot.What would be even better if a chart or table could be made comparing GPU CPU and RAM
    so could find where to spend my money to get maximum performance.
    As i recently replaced a 7600gt with a 4670 and used this chart as a simple guide but think my Athlon X2 BE-2350 2.1 GHz may now be a drag
    so the chart i mention would be a real asset.
    What do you think Don Woligroski
  • I wanna put my 8800gt in SLI (which would still be a formidable system), but nvidia phooked me over by changing them to 9800gt which are exactly the same card but just got a name change for marketing reasons but now won't work in SLI without flashing the 9800gt's bios and hence voiding your warranty. Im gonna buy ATI from now on I think. Atleast you don't see them changing the names of their products and making them incompatible for the craic.
  • good review.
  • Just for anyone in Australia reading this and thinking of getting 2x 4770's just bear in mind that they are sold out with the next shipment (anywhere) not expected until the 24th of June.

    I've found that the price of the 4850 has come down to reflect this (between $10 and $30), and I picked up 2 of them yesterday for $189 each.
  • looking around the best i've found is they are selling 4850's for around £78 which works out to be about $124 I bought one a while back but at the price they are now i'm thinking of getting another to crossfire them. should be a pretty good setup