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Best HTPC Video Cards: Holiday 2009 Edition

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 11/16/2009

HTPC video cards haven't seen a huge amount of change over the last year, but there has been a few interesting developments, most of them thanks to ATI. This HTPC video card guide will lay out the three best HTPC cards to buy for the 2009 holiday season.

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    Small, or Smaller?

    HTPC video cards can be many things, but generally they should be small and powerful. This wasn't always easy to find, but today there are tons of small, powerful cards to choose from. Yet there are more subtle characteristics, like power draw and fan noise, to consider. The three HTPC video cards below are not the only cards that can be placed in an HTPC, but they have reason to be considered first.

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    Radeon 4350

    The Radeon 4350's small size makes it a good HTPC video card The Radeon 4350 is one of the smallest video cards that can be purchased today. Its small Radeon 4000 series GPU is underclocked significantly compared to the much larger and more famous Radeon 4870, which means it runs at far lower temperatures. This also means, of course, it provides far less performance, and if your HTPC has any possibility of doing double-duty as a gaming computer the Radeon 4350 isn't a good choice.

    For pure HTPC duty, however, the Radeon 4350 provides most of the power you'll ever need. It is capable of playing high-resolution video without any problem. Just as importantly, the Radeon 4350 can be had as a half height card with HDMI out and a passive heatsink. This makes it quiet and small so it can fit in slim form-factor HTPC enclosures. Considering the price of about $35 dollars, purchasing a Radeon 4350 is an easy choice.

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    Radeon 4670

    While the Radeon 4350 is great, and should be capable of playing any HD video one can throw at it, it doesn't leave a lot of extra room for performance. This becomes a particular handicap when playing 3D games. For some, that doesn't matter at all, but for those who care about gaming the Radeon 4670 is a better choice.

    Reviews show that the Radeon 4670 is capable of playing many modern games, including titles like Left 4 Dead and Dawn of War II, without issue. This is even the case at high resolutions. This doesn't mean it is neglecting its HTPC duties, either, as the Radeon 4670 can usually be had with a small fan or a passive cooler and almost always includes HDMI out as a connection. Half-height cards are not available, but even so the Radeon 4670 isn't large and should fit into any normal mATX case. Most Radeon 4670s can be had for about $65-75 dollars, so they are very affordable.

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    Radeon 5750

    The Radeon 5750 is fast, mid-sized, cool, and quiet, but it is also expensive The newcomer to the HTPC Video Card recommendations list, the Radeon 5750 is, like the larger cards it replaces, not a card that was likely made with HTPCs exclusively in mind. It is not a huge card, but it isn't a small one either, so it might not fit in small mATX cases. It also has a larger fan than the Radeon 4670, although depending on the model it may not necessarily make more noise.

    Even so, the Radeon 5750 has its benefits. For one, it is great at 3D, which means those who wish their HTPC to do double-duty will be extremely pleased. In terms of performance, the Radeon 5750 can drive any type of video or 3D game at high resolutions, except system-killers like Crysis or Arma 2.

    What ultimately makes the Radeon 5750 a good card for an HTPC is that it provides outstanding performance with a minimum of fuss. Reviews have consistently shown that it produces less heat and thus produces less noise (as the fan does not have to run as quickly) than any of the current full-size video cards, which is a good thing for an HTPC card. The only real issue is the $140 dollar price. That isn't bad, but it is much more expensive then the Radeon 4670, so HTPC users will need to decide how important it is to have a cutting-edge card.