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Best High-Performance Video Cards: Published March 2009

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 5/26/2011

Spring is coming, and while some might want to frolic in fields, the hardcore gamer still has headshots to earn. Luckily, there is a storm of high-performance graphics cards now available - and thanks to competition between Nvidia and ATI, you might be able to actually afford one.

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    The Rise Of Dual GPUs

    Since the release of the 8800GT, the virtues of using multiple GPUs to achieve maximum graphics horsepower seem to have come to light. The 8800GT itself was a good candidate for SLI due to its reasonable price and outstanding overall performance. Since then, we've repeatedly seen multi-GPU setups which have achieved between 150-180% the performance of a single-card setup using identical hardware. In terms of value, that isn't worthwhile. But it terms of performance, that is newsworthy. It seems that industry support for multiple GPUs is rapidly increasing, and the fact that AMD has decided to focus on building a video card product line which only offers multiple-GPU cards as its high end products is telling.

    The results of this trend towards multiple GPUs is tangible. Once considered to be a fad, they are now common for high-performance graphics. Every single card (or pair of cards) in this guide is a multiple-GPU configuration. This is because, when it comes to performance, there is simply no comparison. The fastest single-GPU card available right now is the Nvidia GTX 285. It is a fast card, but cheaper SLI configurations using older hardware are faster, so it was unable to make this list.

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    Geforce 9800 GTX+ SLI

    Nvidia 9800 GTX+ At first glance, the decision to include the 9800 GTX+ SLI will likely raise an eyebrow or two. For one thing, it isn't technically a "high-performance video card". It's two. Okay, you've got me there - I am stretching the literal definition of this guide by picking a pair of cards. And, the 9800 GTX+ has never been a particularly well loved card. In fact, once could argue that it is representative of why Nvidia has been playing catch up to ATI lately. This card was supposed to be a response to the Radeon 4850, but was really just a re-hash of the same old product, and it was never a compelling alternative as a result.

    But that was when the card was released. The computer hardware world has a funny way of turning slightly under-performing components into closet champions a few months after they come out. Take the 9800 GX2, for instance. When that card debuted at over $500 dollars, it was a terrible buy. Several months later, however, it could be had for $275- and if you snagged one at that price, you would have gotten a great deal.

    The same is true with the 9800 GTX+ SLI. Currently, the 1GB version (which I would recommend) can be had for about $175 dollars. That means that two of them will run your about $350. That is about the same price as a GTX 285 and $50 less then the Radeon 4870 X2, a card which also makes this list. Yet, despite their low price, these cards are actually a quicker configuration then either of those options. The only downside to this configuration is that it is SLI, which means you are buying two cards and will need two open PCIe slots.

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    Radeon 4870 X2

    The Radeon 4870 X2 is the only card on this list which made the holiday version of the guide. In fact, the Radeon 4870 X2 is rather old compared to the competition of Nvidia, which was just recently released. But the Radeon 4870 X2 has aged well, likely because it is the card responsible for this segment of the market. When ATI made the Radeon 4870 X2, they were saying to the world that they believe multiple GPUs are the future of high-performance video cards. So far, it seems they were probably right. Radeon 4870 X2 

    In terms of performance, the Radeon 4870 X2 is a beast. The only game that can present it a challenge is the same game which challenges all other high-end cards- Crysis. Besides, that, however, buying a Radeon 4870 X2 means buying a ticket to gaming smoothly even on a 30" monitor. The Radeon 4870 X2 also makes use of GDDR5 RAM, rather than the GDDR3 RAM used on most video cards. This means a highly memory bandwidth, and this is important when playing at high resolutions. Currently, there are very few games that can make a 512mb Radeon 4870, which also uses GDDR5 RAM, choke. But looking towards the future, having the 1GB of GDDR5 provided by the Radeon 4870 means that your blazing fast video card won't become obsolescent because the memory bandwidth can't keep up with the GPUs.

    Of course, the Radeon 4870 X2 is a single-card solution, which is nice (though it does use as much power as two cards). Nicer still is the price. The Radeon 4870 X2 can now be found for around $400, which makes it much cheaper than Nvidia's own multi-GPU, single-card solution, the GTX 295. This makes the Radeon 4870 X2 a good, balanced selection. When it comes to performance-per-dollar, or even absolute performance, I would take the 9800 GTX+ SLI configuration over this card. However, SLI is not an option for everyone. Not all motherboards support it, and forcing two cards into a mid-tower can sometimes be difficult. If those practical considerations make the 9800 GTX+ SLI unattractive to you, then this card is the one to buy.

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    Nvidia GTX 295

    GTX 295 Nvidia doesn't like to lose. For years, they held the undisputed video card performance crown. When that title was robbed by the Radeon 4870 X2, it was inevitable that Nvidia would develop a response. That response is the Nvidia GTX 295.

    It isn't a particularly creative response. In fact, the GTX 295 is extremely similar to what ATI did with the Radeon 4870 X2. Nvidia has paired two of its GTX 200 series GPUs and placed them onto one card, creating a SLI-on-a-card solution. The two GTX 200 series GPUs are not directly equal to any of Nvidia's GTX 200 series single-card products, but each one is, roughly speaking, more powerful than a GTX 260 and less powerful than a GTX 280. The GTX 295 also comes with a monstrous 1792MB of on-board GDDR3 RAM, or roughly double what you would expect to see on a single GTX 260 video card.

    So, it is basically an Nvidia clone of the Radeon 4870 X2. Creativity, however, is not the point of building a video card. Performance is. And here the GTX 295 excels, stripping the Radeon 4870 X2 of its title of world's fastest graphics card. In fact, the GTX 295 is so quick that it is very nearly the quickest video card configuration money can buy. The only configuration that can often outperform it is the GTX 285 in SLI. That configuration is much more expensive, however, and only barely performs better, which is why it did not make this list.

    The only downside is the price. At a little over $500 dollars, the GTX 295 is also the most expensive video card that money can buy. Then again, if you're looking at cards with this kind of performance, money may not be your top concern. If you simply want the fastest video card you can possibly have, the GTX 295 is for you.