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The Video Card Limbo
When ATI released the Radeon 4850, the race was on. With that card, ATI emerged as a company suddenly capable of challenging the long-dominating Nvidia, which had grown comfortable with its standing as the top maker of video cards. The result has been a price war between ATI and Nvidia as each seeks to undercut the other and earn a reputation for providing great bang for your buck. Prices for graphics hardware have nose-dived, making it possible to buy good video cards for less than $100. At the same time, the graphical needs of games have slowed their growth, meaning that not all new games require cutting-edge hardware to play.
As a result, it is a good time to be a buyer. It is now easy to buy a video card that will play all but the most demanding games for less than $100, and the three cards below are perfect examples of budget video cards.
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Radeon HD 4550
In a world of monstrous high-end graphics cards with massive fans and heatsinks the size of your hand, the Radeon HD 4550 looks a bit of a wimp. Many incarnations of this card are "low-profile" cards, which simply means they are about half as wide as a normal video card. Many versions of the Radeon HD 4550 are also passively cooled, meaning that no fans are included. Compared to something like a Radeon 4870, it is clear that the 4550 is a budget card aimed at the entry level market.
But the Radeon HD 4550 has adequate performance, and considering that its price hovers around $50 - the price of a new PC game - there is nothing wrong with that. No mistakes should be made, as the low price also means performance that is never outstanding. But the framerates that can be squeezed out of this little card are enough to make games like Dawn Of War, Half-Life 2, and World Of Warcraft playable on monitors of 19 inches or smaller. If you're not a hardcore gamer, and you have no real interest in playing games like Crysis with all the bells and whistles turned on, then this card fits the bill.
The Radeon HD 4550 is also a praise-worthy HTPC card, capable of running high-def video without dropping frames, and the combination of passive cooling and small size makes this card among the easiest to install. If you have a pre-built machine with integrated graphics, then this card is a particularly good choice, as its low power draw makes it unlikely that the card will demand more from your power supply than it can give.
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There has never been a better time to buy a video card. For years, there were no good video cards available under $100. But times are changing, and now those looking to buy a video card under $100 have a variety of selections to choose from. All of these video cards are solid in their own right, but have some differences between them. No matter what you buy however, you're getting a good deal - after all, $100 is only the cost of two games, and none of the best sub-$100 cards come close to the $100 mark.
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The Geforce 9600GT is far from the newest card on the market. At the time of its debut, it was considered to be roughly equal to the 8800GT, a great mid-range video card (for its day) which most retailers no longer have stock of. That said, the 9600GT was and still is a good choice for a budget gaming card. Out of all the cards on this list, it is the most powerful. Unless you're gaming on a monitor of over 22 inches, you'll run into very few problems. Certainly, the 9600GT will be able to run most Source-engined games at maximum details with few slow-downs, and the 9600GT can even play games like Crysis if you don't mind turning down the details. The 9600GT is also fully capable of making use of most of Nvidia's special features, like CUDA applications and PhysX. In other words, you're not making many sacrifices, and considering that the card is available for as little as $80, that is impressive.
The catch? The 9600GT's lack of sacrifices in terms of frame-rates and visual details also means a lack of sacrifice in heat, power draw, and size. The 9600GT may be a budget card, but it is also a full-on gamers card. It will not fit in tiny cases, it does draw enough power that OEM power supplies in pre-built machines may find themselves tasked, and it does create enough heat that you can't cram it into a tiny opening and expect it to run without crashing.
That said, the performance provided by the 9600GT is often worth those downsides. If you're more than a casual gamer, but you just can't afford to buy the newest graphics technology, then the 9600GT is the card for you.
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Radeon HD 4670
You might have just done a double-take. The Radeon HD 4670's numerical name isn't much higher than the Radeon 4550's. You might also do a double-take if you take a look at the cards, because while the Radeon HD 4670 is a bit larger, it is still a rather small card compared to most of the hardware currently available.
The performance, however, is quite a bit different. The Radeon 4550 is an acceptable gaming card for some games, but it is geared more towards HTPC applications and towards adding the ability to game onto systems that are too small to fit larger video cards. The Radeon 4670, on the other hand, is a competitor towards the 9600GT. Most performance benchmarks indicate that the HD 4670 is, overall, slightly less capable that the 9600GT. But the difference is often less than 10%, which means the HD 4670 provides value, competitive to the 9600GT. This also means that the Radeon HD4670 should be capable of running most games without issue. As little as a year ago, you would have had to pay $200 to get this kind of performance, but the Radeon 4670 usually retails for a mere $70.
When compared against the 9600GT, features will likely be the deciding factor. Although ATI is advancing its own physics and GPGPU technologies, they so far don't have the same kind of support as PhysX and CUDA. If you have an application that makes use of CUDA, or you want to take advantage of PhysX features in games like Mirrors Edge, then the 9600GT is the obvious choice. The Radeon 4670 is the better choice for use in combination with HDTVs, however, as its solution to providing audio and video over HDMI is smoother than the 9600GT's - you simply need to put the card into the PCIe slot, install the drivers, and you're good to go.