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Video Card Buyer's Guide

written by: Jordan Salvi•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/23/2011

The year is coming to a close, and Christmas is right around the corner. For PC enthusiasts looking for a deal, it's a great time to upgrade. This article focuses on one of the most crucial components of a gamer's PC: the Video Card. We'll examine the top performers in price ranges from $50, to $250

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    The Low End: ATI Radeon HD 4650 ($50)

    128-bit 512MB DDR2

    When the Radeon HD 4650 was originally released, it didn't draw a lot of attention. It was easily overshadowed by it's big brother, the HD 4670, which only cost a few dollars more. Now that it has hit the $50 price point however, the HD 4650 has become the best budget option by far.

    The HD 4650 and HD 4670 are based on the same chip, and have many of the same features.The HD 4650 has a slower core clock than the HD 4670, and it uses slower DDR2 RAM, whereas the HD 4670 uses GDDR3. This translates to noticeably slower performance than the HD 4670. Another attractive feature of the HD 4650 is the extremely low power requirements of the card. It doesn't need any additional power connectors, and it can be run on 300watt or lower power supplies.

    This little powerhouse of a card is suitable for graphically intensive games at medium settings, at resolutions up to 1440x900 or higher, depending on the game. At higher resolutions, the slow memory may become a factor, and begin to cause lag and stuttering. Overall, no other video card comes close to the HD 4650 at the $50 price point.

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    The Low Mid-Range: ATI Radeon HD 4670 ($75)

    128-bit 512MB GDDR3

    The Radeon HD 4670 is ATI's current generation mid-range video card. It was introduced back in September, when it took the sub-$100 segment by storm. The price has remained relatively stable since then, at $75, and other powerful cards have dropped into this range. It's main competition is ATI's own HD 3850, but the HD 4670 has a few distinct advantages.

    Feature-wise, the HD 4670 and HD 3850 are very similar. Both feature the same GDDR3 memory, 320 shader processors, and both support DirectX 10.1. The HD 4670 has an advantage under certain situations, such as when enabling high levels of anti-aliasing, which can make a game look much better. This card will be able to play most games at screen resolutions up to 1680x1050 without significant lag.

    The other advantage is the HD 4670's lower power requirements.This card does not need an extra power connector, so it's currently the best card available for a computer with a 350 watt or less power supply. The HD 4670 is also much smaller than the HD 3850, and will fit much better in small PC cases.

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    The Mid Range: ATI Radeon HD 4830 ($100)

    256-bit, 512MB GDDR3

    The Radeon HD 4830 was released recently by ATI to counter Nvidia's long-held mid-range king: the 9800 GT. Both video cards are excellent performers, and are capable of playing any game currently out at high settings. The HD 4830 has a few advantages though: first, it's slightly cheaper, and second, it performs slightly better in some games.

    The HD 4000 series is DirectX 10.1 capable, while Nvidia's 9 series is not. This doesn't make a difference in current games, but it may affect performance in the future, as newer games are released using DirectX 10.1. The HD 4830 is best paired with a screen resolution of 1680x1050; higher resolutions may cause lag, depending on the game.

    The HD 4830 will require an extra PCIe six-pin power connector, so it will need a power supply that has one available. It is also a fairly large video card, and will cover two slots on the motherboard. Overall, the HD 4830 is the best video card at the $100 price point.

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    The Upper-Mid Range: ATI Radeon HD 4850 ($140)

    256-bit, 512MB GDDR3

    ATI's HD 4000 series video cards are notorious for being kings of the price:performance ratio. Nvidia has consistently had to play catchup by lowering the prices of their own cards in order to compete with ATI. The GeForce 9800GTX+ is Nvidia's current competition, but the Radeon HD 4850 still stands out in the $150 segment for it's excellent performance.

    The HD 4850 has the capability to play the newest games, at high settings with a screen resolution of 1680x1050 or 1920x1200, depending on the game. This video card is the current sweet-spot for 22-inch monitors with a native resolution of 1680x1050. The HD 4850 is also DirectX 10.1 capable, and performs well when anti-aliasing is enabled.

    This card will require at least a 450 watt power supply and one PCIe six-pin connector. It's length can be an issue in some smaller cases, and many HD 4850s have dual-slot coolers. The HD 4850's excellent performance made it the price:performance leader when it was released, and it has managed to hold that title, even with the stiff competition.

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    The Mid-High End: ATI Radeon HD 4870 ($180)

    256-bit, 512MB GDDR5

    The Radeon HD 4870 is one of the most powerful video cards on the market, at times even out performing Nvidia's GTX 280. This card exceeded all expectations when it was released earlier this year, putting ATI back in the playing field after a year of underperformance. The price of this card has now dropped to a mere $200, making it an extremely good deal.

    This video card is a powerhouse, and is able to max out nearly any game available, even at high resolutions. The HD 4870 is a perfect card for 24 inch and larger monitors, which have a native resolution of at least 1920x1200. Even at this resolution, the HD 4870 has enough power to enable anti-aliasing without much of a performance hit.

    The downside is that the Radeon HD 4870 requires a beefy power supply, at least 500 watts, and two PCIe six-pin power connectors. This video card also runs fairly hot, so it's best to have a well ventilated case with a few fans. As with most cards in this class, it has a dual-slot cooler and is pretty large.

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    The High End: Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 ($235)

    448-bit, 896MB GDDR3

    The original GTX 260 launched at $450 earlier this year, and was a resounding flop. It offered worse performance than ATI's then $300 HD 4870, even though it cost $150 more. Nvidia responded by lowering the price, and introducing a new version: the GTX 260 Core 216. The Core 216 gets it's name from the 216 shader cores the video card has; a substantial increase over the 192 shaders of the original GTX 260.

    The GTX 260 Core 216 offers incredible performance, nearly overtaking the GTX 280 in some games, while costing much less. This video card is meant for high resolutions and high visual settings; situations where it really shines. Like the HD 4870, the GTX 260 Core 216 is best paired with monitors 24 inches and larger.

    Also like the HD 4870, this card will require at least a 500 watt power supply, and two six-pin PCIe power connectors. The GTX 260 Core 216 is a large video card, but it tends to run much cooler than the HD 4870.