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The 2011 Holiday Video Card Shopping Guide

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 11/23/2011

Looking to buy a new video card this holiday season? I don't blame you. New titles like Battlefield 3 and Skyrim are sure to tax the systems of many gamers. Let's have a look at some excellent cards. You'll find a recommendation for any budget.

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    Things Stay the Same

    Not much has changed recently in the graphics card arena. Sure, the cards are becoming faster all the time, but there's been no major upsets and no awesome new features.

    That may be a bit boring, but the even competition between AMD and Nvidia make this an awesome time to buy. Prices are reasonable, and powerful cards can be purchased on tight budgets. If you want to play Battlefield 3 on Ultra, that may set you back a bit - but if you're looking to play Star Wars: The Old Republic at maximum, you probably don't need to spend more than $150.

    Let's have a look at the best cards on the market now.

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    Best Entry-Level Graphics Card: Radeon HD 6750

    Radeon HD 6750 A re-badge of the old Radeon 5750, the Radeon HD 6750 is a nice, inexpensive workhorse video card. Even at the release of the original 5750, it wasn't a cutting-edge part. However, it was inexpensive, and the pricing has done nothing but drop. It's now possible to find HD 6750s hovering around $100.

    For that not-so-huge chunk of change you recieve a DirectX 11 capable video card that can handle most modern games at 1080p resolution and medium detail settings. Your may not always receive much more than 30 frames per second, but you at least won't experience noticeable slow-downs frequently. Older and less demanding games, like World of Warcraft or Left 4 Dead 2, will comfortably run at maximum settings on this card.

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    Best Mid-Range Graphics Card: Radeon HD 6850

    AMD Radeon HD 6850 A step up from the Radeon HD 6750 is the HD 6850. This is a relatively old card at this point, and is probably due for a refresh soon - but probably not before the holiday season comes to a close.

    Until that refresh occurs, this will remain the mid-range champion. The price of $150 puts it within reach of most gamers, and performance is impressive. It can handle almost any game at medium or high detail settings and 1080p resolution, including some demanding titles like Just Cause 2 and Metro 2033. If your monitor does not display at 1080p but rather a lower resolution, such as 1680x1050, you'll be able to play almost every game at high detail settings. Only extremely recent titles like Battlefield 3 could give you a little trouble.

    Overall, this is probably the best choice for gamers who want performance but also have a tight budget. Given its current level of performance, it will probably provide three years of useful life until it must be replaced to continue enjoying new games.

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    Best High-End Video Card: Geforce GTX 560 (Overclocked)

    Nvidia Geforce GTX 560 Nvidia's GTX x60 line has always been a good value since it arrived in the form of the GTX 260 a couple years ago. The latest version, the GTX 560, continues the tradition of providing solid performance at 1080p resolutions for a price that is affordable - $200, or thereabouts.

    In stock form, the GTX 560 offers performance that's about even with the ATI Radeon HD 6870. However, the Nvidia has let vendors go wild with overclocking, and as a result there are a number of factory overclocked products that offer better performance for just a little bit more than the stock card. While the stock clock is about 810 MHz, factory overclocked cards offering a clock of 950 MHz are only $10 or $20 more.

    Nvidia has always had some victories in driver support lately. Its cards were not plagued with some early texture issues in Rage, and the company has been quicker to address Battlefield 3 as well. For hardcore gamers, this is important. You don't want to wait around for a new driver release when hot new releases come out.

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    Best Extreme Video Card: Geforce GTX 580

    Nvidia Geforce GTX 580 For most gamers, the GTX 560 is all you'll need and all you will need for a few years. However, some gamers will want to play titles at 1080p resolutions and maximum detail, even demanding titles like Battlefield 3. Other gamers might play on a 30" monitor with a resolution beyond 1080p.

    Whatever the situation, if you want maximum performance, the Nvidia GTX 580 is probably your best bet. This behemoth is able to play the latest titles like BF3 at 1080p resolution and ultra detail settings. It's a real bruiser of a card, and if you ever feel like you need more performance, you can always go SLI - though at that point, you better make sure you have a 1000 Watt power supply.

    Of course, the price of $500 is hard to get over, and not everyone looking for maximum performance wants to buy two cards. If you want maximum single-card performance, try the Radeon HD 6990. It packs two GPUs into one mammoth package that starts at around $700. A lot, I know - but it can handle anything, at any resolution, and any detail setting.

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    Updates Coming?

    As I stated earlier, some of these cards are relatively old. Some have been around for over eight months. That's a long time in the graphics card business, and indicates that a new generation will be arriving soon.

    Should you wait? If you have no pressing need for a card, then yes. However, if you want to play Battlefield 3, Skyrim or some other new title and can't because of your graphics card, go ahead and buy a new one. The fact is that there's almost always something better around the corner. You shouldn't deprive yourself of games you want to play because a card may-or-may-not be about to arrive.

References

  • Image Credits: AMD
  • Anandtech: Nvidia GTX 560 Review http://www.anandtech.com/show/4344/nvidias-geforce-gtx-560-top-to-bottom-overclock
  • Bit-Tech: Radeon HD 6850 Review http://www.bit-tech.net/hardware/graphics/2010/10/22/ati-radeon-hd-6850-review/1
  • Image Credits: Nvidia