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Intro: Can You Handle the Power?
This article is about high-performance cards. If you're looking for an affordable solution, then you'd be well advised to check out one of our other articles. But if you're looking for graphics cards that will make your head spin, then don't go anywhere!
A quick note before we proceed - as these are extreme solutions, it is important to remember you need a decent computer to put these in. These are all very large cards, and they all generate a lot of heat. In other words, you can't simply pop these into an average Dell and expect the computer to function well. That warning aside, lets enjoy the show.
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3. ATI Radeon 4870 1GB
Price: 264.99 on Newegg as of 11/29/08
It is hard to believe that less than a year ago, ATI's offerings were considered to be second-rate, typically purchased only when a person couldn't afford Nvidia's better products. That stigma changed when ATI unleashed its new Radeon 4xxx series of cards, based off a new GPU which, while smaller than Nvidia's monstrous GT200, provides incredible performance. Suddenly, ATI has found itself the king of the hill.
The Radeon 4870 1GB represents the fastest single-GPU offering that is available, and while it is listed as third in this guide, don't mistake this card as slow. In fact, the Radeon 4870 1GB is the fastest single-GPU card besides the Geforce GTX 280 listed above, and while its performance isn't up to the same level as that card in most situations, the Radeon 4870 1GB is much less expensive.
If you're going to buy a Radeon 4870, I suggest purchasing a version with 1GB of graphics memory. The 512MB versions are less expensive, but recent tests suggest that some games, when played at high resolutions, may require more memory to run quickly.
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2. Geforce GTX 280
Price: 419.99 on Newegg as of 11/29/08
Although the Geforce GTX 280 comes in at second place, it is in first when considering single-GPU products. The fact that it can sometimes come closer to the performance of high-end dual-GPU cards is a testament to the speed that can be squeezed from the Geforce GTX 280's massive processor.
Being a single-GPU card, the GTX 280 does have certain advantages, the largest being the fact that you don't have to worry about the driver issues sometimes found with dual-GPU hardware. Not all games can make full use of two GPUs, and in those cases the GTX 280 will be the fastest card money can buy. The GTX 280 is also relatively easy on power. A power supply of around 500W or more is still ideal, but the Radeon 4870 X2 below would probably require a PSU of 600W or more.
It is also worth noting that Nvidia currently offers hardware support for physics, and is actively seeking ways to extend the power of its GPUs beyond processing graphics. There aren't many games that use hardware physics currently, but some future titles should use the technology, such as the PC release of Mirror's Edge.
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1. Radeon 4850 X2 or Radeon 4870 X2
I've actually listed two cards here, and I've done so because they are extremely similar, and they both should provide performance above that of the Geforce GTX 280. Essentially, these cards take two of the GPUs found in the Radeon 4850 or Radeon 4870 and place them on a single card, resulting in extremely high levels of performance. There is simply nothing on the market that outruns these cards.
And there is more. Both of these cards offer 2GB of graphics memory, 1GB per GPU, which means their massive GPU power won't be limited by memory any time soon. These cards also feature (as does the normal Radeon 4850 and 4870) the ability to output video and sound via HDMI. Normally, this feature is merely nice to have. However, since both of these cards are capable of running the most challenging games on a 1080P HDTV, it suddenly becomes an important feature.
Deciding between these cards is simply a matter of deciding how much you'd like to spend. The Radeon 4850 X2 is a fair bit cheaper than the Radeon 4870 X2, but its performance is only on par with the GTX 280. The Radeon 4870 X2, on the other hand, cannot be matched by anything else on the market - if you must have the fastest, no exceptions, it is the card to buy!