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Best Mainsream Video Cards: June 2009 Edition

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 6/25/2009

It's time for summer, time for the explosions and gore of summer video game releases. Of course, playing the best action games requires the best video cards. Luckily, mainstream video cards are extremely affordable.

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    The Summer Of Savings

    This is getting ridiculous.

    The prices are falling time and time again. Many video cards are now selling for half of the suggested MSRP they commanded six months ago. Prices have dropped so low that it brings speculation about just what the profit margins on these products were in the first place, and how much lower ATI and Nvidia can go before they hit a point where they're no longer able to make money on the sales of their cards.

    Speculation aside, its a great time to buy a new video card, and will be for months to come. Below are three of the best mainstream video cards that can be found at today's bargain prices.

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    ATI Radeon 4850 512MB

    The Radeon 4850 Remains A Solid Performer It is easy to lose sight of the Radeon 4850 in the hustle and bustle of the graphic card industry. It is now an older card, and is outperformed by many other available products. Numerous new Radeons provide better performance, and everything in Nvidia's 200 series outperforms it as well.

    But that is missing the point. While the Radeon 4850 is outperformed by numerous products, this does not reflect poorly on the Radeon 4850's ability to play modern games. The pace of video card advancement is, with very few exceptions, rapidly out-pacing the ability of games to take advantage of the graphical power available. This means that while the Radeon 4850 is not as powerful as many other products on the market, it is still powerful enough to drive most games at moderate resolutions. It is extremely unlikely that anyone playing at a resolution of 1680x1050 or less needs anything more powerful than a Radeon 4850. This card can even play Crysis at high frame-rates as long as the graphical details are set to medium.

    And then there is the value proposition. The least expensive Radeon 4850s cost only a hair more than $100 bucks. That's right - for the price of two new games, you can have a graphics card that can play almost anything currently available at high detail settings. Even a year ago the existence of such a card would have been considered a miracle. And so there you have it; the Radeon 4850 is a miracle, and well worth any gamer's consideration.

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    Best Video Cards Between $100 and $200: GTX 260 and Radeon 4890The best video cards between $100 and $200 dollars have gotten bettter. Cards such as the Geforce GTX260 and the Radeon 4890 can play the best looking games at extremely high resolutions without any slow down. These mainstream video cards are not the best money can but, but who cares? They are more than capable of handling not only today's games, but likely the games that will be arriving in the next few years.
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    GTX 260 Core Edition

    The GTX 260 is a great balance of performance and value Nvidia has been aggressive in its price war with ATI. The GTX 200 series cards originally debuted at unrealistic price points - the original GTX 260s cost $400 dollars. At that price, the performance of the GTX 260 was unremarkable. But now, a year after the debut of the very first GTX 200 series cards, the GTX 260 can be had for as little as $170 dollars. That is a price cut of nearly 60%.

    The amount of performance packed into the modern GTX 260 is impressive. The GTX 260 seems to regularly outperform the Radeon 4870. The margin of victory is often slim, but it does exist. The GTX 260 also offers a great deal of memory, which more than makes up for the price difference between the GTX 260 and the slightly less expensive 512MB versions of the Radeon 4870.

    While the Radeon 4850 is all you might need for gaming at even moderately high resolutions, the GTX 260's additional performance gives a respectable amount of breathing room for future titles. It is easy to ponder the possibility than the GTX 260 could be a viable card for three or four years, provided that PC games do not make an unexpected leap in the speed of graphical advancement. The GTX 260 is also an amazing card to run in SLI, considering its low cost and the large performance boost gained. Picking up a second card in a year would provide a substantial boost in performance, although you will obviously need to have an SLI enabled motherboard.

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    ATI Radeon 4890 1GB

    The new Radeon 4890 just fits into the mainstream category The recently introduced ATI Radeon 4890 is essentially the cyborg cousin of the Radeon 4870. It is bigger, stronger, and faster than the Radeon 4870, but is also the same in many underlying ways. Considering the success of the Radeon 4870, both commercially and critically, this should be considered strong praise. The card's insertion into the market was obviously meant to help ATI compete more effectively in the higher price brackets as the Radeon 4850 and 4870 had their prices cut, but the Radeon 4890 has also been quick to be put under the price axe. It is now possible to grab a Radeon 4890 for about $200 bucks.

    The performance of the Radeon 4890 is about what would be expected. That means anywhere from ten to twenty percent better than a 4870 depending on the game, which translates to a video card which is capable of providing beautiful graphics at nearly any resolution in nearly any game. Even folks with 30" monitors will likely be alright with this card, although extremely demanding situations, such as Crysis or Fry Car 2 at 2560x1600 resolution, could overwhelm it.

    While the performance of the Radeon 4890 is neck-and-neck with Nvidia's competing card, the GTX 275, the Radeon 4890 is currently a better recommendation thanks not only to a marginally lower price but also a surprisingly low GPU temperature under load. The Radeon 4800 cards were known for high temperature when the debuted, but that trend has apparently been reversed. While any card put on the market today should work without trouble at room temperature, the extra headroom is nice to have for warm summer days.